Senate race ratings make good headlines and cable news fodder, but two years out from an election, they can be poor predictors of what’s to come.
Looking back over the past decade, plenty of seats deemed safe in the off-year could be found later in the “lost” column while some tossup races didn’t even turn out to be a party’s biggest problem by the time the election came around.
At this point in the last election cycle, Republicans held roughly three-quarters of the most vulnerable Senate seats in the country, and there was talk of Democrats expanding their majority well past 60 seats.
In January 2009, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) were the most vulnerable Democratic Senators in the country. Both of them won their races, even with historic odds against them.
“The 2012 map offers Senate Democrats opportunities to win Republican seats, and we expect to do so the same way folks like Michael beat back Republicans this cycle: Define our opponents early, and keep focus on getting people back to work,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Executive Director Guy Cecil told Roll Call. Cecil helped Bennet win re-election as the appointed Senator’s chief of staff.
Early ratings are often prisoners of the last cycle and fail to predict the future political climate. It’s easier to identify the key players rather than the playing field.
Two years ago, Republicans held a majority of the most vulnerable seats, including those of Sens. Jim Bunning (Ky.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and David Vitter (La.) and open seats in Florida and Missouri.
But over the next 20 months, political sentiment shifted against the party in power, and Republicans held all five of their initially most vulnerable seats by at least 10 points (three of them by close to 20 points).
Democrats also lost six seats overall, and almost all of them were initially thought to be safe.
Indiana and North Dakota turned from safe to retirements to open-seat losses that weren’t even close by Election Day. Republicans also picked up President Barack Obama’s former seat in Illinois and knocked off Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.). None of the seats were thought to be at particular risk to Democrats in January of the off-year.
In addition, Democrats such as Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Patty Murray (Wash.) were viewed as safe but ended up having to fight through tough re-election bids. Sen. Chris Dodd (D) was viewed as safe but was forced into retirement as his re-election chances hit the skids, and Democrats had to spend money in Connecticut to hold the open seat. Delaware was regarded as safe but would have been lost if Rep. Mike Castle (R) had made it out of the primary.
This was not the first cycle where early ratings differed from final results.
Early in the 2008 cycle, GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was one of the most vulnerable Senators in the country, but she won re-election by more than 20 points even though Republicans lost eight seats nationwide. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) was one of the losses even though she was regarded as safe in January 2007.