By rights, the Republicans should either maintain their slim Senate majority, or increase it by a few seats. But the Democrats are doing much better than anyone expected in fund-raising. A strong Presidential campaign showing, and an economy anything less than robustly expanding, could turn the tide for Democrats.
Basic math and hoary wisdom favor Republicans in the upcoming votes, because Democrats control 19 of the 34 Senate seats up for election this fall; Republicans hold only 15. That means that Democrats are more exposed, right at the beginning. Any surprises are likely to harm the Dems. Furthermore, the set of seats up for grabs is heavily southern: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana all have retiring Democratic incumbents. Not one of those states is easy pickings for the men and women in blue.
But…it may not be that simple. Several of the states (Louisiana may be the best example, but there are others) are “red” in Presidential politics, but “blue” for everything else. Louisiana has a Democratic governor, and both Senate seats are held by the Dems. And the White House campaign androids are increasingly concerned about, and focused on, the swing states for the Prez race. The campaign is showing little willingness to help Republicans in close races where Electoral College votes are not at risk. So, Louisiana will get Prez attention, because it might go either way. But North Dakota and South Dakota, each of whom have Democratic incumbents who might be vulnerable, aren’t going to get help from the national ticket, because (a) ND and SD are solidly Republican, for the Electoral College, and (b) Louisiana has 9 EC votes, all in one place, while ND and SD have a total 6 votes combined, and that is spread out over 150,000 square miles.
Further, and perhaps more surprisingly, the Republican leadership has repeatedly failed this time around to attract first rate candidates for the open Senate seats. In 2002, the Republicans really pulled out all the stops, and managed to hold the Senate when the numbers (Republican seats to defend) were reversed. Maybe they used up all the top candidates in their Rolodex, but the difference is stark.
I have said before, and still believe, that 9 Senate seats are actually in the “can’t predict winner” or else the “probably will change partisan control” categories. Democrats face strong challenges in five states: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and South Carolina; Republicans are at risk in Alaska, Colorado, Illinois and Oklahoma.
If the elections were held today, the likely outcome would be that the Dems would lose current seats in Georgia and South Carolina, but would pick up the currently Republican seat in Illinois. That leaves six too close to call, and those six are evenly split in terms of current control, 3 D (FL, LA, NC) and 3 R (AK, CO, OK)
With normal luck, then, the six toss-ups should split evenly. The result would be (as the conventional wisdom would suggest) that the Republicans pick up one seat net (losing two seats currently in the R column, but gaining three seats now in the D column).
If that arithmetic is correct, that would leave the Senate with 52 Republican seats, 47 Democrats and one Independent.
But things could easily be different. I am no believer in “coattails,” but in this case the response to campaigning for the Presidency could change everything. After all, suppose just two seats break the Dems’ way. That would mean 50 R, 49 D, and 1 Jeffords. (If you have ever met him, you can tell he is his own party. What a jolly fellow.) And that, in turn, would mean that the Vice President, whoever he is, will determine control of the Senate.
So, if Kerry wins, and if Kerry is able to influence just two Senate races, then the Senate will change hands. But if Bush wins, and Bush can find time to campaign in some of the now dormant states and bring the Senate seats into play, the Republicans could tread water, or even pick up a seat or two.
Check out the Iowa Stock Market results on Senate Control. Prices fluctuate, of course, but traders have been increasingly optimistic about a Senate takeover by the Dems, starting at about the beginning of July 2004. The numbers on the graph aren’t big, but I wouldn’t have believed this a year ago.