Capitol Idea: In A 2012 Democratic Wave, Beware Senate Wipeout

The election this week of a Democrat to a traditionally Republican seat in the House of Representatives is amping up what already have been percolating hopes for Democrats to retake their House majority in 2012.

Make no mistake: I share the aspiration. But at the risk of casting a pall over the excitement before it’s barely begun, I’d like to inject a cautionary thought.

No, I’m not going to waste your time by beating the drum for the old political disclaimer that one should not read too much in the result of one special election, such as the one just concluded in upstate New York which will send Kathy Hochul to Washington as the newest member of Congress.

(If anything, the string of Republican wins in a series of special and off-year elections through 2009 and 2010 turned out to be a pretty good predictor of the drubbing Democrats ended up taking last November.)

Rather, my warning to Democrats is this: Go ahead and get excited about wresting the speaker’s gavel back out of John Boehner’s hands — but don’t forget about the Senate in the process.

Don’t assume House and Senate necessarily go hand-in-hand.

They don’t.

After all, while Republicans were able to win the House in 2010, they fell short in the Senate, and Democrat Harry Reid remains majority leader today.

Imagine what could happen next year if Democrats succeed storming their way back in the House, but Republicans knock Democrats out in the Senate.

It could well happen.

E. J. Dionne, the smart liberal Washington Post commentator, forecast the possibility in a recent column:

Both houses could switch parties, but in opposite directions. The Democrats could take back the House — the GOP is defending a lot of Democratic-leaning seats — while Republicans could take over the Senate, given the difficult array of states Democrats must win. If this happens, remember, you read it here first.

Dionne nails it. Politically, the House Republicans and Senate Democrats actually have the same problem: they each have to hold a number of marginal seats to defend their majorities.

Add to that, this unpleasant math for Democrats: they have 23 Senate seats to defend in 2012, while the GOP has just 10. Republicans have to only pick up four and we would be saying hello to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats will have to win next year in tough places like Montana and Missouri, if Reid is to hold on in charge of the Senate.

The Washington Post already has spilled ink on just how tough it could be for Montana Democrat Jon Tester to win a second term.

Stu Rothenberg, the influential nonpartisan political analyst, predicts Democrats’ Senate majority will hinge entirely on how well their candidates perform in the swing states of Montana, Missouri, and Virginia.

“These three states will probably determine the control of the United States Senate,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

If they were to win back the House but lose the Senate, Democrats would be no better off than they are today with a divided Congress. In reality, Democrats would be worse off.

That’s because the Senate is the upper chamber of Congress, and Democrats would lose important influence if they were to slip into a Senate minority.

The Senate, not the House, has presidential confirmation authority.

A Democratic minority would be on the losing end of either of these two scenarios.

The first scenario assumes Barack Obama gets re-elected in 2012.

Presidents often see substantial turnover of their Cabinet and other officials at the start of their second terms. Obama’s nominees would likely face a more hostile confirmation process with Republicans in charge.

Then there is the matter of Supreme Court nominees. In his first two picks to the high court, Obama had a friendly ally with Democrat Patrick Leahy at the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. If he had to get any future court nominees past conservative Republican Jeff Sessions as Judiciary chair, the president would be in deep trouble.

The second (albeit less likely) scenario assumes a Republican wins the White House in 2012.

The new president-elect will be assembling his or her administration from scratch, and Democrats would be less of a position to challenge any such nominees if they slid into the minority.

(They, likewise, would be at a disadvantage, too, if the new GOP president had a chance to start naming justices to the Supreme Court.)

So, my Democratic friends, don’t stop dreaming of a House takeover next year. Just don’t forget to fight like hell to keep the Senate blue, too.


Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as In A 2012 Democratic Wave, Beware Senate Wipeout on Blogcritics.

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