Advancing a Free Society

As Maine Goes, So Goes … the Senate?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

While we await further clarity from the presidential trail, let’s take a look at a less-discussed aspect of the 2012 election: control of the U.S. Senate.

Why bother?

Three reasons:

  1. Assuming President Obama’s re-elected, a Republican-run Senate could affect the choice of one, maybe two or more Supreme Court nominees – the White House, faced with a conservative Senate, probably settling on nominees not as uber-liberal as the President’s base would prefer.
  2. Assuming a Republican replaces Mr. Obama, the GOP-run Senate becomes the POTUS 45’s means for getting judicial and executive appointments through the congressional pipeline, though judicial appointments will remain a political hot potato as long as either side can effectively mount filibusters – currently a source of friction between Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
  3. Regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, the odds are good that a Republican Senate, working in tandem with a GOP House, will forward a federal spending plan to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – the Senate having failed to produce such a document in the past 1,000-plus days.

So which way will the Senate tilt come next January?

At present, the “world’s most deliberative body” is made up of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two independents – Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. As both “independents” caucus with the Democrats, this Senate is, in effect, a 53-47 split.

The key stat to remember: 23 Democratic-held seats are on the line in 2012, versus only 10 for Republicans. If the GOP held serve in all of its races, Republicans would need only 4 pickups to get to 51 and control of the chamber. Given that a GOP gain seems likely in North Dakota, the bar might actually be set at 3 for a takeover.

So what races are worthy following? Try, these four:

  1. Massachusetts. The Democrats’ best chance for stealing a GOP seat, the race features Harvard professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren versus Republican incumbent Scott Brown, who won the seat in the special election following Edward Kennedy’s death (a precursor to the Democrats’ meltdown in the 2010 elections). The contest is good-government deluxe. The two candidates have agreed to a “people’s pledge” – if an independent third-party group spends money on a candidate, the beneficiary of that independent expenditure will contribute half the cost of that i.e. to the charity of his/her opponent’s choice. So far, both candidates have made good on the pledge. This could end up being the most expensive Senate race in Massachusetts’s history. The most recent polls show Brown with an 8-point lead, which has local Democrats feeling uneasy.
  2. Montana. The Democrats’ turn to play defense, with first-termer Jon Tester facing an uphill climb in a state he carried by a mere 3,600 votes in 2006 (a little over 400,000 Montanans voting in that election). Six years ago, Tester was a self-styled dirt farmer and Washington outsider with a questionable buzz cut. Today, he’s an incumbent in a race being largely defined by out-of-state money. Whereas in Massachusetts the two candidates found common ground on campaign finance, no such deal was struck in Montana.Statewide polls give the Republican hopeful, Rep. Denny Rehberg, a narrow lead in what handicappers see as a tossup race (fyi: Montana was the fourth closest state in the 2008 presidential election, trailing only Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana).
  3. Nebraska. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment. Part of that movie was filmed in Nebraska – one of the co-stars, Debra Winger, had a much-publicized romance with Nebraska’s governor at the time, Bob Kerrey. Kerrey’s now the Democrats’ best chance of keeping the seat currently held by the retiring Ben Nelson. The race obviously tests Kerrey’s star power – decorated Navy Seal, former governor, U.S. senator and presidential hopeful trying for one more encore. It’s a testament to the lack of centrist Democrats who can play in Flyover America (just as there are fewer moderate Republicans in the bluer coastal states – more on that in a minute). Kerrey, who’s already launched his TV campaign, has two immediate problems: Obama lost the state by 15 points back in 2008, so forget about coattails; Karl Rove is accusing him of cutting a backroom deal with Harry Reid over Senate tenure.
  4. Virginia. As in Nebraska, another case of political recycling with Republican George Allen – like Kerrey, a former governor and senator – looking for a return ticket to Washington. His opponents: former DNC Chair and Va. Gov. Tim Kaine and a cat named Hank. As in Massachusetts and Montana, money is an issue – Allen getting a Super PAC. Like Nebraska, Obama’s popularity is a wildcard – he was the first Democrat to carry the commonwealth since 1964; the attorney general is trying to kill health care reform while the governor wants to be on the Republicans’ national ticket; given its robust economy and proximity to the nation’s capital, it’s one of Obama’s preferred places to talk jobs.

We’ll see how all of this shakes out come November. In the meantime, here’s an entertaining scenario for some post-November Senate skullduggery.

And it goes like this:

  1. Republicans pick up three seats on Election Night. The new Senate numbers: 50 GOP, 48 Democrats, and 2 Independents.
  2. One of those Independents is the re-elected Bernie Sanders, giving the Democrats a 49th vote.
  3. That puts the Senate at 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 1 Independent – the newly elected Angus King, Maine’s former governor and the replacement for Republican Olympia Snowe, who surprised Washington by announcing on Leap Day that she wouldn’t be seeking a fourth Senate term (ironically, Snowe sparking the same political chaos as in 1994, when George Mitchell’s surprise retirement opened the door for . . . Olympia Snowe).
  4. Senate Republicans and Democrats vie desperately for King’s vote – committee slots, pork as high as an elephant’s eye – all spawning a million and one bad puns about the freshman senator demanding a King’s ransom.

Depending on where he lands: the Senate ends up 51-49 GOP, or a 50-50 tie. In other words, as Maine goes, so goes . . . control