Up to now, the 2012 battle for Senate control has promised to be tough for Democrats, with more held seats on the ballot this year than Republican ones. But all of a sudden, Democrats have reason to feel a little better about their prospects of holding on to the chamber.
The race for control of the U.S. Senate saw major developments this week Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) announced her retirement, opening up a previously safe seat for the GOP in the liberal-leaning northeast. At the same time, former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey jumped into the open race in Nebraska, potentially increasing the Dems’ chances to hold on to an open seat that has been in serious danger.
“The Olympia decision in particular is a major psychological blow for the Republicans,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. “It’s really affected how people look at the Senate races. Kerrey less so, in that very few people think he’ll actually win unless the Republicans carve each other up in the primary - which is always a possibility.”
Overall, Sabato said, he now rates the Senate as “on the knife’s edge,” with a lot of close races that will depend on the presidential race.
“That means presidentially, if it’s 50/50, then you get a great additional bonus for winning the presidency, because you get a vice president winning the tie vote,” said Sabato. “And it wasn’t there before — it was leaning Republican, 51-49, you could argue 52-48. I had it at 51-49. Now it’s 50-50.”
A Democratic source was very optimistic about the opening in Maine, adding that state to the party’s current target list of Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona and Indiana.
“I think it alters the dynamic of the Senate map entirely, and anyone who’s paying attention to the coverage and the fallout, it shows that everything has changed in our favor,” said the Democrat. “I think Republicans will have a difficult time holding onto that seat, and with some other states where we’re feeling good about pickups, it only increases the number of seats Republicans would have to pick up.”
The source also believed that Kerrey can come back successfully in Nebraska after a 12-year absence, “once he can kind of communicate his vision for the state, in contrast to what the Republicans want to do, he’s going to paint a contrast, and Nebraskans will remember why they elected him statewide numerous times.”
A Republican source, meanwhile acknowledged that Snowe’s surprising departure makes things tougher: “Well certainly it makes it a bit steeper, potentially depending on - obviously we don’t know how that race is going to shake out in the next few weeks — depending on who steps forward.”
However, the source also pointed to the last time Maine had an open Senate seat during a presidential race, when Bill Clinton was easily re-elected in 1996, and carried Maine by a 51%-31% margin over Bob Dole. But at the same time, Republican Susan Collins won the seat by a 49%-44% margin, against Democratic former Gov. Joseph Brennan.
We asked, then, would there still be a roadmap of some kind for the Republicans to win the majority if Maine were taken off the table for them?
“Let’s say the Republicans lose both Massachusetts and Maine — let’s say even hypothetically,” the source went on to lay out. “I think Republicans hold Nevada, which will be a close race. Then Republicans would have to win North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, Montana, all four races which Republicans feel good about at this point in time. And then we’d have to win two of the following races: New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Virginia, all three of which are for all intents and purposes in dead heats right now — two of the other three.”