Big-Ticket Item for Dems: Keep Control of Senate
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Big-Ticket Item for Dems: Keep Control of Senate

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

When Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota announced earlier this week that he won’t seek a fourth term, the Democrat was being extremely helpful to both the White House and the party.

It stands to reason the Obama administration would rather have its allies who are contemplating retirement make their decisions now – rather than spend months pondering a return to private life. The earlier notice is a strategic move that is all about the party’s self-preservation, since a stronger Republican presence on Capitol Hill would do even more than the House already has to squash the White House agenda.

The Democrats once again face the formidable task of keeping control of the Senate in 2014. Not only do they need time to recruit strong candidates for endangered or open seats, but more importantly, the party needs time for those candidates to raise money – Big Money – if it hopes to preserve its 55-to-45 seat majority in the upper chamber.

In last year’s Senate races, candidates in both parties spent a staggering $754 million, with $444.5 million going for the ten most expensive races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Spending in the Massachusetts Senate race alone totaled $82.4 million, while the Connecticut race cost $65.4 million and the Texas race cost $54 million.

As strange as it sounds, the Democrats also have good reason to focus on next year’s election, even though the Senate and House still need to reconcile their competing 2014 budget proposals and prevent the country from defaulting in May when the truce on raising the debt ceiling expires.

They learned last year that the longer the campaign lasts, the greater the chance for Republican gaffes. Absurd and offensive statements in the Indiana and Missouri Senate races last year squandered a built-in GOP advantage. Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP Senate nominee in Missouri, said in an interview that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, a remark echoed by Indiana GOP Senate nominee Richard Mourdock, who said during a debate that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” And in 2010, Sharron Angle couldn’t keep her foot out of her mouth in a failed attempt to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Jennifer Duffy, the Senate expert at The Cook Political Report, said the prospects are good that Republicans could again suffer self-inflicted injuries next year, though the party is already in the midst of trying to reboot itself. “It’s pretty early in the campaign and there’s not a lot of recruiting that has been completed, so there’s a lot of unanswered questions at the moment,” she said. “But I think it will depend on whether conservatives learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012. And that is why you’ve got to nominate the right candidate.  You’ve got to nominate candidates who can win statewide. And yeah, I mean, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, they’re all pretty extreme examples. But the fact of the matter is, they happen – five times in two cycles. That’s a trend.”

So far, five Democrats and two Republicans have announced they will retire at the end of next year – but others are possible.

The Democrats include Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, 78, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, 73, New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, 89, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, 75, and Johnson, who is 66. Republican senators Saxby Chambliss, 69, of Georgia, and Mike Johanns, 62, of Nebraska, are also throwing in the towel.

Replacing them will not be cheap. During last year’s House and Senate races, Democrats and Republicans spent a combined $1.74 billion, according to estimates released this week by the Center for Responsive Politics. If you count political committees and outside expenditures, the figure balloons to $3.66 billion.

What each retiring senator leaves behind is a war chest that aspiring successors must fill on their own. For example, Iowa’s Harkin has $2.72 million on hand, slightly more than half of what he spent in 2008 to win re-election, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The departure of those five long-time Democratic senators will result in a significant power realignment in the Senate, provided the Democrats can retain control.

Johnson’s exit could touch off a battle for the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee, which could prove to be pivotal on potential tweaks to the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms. After suffering a stroke-like attack in 2006, Johnson has played a low-key public role on the committee. Speculation about a successor centers on Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York – a champion of his Wall Street constituents – and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, whose blue-collar populism has led him to push for breaking up megabanks such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.

Levin, who was first elected in 1978, will be relinquishing the gavel of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and will likely be succeeded by Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and one-time 82nd Airborne paratrooper.

Lautenberg clears the way for Newark Mayor Cory Booker – considered to be one of the party’s next superstars – to enter the Senate.

Harkin, one of the most outspoken liberal Democrats in the Congress chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and for years has been a force on the Agriculture Committee. Rockefeller, another high-profile liberal with a famous family name, has helped to shape health care and tax policy for years and served as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Other Democrats are waiting in the wings to replace him as chairman of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee and pick up his other duties. But if the Democrats lose the Senate there will be a shift in power rather than a transition.

The Democrats emerged from the 2012 election with their 55-to-45 seat advantage over the Republicans after overcoming a significant early disadvantage. Their victory was due in part to President Obama’s solid reelection win over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but it was also due  to the unfortunate statements made by GOP Senate contenders in Iowa, Indiana and Missouri. Rather than losing ground, as many political analysts had predicted, the Democrats were able to pick up a couple of seats.

Democrats will once again have to scramble for the Senate to remain a counterweight to the Republican majority in the House.

Republicans, for their part, need to pick up just six seats net in order to reclaim the majority in the Senate. In fact, the seven most imperiled Senate seats in the country –  Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia – are all held by Democrats, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s recent Crystal Ball analysis.

Sabato noted Thursday that the post-World War II average Senate pickup for the out-of-power White House party in the sixth year election (second midterm) of two-term administrations has been six seats.

“But can the GOP hit the average?” he said. “Is anybody going to bet against the Republicans nominating a couple of right-wing clunkers, throwing seats away as they did in 2010 and 2012? Is anybody going to bet that a bunch of resourceful Democratic incumbents are going to lose en masse? The more probable outcome is that the GOP picks up seats and reduces the Democratic edge. The GOP needs a real wave to take control – possible, plenty of historical precedents for it, but not yet probable.”