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November’s electorate will be much larger and very different than the one that elected Brown in January 2010, when voters in the Bay State surely saw the special election as an opportunity to send a message to Washington and to Obama about their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the president’s performance.
The president will carry Massachusetts by a large margin (even if it isn’t as large as his almost 800,000-vote victory in 2008), so Brown will need to have many hundreds of thousands of Obama voters cross over and vote for him in the Senate race if he is to keep his seat in November.
That’s not impossible (particularly if Warren doesn’t sell over the long haul), but it is no easy trick, even for a savvy politician who has quickly built his own brand.
In Nevada, Republican Sen. Dean Heller will try to hold off Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in what looks to be another very competitive race. Unlike Brown, Heller is something of a squatter in his seat. Never elected to the Senate, he was appointed to fill the post by a Republican governor after then-Sen. John Ensign (R) resigned in disgrace.
At that time, Heller was representing the state’s 2nd district, which takes in Reno, Carson City and politically important Washoe County. Of course, Heller has run statewide, serving two terms as Nevada’s secretary of state.
Berkley, on the other hand, is a seven-term House Member who in some senses epitomizes Las Vegas, which she represents in Congress.
Berkley has an outgoing personality and is an aggressive campaigner. The Congresswoman’s style and liberal bent may well fit her Las Vegas district (and even somewhat the rest of Clark County), but it’s less likely to have strong appeal in the rest of the state.
Berkley’s persona, combined with Heller’s more easygoing style and the state’s competitiveness, gives Republicans a pretty good chance to hold the Silver State’s Senate seat — if Heller works hard to keep it.
If 2012 turns out to be a pretty good Republican year, the GOP could hold both the Massachusetts and Nevada seats and grab five to eight more Democratic-held seats, building a strong Senate majority.
But if 2012 turns out to be a pretty good year for Democrats (and Obama), Massachusetts and Nevada easily could go Democratic, and the president’s party could keep its net Senate losses down to a couple of seats, hanging on to control for a couple of years and setting up 2014 as an excellent “six-year itch election” opportunity for the GOP.
Keep an eye on Massachusetts and Nevada for clues on how the cycle is developing.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.