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The Uneven Senate Landscape of 2012 (and 2014)

Correction Appended

Just over four years ago I wrote in this space that Democrats not only didn’t have to worry about losing their Senate majority in ’08, they needed to set their sights on 60 seats in 2010 because a “filibuster-proof majority would change the rules of the game on Capitol Hill.”

Well, Democrats did get to 60 seats, but they did it well before I thought that was likely. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch in April 2009 and Sen. Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) seating in July of that year ensured Democrats would hit the magic 60 mark, giving the party six months of a supermajority that Congressional leaders and the White House used to pass health care reform.

Now, the tables have turned.

Republican won 24 of the 37 Senate contests last year, giving them a head start not only on winning a Senate majority in 2012 but possibly winning a 60-seat supermajority two years later.

They will need to net 26 or 27 of the remaining 66 contests over the next two cycles to win a majority in 2014, or 36 of the next 66 to get to 60 seats during the next midterm elections.

The Senate is always a different kind of numbers game than the House. With unbalanced classes, Senate control — to say nothing about a filibuster-proof majority — hinges on which party has more seats up for election in a particular election cycle.

When one of the political parties has a huge election night, as Republicans did last year, it automatically gives that party an opportunity to take over the Senate, whether two years later or four.

The 2012 Senate class includes 23 Democrats and only 10 Republicans, and the stunning imbalance means that Democrats will be on the defensive throughout the cycle unless the political environment shifts dramatically to their party.

That’s possible, of course, especially if the proposed budget offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) alienates swing voters and seniors, putting GOP House and Senate candidates on the defensive for the rest of the cycle. But, at least early in this election cycle, the raw numbers look very challenging for Democratic Senate strategists.

At this point, at least five Democratic Senate seats are at great risk. Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad’s North Dakota seat is as good as gone. Ben Nelson’s Nebraska seat is more competitive, of course, but Democratic chances of retaining it in 2012 may depend on a nasty GOP primary producing a weak Republican nominee.

The Montana race, pitting incumbent Democrat Jon Tester against Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, looks no better than even money for Tester, who won narrowly because of the huge Democratic wave in 2006.

Rising Obama popularity would help Tester’s chances, but Democrats probably need to be successful in their effort to paint Rehberg as an ethics basket case if they are to retain the seat next year.

The Missouri Senate race has changed significantly in the past few weeks. Sen. Claire McCaskill once appeared to be a savvy, well-positioned Democrat who was likely to have a competitive race simply because of the competitiveness of her state.

But recent revelations about a possible conflict of interest and unpaid taxes — issues that she used to attack a former primary opponent and that undermine her message of transparency and integrity — increase her vulnerability greatly.

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