Battle For The Senate: Numbers Favor GOP, But Control Is Still Up For Grabs

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination may or may not be decided by the end of this month. The battle for control of the Senate, on the other hand, is likely to go on all the way until the final votes are cast in November.

The most vulnerable Senate Republican.

hide captionThe most vulnerable Senate Republican.

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The numbers suggest a good year for the GOP. Of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, 23 are currently held by Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. Only ten are held by Republicans. With Democrats currently holding a 53-47 advantage, the GOP would need four seats to take control — or three, if they win the White House (and the VP would break a 50-50 tie).

Further hurting the Democratic cause is the number of retirements they have this year. Seven, including independent Joe Lieberman, are not seeking re-election, compared to just two on the Republican side.

The most vulnerable Senate Democrat.

hide captionThe most vulnerable Senate Democrat.

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But there are invariables that cloud the forecasting game this early in the cycle, such as the ever-changing presidential race, not to mention upcoming filing deadlines and primary contests.

In the months ahead, I'll be focusing on each key Senate race in depth. But for now, here is a first look at where the contests stand.

SAFE DEMOCRATIC (9): California (Dianne Feinstein), Delaware (Tom Carper), Maryland (Ben Cardin), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), New Jersey (Bob Menendez), New York (Kirsten Gillibrand), Rhode Island (Sheldon Whitehouse), Vermont (Bernie Sanders (I)), West Virginia (Joe Manchin).

DEMOCRAT FAVORED (5): Connecticut (open seat — Joe Lieberman (I) retiring), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey), Washington (Maria Cantwell).

TOSSUP DEM SEATS (7): Florida (Bill Nelson), Hawaii (open seat — Daniel Akaka retiring), Missouri (Claire McCaskill), Montana (Jon Tester), New Mexico (open seat — Jeff Bingaman retiring), Virginia (open seat — Jim Webb retiring), Wisconsin (open seat — Herb Kohl retiring).

EXPECTED DEM LOSSES/GOP PICKUPS (2): Nebraska (open seat — Ben Nelson retiring), North Dakota (open seat — Kent Conrad retiring).

EXPECTED GOP LOSSES/DEM PICKUPS (O): None at the moment.

TOSSUP GOP SEATS (1): Massachusetts (Scott Brown).

REPUBLICAN FAVORED (4): Arizona (open seat — Jon Kyl retiring), Indiana (Dick Lugar), Maine (Olympia Snowe), Nevada (Dean Heller) .

SAFE REPUBLICAN (5): Mississippi (Roger Wicker), Tennessee (Bob Corker), Texas (open seat — Kay Bailey Hutchison retiring), Utah (Orrin Hatch), Wyoming (John Barrasso).

I came, I saw, I Concord. It was great being part of live coverage all primary night from New Hampshire Public Radio. Hosted from 7-10 by the legendary Laura Knoy and then for a one hour recap at 11 by Brady Carlson, the special broadcast featured super guests and top notch analysis. Thanks to everyone for their wonderful comments. And thanks to NHPR for a job well done.

Huntsman out. There was a less-than-convincing ring to Jon Huntsman's declaration the night of New Hampshire that the third-place primary finish gave him a "ticket to ride." As it turns out, it was more of a "I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go." On Saturday, he ended his campaign and endorsed Romney.

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There is never a shortage of spin in these things, and New Hampshire is well known for it. The best case for claiming a win coming out of a Granite State defeat was Bill Clinton's self-described "comeback kid" label in 1992. But Huntsman's hope that finishing third, with 16.7% of the vote, was a huge success after he put all his marbles in the state rang hollow.

The move reduces the GOP field but not the way evangelical leaders wanted. While there is some desire to rally 'round Rick Santorum, that sentiment is by no means unanimous among the "Anybody but Mitt" folks, and Newt Gingrich's Monday night debate performance further gave pause that this has become a two-man race. And don't forget Ron Paul, who may have taken a hammering in the Myrtle Beach debate but who will still be very much part of the mix following South Carolina and Florida.

Shakeup in the California House delegation. Last week we reported on the decision of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), in Congress since 1987, to retire, a victim of a new redistricting map. Since then, two more Golden State Republicans have thrown in the towel. Rep. Wally Herger, also in Congress 25 years, said he would leave as well. And now Rep. Jerry Lewis, first elected in 1978, is also calling it quits. His district was carved up into two districts. One of them, the new 31st CD, is where Rep. Gary Miller (R) earlier said he would run rather than face off against Rep. Ed Royce (R) in a GOP primary. Still watching on another veteran Republican, Rep. David Dreier, to see what he plans to do. Three California Democrats are also leaving: Dennis Cardoza and Lynn Woolsey are retiring, and Bob Filner is running for mayor of San Diego.

