04.07.11

The Democrats' 2012 Senate Blues

The Democrats have 23 Senate seats to defend next year, but in a number of states, including Massachusetts, Arizona, and Nevada, few top-tier candidates are jumping at the chance to run, David A. Graham reports.

It’s been a good week for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. On Saturday, New Mexico Rep. Martin Heinrich jumped into the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman. On Tuesday, Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine announced he would run for Senate in Virginia. And in Washington, a fierce battle was raging over the federal budget, a fight many observers expect will hurt Republicans.

It’s also one of the few good weeks at the DSCC this year. With 23 seats to defend—an unusually high number for one year—Democrats have one of the most challenging election maps in recent history and will have to be in top gear all election season if they hope to hold on to the Senate. Even with Kaine and Heinrich in, there’s a long way to go. “Those are two big victories, but those are their only victories so far,” says Jennifer Duffy, who watches Congress for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. In states like Massachusetts, Nevada, and Arizona, where Democrats ought to have a good shot, few top-tier candidates are leaping at the chance to run.

“If you look at comparable points in previous cycles we are on track,” says DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil. “We want candidates to take a thorough look at the race and make a clear assessment about whether they’re ready. From the historical context, we’re in good shape.” Cecil says that with the economy improving and backlash building against Republican labor policies and budget proposals, things are only going to get easier.

Even if it’s early in the game, though, there is some reason for concern. Several strong candidates are simply opting not to run, leaving the party to turn to aspiring senators who would otherwise be warming the bench. Take Nevada, where Republican Sen. John Ensign is retiring in disgrace. Republicans got their first choice to run for the seat, Rep. Dean Heller. Democrats, too, have a strong prospective candidate: Rep. Shelley Berkley. In February, she said she’d run if pollster Mark Mellman’s results looked good: "If he comes back and says there's a path to victory, then I'm all in." Fast-forward to April: despite a poll showing her with a five-point lead even before she enters the race, Berkley is still hedging. A spokeswoman said Berkley’s weighing a range of factors, from her family to her position in the House, to come to a decision. In Indiana, former Rep. Brad Ellsworth, who has strong name recognition from his unsuccessful 2010 Senate run, declined to run, as did North Dakota’s Earl Pomeroy, a former representative who’s one of the few Democrats with statewide name recognition.

Several strong candidates are opting out, leaving the party to turn to aspiring senators who would otherwise be warming the bench.

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In other states, unusual circumstances have left the Democrats hesitating while Republicans forge ahead with runs. No one in Arizona is willing to jump into the race for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl—just in case Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recovers from her shooting injury and wants to run. Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Jeff Flake appears to have a clear path to the nomination.

More puzzling is Massachusetts, where Democrats seem to still be reeling from Martha Coakley’s shocking loss to Sen. Scott Brown in January 2010. Despite Brown’s win, the Bay State remains solidly blue, but no top-tier contenders have jumped in yet. “Democrats are going to find someone,” says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University, but “they’re waiting for the last possible moment to see if they think that Brown can be beat.”

Already, several candidates have taken themselves out of contention. Gov. Deval Patrick has just been through a bruising reelection contest. Vicki Kennedy, former Sen. Ted Kennedy’s widow, isn’t interested either, and Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, a rumored contender, announced on Tuesday she was out. Reps. Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch—a liberal and a centrist Democrat, respectively—could both be strong. But Massachusetts is set to lose a seat in Congress, and representatives are holding their breath to see who might get squeezed out—and take the Senate leap instead. Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh says some big-name Democrats might also have an eye on Sen. John Kerry’s seat: the senior senator is rumored to be a frontrunner to be the next secretary of State, and a special election for his seat would mean a representative could hold on to his seat and also run for an open seat—without an incumbent.

That’s especially true when the incumbent is as popular as Brown. The senator’s favorable ratings are strong, and a Suffolk University poll released Thursday showed him with at least a 15-point lead over every Democrat except Joe Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s nephew. And he has $8.3 million to defend that lead—while any Democrat will have to start raising funds and might also face a bloody primary just six weeks before election day.

“Democrats have yet to field a single top-tier candidate in any of the 10 Republican-held seats,” says a clearly pleased Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We have no doubt that they will field candidates in many of these races, and no one’s beating their chests in victory. But when you’re running statewide, you do want to get a jumpstart on fundraising and organization.”

But where Democrats have struggled to get candidates, they have two big assets: precedent and the president. Presidential elections attract voters who don’t bother to cast a ballot in midterms or special elections, and Obama’s campaign will create huge organizations on the ground that will help other Democrats. “If you’re a Democrat, you want to run in a year where you have Obama at the top of a ticket,” Marsh says. “A good grassroots organization and good election day organization is worth three to five points, and when you look at a lot of these races, three to five points can pick up a fair number of states.”

As Jonathan Singer has pointed out, no party has ever lost control of the Senate in the same year that their president won the White House. If Obama triumphs, it’ll be good news for Democrats across the ticket. “Obviously it would be better if you had strong candidates lined up,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political scientist who has studied the Senate. “But I think if the Democrats hold the White House, the chances of the GOP picking at least four seats [to take control of the Senate] are not as good, and probably unlikely.”

Democratic insiders say they expect several top-tier candidates to announce campaigns within the next few weeks. That will still leave states like Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Utah that Democrats are unlikely to win but still want strong candidates in—part of a program of grabbing a toehold in red states that are getting more purple through demographic change.

Still, there’s something to be said for making the right choice—a lesson Democrats learned painfully in the Coakley-Brown race, and one reinforced by Republican struggles in the Nevada and Delaware midterm Senate races in 2010. “The longer the Democrats don’t offer a choice, the better the Republicans look,” Marsh says. “But if you take a few extra weeks and get a great candidate, it’s worth the wait.”

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.