The Intersection: Sep 2012

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Points of Interest Along the Road to a Senate Majority

Senate elections in presidential years are often impacted by how the top race plays out—but not in the way most people think.  Contrary to popular belief, a win at the top of the ticket usually bodes ill down ticket in the Senate.  In fact, over the last forty years the winning presidential candidate’s party has had a net gain in Senate seats only three times (1980, 2004, 2008).  The opposite happens to be true in the House.  There, presidential wins accompanied gains in seven of the last ten elections.

While several factors help explain the difference in results seen by the two chambers, the most important are the candidates themselves and each chamber’s respective structure.  Structurally, the entire House faces the voting population every two years, compared to a third of the Senate, and frankly, some years are simply tougher than others. In 2008, 23 Republican Senate seats were up for grabs versus only 12 Democratic ones. In 2012, the situation is reversed with 23 Democratic seats and just 10 Republican ones.  Given the relative weakness of both contenders running for president this year, the numbers alone favor the GOP.

Regardless of the virtues of the nominees, presidential elections increase turnout and tend to magnify local disparities in party affiliation. Thus, Republicans in red states and Democrats in blue states will have an even bigger advantage than they would in a midterm election.

All that said, only a fraction of Senate races are truly competitive, and blanket statements are challenging.  We’ve taken a closer look at them below.

Bad place to be a Democrat

Senate pickups most often occur when a seat when the incumbent belongs to a different party than most of his or her constituents.  Six years ago, Montana Democrat, Senator Jon Tester, eked out a win, beating a damaged incumbent.  He now faces a well-known and experienced challenger.  In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad’s retirement brings another opportunity for Republicans. GOP at-large Rep. Rick Berg faces a strong candidate, but as in Montana, the sheer number of Republicans in the state should be enough to win convincingly this year.

Montana – Incumbent, Jon Tester (D)

 Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Rep. Dennis Rehberg 45% Romney 52.5% McCain 49.5% Bush 59.1%
Sen. Jon Tester 44% Obama 41.5% Obama 47.3% Kerry 38.6%

 

North Dakota – Open, Kent Conrad (D) retiring

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Rep. Rick Berg 48.7% Romney 51% McCain 53.3% Bush 62.9%
Heidi Heitkamp 43.7% Obama 36% Obama 44.6% Kerry 35.5%

 

Bad Place to be a Republican

Candidate Scott Brown was the darling of Republicans when he managed to take the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.  He then spent the next two years putting space between himself and the party.  Few have held it against him because – well – it’s Massachusetts, which is precisely why the remarkably popular Brown will be hard put to win this year.  While the polls show a dead heat, he will likely have to outperform Mitt Romney by 10-20 points.  As Elizabeth Warren is a strong candidate with depth in her support, a 2012 Brown victory would surpass even his earlier triumph.

As the most liberal Republicans in the chamber, Maine’s two senators are perhaps the only ones in their party who could hold the seats securely.  However, with Olympia Snowe’s retirement, few Republicans would stand a chance in a head-to-head race against a Democrat.  But that’s not what is happening in the Pine Tree State.  Instead, national Democrats have given their backing to “independent” former Governor Angus King who enjoys a strong lead in the polls.  Though three-way races are unpredictable by their nature, Republican Charlie Summers may keep it interesting, but will find it hard to win in this deep blue state.

Massachusetts – Incumbent, Scott Brown (R)

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Sen. Scott Brown 43.4% Obama 54% Obama 61.8%  Kerry 61.9%
Elizabeth Warren 42.6% Romney 35.3% McCain 36.0% Bush 36.8%

 

Maine – Open, Olympia Snowe (R) retiring

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Gov. Angus King (I) 52.5% Obama 50.7% Obama 57.7%  Kerry 53.6%
Charlie Summers 25% Romney 35.3% McCain 40.4% Bush 44.6%
Cynthia Dill 8%

 

Ticket Splitters

Party affiliation may not be king this year.  While President Obama holds a lead in the polls in Wisconsin, former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson may be able to buck the trend and beat out Rep. Tammy Baldwin.  In Nevada, look for very conscious ticket splitting as neither presidential candidate has proven popular and the Senate candidates are well-matched.

Wisconsin –Open, Herb Kohl (D) retiring

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Gov. Tommy Thompson 50.8% Obama 48.2% Obama 56.2% Kerry 49.7%
Rep. Tammy Baldwin 43% Romney 46.8% McCain 42.3% Bush 49.3%

 

Nevada – Incumbent, Dean Heller (R)

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Sen. Dean Heller 47.3% Obama 49% Obama 55.2% Bush 50.5%
Rep. Shelley Berkley 42% Romney 45.7% McCain 42.7% Kerry 47.9%

 

Who knows?

Many insiders consider the Virginia Senate race to be the most difficult to predict.  Virginians tend to like their governors – perhaps because they are not allowed to run for reelection.  With two in the race for an open seat, in a state that can go either way nationally, we may not know the result until November 6.

New Mexico is most assuredly going blue this year in the presidential election. But Rep. Heather Wilson is a tough and experienced candidate.  While a far greater number of New Mexicans may like Obama more than Romney, that support may not be strong enough, and they could send a message by electing a GOP senator to provide a check to any pretensions to a mandate.

Virginia – Open, Jim Webb (D) retiring

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Sen. George Allen 46.3% Romney 47.3% Obama 52.8% Bush 53.7%
Gov. Tim Kaine 45.5% Obama 46.5% McCain 46.3% Kerry 45.5%

 

New Mexico – Open, Jeff Bingaman (D) retiring

Latest Polls 2012 President (latest poll) 2008 Presidential Result 2004 Presidential Result
Rep. Martin Heinrich 49.3% Obama 50% Obama 56.9% Bush 49.8%
Rep. Heather Wilson 41.3% Romney 40% McCain 41.8% Kerry 49.1%

 

Chris Matthews

Senior Partner

202-772-6956 \ cmatthews@voxglobal.com