The Senate Spectator

The Road to 60

It is entirely possible that Republicans will win 13 more Senate seats in 2012 and 2014.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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Years ago there appeared in the "Humor in Uniform" regular section of Reader's Digest the story of a young soldier at Tank School who had three classes. The first, run by the communications office, stressed that a tank without radio contact with its officers would be incapable of finding and engaging the enemy. Second, the driving class highlighted that a tank without mobility was a stationary artillery piece good only for fixed point defense. And third, the ordnance class told the soldiers that a tank without a gun was a rather large, expensive, portable radio.

There are three necessary components of power in Washington, D.C. The majority of the House of Representatives. The presidency with its pen for signing or vetoing legislation. And third, a 60-vote majority in the upper chamber to overcome a filibuster and pass legislation through the Senate. One or two of those allow you to play defense. You need all three to go on meaningful offense.

This was most painfully driven home by the collapse of the Bush presidency after the initially invigorating 2004 election, which gave Republicans a narrow but functioning majority of the House, another four years in control of the White House, and a shiny new 55-vote majority in the Senate. Republicans had not had that much control of Washington since 1929, when they had 56 senators and 270 House members alongside Herbert Hoover.

President Bush announced that he would use his "political capital" to enact Social Security reform that would give all younger Americans the option of having their Social Security (FICA) taxes go into a 401(k) that they controlled rather than into the pay-as-you-go defined benefit -- read: Ponzi scheme -- that, left unchanged, was destined by demographics to collapse sooner rather than later. This proposal had popular support and Bush had campaigned on it in 2000 and 2004. In the past Democrats had trashed Republicans, claiming the GOP planned to cut Social Security. Here Bush and the Republicans turned the tables on the Democrats, effectively saying, "No, we will reform Social Security to make it individually controlled and fully funded, and benefits will be greater for those saving for the future than are promised (but would never be delivered) by the pay-as-you-go system."

There was one problem: the Democrats had 45 senators, and Nevada's senator Harry Reid organized a bloc committed to opposing Social Security reform. The modern Democratic Party is paid for by trial lawyers, labor unions, and big city political machines. They know that if Social Security were reformed and every young American were allowed to save his or her FICA taxes in a personal savings account and to look forward to retiring with significant savings, the party of trial lawyers, labor unions, and Chicago would be a dead man walking. The Democrats have no policies that increase the value of personal savings accounts. All their tax, regulatory, and trade policies would shrink retirement savings.

In Silence of the Lambs there was an instructive scene in which Hannibal Lecter talked the guy in the next jail cell into swallowing his own tongue and killing himself. Republicans weren't that good. They could not get 60 votes for a policy that would greatly benefit America at the expense of the building blocks of the Democratic Party.

To make real, permanent, positive changes in the American government requires a Republican House majority, a Republican president, and 60 solid Republican votes in the Senate.

On November 2, 2010, Republicans won the first of these three. They cannot capture the White House until the 2012 presidential election. And it will take at least two more election cycles in 2012 and 2014 to win 60 votes in the Senate.

The good news is that it is entirely possible -- indeed likely -- that Republicans can win 13 more Senate seats in the 2012 and 2014 elections.

ON NOVEMBER 6, 2012, there will be 33 Senate seats up for election. Twenty-three are held by Democrats (counting Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, who caucus with the Democratic Party), and 10 are now held by Republicans. The larger number of Democratic seats in play is a repercussion of George W. Bush's decision to follow his popular decisions to overthrow the Iraq and Afghanistan dictatorships with seemingly unending occupations of same. This decision drove away independent voters to the point in 2006 when Republicans lost six of their 55-seat majority in the Senate and fell to a minority of 49 senators. The loss of the Senate has proved somewhat expensive for the American people, but it now provides a target-rich environment in 2012, because many of the senators up for reelection are running in states that (absent Bush) trend Republican.

Among the Democrats whose seats will be in play in 2012 are Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Jim Webb of Virginia, and Jon Tester of Montana -- all representing states that tend to be red. Ben Nelson painted a particularly inviting target on his back with the "Cornhusker Kickback" and his resulting key vote for ObamaCare.

Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is 70 and may well be primaried by the MoveOn forces that defeated him in the Democratic primary in 2006 and forced him to run as an independent because of his support for Bush's policies in Iraq. Lieberman paid them back by denying them the public option in ObamaCare, and this act of revenge might attract another challenge from the left. Sherrod Brown in Ohio will run in a state in which Republicans won the other Senate seat, the governorship, and both houses of the legislature -- as well as five lower house seats in 2010. Pennsylvania's Bob Casey Jr. must run facing an electorate that largely elected him on the false promise that he would represent his father's moderation and pro-life views. Casey was the key vote allowing federal funding for abortion on demand in ObamaCare.

One factor that has allowed a state like North Dakota, which voted 63 percent for Bush in 2004, to repeatedly elect two hard-left senators in Conrad and Byron Dorgan is that they voted together and together explained their votes to a non-challenging North Dakota press. For the next two years, however, with the 2010 election of Republican governor John Hoeven to the Senate, every single significant vote will pit the liberal Conrad voting yea and the conservative Hoeven voting nay. Every newspaper article will be forced to explain that there is a left and a right position on a given issue and their senators are on different sides of that divide. Between now and the 2012 election there will be dozens of tutorials on how left-wing Kent Conrad is. When Conrad and Dorgan were voting together there was never a North Dakota standard against which to understand how far left their votes were.

This new contrast will also hold for Sherrod Brown of Ohio, whose votes will be compared to those of Rob Portman; Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who must answer to Pat Toomey; and Nebraska's Ben Nelson with Mike Johanns. Missouri's Claire McCaskill's liberalism will stand in stark contrast to Roy Blunt's votes. And Bill Nelson's once obscure voting record will stand exposed in the bright light of Marco Rubio, whose votes will come with a Reaganite soundtrack.

One might add that Hawaii's Daniel Akaka is now 86 years old, and that state's very popular governor Linda Lingle might well enter the fray. Wisconsin's Herb Kohl will be 77 and California's Dianne Feinstein will be 79.

On the GOP side there are only 10 seats at risk and only Scott Brown of Massachusetts (who has a campaign war chest of more than $6 million to go with a high popularity rating) and Olympia Snowe of Maine are running in blue states. Republicans in Maine point out that this year Olympia Snowe campaigned hard -- and sounded like a Tea Partier -- for conservative Republican candidates in Maine, where the GOP captured the state house, state senate, and governorship. Mike Castle may have learned nothing from 2010, but other Republicans were watching.

IN 2014, 20 Democratic and 13 Republican seats will be in play. The Democrats include Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Warner of Virginia -- all eight in trending red states.

On the Republican side, the only Republican running in a state that did not vote for Bush, Bush, and McCain is thrice-elected Susan Collins of Maine.

In 2012, Republicans will most likely capture at least the four seats they need to win a 51-vote majority in the Senate. But the meaningful number for control is 60.

In the 2012 and 2014 elections Republicans must win a net gain of 13 seats of the 43 Democratic and 23 Republican seats in play. Today one sees at least 20 vulnerable Democratic seats and at most three vulnerable Republican seats inside those numbers.

If Republicans find a presidential candidate capable of defeating Obama, they then only have to have two moderately good years in Senate races -- competing on friendly territory and defending few if any of their own seats -- to ensure the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and begin to repair the damage of the past few decades of overspending, over-regulating, and overreaching. 

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About the Author

Grover G. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.