Democratic Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson’s retirement presents Democrats with a serious problem. Right now, they control the Senate, 53-47. They have a slim margin for error, and their hopes of keeping a toe-hold in the federal government's elected branches could ultimately depend on their ability to limit losses to two or less.
But barring an unlikely entry to the Nebraska race by former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D – and perhaps even if he does enter – Democrats will probably lose two seats without much of a fight. In addition to the Nebraska retirement, Kent Conrad’s retirement in North Dakota has created a very favorable pickup opportunity for the GOP.
After counting those two seats, Republicans will enjoy a target-rich environment elsewhere. First, there is Montana, where freshman Sen. Jon Tester, D, faces the most popular Republican in the state, Rep. Dennis Rehberg. Polling shows that Rehberg can definitely win, and might even be the favorite already. At the top of the ballot, President Obama is unlikely to do as well in Montana as he did in 2008 (47 percent), and that could also affect the race.
Then there’s Florida, which no one really expected to be competitive. The sudden entry by Rep. Connie Mack IV, R – son of former Sen. Connie Mack III – has made this one unexpectedly competitive. An early Rasmussen poll already gives Mack the lead. Other polls give Nelson the lead, but with low enough numbers that he is quite vulnerable.
After that, several other Democratic seats will be in serious jeopardy. The top tier consists of the open seats in Wisconsin and Virginia (Republicans are guaranteed to nominate a top-shelf challenger in both), then Missouri, where the GOP field appears weak, but the incumbent is also weak. The next tier consists of Michigan (which could get very hot later this year), New Mexico and Ohio.
Republicans have only two incumbents in critical condition – in Nevada (Dean Heller, appointed to replace John Ensign) and in Massachusetts (Scott Brown). The former is shaping up as a very close race. The latter could be trouble for Republicans simply because it’s Massachusetts, and because the state will go for President Obama by a ridiculous margin no matter what.
The retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., creates a second-tier opportunity for the Democrats. So far, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., looks like a favorite, but he will face an untested opponent with some potential in former Surgeon General Richard Carmona. After that, there’s an open seat in Texas. National Democrats had recruited a serious candidate, but he dropped out three days before the filing deadline. That one will probably be over after the GOP primary.
So there’s your field. It’s hardly a predetermined outcome for the GOP – don’t forget that early in the 2010 cycle, Republicans were expected to lose Senate seats. But you’d rather be the Republicans here. Democrats will probably concede two seats without a fight in 2012 (they’d already spent $1 million defending Nelson), leaving them with no margin for error. They will then have to spend money defending between six and eight seats in critical condition, while competing for, at best, three vulnerable GOP seats, none of which are gimmees.
And if you think that’s bad, have a look at the map for 2014. Democrats will need several miracles to avoid more bloodletting (although, importantly, miracles do happen). Republicans lost so many seats in 2008 that they have, by my reckoning, only two theoretically weak ones left in the 2014 class (Maine and Kentucky). They will be gunning at more than ten theoretical Democratic targets, even assuming no Democrats retire.
There is no point in counting one's chickens early in politics. But it is worth noting that a filibuster-proof GOP Senate majority by 2015, while perhaps a stretch, is far from unattainable. That is doubly true if Barack Obama squeaks by to re-election in the new year.