What a Difference a Year Makes: the 2010 Senate Outlook

December 17, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

As “Saturday Night Live” character Emily Litella (played by the late Gilda Radner) would say, “Never mind.”

Eleven months ago, still in the shadow of Barack Obama’s presidential victory over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Democrats looked likely to gain anywhere from two to as many as five additional Senate seats.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) was in trouble, while GOP open seats in Florida and Missouri were clearly at risk. Doubts about the prospects of at least four other Republican incumbents — North Carolina’s Richard Burr, New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg, Louisiana’s David Vitter and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter (who has since switched parties) — ranged from uncertain to unsettling for party strategists. And that was before Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) announced he would not run again.

But since then, GOP recruiting successes and a change in the national political environment have shifted the outlook for next year’s Senate contests. Suddenly, Democratic seats started to look more and more vulnerable.

As 2009 draws to a close, Democrats now could lose seats, a dramatic change from January that could end the party’s 60-seat majority in less than two years. And GOP gains could be large enough to sink any major Democratic initiatives not passed before Congress adjourns for the midterm elections.

The national Republican brand shows no signs of improving dramatically, but polling conducted in a number of the states with Senate contests next year shows GOP candidates doing better in hypothetical matchups recently than they were a few months earlier.

In Arkansas, for example, a Nov. 30-Dec. 2 Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos (D) showed Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) with a single point advantage over state Sen. Gilbert Baker, the apparent favorite for the GOP nomination. In early September, Lincoln had a much more substantial 44 percent to 37 percent advantage over Baker in another Daily Kos survey.

In Connecticut, a Nov. 3-8 Quinnipiac University poll showed former Rep. Rob Simmons, one of two serious contenders for the Republican Senate nomination, leading Sen. Chris Dodd (D) by 11 points, a larger lead than Simmons had in September (5 points), in July (9 points) or in May (6 points).

In New Hampshire, a Sept. 25-Oct. 2 University of New Hampshire survey found former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, probably the favorite for the GOP Senate nomination, leading Rep. Paul Hodes (D) by 7 points (40 percent to 33 percent), while a June 24-July 1 UNH poll had Ayotte up by 4 points, 39 percent to 35 percent.

In Ohio, a Nov. 5-9 Quinnipiac poll found former Rep. Rob Portman (R) leading Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) 39 percent to 36 percent in a very competitive Senate trial heat pitting the two primary frontrunners against each other. In a Jan. 29-Feb. 2 Quinnipiac survey, Fisher held a commanding 42 percent to 27 percent advantage over Portman.

You can certainly quibble with any of these surveys or note that in some cases the movement is small, but the trend appears to be clear.

Other races, where there hasn’t been such movement, remain tight, with the race a statistical dead heat (in Missouri, for example), or with the Republican nominee holding a narrow advantage in most polling (including Kentucky, North Carolina, Illinois and Louisiana).

And in some contests, where there hasn’t been enough independent polling (or the same ballot tests repeated over time), Republicans look to be in much better shape than they ever could have hoped. Colorado is a good example, as is Pennsylvania.

Delaware remains an excellent GOP opportunity, and until Attorney General Beau Biden (D) actually announces that he will take on Rep. Mike Castle (R) in the open-seat Senate race, Democrats have to be at least a wee bit nervous.

Finally, I am struck how much Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) ballot test numbers resemble those of former Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and John Sununu (R-N.H.), as well as soon-to-be-former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D). All three, of course, lost re-election bids.

Since a late July GOP poll, Reid has not exceeded 43 percent in a ballot test against a potential opponent, and he has generally drawn around 41 percent of the vote against his two most likely Republican challengers. His last lead was in a late November 2008 Daily Kos poll in which he had a 46 percent to 40 percent advantage over former Rep. Jon Porter (R), who has since taken himself out of consideration.

The overall shift in the psychology of the cycle may keep Democrats on the defensive and help Republican fundraising. And GOP nominees could well benefit from the fact that late tossups often break to one party, not evenly between the two parties.

A little more than four months ago, I wrote in this space (“Sizing Up the 2010 Senate Contests in the Summer of 2009,” Aug. 3) that for the first time this year I could “imagine a scenario where Democrats do not gain seats in 2010.” That has changed again, so that Republican Senate gains are now looking likely.