Liberals weren't too excited about their 2012 electoral chances a few months ago. Even if Barack Obama managed to hold onto the White House, simple math made it tough to imagine Democrats keeping their current majority in the Senate. Democrats will need to defend 23 seats this November, thanks to their success in the 2006-midterm elections, while Republicans only have 10 seats up for grabs. If Republicans manage to flip four seats in November, Mitch McConnell would start off 2013 as the Senate Majority Leader.
But, a series of favorable polls coupled with a spate of state-level developments have brightened Democrats' chances. The big news last week was Maine Senator Olympia Snowe's decision to retire at the end of the current session. What was one a safe Republican seat is now considered a toss-up that could easily land in the Democrats column. Two of the Democrats' weakest open seats gained stronger than expected candidates last week as well, with former Senator Bob Kerrey jumping into the Nebraska race and former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp entering the campaign to replace the retiring Kent Conrad. Both of those seats are still likely to flip to GOP control, but with strong candidates on the Democrats side, Republicans will have to invest more resources into states that looked like easy pickups.
Polls now put Democrats ahead in some states where they once trailed the Republican challenger. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow holds a comfortable lead for her reelection after her likely opponent, former Representative Pete Hoekstra, ran a racist ad during the Super Bowl. An NBC poll released yesterday puts former Governor Tim Kaine up 9 percent in a Virginia senate race, though most previous polls put him running even with former Senator George Allen. A Public Policy Polling survey recently gave Tammy Baldwin a slight edge in the Wisconsin senate race, another race where Republicans had typically done better in the polls. The last handful of polls from Massachusetts have incumbent Republican Senator Scott Brown reopening a wider lead against Elizabeth Warren, but she was running ahead of Brown earlier in the year. Her status as a national favorite among progressives also allows her to tap into more fundraising resources than your typical state candidate.
We've still got a way to go before most voters start paying attention to congressional races. These small bits of positive news mean little with months to go until November. But, the news does show that the election will be less one-sided than initially expected, hopefully dissuading liberals from adopting a doom and gloom perspective.
If the economy continues to improve, Republicans become disillusioned by a lackluster nominee at the top of the ticket (an easy scenario to imagine as Mitt Romney's ineptitude increases by the day) and Barack Obama wins reelection, it'll result in higher turnout among Democrats. And higher turnout means that many of these vulnerable senators may keep their seats.