Six months ago, liberals were preparing for the worst. After a winter of fast growth, the economy had begun to slow down and unemployment had begun to creep back up. Mitt Romney was close behind in the race for the White House, and there was little indication that President Obama could pull ahead and win. And the Senate, a stronghold for Democrats over the last six years, looked vulnerable.
For most of the last eighteen months, the conventional wisdom on congressional elections was straightforward: Due to large majorities, Republicans would hold onto their House majority, and bolster it with a slim majority in the Senate. It wasn’t hard to see why; of the 33 contested seats this year, 21 belonged to Democrats and two were held by Independents Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders.
It would be one thing if Democrats were only defending safe seats in blue states; they would be assured of holding the Senate. But the senators up for reelection won their seats in the Democratic wave of 2006. As such, several—like Claire McCaskill of Missouri or Jon Tester of Montana—were fighting for second terms in red states, or states have shifted sharply to the right. And this was on top of the open seats in swing states like Virginia, the vacated seats in red states Nebraska and North Dakota (formerly held by Ben Nelson and Kent Conrad, respectively), and the seat held by Scott Brown—a popular, moderate Republican in core Democratic territory.
With the sluggish economy and President Obama’s middling approval ratings, the odds of a Democratic Senate seemed low for most of the year.
If President Obama were to win a second term, a Republican Senate would be bad, though not disastrous; Obama could still protect the core gains of his first term. Under a President Romney, however, a Republican Senate would be catastrophic for liberal priorities. With at least two years of unified government, Republicans could begin their push to pass the Ryan budget and dismantle the core safety net functions of the federal government. Large new tax breaks—on income and investment—would be paid for with sharp cuts to food stamps, Pell Grants, health care coverage, and aid for low-income women and children. Democrats could try to filibuster, but as Jonathan Chait pointed out in a recent feature for New York magazine, the Ryan budget is designed to be passed under reconciliation—which requires only a simple majority.
This fall, however, Democrats began to build leads in key Senate contests. Of the nine toss-up races—and the four where both sides hold slight leads—Democrats have come close to sealing the deal in six. Winning these would give Democrats 50 seats in the Senate and allow them to hold their majority as long as President Obama won reelection and Vice President Biden remained the tie-breaking vote. In other words, it would let liberals breathe a little easier.
In Massachusetts and Virginia—the marquee races of the year—Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren and former governor Tim Kaine began to pull ahead after a six-month dead heat against their respective opponents. Warren won her gains by tying Senator Scott Brown to the Republican Party writ large—and winning back Democrats who were leaning toward Brown—while Kaine seems to have mobilized the Obama coalition in Virginia against former Senator George Allen: African Americans, college-educated whites, and suburban women.
At the same time, in Florida and Ohio—the two other swing-state races—incumbent senators Bill Nelson and Sherrod Brown began to beat back their challengers, Connie Mack and Josh Mandel, despite a tide of money being spent by independent groups. This was especially true in Ohio, where Brown—one of the more liberal members of the Democratic caucus—was a prime target of conservative super PACS, who have poured huge sums in the race against him. This money has paid few dividends; Nelson is safely situated, and Brown holds a solid lead over his competitor.
In Wisconsin, the Democrat, Representative Tammy Baldwin, is a stone's throw away from winning the race against Tommy Thompson. The former Republican governor sought to duplicate Governor Scott Walker’s success by courting the right in the primary and running to the center in the election. Unfortunately for Thompson, limited resources—the primary left him vulnerable—and unforced errors have damaged any advantage he had coming into the race. Baldwin holds a small but persistent lead, and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver gives her an 83 percent chance of winning the election.
Likewise, the race to replace Joe Lieberman was considered a toss-up until recently, with Representative Chris Murphy stuck with only a slight lead over Republican Linda McMahon, who lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the 2010 election to replace Senator Chris Dodd. But McMahon is not a strong candidate—as evidenced by her 12-point loss to Blumenthal—and Murphy has steadily built a lead, despite her ample resources. According to most averages, he holds a 3-to-5 point lead over McMahon, and is the clear favorite to win the race.
These six aside, there are several other races that have become likely Democratic wins—or toss-ups—thanks to incredible Republican incompetence. In Missouri, Congressman Todd Akin gave the unpopular Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill a fighting chance when he sparked national outrage after trying to make a distinction between actual and “legitimate” rape. Pregnancy from rape, he explained, was rare; in part because "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." The remark, made in late August, destroyed Akin’s credibility in the state (not to mention the country), and moved McCaskill from a certain loss to a likely victory.
Likewise, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock turned that race into a toss-up after making similar remarks: During a debate with his Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly, Mourdock described a rape pregnancy as something God “intended” to happen. Democrats have capitalized on the outrage from this and unleashed a torrent of hard-hitting ads, which have harmed Mourdock’s favorability and turned Indiana into a surprising pick-up opportunity for Democrats.
When you add these two into the total, Democrats are likely to end this year with at least 51 seats in the Senate, giving them a majority with or without President Obama. Indeed, this projection is a little bearish. Nate Silver projects just under 53 seats for the Democratic Party:
It’s not hard to see why. In Maine, the likely winner—Angus King, an Independent running to replace Olympia Snowe—will almost certainly work with Democrats, giving them a 52-member caucus if either McCaskill or Donnelly wins their races. And there are a handful of Republican-leaning seats—in Arizona, Nevada, and Montana—where Democrats are only modest underdogs.
If Jon Tester can hold Montana for the Democratic Party—or if Republican candidates in the two Southwestern states falter—the once-unthinkable could happen: Democrats may emerge from November 6 with a greater majority than they currently have. Given the good odds that, if Obama wins, he'll win with a slim majority, a larger Democratic Senate would provide needed momentum to the party as it entered 2013.
At this point, the most likely outcome of the 2012 elections is a continuation of the status quo, with Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, and Republicans in control of the House. Still, this has big implications for the next year. If Obama is reelected, Democrats will have greater leverage when it comes time to deal with the fiscal cliff and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. And if Romney wins? A Democratic Senate means the core Democratic achievements of the last four years—health care and financial reform—would remain intact. Republicans couldn't use reconciliation to erase Obama's policies from history, and would have to meet Democratic demands if they wanted to alter or remove important elements of Obama's agenda.
Of course, there's always the 2014 midterm elections. As the Republican Party showed over the last four years, two years is plenty of time to plan a defense and prepare for a comeback.