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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Ever-Shifting Senate Chessboard

It’s now pretty much established that Republicans have a real chance, albeit still a long shot, of winning control of the U.S. Senate in November. This would require a net gain of ten seats, meaning that (to cite the most common scenario) they’d have to hold all their own seats and then win Democratic seats in PA, DE, AR, IN, IL, WI, CO, NV, CA, and WA. A slightly alternative scenario would give the Republicans 49 or 50 seats, plussed-up by a party-switch from Joe Lieberman and/or Ben Nelson (a complicating variable is the possible election of Charlie Crist in FL as an indie, which could theoretically create some sort of centrist “bloc” that would bargain with both parties for control).
But as the primary season continues, it’s increasingly clear that Republican infighting and upsets could change the chessboard significantly, and risk Republican Senate wins long thought to be certain. It’s already happened in KY, where Rand Paul’s primary victory has made the GOP’s hold on Jim Bunning’s seat tenuous, and in NV, where Sharron Angle’s nomination did wonders for Harry Reid’s previously toasty political standing. The Republican mess in FL is also illustrative; either Rubio or Crist would be heavily favored in a two-way race against Kendrick Meek.
And now all sorts of additional havoc in “safe” GOP states seems possible. In Alaska, election officials today are beginning to count absentee and provisional ballots affecting the extremely close Senate primary battle between incumbent Lisa Murkowski and insurgent Joe Miller, amidst an increasingly bitter atmosphere. Suddenly Democratic nominee Scott McAdams is getting a second look as a potentially viable candidate. His prospects did take a blow when the Libertarian Party decided against offering Murkowski a ballot line if she loses the GOP nomination, but still, the intra-GOP hatefest could make this seat vulnerable.
Elsewhere, the main financier of Miller’s campaign, the Tea Party Express, has decided to go all in to support an equally unlikely candidate, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who is challenging moderate Mike Castle for the Senate nomination to face Democrat Chris Coons, who’s running an unexpectedly strong race for Joe Biden’s old seat. If, say, Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund decides to back O’Donnell, all bets could be off.
In one of those Republican Senate seats assumed to be in the bag, in NH, Republican establishment candidate Kelly Ayotte may soon be in a dogfight with self-styled “true conservative” Ovide Lamontagne, whose endorsement by the New Hampshire Union-Leader has revived his campaign. Lamontagne is the one Republican candidate in NH who has been trailing Democrat Paul Hodes in general election polls.
Now perhaps Alaska Republicans will more-or-less unite around their ultimate primary winner, and Ayotte and Castle will win their primaries, and Crist will collapse in FL, and then Republicans will sweep all the close Senate races, as occured in “wave” elections like 1980, 1994, 2006 and 2008 (the latter two benefitting Democrats). But the bottom line is that the GOP’s path to control of the Senate is getting more, not less, complicated. Breezy predictions of total victory are colliding with the messy reality that the unprecedented ideological conformity of the Republican Party just isn’t enough for conservatives, and the equally messy reality that actual voters have to choose between actual candidates in individual states.

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