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Hottest Political Story? Sorry Mitt, It's the New Race for Control of the Senate | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Hottest Political Story? Sorry Mitt, It's the New Race for Control of the Senate

The founders of the American experiment were wise to separate powers between different branches of government. Unfortunately, the contemporary political and pundit class has forgotten that elections are about more than the presidency. As a result, it may seem that the most dynamic political story of the moment has to do with Mitt Romney’s inability to connect with voters or Rick Santorum’s inability to keep his theocratic tendencies in check.

There’s nothing wrong with following presidential politics. We all do it. And the race for the GOP nomination has taken on some of the characteristics of the car crash that so fascinates passing drivers. But the most remarkable political development of recent days is not the revelation that Romney thinks pressing a button is “heavy lifting,” nor even that Santorum throws up a little in his mouth when the subject of church-state separation arises.

The unexpected political story of the moment is that Democrats, who had been expected to lose control of the US Senate in 2012, might actually retain control of the chamber.

This is a big deal, not merely from a political standpoint but from a governing standpoint—no matter who wins the presidency this fall. If Barack Obama is re-elected, the definition of what that re-election means will come from the Senate. If Democrats retain control of the chamber, he retains some abiity to advance policies and make meaningful appointments, especially if Senate leaders recognize the need for reforms that address abuses of the filibuster power. On the other hand, if Obama is re-elected with a Republican Senate (and, presumably, a Republican House), he is reduced to either making miserable compromises or vetoing even more miserable legislation.

Similarly, if a Republican is elected president, his ability to govern effectively will be derermined in no small part by the partisan alignment in the Senate.

Going into the 2012 election cycle, it looked like Democrats were going to have a very hard time retaining the narrow majority they’ve now got—with fifty-one Democratic senators (and two independents who caucus with the Democrats) compared with forty-seven Republicans.

The vast majority of 2012 races are for seats held by the Democrats or the independents who caucus with them—twenty-three of thirty-three. Retirements by Democratic incumbents in competitive states made the task of retaining the majority tougher. And many of the Democrats who are seeking re-election this year initially rode into the Senate on the Democratic wave of 2006, a year when the party was riding high. With Barack Obama and the Democratic Party less well positioned in 2012, it seemed as if everything was pointing to a shift in the Senate from Democratic to Republican control.

So there was a lot of fretting and hand-wringing on the part of Democratic senators and strategists.

But, suddenly, there’s serious talk about the prospect that Democrats might retain control of the Senate.

Why? Three factors are worth noting.

1. Democrats have had better than expected early recruitment. Call this “The Elizabeth Warren factor,”, although its about a lot more than the fact that Democrats found a candidate who appears to be capable of defeating Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Democrats got a lot of first-tier prospects to run for open seats, many of them women like Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Congresswoman Maize Hirano in Hawaii.

2. Key GOP retirements in states where Democrats could conceivably grab a seat, such as John Kyl in Arizona and especially Olympia Snowe in the very winnable state of Maine.

3. Some unexpected decisions by strong contenders to step up in states that were being written off as lost: initially Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, now, remarkably, Bob Kerrey in Nebraska. Kerrey, one of the more complex and fascinating figures in modern American politics, left the Senate in 2001 and seemed to be firmly resolved to remain in academia. But, now, he’s back in Nebraska and running for his old seat.

There are few guarantees in politics. While Maine is now likely to go Democratic, Nebraska may not.

But the Senate electoral map looks different today, and better, than it did a few months ago, or even a few weeks ago, for the Democrats.

Attention will continue to focus on that complicated Republican presidential race, and on President Obama’s increasingly energetic campaigning. But the backstory of how the next president will govern is taking shape on that Senate map.

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