If you look at the make-up of the Democratic seats that are up for election this year you would normally be optimistic for them. Of the 18 seats they have up, 12 are in blue states, 4 in purple, and 2 in red states. That 67% share in blue states is better than 2012, 61%, or 2014, 47%. In a tough year you want to have your seats up for election in your states. Conceivably that’d make the seats safer. Normally Democrats would rejoice that they wouldn’t have to defend seats in Montana, South Dakota, Louisiana, Alaska,and Nebraska this year.
Freshman senators usually have the toughest re-election battle. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) won by 10 points in her first re-election campaign and by 20 in her second. The Democrats only have two freshmen up for re-election this year, Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) both of whom were appointed. In 2012 they’ll have 9 freshmen up for re-election (10 if you include Bernie Sanders) and in 2014 they’ll have 8. The Republicans, on the other hand, have 6 freshmen up this year, but only 3 in 2012, and 3 in 2014, assuming Mike Castle wins the Delaware seat this year.
Normally the Republican freshmen, none of whom got 60% of the vote in 2004, would be considered vulnerable. Only one, Richard Burr (R-NC) looks like it has the potential to be competitive this year.
Of the remaining 11 Democrats running for re-election only 2 are even finishing their second term. The remaining 9 have won at least 3 elections. Yet only 4 of those 9 are considered to be in non-competitive elections. Russ Feingold (D-WI), Harry Reid (D-NV), Arlen Specter (D-PA), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) all are in competitive or potentially competitive elections. All 5 of them are in states Barack Obama won in 2008.
Democrats have 21 seats up in 2012, while the Republicans have only 10. Two seats held by independents who caucus with the Democrats are up. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) likely won’t have a competitive election. Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) could be knocked off by a Democrat. Of the 21, 9 are freshman. None of them broke 60% and 3 won by 3 points or less. The remaining 12 include the 2 of the oldest Democrats (Robert Byrd and Daniel Akaka) and 3 others (Herb Kohl, Dianne Feinstein, and Tom Carper) who have hinted about retirement. The other 7 are Bill Nelson, Bob Nelson, Amy Klobuchar, Debbie Stabenow, Jeff Bingaman, Kent Conrad, and Maria Cantwell. Both Nelsons have low approval ratings and Conrad is in a red state that turned on his fellow Democrat, Byron Dorgan. Of these Bingaman is the only one who will likely have nothing to worry about regardless of circumstances.
The Republicans have it easier, simply because they only have 10 seats to defend. Three of them are in Wyoming, Utah, and Mississippi, states where Democrats don’t run competitively. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) was re-elected with 74.4% of the vote and Richard Lugar (R-IN) was re-elected with 87.3%. This was in a year that was heavily tilted to the Democrats.
The remaining five seats are held by Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Scott Brown (R-MA), Bob Corker (R-TN), John Ensign (R-NV), and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). Kyl and Corker have reasonable good approval ratings. Hutchison’s seat will be open and could be competitive. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in Texas, however, since 1988. They’ll need a strong tailwind to take this one.
Brown will be vulnerable because he represents Massachusetts. Ensign seems an unlikely candidate to run for re-election. Whether it’s Ensign or open, Nevada should be competitive in 2012.
Republicans should have 2-5 seats in play. Democrats should have a minimum of 13 in play but, with retirements, they could have as many as 19 competitive. This year should be the easiest for the Democrats to defend and the hardest for the Republicans based on the candidates. Yet it appears to be the opposite. In a neutral year 2012 looks extremely difficult for the Democrats. They’ll need President Obama to have strong coattails. If not it could be better for the Republicans than 2010 looks like it’ll be.