Janklow is dead. Former Gov. Bill Janklow, one of the most powerful and influential pols in South Dakota history, died Thursday, Jan. 12. His was, by all accounts, a larger-than-life figure, a Republican whom you loved or hated. Charming and intimidating. But everyone agreed he was one of a kind.

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He was elected state attorney general in 1974, and four years later was elected governor — the first of four terms. In 1986, term-limited as governor and with no obvious options, he took on fellow Republican Sen. Jim Abdnor in the primary, but lost by ten points. George Mickelson, the Republican who succeeded him as governor, died in a plane crash in 1993.. Janklow challenged his successor, Walter Miller, and beat him convincingly in the 1994 GOP primary and served two more terms.

As governor, he boosted the state economy by luring businesses to South Dakota and helped make major advances in schools and transportation. The voters rewarded him with landslide victories each time he ran.

Once again constitutionally barred from serving as governor again, he ran for the state's lone House seat in 2002, the seat vacated by John Thune. In that contest, he clobbered former Sen. Larry Pressler by nearly 28 points in the GOP primary and defeated the Democratic candidate, Stephanie Herseth, in the general election. But his House tenure would prove to be brief. In 2003, Janklow, known for driving well beyond the speed limit, ran a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist. After his conviction, he resigned his seat.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, time for one question from the mailbag:

Q: What do you think the chances are of a brokered convention for the Republicans? Mitt Romney is the leading candidate but he's coming nowhere close to winning a majority of the votes, let alone the hearts, of conservatives. Could another candidate get in the race at this date? — Andrea Johnston, Charleston, S.C.

A: The short answer is between none and none. "Brokered conventions" — in which no presidential candidate has a commanding lead going into the summer national party conventions and delegate bargaining is what produces the nominee — hasn't happened in any convention in more than a half century (Democrats 1952, Republicans 1948). No Republican contest has even reached a convention with any doubt since 1976, when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford. And while ostensibly the GOP rules have changed this year to allow more proportional awarding of delegates in the primaries (as opposed to previous years' "winner-take-all"), it's hard to see Romney having as many opponents after the South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31) primaries as he has now. That doesn't necessarily mean conservatives will suddenly fall in love with him. But unless they can win somewhere, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are going to run out of money and arguments. Even the "super PACs" will come to realize that.

As far as another candidate getting in, I hate saying it's impossible. Let's just leave it as highly unlikeable. Who would be this dream candidate? Jeb Bush remains the strongest "if only" candidate, but he's not running. And while Sarah Palin likes to appear every now and then so we won't forget her, she's not going to run either.

Once upon a time, it was doable. Bobby Kennedy didn't get into the race until after the New Hampshire primary, in 1968. But that's when the process was totally different than it is today.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. I was at the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord last week, where Junkie was broken into two parts. The first segment focused on the results in New Hampshire and what's next as the candidates head into South Carolina, and it included special guest Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from S.C. You can listen to it right here:

Wednesday's Junkie segment -- Part 1

The second segment featured New York Times columnist Bill Keller and focused on his recent piece suggesting that President Obama would be better off if he had Hillary Clinton — not Joe Biden — as his running mate in 2012. That segment, and my response that the idea is nothing if not preposterous, can be heard here:

Last week's Junkie segment, part 2

Come see the Political Junkie/TOTN road show! We're bringing the program to Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 25. Later that evening, a special 90-minute presentation before a live audience. And it's free! Click here for details.

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Monday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. You can listen to the latest episode here:

Last week's podcast

ON THE CALENDAR:

Jan. 19 — GOP debate, Charleston, S.C. (CNN, 8 pm ET).

Jan. 21 — SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY.

Jan. 23 — GOP debate, Tampa, Fla. (NBC).

Jan. 24 — President Obama's State of the Union address to Congress.

Jan. 25 — Talk of the Nation/Political Junkie from Orlando, Fla.

Jan. 26 — GOP debate, Jacksonville, Fla. (CNN).

Jan. 31 — FLORIDA PRIMARY.

Jan. 31 — Special congressional election in Oregon's 1st CD to succeed former Rep. David Wu (D), who resigned amid a sex scandal. Candidates: Suzanne Bonamici (D) and Rob Cornilles (R).

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

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This day in campaign history: Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale becomes the first Democrat to announce the creation of an exploratory committee regarding a possible bid for the 1976 presidential nomination. His goal is to raise enough money to allow him to travel around the country and meet with potential supporters (Jan. 17, 1974).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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