Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 1, 2012

Senate Races Could Make Obama’s Life Difficult

With Romney getting hammered over a string of unforced errors (including boosting sales of a nearly forgotten baby boom toy when his advisor described Romney’s positions “almost like an Etch a Sketch”) and improving poll numbers for the incumbent, a second term President Obama is looking like a better bet. A recent Rasmussen poll  A recent Rasmussen poll has Obama leading both Romney and Santorum in four core swing states (FL,OH,NC,VA). National polls show Obama leading Romney by a whopping 11%. While election day is still long way off, let us, for sake of this article assume that Obama wins a second term. With the future of health care in our country hanging the balance, I am grateful that we will have have a choice to go online for cheap insurance policies.

But back to Obama, even with a second term in his pocket, he could still find himself in a world of hurt.

The Executive branch is a very powerful tool, especially in foreign affairs arena, but without some allies in Congress and in the Governor’s mansion, it can be a very dull saw, and things aren’t all rosy when it comes to how those races are shaping up for the fall. Allow me to terrify you a little bit by examining some of the down-ballot races that could make the President’s second term a brutal four years. Follow me below for a rather long examination of the these races.    

The Senate

For the last two years, the Senate has been serving as a blocking guard for the President; stopping all the bad bills that bubble up from the House before they land on the President’s desk for a veto. While the Senate has not been terribly successful at passing laws, it can slow things down more than a Trader Joe’s parking lot on a Canadian holiday.

Currently, the Senate has 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans, one Socialist (Sanders-VT) who caucuses with the Dems, and one Droopy Dog (Lieberman-CT), who caucuses with the Dems and even votes with them occasionally. So you can see that it is a narrow balancing act already, with little room for error.

Retirements and Playing Defense

Because Senate terms are six years, only one-third of the seats are up for election each even election year. That means 33 Senate races to consider and the GOP only need to net four seat to gain the Senate majority. So far, 10 Senators have announced their retirements, leaving their seats open. On the Dem side, we have six members and Lieberman, while on the GOP side, only three members are retiring–one of whom is Olympia Snowe who votes with the Dems on a host of issues. Further complicating things, we have 16 Dem Senators defending their seats, and only seven GOP members fighting for re-election. Advantage: GOP.

Let’s look closer at these rates.

Senate Map

Dark Red and Blue for incumbents running for re-election, light red or blue for open seats currently held by a retiring member. Green for independents.

Safe Democratic Senate Seats

Connecticut – With Joe Lieberman retiring, this seat can fall into the hands of a truly liberal senator, rather than John McCain’s preferred running mate. Chris Murphy, already a Congressman, is considered the favorite to win this seat.

California – Dianne Feinstein has been a senator for a long time and isn’t going anywhere. Unless something crazy happens, this one’s staying blue.

Delaware – Same story as California; a well-liked incumbent Democratic Senator in a solid blue state with tons of campaign cash.

Maryland – Ben Cardin, same story as Delaware and California. This race could get interesting if former RNC chairman Michael Steele jumped in. I say interesting as in “hilariously amusing” not in a “could be competitive” sense.

Michigan – This state once looked ripe for the GOP with many unemployed workers ready to channel their rage at incumbents. Current Dem Senator Debbie Stabenow might have been in for a tough ride if not for her most likely opponent, Pete Hoekstra, blowing his campaign cash on racist Super Bowl ads. The success of the Obama auto industry bailout also helps.

Minnesota – Amy Klobuchar is the extremely popular incumbant in Minnesota and should have no trouble locking down this seat.

New York – Dem Kristen Gillibrand has got this in the bag. Go back to sleep.

Pennsylvania – Bob Casey is right now polling at double-digits against all opposition. This one stays with Team Blue.

Rhode Island – As the state that is home to Brown University and horrifying eldritch abomination Cthulhu, you would expect something exciting but no. Democratic Sheldon Whitehouse can prop his feet up on his senate desk, he ain’t going nowhere.

