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Senate 2010: A Three-Peat For The Democrats or Comeback for the GOP

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Friday, February 13, 2009

It's never too early for the Crystal Ball to look ahead to the next election. But unlike the Wizard of Oz's phony orb (when he's still the Kansas medicine man who peeks into Dorothy's purse for photos of Auntie Em), we try to run an honest Ball . That means we have to tell you that the early outlook presented over the next couple of weeks will change often in the next two years, perhaps dramatically.

There are so many things we cannot know. How will Barack Obama perform as president? How popular or unpopular will he be in two years? Will the economy respond to his prescribed treatment or, as is often the case, will it follow its own cantankerous path? Will the withdrawal from Iraq go well or not? Will we make progress in Afghanistan? Will terrorists strike again at home or abroad? Will other international events in the Middle East and elsewhere sidetrack Obama's reforms? Will major scandals affect the Obama administration or Congress? Our darn crystal ball is cloudy just yet. We may have to take it into the shop.

And then there's the frustration of projecting congressional contests when we don't even know the identities of all the candidates. Some additional incumbents will unexpectedly retire. Current challengers may drop out and new ones emerge. Party primaries may produce surprises that will massively affect the likely outcomes in some states and districts.

You really ought to skip these essays entirely. But for the junkies who persist and insist, we offer a few guideposts. Later Crystal Balls will discuss the 36 Governor's contests, and others will examine the 435 House races in 2010. For now, we'll focus on the Senate.

An unusually large number of Senate seats are up (36), rather than the normal 33 or 34. That is because of two special elections for open seats created by the 2008 election of Joseph Biden as Vice President and Obama's subsequent appointment of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) as Secretary of State. Biden's replacement, his former chief of staff Ted Kaufman, will not be running for the remaining four years left on Biden's term come 2010, presumably to make way for the crown prince of Delaware dynasty, Attorney General Beau Biden. The Clinton replacement, Kirsten Gillibrand, will seek the two years left on Clinton's six-year term, and then turn right around and run again in 2012 (assuming she wins in 2010). Obama's own seat in Illinois, now filled temporarily by the controversial Roland Burris, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's seat in Colorado, now filled on an interim basis by Michael Bennet, and Secretary of Commerce-designate Hugh Gregg's seat, which will be filled by J. Bonnie Newman, were all due for a regular six-year-term election in 2010. Democratic governors in Delaware (Ruth Ann Minner), New York (David Paterson), Colorado (Bill Ritter), and New Hampshire (John Lynch) hand-picked the new senators. By arrangement, the New Hampshire replacement had to be a Republican since the GOP's Gregg did not want to be responsible for potentially giving the Democrats their 60th Senate seat (should Minnesota's Al Franken eventually get the 59th).

As we all know, despite a rude interruption by the FBI, Gov. Rod Blagojevich joined the other senator-appointing state chief executives in the "Land of Lincoln and Obama", appointing the mediocre and strange Mr. Burris--perhaps the only politician in America to have pre-built his own mausoleum, with his entire resume carved into stone, lest an ungrateful public forget this American statesman. After first resisting the Burris appointment because of the Blagojevich taint, Senate Democratic leaders totally caved, in part because their legal reasoning to avoid seating Burris was flawed. In addition, Burris was a guaranteed Democratic vote on almost everything--so the resistance appeared pointless.

These five seats, held at the moment by people not directly elected by the voters, potentially expand the playing field--both for the Republicans and the Democrats. The GOP wasn't going to beat Obama, Biden, Clinton, or Salazar, but appointed senators are more vulnerable. Similarly, Senator Gregg would have been the favorite for reelection in New Hampshire, but interim appointee Bonnie Newman (R) will be stepping aside in 2010 in this increasingly Democratic state. In the states where appointed senators will seek an elective term, a special phenomenon might come into play. Understandably, voters like to choose their own elected officials, and sometimes they will rebel against gubernatorial appointees. Moreover, New York's Gov. Paterson isn't even an elected governor--he succeeded the scandal-drenched Eliot Spitzer. Republicans may try to make something out of an accidental governor appointing an accidental senator, all without benefit of the people's guidance.

Before moving to the individual Senate seats in next week's essay, let's take a look at the historical record for Senate elections since World War II. As always, we put congressional contests into the context of the incumbent president serving at the time or elected in a particular year, because usually that has an impact on the results.

It should be noted at the outset that the Senate elections are somewhat idiosyncratic and independent of presidential influence or coattail. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. Only about a third of the Senate is elected each year, and the seats up in a given year have their own special characteristics. Some years feature more naturally Democratic states, and other years tilt to the Republican states--if states can be so classified after the scrambling in partisan colors that has occurred in the last two elections.

The groupings of the states into three "classes" for electing a third of the senators every two years partly explains how Richard Nixon could score the largest presidential popular-vote landslide in American history in 1972 while his Republican party dropped a net two Senate seats. Similarly, President Reagan had an unhappy midterm election in the recession year of 1982, but while his GOP lost 26 House seats from its caucus, it gained a Senate seat overall. There are plenty of other examples in American history, and we should also add that the advantages of incumbency can play a major role in these anomalous results. While 2006 and 2008 have suggested otherwise, it is still difficult to defeat incumbent senators in many states even during bad years for their party.

The unusual patterns in Senate elections extend to the streaks of good or bad luck for the two parties. One might expect that after a party has had a couple of good years, its chances for additional gains would be minimal, or that a party that has suffered reverses twice in a row would be due for an upswing. Sometimes, in fact, this happens, as in did for the Republicans after Senate losses in 1962 and 1964. The GOP gained a total of eleven Senate seats over the next three elections in 1966, 1968, and 1970. However, three losses in a row is not an impossible phenomenon. The GOP lost Senate seats in four consecutive election years (1984, 1986, 1988, and 1990)--a total of twelve seats. Adding insult to injury, the party gained nothing in the fifth election (1992). Then came the Republican landslide of 1994, and all was right with the Red world.

We'll apply what we have learned in this big-picture Senate view to the individual, upcoming 2010 Senate races, when we resume this analysis in next week's Crystal Ball . Join us again then.

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