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WASHINGTON — Last week’s election was bad for Democrats. The next one could be worse. Senate Democrats running in 2012 will be trying to hold their jobs in states where Republicans just scored major congressional and gubernatorial victories – Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Virginia.
The Democrats’ problems don’t end with senators.
President Barack Obama carried those states in 2008, and he will need most of them to win re-election in two years. But this time they all will have Republican governors. These GOP governors can try to inhibit the president’s policies and campaign operations. They also can help steer next year’s once-a-decade House redistricting process in the GOP’s favor.
Moreover, Democrats must defend Senate seats in hotly contested Missouri, and in four states that Obama has little chance of winning, assuming he even tries: North Dakota, Nebraska, West Virginia and Montana.
“The 2012 Senate landscape shows a daunting picture for the Democrats,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee. “They’re not only defending twice as many seats as Republicans, but a number of them are in states where the Obama-Reid agenda is deeply unpopular.”
Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate majority leader.
The 2012 Senate map is much kinder to Republicans, who must defend 10 seats to the Democrats’ 23. Except for Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who will fight an uphill re-election battle in Massachusetts, the GOP probably will be favored to keep the Senate seats it now holds.
Of course, countless things can happen between now and the next election, and Democrats might do extremely well in 2012. Obama could bounce back from midterm setbacks just as President Bill Clinton did in 1996, when he easily won re-election after Democrats lost the House and Senate two years earlier. The slow economic recovery could quicken, with a rise in employment.
Obama’s spot at the top of the ticket also could help Democratic candidates spur turnout among liberals, minorities and young voters. But it might hurt candidates in states where Obama appears unpopular, such as West Virginia. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin won a tough Senate race there last week to succeed the late Robert C. Byrd, but he must seek a full six-year term in 2012.
Democrats will try to win back some of the 60 House seats they lost to Republicans last week, but several factors will work against them. Republicans won gubernatorial and state legislative races in dozens of states. That will give them total or substantial control of the often partisan redrawing of House districts that will occur next year, following the latest U.S. Census. It’s likely to result in several new GOP-leaning districts in states such as Texas at the expense of Democratic-leaning districts in the Rust Belt.
Democrats may find it especially hard to win back Southern seats lost last week by white Democrats, who are becoming almost extinct in much of the former Confederacy. And if Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains her party’s House leader, Republicans will tell voters that Democrats did not learn their lesson from the 2010 election and need more convincing.
In the new Congress in January, Democrats will hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate. A mere handful of losses in the next election would put Republicans in control.
Democratic spokesman Eric Schultz said it’s too early to count anyone out. “Republican overconfidence ran deep this cycle, too,” he said, “but we proved that strong candidates running aggressive campaigns can beat expectations.”
Still, an early state-by-state look at 2012 races shows the magnitude of Democrats’ challenges.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey will seek a second term in a state that just elected Republicans to replace Democrats for governor, senator and five House seats. Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, 74, will run or retire in a state that just ousted his Democratic colleague, Sen. Russ Feingold, and switched the governor’s office and both legislative chambers from Democratic control to Republican.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson will face voters who elected a Republican governor and kept the other U.S. Senate seat in GOP hands. The same thing happened in Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown will seek a second term. Obama won both those states in 2008, and they will be fiercely contested again.
Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who narrowly won his first term in 2006, will run again in a state that has gone Republican in all but two presidential elections since 1948.
In Nebraska, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson likely will seek a third term in a state that Obama lost by 15 percentage points. Nelson, perhaps the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, caught a break when GOP Gov. Dave Heineman said he would not run for Senate. But another potentially strong challenger, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, may jump in.
Democratic Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri could face rematches in their bids for a second term in 2012. Republicans scored impressive victories in both those states last week.
Former Virginia Gov. and Sen. George Allen, whom Webb narrowly beat four years ago, might run again. The same goes for former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, who lost to McCaskill in a close contest.
Other Democratic senators facing re-election in states that just gave big victories to Republicans include Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.
Few states are more daunting for Democrats than North Dakota, which last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1964. Nonetheless, Democrat Kent Conrad has won a remarkable five Senate elections there, and presumably will try again in 2012. He’s lucky that popular GOP Gov. John Hoeven just grabbed the open seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan. But another viable Republican might step up.
Not all the problems fall on Democrats. In Maine, centrist Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe has proven a savvy campaigner. But tea party activists just elevated Paul LePage to the governor’s office, and the libertarian-leaning conservatives may try to knock off Snowe in the 2012 Republican primary.
In Nevada, a toss-up state in recent elections, Republican Sen. John Ensign is dogged by a staff-and-sex scandal. Re-election may prove tough for him, and Republicans might seek another nominee.
Perhaps no Senate contest will inspire Democrats more than Massachusetts, where they are burning to take back the seat long held by liberal hero Edward M. Kennedy. The state leans heavily Democratic. But Brown stunned the political establishment in the January special election, and it’s possible he has more magic up his Republican sleeve.