Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs this November, with voters in half a dozen states deciding not only which candidate will represent them in Washington, but whether the next two years are going to be difficult for President Barack Obama to accomplish anything, or impossible.
Most analysts predict that the Republicans have a better-than-average shot at taking control of the upper chamber of Congress. "No doubt the odds are against the Democrats keeping control of the Senate next year," said Matthew Green, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America and a leading analyst of Congress. "Seventy percent of midterm elections held since 1902 have resulted in the president's party losing Senate seats. Conditions that tend to predict election outcomes -- presidential popularity, the state of the economy, and so on -- all point to Republicans doing well in November."
The Republicans have a slew of "safe" seats they are defending. No one expects that Sen. Lindsey Graham will lose in South Carolina or that any Democrat can successfully challenge Sen. Susan Collins in Maine. All told, the GOP has 11 seats that are rated as sure bets by virtually all analysts.
The Democrats only have six safe seats: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois and New Mexico. Some analysts think that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's re-election race in New Hampshire is quickly moving from "leans Democratic" to "safe Democratic," and Democrats are likely to hold onto the seat of retiring Sen. Carl Levin in Michigan. Also, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner appears poised to retain his seat for the Democrats despite facing a well-financed opponent in former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Three Senate seats currently held by the Democrats are almost assuredly flipping this autumn. West Virginia and South Dakota pose almost insurmountable obstacles for the Democrats, and in Montana, an already difficult race for incumbent Sen. John Walsh became unwinnable in the face of revelations that he plagiarized much of his War College thesis. Walsh was appointed to fill the seat of Sen. Max Baucus, one of those increasingly rare Democrats who could consistently win in deeply red states. Baucus resigned his seat to become ambassador to China.
The three most imperiled Democratic incumbents are Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska and Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas. All three states voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, all three incumbent senators voted for the still unpopular Affordable Care Act, and all three face well-funded opponents. If the GOP captures all three seats, it will have wrested control of the chamber.
The Washington Post released a statistical model in July that gives the GOP an 86 percent chance of achieving a takeover of the Senate. The "Election Lab" used fundraising numbers, polling data, voting patterns and other statistics to reach its conclusions. It gives the Republicans a 93 percent chance of winning Louisiana, an 85 percent chance in Arkansas and a 65 percent chance of taking Alaska.
Conversely, the only two seats currently held by the Republicans that appear to be tossups are in Georgia and Kentucky. "Some Democratic candidates in seats held by Republicans, like Michelle Nunn of Georgia and Alison Grimes of Kentucky, are raising money and getting plenty of media attention," noted Green. "But it will be an uphill climb for these candidates -- or any Democratic candidate, for that matter -- to move a seat from the Republican column to the Democratic column this cycle."
Nunn, whose father served in the Senate for years, has opened up a lead in the polls, but the race is expected to narrow now that the GOP primary has finished, with businessman David Perdue winning the nomination.
Grimes is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who always manages to sneak out a win in the Bluegrass State despite his persistently low favorability ratings in the polls.
Longtime election-watcher Stuart Rothenberg does not think the GOP has the race sewn up. He concedes that the race in Arkansas is tight, with a slight edge to Republican Congressman Tom Cotton. But Rothenberg says that Landrieu's race is likely to head to a runoff in Louisiana, which mandates a runoff election if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.
"[Landrieu's] prospects in a runoff would depend heavily on what happened in other Senate contests in November, and whether her seat would decide control of the chamber in 2015," Rothenberg noted in a mid-July posting.
He concedes she is vulnerable, but Landrieu is the daughter of popular former Mayor Moon Landrieu of New Orleans and her brother Mitch is the current mayor of the city. The family has done a lot of favors for a lot of people over the years. It is hard to figure that into a statistical model.
If the GOP wins on both states, it only needs to pick up one additional race. The most likely place to look six months ago was North Carolina, but incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has mounted a smart, aggressive campaign and she has opened a small but consistent lead in the polls.
Conversely, Iowa, where Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring, was carried by Obama twice, but Republican candidate Joni Ernst has closed the gap in her race with Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley. The latest poll, from Quinnipiac University, has Braley up by just 4 percentage points.
Alaska is the other state where the GOP could easily pick up the last seat it needs to win control of the chamber. Three Republicans will face off in an Aug. 19 primary for the chance to take on incumbent Begich. Dan Sullivan has maintained a steady lead in the GOP contest, but recently began a series of attack ads against his opponents, suggesting his lead might not be as strong as it once was.
Head-to-head polls between Begich and Sullivan show a tight race in November, with Begich faring better against the other two Republican candidates, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 Senate nominee Joe Miller, who defeated Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary that year, but then lost to her in the general election when she mounted a write-in campaign.
The Alaska campaign is also being flooded with campaign cash from outside groups. It is hard to know what effect these groups will have. This is the first midterm election since the Supreme Court's Citizens United case, making it easier for outside groups to collect and spend in campaigns.
Money matters in politics, to be sure, but in the 2012 races, the Obama campaign's social media network was more effective in getting his supporters to the polls than all the cash raised by Karl Rove and others was at determining the race.
The larger question is: What does it matter? Washington is already gridlocked with an aloof president who invests precious little time in his relationships with congressional leaders, a dysfunctional Senate, and a do-nothing House of Representatives.
"If Republicans win the Senate, it will of course be harder than ever for Obama to influence the legislative agenda or get his initiatives enacted into law," Green said. "However, it is extremely unlikely that Republicans will win enough seats to have a supermajority in the Senate. So the Democratic minority will still be able to filibuster Republican proposals, as I expect it will. Senate Republicans will then almost certainly use their bully pulpit to try to influence the next presidential elections."
Green concluded, "Yes, there could be action on a few major issues with potential appeal to both parties. But unless the magical Bipartisan Fairy appears and waves her wand over the next Congress, we should not expect to see much more than positioning and symbolic legislating in the following Congress."
It is a depressing prospect to be sure.
[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his Distinctly Catholic blog on the NCR website, at NCRonline.org/blogs/distinctly-catholic, first place finisher for Best Individual Blog in the 2012 and 2014 Catholic Press Association competitions.]