Sabato's Crystal Ball

Keeping Our Senate Sensibility

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics February 4th, 2010

The Crystal Ball was the first to project that Republicans had a good chance to pull Democrats all the way down to 52 Senate seats in November. (See our latest Senate article here). So we’re certainly not hesitant to predict big Republican gains. But any serious suggestion that the GOP can win outright the 51 seats it needs for control is getting well past the data we have available. Republicans would first need to reelect all their incumbents who are on the ballot plus hold all their open seats (OH, NH, KS, MO, FL, KY). This is doable, though no one is yet going to bet the farm on New Hampshire, Missouri, and Kentucky, given the strong Democratic candidates that give the party a real shot in those states. Republicans would also have to defeat Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Arlen Specter (D-PA), and Harry Reid (D-NV). Current polling suggests this is quite possible—though one or more could recover ground by November. Then Republicans would have to grab Democratic open seats in North Dakota, Delaware, and Illinois. The GOP will get North Dakota, has a very good shot at Delaware, and starts out with at least a 50-50 chance in Illinois.

If all of that goes perfectly for Republicans—a big “if” from the perspective of February—then the GOP would need 3 additional seats. Those three would have to come from some combination of the following seats: Barbara Boxer (D-CA), open seat of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI). Right now, Republicans don’t have a single announced candidate who credibly leads in any of these contests. Yes, the GOP has “dream candidates” such as Dino Rossi (WA), George Pataki (NY), and Tommy Thompson (WI) that the party would like to see run. Former Sen. Dan Coats could possibly be a real threat to Bayh, if somehow Coats can compete with Bayh’s enormous $12 million warchest. But at this moment, a ‘no’ is more likely than a ‘yes’ from the dream candidates in WA, NY, and WI. As far as Barbara Boxer is concerned, observers always say she’s vulnerable and she ends up winning handily every time. In Connecticut it is difficult to see how Democratic nominee Richard Blumenthal loses, from the perspective of February.

An experienced analyst must add: Anything can happen, and a tsunami could elect little known candidates in November. But as far as I can see, there isn’t a stable full of appealing, surprise GOP candidates such as Scott Brown out and about for 2010—at least not yet. Republicans may not achieve their Senate goal in 2010, but as the Crystal Ball pointed out last fall, there are about twice as many Democrats defending their seats in 2012 and 2014 combined (43) as the Republicans (a mere 22 in those two elections). The odds favor the reestablishment of a Republican majority in the Senate before too long—almost certainly in 2014 if President Obama is elected to a second term and has his “sixth year itch”.