Today’s balloting may very well alter the tenancy of the White House, but not much is likely to change at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Republicans are all but certain to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, is likely to remain in Democratic hands, an outcome that should make the GOP rue several years of wasted opportunities.
No matter who wins the White House, and even if the Senate improbably ends up with a Republican majority, the GOP ought to rethink whether it really wants to be a regional party rather than a national one, and one whose regional demographic base is shrinking.
The core Republican appeal is to voters who are socially as well as fiscally conservative, concentrated in the South but also a sizeable presence in the Midwest. With so few social moderates in their ranks, Republicans have all but written off large swaths of the West Coast and most of the Northeast, apart from relatively conservative Pennsylvania. The party’s difficulties with Spanish-speaking voters are eroding its strength in Florida and in the inland Southwest, as well.
All of these factors are on ample display in the battle for Senate control. Republicans need to pick up a net of three Senate seats in order to get a majority if former Gov. Mitt Romney wins the White House, which would give Vice President Paul Ryan the tie-breaking Senate vote. Otherwise, the Republicans need to net four seats.
The Republicans have made their own job much harder - perhaps impossible - by picking terrible candidates in Missouri and Indiana. (They faced the same problem in 2010, when extremely conservative Republican primary voters chose poor candidates in what should have been easy GOP-pickup states like Nevada and Delaware.)
The unexpected retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, a moderate who got tired of dealing with the extreme partisans on both sides of the aisle, also badly hurt Republican prospects. Her seat is likely to go to former Gov. Angus King, an independent who, like the two Northeastern independents already in the Senate, is expected to caucus with the Democrats should he win. The GOP’s job is also harder than it needed to be because it seems likely that Massachusetts will revert to its traditional blue-state form by electing Elizabeth Warren over Republican incumbent Scott Brown.
This means the GOP has to defend all its remaining open seats and pick up at least five, possibly six, seats elsewhere in order to gain a Senate majority. Republicans will almost certainly be successful in defending seats in Arizona and Nevada, but I think they are going to lose the seat in Indiana that is considered a tossup. They should pick up an open Democratic seat in Nebraska, but they'll lose the Brown seat in Massachusetts and the Snowe seat in Maine. So, at the outset, because of the reactionary candidate in Indiana, the Republicans find themselves facing the net loss of two seats.
Missouri should have been an easy win for the GOP, but another remarkably bad candidate in that state - Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” made national news prior to those of Indiana candidate Richard Mourdock - will likely accomplish the difficult feat of keeping Democrat Claire McCaskill in office. This will be a validation of sorts for McCaskill's campaign team, which actually helped Akin win the Republican primary because it felt, correctly, he was the easiest potential opposition.
Where will the Republicans score gains, rather than just preventing losses? One likely state is Montana, where my friend since college days, moderate Democrat Jon Tester, is fighting an uphill battle against Republican Dennis Rehberg. They are also likely to pick up a seat in North Dakota. Less likely, but possibly, they may pick up a seat in Wisconsin, where Republicans have tended to outperform polls in recent years, and where the GOP has a strong candidate to offer in former Gov. Tommy Thompson. They may also possibly, but not likely, claim Virginia, which tends to be very closely divided in Senate races anyway, but where the Democrats have the stronger candidate this particular year. Winning all these races, which is an improbable but not impossible outcome, would give the GOP a net pickup of two Senate seats - still not enough for a majority.
Republicans hoped to capture Democratic seats in Connecticut and Ohio, but I don't think that will happen. So the only way the GOP can achieve outright control of the Senate is if Brown manages to hang on in Massachusetts against Warren, and if both of the two social conservatives who crippled themselves with outlandish comments about rape manage to win anyway in Missouri and Indiana.
Though the Senate is not totally out of the GOP’s reach, seizing it will require a stretch. It could have been much closer. Once again, as in 2010, some of the Democrats’ most reliable political operatives are those staunch Republicans who vote in party primaries, choosing unelectable candidates for their party to run in November.