With Kerrey in the running and Snowe going, Senate Dems confident

Senate Democrats are buoyantly optimistic about keeping control of the upper chamber after developments this past week increased their chances of winning races in Maine and Nebraska.

They sought to capitalize on the new wave of optimism by blasting out a fundraising email Friday touting the “seismic” shift of the Senate electoral map.

“This week’s entry of Democrat Bob Kerrey into the Nebraska race and surprise retirement of Republican Senator Olympia Snowe in Maine have completely changed the face of the 2012 map in favor of Democrats,” Senate Democratic fundraisers wrote in their pitch.

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Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) surprised her colleagues by announcing she would retire at the end of the year, opening up a seat in a Democratic-leaning state that Senate strategists did not view as in play.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) sent another gush of excitement though the Democratic caucus by declaring he would run for the seat being vacated by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

“It’s very big,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).

Conrad and his colleagues see their chances of keeping the majority next year as much improved now that they have a good shot at picking up Snowe’s seat and will force Republicans to pour money into a competitive race in Nebraska.

“It’s pretty different. Two seats were made competitive in one week,” said Conrad.

“No one had Maine on the radar screen and Nebraska would have been a tough seat to hold. It clearly has improved our chances of not only keeping the Senate but perhaps keeping it with a margin,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans still have a credible opportunity to flip the Senate.

“No one on our side has ever said that winning back the majority would be easy, nor have we ever taken anything for granted,” he said. “But Senate Republicans are well positioned in a range of key races across the country and we still have a long way to go until November.”

Walsh noted that Democrats were caught by surprise in 2010 when former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) lost to Tea Party-backed insurgent Ron Johnson.

Chuck Todd, the political director at NBC News, and his analytical team predict Democrats now have a better than 50/50 shot of keeping the Senate.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan publication that handicaps congressional races, estimated the Democratic odds of success slightly lower.

She said Democrats have an even chance of keeping their majority. But she thinks their position has improved significantly from a week ago, when she gave Republicans a 60-percent chance of winning the majority.  

J.B. Poersch, a senior strategist for Majority PAC, a super-PAC dedicated to helping Democrats retain Senate control, said Democrats would try to take advantage of shifting conventional wisdom to raise more money for competitive races.

“It further increases their chances,” Poersch said of Democratic efforts to beat back a GOP push to capture the upper chamber. “I believed it before what happened last week but this only strengthened the argument.”

Poersch said the Democratic base voters are now as enthusiastic as the GOP base, a parity that did not exist in November of 2010 when Republicans captured the House and picked up six Senate seats.

Republicans must pick up four seats to regain the majority if President Obama wins re-election because the vice-president casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate and determines control in the event of a 50-50 split.

Republican strategists see their best opportunities to pick up seats in Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska, despite Kerrey’s entry into the race. Each of those states leans Republican in presidential and congressional races.

Republican strategists argue that Nebraska has grown more conservative since Kerrey represented it in Congress in the 1990s.

“As Nebraskans reacquaint themselves with Kerrey they will quickly recognize that living in Greenwich Village for so many years tends to change a person,” Walsh said earlier in the week.

Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (R), who is running in the Senate GOP primary, unveiled a statewide television ad on Friday criticizing Kerrey as a “New York liberal” who supports big government.

Kerrey served for a decade as president of The New School in New York City after leaving the Senate in 2001.

Republicans will argue that Kerrey, who recently moved back to Nebraska, is a carpetbagger but Democrats say the argument will have limited effect, pointing to Sen. Dan Coats’s (R-Ind.) successful bid in 2010 after working for years as a lobbyist following his first Senate stint.

Democrats, however, view the recruitment of Kerrey as a big plus, even if he does not hold Nelson’s seat, because it will force Republicans to spend more than they would have otherwise in the red state.

Democrats believe that forcing Republicans and GOP-allied third party groups to spend heavily in Pennsylvania and Missouri in 2010 — races won by Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — helped them keep the majority by diluting the Republican funding advantage.

Republicans acknowledge Kerrey, who ran for president in 1992, will be able to raise millions of dollars easily.

GOP strategists say the next tier of possible GOP pickups includes New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin had been a reliably Democratic state in federal elections until Johnson shocked Feingold. Republicans think their chances are helped by the Democratic candidate, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), one of the most liberal members of the Wisconsin delegation in the House.

The NRSC has hit Baldwin for supporting the 2010 healthcare reform law and highlighted a video a clip of her telling a crowd that she supported a government takeover of healthcare.

“She is very liberal for the state,” said a GOP aide, adding that centrist Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) would have been a more formidable general-election opponent.

Florida, Hawaii and Ohio form the third tier of possible GOP pickups, say GOP strategists.

Senate Democratic officials argue the possibility of a Senate GOP majority in 2013 has slipped significantly because they are now well-positioned to capture the seats belonging to Snowe and Sen. Scott Brown (R), who represents liberal Massachusetts.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee argues it can also beat Sen. Dean Heller (R) in Nevada and win the seats held by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who may lose in the GOP primary.

“Democrats now have five strong opportunities to win Republican-held Senate seats,” said DSCC communications director Matt Canter. “From a political perspective, the Republican decision to focus on divisive social issues, like blocking access to contraception, only makes matters worse for them.”

One Democratic strategist judged the chances of a Democratic pickup in Maine, a state trending more Democratic, at 70 percent.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), however, says that prediction is skewed and non-partisan experts are rating it a toss-up for now.

“It’s certainly no longer a sure bet for Republicans but I don’t think it’s an easy pickup,” Collins told reporters this week.