With 11 months to go until the 2012 elections, the fight for control of the Senate already seems to boil down to a dozen states.
If, as many believe, we have entered a new era of parliamentary-type voting, when ticket-splitting becomes increasingly rare and the top of the ticket defines downballot choices for most voters, six of those 12 contests start to take on a more partisan tinge.
President Barack Obama is likely to carry Hawaii and Massachusetts comfortably, giving a leg up for his party’s Senate nominees in each state — Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and probably Rep. Mazie Hirono (but possibly ex-Rep. Ed Case) in Hawaii.
On the other hand, the president’s weakness in a number of other states presumably would give an advantage to the likely Republican Senate nominees in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Yes, I know, none of this is certain. Voters still know how to split their tickets, and if Massachusetts voters simply never warm to Warren or Democratic incumbents in Missouri, Montana and Nebraska succeed in localizing their races, Obama’s standing in any of these states may not determine who will win the Senate contest.
It is at least worth noting, however, that Democrats make the partisanship argument when they are handicapping their chances of winning the Hawaii and Massachusetts Senate contests, and Republicans make the exact same argument when handicapping Senate races in states that the president is likely to lose badly.
Adding up the gains and losses from the six states with a clear bent in the presidential contest would give Senate Republicans a net gain of three seats, enough to win control if the GOP presidential nominee wins next year as well, but a seat shy of a clear majority, and control, if Obama wins a second term.
So, the battle for the Senate could well boil down to six states which are also at ground zero in the 2012 presidential race: Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Five of those Senate seats, all but Nevada, are currently held by Democrats. At this point, Democrats seem to have an edge in three of those contests.
In Florida, a crowded GOP race won’t be thinned out until the Aug. 14 primary. That will give the GOP nominee less than three months to replenish his or her war chest and focus sights entirely on Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
In New Mexico, another Republican primary awaits. But this one is scheduled for June 5, giving the eventual Republican nominee more of an opportunity to ramp up for the general election. And Democrats have their own potentially divisive primary in the state. While the Land of Enchantment tilts Democratic, the 2012 Senate race could well go down to the wire.
The third Senate race where Democrats should have an edge is Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) will face state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R).