The fluid Senate landscape



One would think, from the media coverage of the Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan retirements, that the Democrats are irrevocably doomed in the 2010 elections, that they are despairingly contemplating the demise of their civilization, much like the Na'vi warriors in Avatar as they sifted the wreckage of the Tree of Souls.

The announced departure of these two veteran Democratic senators, within the same news cycle, was irresistible catnip for the headline writers, who came up with stuff like "Democrats are dropping like flies" (ABC News) and a "Wave of retirements" (Washington Post). But one would hardly know, from this coverage, that in fact the Senate Republicans have already been hit with six retirements, and that the Democrats will wage competitive '10 races in at least four of those newly open seats (Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio). For instance, The New York Times didn't bother to point out, until the 19th paragraph of a 22-graph story, that "despite the focus on the Democrats' problems, Republicans are faring worse this year in terms of resignations putting seats into play."

Nor was it widely emphasized that, while Dorgan's abdication of his North Dakota seat surely foreshadows a GOP pickup, the Dodd retirement in Connecticut will actually boost the Senate Democrats' prospects of holding that seat, because Dodd's slot on the November ballot will go to Connectiout attorney general Dick Blumenthal, the best-liked Democrat in that blue state. Since Connecticut is my home state, and since I did commit political journalism there, I can say with some authority that Connecticut attorney generals are often popular. They can launch popular investigatory crusades on popular issues; they don't have to cast unpopular votes like legislators do. Indeed, that particular job has been a political springboard in the past. It was once held by...Joe Lieberman.

And national Democratic money that would have been poured into Connecticut, in the hopes of saving Dodd, can now be redirected to the competitive races in those states where Republicans are retiring. (By the way, the unhappiest person this morning must surely be Linda McMahon, the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, who had contemplated spending $25 million of her own money to buy the Connecticut Republican nomination in the expectation of pinning Dodd to the mat.)

Granted, these are tough times for the incumbent party. Senate Democrats are currently vulnerable in a number of states where they will be compelled to defend seats in '10, including Pennsylvania (regardless of whether the Democratic nominee is Arlen Specter or Joe Sestak), Delaware, Nevada, Illinois, Arkansas, and Colorado. It's impossible to know today how this will all shake out in November - much will hinge on whether the economy is looking better, with Republicans naturally rooting for it to stay in the toilet - and we should all be downright shocked if the Senate Democrats somehow emerge with their so-called "filibuster-proof" 60-seat majority intact.

Indeed, the breathless coverage of the past 24 hours would have benefited from this bit of perspective: Tallying all the midterm elections going back more than half a century, the president's party has lost an average of 4.7 Senate seats. Indeed, with only three exceptions in midterm elections over the past century, the president's party has seen its majorities in both chambers reduced.

Certainly, the prospects for endless Senate gridlock will be greatly enhanced if the Democrats enter 2011 with five fewer seats. The Senate was not supposed to be a place where the filibuster is wielded as a routine weapon; it was not supposed to be a place where a 60-vote "supermajority" is required to get virtually anything done. But that's a topic for another day. For now, let us simply stipulate that the '10 Senate election landscape is far more fluid and complicated than the Dodd-Dorgan coverage would suggest...with one caveat:

Twelve days from now, in a special election, Massachusetts voters will choose a senator for the seat once held by the late Edward Kennedy. The Bay State is deeply blue, of course, but special elections are typically low-turnout affairs that hinge on partisan intensity. State attorney general Martha Coakley is favored to win easily. But if state senator Scott Brown, the long-shot Republican candidate, manages to finish with 46 to 49 percent of the vote (or higher), that should rightly be interpreted by Democrats nationwide as the equivalent of DEFCON 2.