Vermont – Socialist Bernie Sanders? Cruising with high popularity and little to no opposition.

Washington – Finally, on some familiar ground. Maria Cantwell is a vigorous and effective campaigner. First term Spokane Senator Michael Baumgartner is a helluva lot more likeable than Dino Rossi and relatively moderate but whatever support he might draw upon is focused on getting the Governor’s office. He might need to be watched for future elections but for this year, count this one a solid win for Team Blue.

Likely Democratic Senate Seats

Hawaii – With long-time heavy weight Daniel Akaka retiring, this seat could come into play because popular Republican governor Linda Lingle is running for the seat against two Dem opponents. This one is a likely Dem win, because of the state’s liberal bent, but will require some time and energy spent here.

Florida – Usually, I would be worried about Florida. The state has been trending red for the last six years, and Bill Nelson isn’t exactly a fireball of a candidate, but the GOP has yet to put forward a decent candidate, so it looks like Nelson gets a pass. This one could get ugly, but for now it is likely a Dem hold.

New Jersey – Dem Bob Menendez is the incumbent and should be able to hold onto his seat. He has yet to draw a significant opponent and has plenty of goodwill built up, however the state is trending slightly red and will cause Menendez to work for it this year.

Ohio -Oh, Ohio! Ever since 2004 this state has given me heartburn. But Sherrod Brown’s strong popularity and growing pile of campaign cash has soothed the stomach burn. Expect this race to require some work but the seat isn’t flipping this year.

West Virginia – Here’s another one that the Dems will hold but just barely. Dem incumbent Joe Manchin is a blue dog to the core which plays very well in the state that recently lost the longest serving U.S. Senator of all time, Robert Byrd. This race also will require work, especially if this race attracts third party dollars, but I see Manchin surviving in a squeaker..

Massachusetts – Scott Brown is struggling his hardest to keep his seat from incoming Dem power-woman Elizabeth Warren. Good luck buddy, you are in Massachusetts and the only person smarter than Rachel Maddow is breathing down your neck. It isn’t a sure bet, but things aren’t looking great. The Romney bump might help Republican turnout here, but I don’t think it will be enough.


Virginia – When Democratic tough guy and first-termer Jim Webb decided to retire, people were disappointed but not surprised. His term in the Senate was marked by cantankerous clashes with leadership behind the scenes. So he is packing up and headed home, making room for a battle of the titans. In one corner, head of the DNC and former Governor of Virginia Tim Kaine. On the other side, former Senator and YouTube star George “Macaca” Allen. Latest polls show a dead heat.

New Mexico – Dem Jeff Bingaman’s retirement sets up a southwest battle royale. New Mexico has been trending Democratic in the last couple of years, but there are some fierce GOP candidates gunning for this seat. Expect millions of dollars to be spent here and a very close race.

Wisconsin – When Dem Herb Kohl decided to retire, many liberal political observers threw up their hands in despair. But I don’t think that is the case. There is a crowded GOP field, and I think it will cause the same circular firing squad that the presidential candidates have been enjoying. Also, the Dems have a fantastic candidate, Tammy Baldwin. She is a fearless candidate, and an impressive politician. This race is one to watch.

Montana – Some of the feistiest progressives you will ever meet reside in Montana and they were delighted
when they bumped off a hard core GOP senator back in 2006 with grassroots all-star Jon Tester. Now the Republicans are bringing out the big gun, Congressman Denny Rehberg, for a battle that will get real ugly. Expect this one to go into overtime.

Nevada – I have to be honest, I don’t have a good grip on Nevada politics. Every time I feel like I have a hold on them, they surprise me. So this race, in an evenly divided state, between two relative unknowns, remains a toss-up until I have more information. Maybe former Las Vegas resident and citizen journalist Shane Roth can help me out. If Doug Ericksen hasn’t arrested him yet.

