With nearly a full two years until the next election, the idea that Democrats are pre-ordained to lose at least four Senate seats, costing them their majority, is already gaining broad traction with both Democratic senators like Claire McCaskill and writers like Ed Kilgore. The dynamics of the 2012 Senate elections don’t favor Democrats inherently: they are defending 23 seats while Republicans defend only ten. However, there is no reason to believe the majority is lost so far out from the election. The relative number of each party’s seats that is to be contested is less important than the national political climate.
Let’s look back at the past three elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010.
2006 - Technically, this year slightly favored Republicans because despite holding the majority, they had only 15 seats up compared to the Democrats’ 18. The result, though, was that Democrats won six Republican-held seats and lost no Democratic seats.
2008 – This year the playing field heavily favored Democrats because they had only 12 seats up compared to the Republicans’ 23. The result was that Democrats won eight Republican-held seats and again didn’t lose a single seat they held.
2010 – Last year the playing field was relatively neutral with 19 Democratic seats up compared to 18 Republican. Republicans managed to win six Democratic-held seats and didn’t lose a single seat they already held.
Notice the pattern
In the past three Senate elections, the party that gained seats also managed not to lose a single seat. In 2010, even though several Republican-held seats (New Hampshire, Ohio and North Carolina) looked like really good pick-up targets for Democrats in early 2009, in the end they weren’t even close thanks to the national swing. The last election where both parties lost seats they once held was in 2004.
People will probably say these last three elections were all “wave” elections, but at some point you need to wonder if what we are seeing is a new political pattern due to increasing partisanship.
The Republican Senate caucus gained seats in 2002 despite having a bad playing field.
Republicans had a very difficult playing field in 2002, with 20 seats to defend compared to the Democrats with only 14. Still, Republicans managed to win three seats and lose only one for a net gain of two. It is true the 9/11 attack helped create favorable political conditions for Republicans, although it wasn’t too overwhelmingly favorable given that House Republicans only gained a mere eight seats to bring their majority to 229. This is an example of how a good political climate can result in gaining seats even with an undesireable playing field.
In 2012, if the voters again heavily favor Republicans, their gains would be above average due to the large number of Democratic seats being contested. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be unheard of if the political climate improves for Democrats to the point that their losses are minimal. The national climate is what is important.
I’m not going to predict right now whether Democrats will lose seats in the Senate. Given how quickly we have seen the political climate change in the last decade, such a prediction is impossible. My point is that it is far from a forgone conclusion that Democrats are going to lose their Senate majority just because of the playing field. It is completely plausible that Democrats hold steady or even manage to win seats in 2012.