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Handicapping This Year’s Senate Races

If 2010 were a presidential election year, we would be deep into the primaries by now. There would be front-runners and challengers, and we would have some ideas about how the final election showdown might look.

But the big battle this year is for control of Congress. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs in November, along with 36 of the 100 seats in the Senate. This does not include the Senate seat from Massachusetts that Republican Scott Brown captured in a special election last month.

It has only been 15 months since Democrats seized commanding majorities in both houses, but it has not been a good run for them. Though the president’s party usually loses seats in a midterm election, Democratic control of Congress seemed unassailable as recently as two months ago. That was before Brown proved, by winning in Massachusetts, that in the current environment virtually no Democratic seat is safe against a well-run Republican campaign. The big question is whether the Republicans, who lack strong leadership and are divided over how vigorously to press conservative social causes, can take advantage of Democrats’ weakness to steal control of one or both houses of Congress.

So let’s play one of my favorite parlor games and make an early projection of how things might look in the battle for control of the Senate. We will check out the House races on another day soon.

Currently, Democrats hold 57 Senate seats, and they usually have the support of the two independents, Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. That gives them a 59-41 edge over Republicans, but Republicans have disproportionate leverage because Senate rules effectively require 60 votes to advance most controversial legislation. Democrats would love to get that 60th seat in November. The political math says their chances of doing so are about zilch.

Let’s begin with the five seats being vacated by incumbent Democrats. Indiana’s Evan Bayh alarmed his party’s leadership with an unexpected announcement on Monday that he will not seek re-election. The Hoosier State typically leans Republican, and it voted only narrowly for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic sweep. This year’s electoral environment is far less hospitable to Democrats, so Republicans should have a relatively easy time capturing Bayh’s seat.

Two other soon-to-be-vacated seats were previously held by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They left weak successors and, in the case of Obama’s Illinois position, a corruption scandal over the selection of his replacement. Republicans are well-positioned to capture both seats. That is also true in North Dakota, where Byron Dorgan is retiring and a popular Republican governor, John Hoeven, is a heavy favorite. Only Connecticut, where Democratic Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is expected to get the nomination for Chris Dodd’s seat, looks safe for the incumbent’s party.

Six Republicans are vacating Senate seats this year, but the GOP should be able to hold five of those seats - in Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio. Only the seat held by Judd Gregg in New Hampshire is, in my opinion, in play, and that one is not a lock for the Democrats. But we’ll assume the Democrats can take it. The net effect is that Republicans should pick up three seats in the retirement pool.

Fourteen Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election in 13 states. New York has two races because Charles Schumer is up for re-election and Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, must go before the voters.

Gillibrand is a weak candidate who might face a primary challenge. With all the Democratic bashing of Wall Street this year, both of New York’s seats could be vulnerable, but so far no strong Republican candidate has emerged to challenge for either spot.

Elsewhere, however, a lot of Democratic senators are in trouble. The endangered species list includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), Michael Bennett (Colorado) and Arlen Specter (a recently converted former Republican from Pennsylvania). Threatened, but not on the edge of extinction, are Barbara Boxer (California), 86-year-old Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Patty Murray (Washington) and Russ Feingold (Wisconsin). I expect Republicans to wipe out the endangered group and take at least half of the threatened candidates, which would swing six more seats to the GOP. Our net pickup for Republicans now stands at nine seats.

On the Republican side of the aisle, a dozen incumbents are seeking re-election. Some, like Arizona’s John McCain, may have trouble surviving a primary challenge in their own party. But all of these seats are in deep-red states, and I do not see Democrats realistically winning any of them in the current environment.

So we still stand at a projected gain of nine Republican seats, assuming Democrats can take Gregg’s seat in New Hampshire. A nine-seat change would create a 50-50 split in the Senate, with Vice President Biden, who acts as Senate president, having a potential tie-breaking vote. If Republicans can run the table, including a pickup of Gregg’s seat, they might eke out a tiny majority. It is not the most likely outcome, but it is not impossible, either.

Of course, it will still take 60 votes to get most legislation of any consequence through the Senate. The major effect of having Republicans draw to near-parity with the Democrats will be to foreclose the chance that Democrats can pass highly partisan bills by picking up just one or two Republican votes. A more even division in the Senate will tend to drive legislation toward the political middle, which is traditionally where American voters want it to be.

The election is still more than eight months off, and that is a long time in politics. Things can change. I believe the economy has more underlying strength than many people think. If I am correct — and if Democrats can stop scaring employers out of adding to their payrolls — some good economic news may give the Democrats a boost this summer and fall.

But for now it seems next year’s Senate will feature anywhere from 47 to 51 Republicans, most likely 49 or 50. The brief and mainly ineffective Democratic super-majority in the Senate will soon be history.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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