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The battle for the U.S. Senate
The presidential election isn't the only important race this year. Which party controls Congress may be just as critical
To regain control of the Senate, Republicans need a net gain of just four seats in the 2012 election.
To regain control of the Senate, Republicans need a net gain of just four seats in the 2012 election.
Rudy Sulgan/Corbis
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s the Senate up for grabs?
Many Republicans think it is, and are quietly arguing that their odds of success there are higher than in defeating the incumbent president, Barack Obama. As a result, they're urging party operatives to focus their energies on the attainable goal of winning a Senate majority, rather than focus too heavily on the presidential race. Democrats currently have only a slim, 53–47 majority in the Senate, and of the 33 seats being contested this year, 10 are currently held by Republicans and 23 by Democrats. Ten sitting senators are retiring, the highest number since 1996, and seven of them are Democrats. Even if Obama is re-elected, some Republicans argue, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress could block the president's initiatives, stop him from appointing liberal judges or other officials, and exert real influence over the national agenda. "I think this election is more about the Senate than the presidency," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R–S.C.). "If we don't have a majority with a strong conservative voice in the Senate and a majority in the House, then it doesn't matter what we have in the White House."

How could the Republicans win a majority?
The party needs to pick up a net total of four seats, and its likeliest gains are seats now held by Democratic senators in traditionally red states. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota are retiring this year, and the GOP has good chances in open elections in these conservative states. In Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown is considered vulnerable to Tea Party–endorsed Josh Mandel, and in Florida, Bill Nelson faces a popular opponent in Rep. Connie Mack. Republicans are also targeting seats in Virginia, New Mexico, and Hawaii, where Democratic senators are retiring. Of these, Republicans have the best odds in Virginia, where former Republican Gov. George Allen is running neck-and-neck with former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

Could the GOP retain all 10 of its contested seats?
That's unlikely. Democrats see some opportunities of their own in November. Republicans face a tough challenge in trying to hold onto the Maine Senate seat of retiring moderate Olympia Snowe; the race's current front-runner, independent Angus King, is likely to caucus with the Democrats. And while polls currently give Sen. Scott Brown (R–Mass.) a healthy lead in a tough re-election battle against Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, she has a formidable fund-raising advantage as a nationally known consumer advocate and opponent of big banks. In Nevada, the Republican incumbent, Dean Heller, appointed after scandal-plagued John Ensign resigned last year, faces a close race against Rep. Shelley Berkley. But with so few GOP seats in play, the Democrats have to retain most of the contested seats they now hold to remain in the majority.

How hard will that be?
The Democrats are vulnerable in several of these races. They had high hopes in Nebraska last month after Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic governor and senator, announced that he would seek Ben Nelson's seat. But polls show Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran who has lived in New York for years, trailing Republican Jon Bruning, the state's attorney general, by a 17-point margin. Democrats think they have a better chance in North Dakota, where former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is running against Republican Rep. Rick Berg. Heitkamp has sought to tie Berg to the deeply unpopular House of Representatives. In fact, many of the new Republican candidates for Senate are current or recently departed members of Congress, and that could help Democrats. "Approval ratings right now are so abysmally bad, it has to rub off on members seeking higher office," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

What about the House?
Republicans currently have a 242–190 advantage there, and Democrats would need to pick up 28 seats to recapture the House. Some Democratic party leaders think they have a shot, but history suggests their chances are slim. When the presidency and Congress are split between two parties, said political analyst Harry Enten, voters "tend to like the status quo" because they feel that divided government keeps the ideologues in both parties in check. Most forecasts have House Democrats picking up between 10 and 15 seats, leaving the GOP in the majority.

Are Republicans likely to win the Senate?
It may partly depend on what happens in the presidential election. If President Obama wins against his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, then Republicans would need to buck more than a century of history to swing the Senate. No incumbent president since the 19th century has been re-elected while his party lost control of the Senate. But with so many Democratic seats in play, Republicans could make history in 2012. Whatever the outcome, though, the upper chamber will remain mired in partisan gridlock. Neither party has a chance of hitting the filibuster-proof figure of 60 seats, and in recent years, Republicans have turned the filibuster from a rarely used tactic into a means to block the majority's will. If they become the minority, Democrats will undoubtedly return the favor. That means the new Senate will "do what Senates do best," said political scientist Larry Sabato. "A whole lot of nothing."

There's always next time
If Republicans don't retake the Senate this November, their odds are already looking good for 2014. Democrats will again have more seats up for re-election that year than Republicans will — 20, as things stand, to the GOP's 13 — and many will be hard to retain, especially in red states like South Dakota, Louisiana, Montana, Alaska, and North Carolina. And if Obama is still in the White House, Republicans will have history on their side, as second midterm elections frequently go badly for the president's party. George W. Bush lost six Senate seats in his second midterm, in 2006, and Ronald Reagan lost eight in 1986. "All of this means both short-term and longer-term concern for Senate Democrats," said Stuart Rothenberg.

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