Likely Republican Senate Seats

North Dakota – Dem Senator Kent Conrad has retired, leaving a vacuum. While North Dakota is solidly conservative turf, I’m of the belief that this race will be closer than expected, but still fall to Republican hands.

Arizona – John Kyl, long-time GOP leadership material and liar about Planned Parenthood, is retiring. There are strong candidates on both sides of the aisle and while this state is trending blue, it won’t be enough to put this race into Democratic hands.

Missouri – I really want Dem incumbent Claire McCaskill to win. She is a savvy pol, who won a hard-fought race in 2006 and has been hanging on by her fingernails ever since. However, I feel that this year, with the Dem resources spread so thin defending all the other seats out there, McCaskill is not going to make it.

Maine– With moderate GOP Olympia Snowe retiring, this seat comes into play. The only real candidates are a very popular Barbara Brenner-style independent and a conservative Republican. Either way, this seat is going to be red by the end of the year.

Indiana – Dick Lugar is the incumbent GOP here, and would have been a safe bet except for two problems. He’s got a strong Tea Party challenge from the right, and he almost lost the right to vote in that state because he spends so much time in Washington, DC. So, if he gets bumped out in the primary, this race shoots straight to “Toss Up” category, but for now, it is a Likely Republican race.

Utah – Hard to believe a Utah race might be competitive but here it is. Orrin Hatch is the incumbent and is being seen as too moderate by Utah’s increasingly conservative Republican base. He might get bumped off in their extremely convoluted primary system, or might falter in the face of Dem Congressman Jim Matheson’s aggressive campaigning. Still, it’s Utah! Safe money is on this staying red.

Safe Republican Senate Seats

Nebraska – Remember the Cornhusker Kickback? Ben Nelson was one of two rather corrupt Democratic senators that nearly screwed over passing healthcare (the other being Max Baucus). Well, he decided to take his ball and go home this year, leaving this seat ripe for the taking. Nelson barely held the seat, and despite a top-tier recruit for holding this seat (former Gov. Bob Kerrey), this seat is going Red this year.

Texas – Kay Bailey Hutchison is actually one of the my favorite conservative senators. A mover and shaker inside the party leadership, she is smart, capable and an expert on foreign policy. Which did not exactly help her in Texas, where she lost to Rick “three things” Perry in her race for Governor. Fed up with losing to the second dumbest governor Texas has ever seen, she has decided to retire. Leaving the seat ready for the Republican primary survivor, because, well, it’s Texas.

Mississippi – Incumbent Republican, Roger Wicker. Deep red state. You do the math.

Tennesssee- Last time around, blue dog Democrat Henry Ford, Jr gave Republican Bob Corker a run for his money for this seat, however, in the end Corker won. I don’t see any big name Dems stepping into the ring this time, so looks like it is Corker for the win.

Wyoming – GOP John Barrasso will cruise to re-election without lifting a finger.


Okay, time to add it all up. Setting aside the five toss-ups, Republican gain two seats. That would put the Senate at a 51-49 split with Dems leading. The toss-up seats are currently held by four Democrats and one Republican. This means that if the Republicans flip just two of those seats, they have the majority, while the Dems have to hold all four. On election night, look to Virginia, Montana, New Mexico and Wisconsin for bad news and Nevada for a shining light of hope.
Next up: My look at who will occupy the Governor Mansions. The news won’t be any better.



  1. One slight quibble with an excellent article: everything I’ve read about Maine’s Independent candidate, Aura King, suggests that he leans slightly left on issues, and will probably end up caucusing with the Dems if he wins, which looks likely. So I’m not sure you should be so hasty to say that “either way” the state is going Red.

    One article that hashes out King’s affiliation here:

    • I’ve read about Aura King and he has said that he might caucus with the Dems but he considers himself a conservative. So he might be okay on some stuff, but considering that our choices are between two self-described conservatives, I put it down as team red.

  2. You might want to take a closer look at Arizona for Kyl’s seat. Great stuff, Riley. A fun read.

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