Just as 2006 and 2008 were disastrous for the Republicans, the election of 2010 was a disaster for the Democrats. The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by winning 63 seats, but although they won six seats in the Senate remained the minority party by a margin of 53-47 (including two independents who side with the Democrats). There is a strong chance that the Republicans will complete their takeover of Congress in the 2012 elections.
The party affiliation of the senators who are facing re-election this year gives the Republicans a decided advantage. Including the two independents, the Democrats will be defending a total of 23 senate seats while only 10 Republicans are up for re-election. This alone would favor the GOP since it has to defend fewer seats while having more opportunities for gains.
To make matters even worse for the Democrats, many incumbent senators are retiring rather than face angry constituents in a re-election battle. This means that neither candidate in the general election in these states will have the advantage of incumbency. Democratic senators who have already announced their retirements include Kent Conrad (N.D.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Jim Webb (Va.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Connecticut leans Democrat and Nebraska leans Republican, but the rest of these states are tossups according to the Cook Political Report.
There are also two Republican senators retiring, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas. Both of those seats are generally considered to be safely in Republican hands. Texas is rated as strongly Republican while Arizona is likely Republican.
Cook also considers Montana (Jon Tester, D) and Missouri (Claire McCaskill, D) to be tossups. On the Republican side, Massachusetts (Scott Brown) and Nevada (Jon Ensign) are also considered tossups.
Several other Democratic seats might also be in play. Florida is rated as leaning Democrat in the re-election of Bill Nelson, but the state has been a tossup in recent elections according to 270towin.com. Likewise, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is given the edge by Cook, but the economic woes of this Rust Belt state, home of Detroit and the auto companies, might make voters discard the Democratic incumbent.
The states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania make interesting cases as well. The three states lie atop the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation that contains an abundance of oil and natural gas. The energy boom in these areas has created jobs that are very vulnerable to the regulation of fracking, which the EPA has considered. President Obama’s “green” environmental initiatives may hurt the Democrats in these states.
Ohio is already a swing state with one Republican and one Democratic senator. The Democrat, Sherrod Brown, is up for re-election. Ohio has picked the winner in the last four presidential elections. Pennsylvania’s senate delegation is similarly split with Democrat Bob Casey up for re-election, although it leans more toward the Democrats than its two neighbors. West Virginia has two Democratic senators with Joe Manchin facing re-election, but the state has voted Republican in three of the last four presidential elections.
With a large number of vulnerable Democrats, the Republicans have a good chance of winning enough Democratic seats, while defending the few vulnerable Republican seats, to take a majority of the senate. This is especially likely in a year with an unpopular president facing re-election in a poor economy. Neither of Georgia’s two senators is up for re-election this year.
To control Congress, the Republicans must also maintain control of the House of Representatives, whose 435 members all face re-election. Since the Republicans hold more seats in the house they obviously have more seats to defend so the question is whether the Republicans have more seats vulnerable than the Democrats.
An important variable in the house races is that 2010 was a census year. Based on 2010 census data, house districts were redrawn over the past year. Slower growth in blue states and emigration to red states means that states that typically vote Republican will gain seats in this election while several Democratic states will lose seats. Georgia’s congressional delegation will gain one member after this year’s election. Additionally, since the Republicans won heavily in state races as well as in Congress, the GOP had an edge in the redistricting process, allowing them to redraw districts to favor Republican candidates.
According to the most recent Cook Political Report, only one Republican seat is counted as likely to go Democrat, while two Democratic seats are likely to go Republican. Five Democrats are in districts that lean Republican, while only three Republicans are in districts that lean Democrat. Georgia’s John Barrow (D-12) is one of the Democrats in a Republican leaning district. The Republican challenger, as yet undetermined before Georgia’s primary, is up by 12 points.
Cook has also identified 20 districts as tossups. Of these, 14 are leaning Republican and six are leaning Democrat, but, as the name implies, tossups could go either way. In fact, with nine months to go before the election, a variety of factors from scandals to economic news to a war with Iran could change the dynamics of many races.
There are a few other trends that favor Republicans as well, however. While a poll of party affiliation by Gallup currently shows Democrats with a two point advantage over Republicans (29-27 percent or 45-45 including leaners), the real story is that Democratic Party affiliation has fallen sharply since November 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. At that point, the Democrats led by 37-28 percent (51-40 including leaners). The current numbers are even slightly more favorable to Republicans than they were at the time of the 2010 congressional landslide. Even though Democrats have made some gains in the Rasmussen generic congressional ballot over the past few weeks, Republicans still hold a slight edge there as well.
Perhaps most ominous to Democratic incumbents is that only 31 percent of Americans believe that the country is headed in the right direction according to Rasmussen. For the party that has held control of the presidency and the senate for the past four years, as well control of the house for the first two years of the Obama presidency, that statistic is probably not a good sign.
A big part of the problem may be that when the Democrats had unfettered control of Congress, they pursued an unpopular agenda. Instead of focusing on jobs and the economy, they passed an expensive stimulus package that had no noticeable effect and then spent the next year on health care reform. The Affordable Care Act was unpopular when it passed in 2010 and has not become more popular with the passage of time. The most recent Rasmussen poll shows that Americans favor the law’s repeal by 53-38 percent.
In contrast, the Republicans swept into Congress on two simple principles: To cut spending and stop tax increases. They succeeded in resisting Democratic attempts to raise taxes, but their promise to cut spending has been less successful. Nevertheless, the Republicans in the house did hold federal spending to almost zero growth in 2011 over the loud objections of President Obama and the Democrats in the senate. As a chart from USGovernmentspending.com shows, even holding federal spending level is an improvement over the increases seen in past decades.
Some of the recent trends, like the gains in the generic congressional ballot that favor the Democrats, may be byproduct of Republican bickering in the presidential primaries. Until a nominee is picked, President Obama and the Democrats will be able to remain above the fray. However, as the Republican primary draws to a close, the president will begin to attack his new opponent and the general election campaign will begin in earnest.