Political Hay

Running the Table

Can Republicans retake the Senate? A lot would have to continue to go right.

By 2.4.10

When Massachusetts Republican sensation Scott Brown is finally seated, the Democrats will lose their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Next might they be reduced to minority status in the upper chamber?

On the face of it, it's extremely unlikely. Six years after the last election cycle that favored Republican Senate candidates, the GOP has more ground to defend. They have retirements in shaky states like Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Kentucky. Republicans are eleven seats in the hole, which is quite a lot to make up for even in a Democratic president's first midterm election.

Quietly, however, the Republicans have built a much stronger field of Senate candidates than the Democrats. Candidate recruitment has favored the GOP even in blue states. Beau Biden took a pass on his dad's old Senate seat in Delaware; Michael Castle, the state's only Republican powerhouse, is running. Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring; popular GOP Gov. John Hoeven has declared his candidacy.

On Tuesday, Illinois Republicans nominated Rep. Mark Kirk, their strongest general-election candidate, for Barack Obama's old Senate seat. The Democrats narrowly went with state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who has already been roughed up by his primary opponents over family ties to Broadway Bank, a troubled financial institution under scrutiny from federal regulators and under order to replenish $76 million in cash reserves.

National Republicans appear to have coaxed former Sen. Dan Coats into the race against Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh in Indiana. Coats retired from the Senate rather than face Bayh in 1998. But the Republican clearly thinks the time is right to take Bayh on now. In Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter thought he had a better chance against former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey in a general election than a Republican primary. The newly minted Democrat is 14 points behind Toomey in the polls.

Even in states where Republicans have failed to recruit first-tier candidates, Democrats are trailing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is down by double digits in Nevada, even though GOP recruiters were unable to talk Rep. Dean Heller into the race. Although no Republican of Mike Huckabee's stature is thinking of challenging Sen. Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, she is already trailing by double digits too.

Republicans face contentious primaries in Florida, Kentucky, California, and New Hampshire. But in most cases, either candidate would be competitive in the general election. The toughest of these is California, where Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's numbers are not awe-inspiring. Republicans are even or slightly ahead in Ohio and Missouri, both considered possible Democratic pick-ups initially.

"Republicans are solidly ahead to take at least five seats now held by Democrats -- in North Dakota, Delaware, Nevada, Arkansas and Pennsylvania," writes pollster John Zogby. "Five more are now considered winnable -- Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and even liberal New York. Two other races, in California and Washington, are tightening daily."

To win back the Senate, Republicans would have to run the table: capture all the at-risk Democratic seats while retaining all of their own. That's a tall order. But in recent election cycles, Senate races have overwhelmingly favored one party over the other. In 2004, Colorado's Ken Salazar was the only Democrat to win a competitive Senate race. Two years later, Tennessee's Bob Corker was the only Republican to do so. Democrats effectively ran the table in 2008, falling short only in their reach states of Georgia, Mississippi, and Kentucky.

When the Republicans were in trouble, Democrats could easily recruit candidates like Jim Webb, Jon Tester, and Mark Warner. Now that the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, Republicans can make appeals to Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George Pataki in New York, and Dino Rossi in Washington. Consider it a snowball effect Republicans must hope turns into an avalanche.

So far the only race the Democrats have likely taken off the table is Connecticut. Sen. Chris Dodd was a deeply unpopular incumbent with almost no hope of winning re-election. When Dodd stepped aside in favor of state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, the Democrats' hopes of retaining the seat were aided immensely. But even there, the Republican field still includes a popular former congressman and a former wrestling executive who can finance her own campaign to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

The national GOP still has huge problems. It is benefiting more from luck and Democratic missteps than anything positive Republicans have done. But some of those problems -- Republicans are leaderless and directionless -- are actually positives now that Democrats are in decline. There is no clear leader like George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich to attack; there are no identifiable policies like Iraq or "risky Social Security schemes" to campaign against.

Can Republicans retake the Senate this November? A smart man would have to bet against it.

Of course, a smart man would have bet against Scott Brown.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter @jimantle.