Politics Explained: How the Democrats Flipped the Senate Races

Six months ago, it seemed all but certain that the Republicans would take the Senate, and, with control of both chambers of Congress, force President Obama’s potential second term to be miserable. Although the Democrats currently have a 53-47 majority (with two independents caucusing with the Democrats), they had 23 senators up for reelection versus only 10 Republican senators, and it seemed very difficult for them to hold on to 19 of those seats. However, in the past several weeks, a significant attitude shift has occurred regarding Democrats at the Senate level, even as Romney has made gains at the presidential level. How did such a significant shift occur? This cannot be seen as a result of any one event in favor of the Democrats or against the Republicans, but rather can be found through analyzing several races that have flipped in the past few months.

In 2010, Republicans nominated several Tea Party candidates for the House and Senate, and rode high unpopularity versus incumbent Democrats to gain 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate. The Tea Party threat forced incumbent Republicans to take extreme right positions, making them more vulnerable as the Tea Party faded from the national consciousness. The Tea Party effects are most apparent in the Senate races of Indiana, where treasurer Richard Mourdock defeated long-time incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar in the Republican primary, and in Missouri, where Rep. Todd Akin won a three way primary by positioning himself to the ideological right of the other two candidates. Mourdock now faces the centrist Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly and Akin faces the unpopular incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill. Mourdock and Akin would still be winning their elections if not for some key gaffes on abortion issues. Akin infamously said that, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” and Mourdock recently said that, “I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” These controversial comments have elicited backlash from across the country and have given the Democratic candidates the edge in otherwise strongly Republican states.

In Ohio and Florida, two incumbent Democratic senators, Sherrod Brown and Bill Nelson, were believed to face tough races for reelection. Brown, despite representing a Republican-leaning state, is one of the most liberal members of the Senate, and as a member of the 2006 Democratic wave, seemed vulnerable. Republicans recruited rising star Josh Mandel to run against Brown. In Florida, Nelson was an unpopular incumbent, and Rep. Connie Mack IV, his Republican opponent, had strong name recognition in the state. However, in both cases, as voters became more familiar with Mandel and Mack, the candidates became even more unpopular than their Democratic opponents. According to the latest Public Policy Polling polls, Mandel’s favorability rating is 38-51 and Mack’s is 36-46, while Brown’s approval rating is 47-44 and Nelson’s is 44-41. Although each Democratic incumbent has only a narrow approval rating in his Republican leaning state, the Republicans’ poor choices for candidates appear to provide a path to victory for these incumbents.

In the Mountain West, the Democrats recruited strong candidates who are polling much closer to their Republican opponents than Obama is against Romney. In Montana, Jon Tester has improved his favorability and is running dead with Denny RehBerg. In Arizona, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona has posed a serious threat to Rep. Jeff Flake. In North Dakota and Nebraska, Heidi Heitkamp and former Sen. Bob Kerrey have proved strong replacements for retiring Democrats Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson. Although Democrats can expect to win only two of these four seats at best, this represents a significant change from expectations six months ago when Republicans expected to win all four seats, gaining three seats from incumbent Democrats.

Two New England seats that Republicans were counting on holding, Maine and Massachusetts, have also switched. In Maine, the sudden retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe threw a guaranteed Republican hold into a tossup. The entrance of independent Angus King further upended the race, as King has maintained strong levels of bipartisan support and now has a 91% chance of winning the race according to Nate Silver. Although King has not stated with whom he will caucus, his endorsement of President Obama and relatively moderate fiscal and social stances make it seem more likely that he will caucus with the Democrats. In Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown enjoyed popularity with independents and garnered a good deal of crossover support from Democratic voters, and his reelection seemed likely. Yet Professor Elizabeth Warren has proven to be a strong candidate and regained several former Scott Brown supporters. She now has a 95% chance of winning the election according to Silver. These two potential flips have made it that much harder for Republicans to retake a majority.

Other races in open Democratic seats, such as those in Virginia, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, have shown Democratic challengers pull away from their Republican counterparts. These were races thought to be tossups in the spring, but each of the Democrats in these states now have over an 80% chance of winning according to Silver. In Connecticut and New Mexico, the Democratic lead at the presidential level has helped the senatorial candidates, and in Wisconsin and Virginia, the poor choice of Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and the strong choice of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine have shifted both races towards the Democrats.

Backlash against Tea Party candidates, poor choices by Republicans for candidates, strong choices for Democrats as candidates, and a few key reversals have made the Senate extremely likely to go Democrat regardless of who wins the presidency. Silver gives a 90.9% chance of a Democratic Senate and Talking Points Memo gives Democrats a 52-43 advantage with five tossups. A Democratic majority in the Senate would, among other things, ensure that the Affordable Care Act will not be repealed by the time of its implementation in 2014. Control of the Senate will be critical for the next two years and, through a combination of various factors, Democrats have moved key races across the country in their favor and now look to enjoy at least two more years of a Senate majority.


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