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Can Dems Retain Control of the Senate?

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One year ago, as the Democratic Senate majority inched towards the number 60, Party leaders expected to add to their majority at the mid-term election. Since then the political winds have shifted. Now Dems will be lucky to retain control of the Senate.

On November 2nd, 36 Senate seats will be decided: each Party currently holds 18. At the present time, 14 Republican incumbents appear safe. However, four Republican Senators are retiring (Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Ohio) and their seats are in play.

In contrast, many Democratic seats are precarious. Eight Democratic incumbents appear safe. Unfortunately, five Dems are retiring and all their seats are on jeopardy (Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, and North Dakota). In addition, five Democratic incumbents are in unexpectedly tough races (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania).

The Democratic Senate majority is currently 59 to 41, including two Independents who historically vote with Democrats. In the worst 2010 scenario, Republicans would retain the four competitive seats and Democrats would lose ten seats and become the Senate minority.

In Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln seems headed for defeat; she's unpopular with both her constituents and Democrats, in general. (MoveOn has launched a drive to get progressive Democratic Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter to oppose conservative Lincoln in the primary election.) California is headed for another expensive Senate contest where progressive Senator Barbara Boxer will oppose either Carly Fiorina, Tom Campbell, or archconservative Chuck Devore. In Colorado, Michael Benet - who was appointed after Ken Salazar became Interior Secretary - is headed for a tight contest with a still-to-be-determined Republican. In Connecticut, incumbent Democratic Senator Dodd's retirement solves a problem; Dodd was unlikely to win reelection but his likely replacement, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal should be favored. Delaware has a caretaker Senator, Ted Kaufman, who was appointed after Joe Biden became Vice-President; a very popular Republican Congressman, Mike Castle, is favored to win the Senate seat although Dems have a credible candidate in Chris Coons. In Illinois, Roland Burris is another caretaker Senator, who was appointed after Barack Obama's election. The toss-up election pits Democratic candidate Alex Giannoulias against Republican Congressman Mark Kirk. Indiana Democratic incumbent Evan Bayh's surprise decision to not seek reelection has made this contest closer than expected. However, the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Brad Ellsworth, should run a strong race.

In Kentucky, incumbent Republican Jim Bunning is retiring and Democrats have fielded a strong candidate for Bunning's seat, Lieutenant Governor Dan Mongiardo. Missouri Republican Senator Kit Bond is also retiring; there the Democratic candidate is Robin Carnahan. In New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg's retirement gives Democrats an opportunity to add another seat; the Democratic candidate is Paul Hodes. It's an indication of how unsettled voter sentiment is that in Nevada Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is in a tough race for reelection. In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan's surprise decision to retire has left Democrats without a viable alternative to oppose Republican Governor John Hoeven. However Ohio Senator Voinovich's retirement gives Democrats an opportunity to pick up another seat; the Democratic candidate will be either Lee Fisher or Jennifer Brunner. Finally, one year ago, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switched parties feeling that he had no chance for reelection running as a Republican. Specter may not survive the Democratic primary where the progressive candidate is Congressman Joe Sestak; the winner will face archconservative Pat Toomey in the Fall.

These fourteen Senate races will be determined by the volatile mix of local politics, candidate appeal, and voter attitudes towards Democrats, in general, and Barack Obama, in particular. In some states, such as Missouri and Ohio, Obama is unpopular and, therefore, a generic Republican candidate starts with a lead over any Democrat.

Beyond tough economic times, Obama and Democrats have two problems. Many voters identify them with the bank bailouts and believe Dems favor Wall Street over Main Street. While the electorate may not blame the Obama Adminisration for causing The Great Recession, they fault Democrats for not doing enough to improve the economic circumstances for working families.

The second complaint - which resonates with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents - is that Obama promised change and hasn't delivered: in Washington it's still business as usual.

What this suggests is that Democrats have a tough but not impossible challenge between now and November 2nd. The elements of a winning strategy seem clear. First, Democrats have to field competitive candidates in each of the fourteen contested races. For the most part they've done that. Second, they have to reconstitute the GOTV apparatus that swept Obama into office; that will be David Plouffe's job.

Meanwhile, Democrats must take on the Wall Street robber barons that caused the economy to collapse. Dems have to be change their image and be seen as the champions of real financial reform and a new economy that works for everyone - not just the rich and powerful.

Finally, Dems have to get more done. That means passing additional measures to create jobs as well as healthcare reform and a meaningful energy bill. In the Fall Democrats have to run on a record of accomplishments.

If they do each of these four things, then Democrats might hold their own on November 2nd. They'll lose Senate seats but perhaps as few as three.