This was supposed to be the year that Republicans stormed back into power in the US Senate, after enduring six years in the minority. But that scenario is looking less certain as Nov. 6 nears – thanks to a few missteps by GOP candidates, strong campaigns by some Democrats in red states, and presidential battleground states that lately are tilting toward President Obama in the polls.
As a result, political control of the Senate remains up for grabs – and the likelihood is rising that the winning party will hold only the narrowest of majorities. The upshot? Hope is fading that Election 2012 will yield a decisive mandate that can break the partisan gridlock that has immobilized Washington policymaking in recent years.
"When you have parties that are this polarized, unless one party really dominates the whole government – 60 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House, White House – then everything has to be a compromise," says political scientist David Karol at the University of Maryland. "And there's no basis for compromise."
Senate Democrats hold only a 53-to-47-seat majority, and this election they are defending nearly two dozen seats – twice as many as Republicans.
Presidential coattails in Virginia
Still, the electoral picture for the GOP has become less rosy as the campaign season unwinds, and not least among the reasons is the way the presidential contest has been playing out. Senate races in several 2012 battleground states are taking place in the shadow of the much larger and better-funded presidential operations – and a number of these states, polls show, currently lean toward Mr. Obama.
Virginia is one of four tight Senate races taking place in presidential battleground states. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are jamming the airwaves with ads and building deluxe voter-turnout campaigns that will influence races down the ballot. Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R), both former governors, have been locked in a match so tight that there was, until recently, no daylight between them. (Mr. Kaine opened up a single-digit lead in a pair of recent surveys.)
Virginia is "the Senate race in the country that gets decided by the presidential" political picture, says Jennifer Duffy, the Cook Political Report's analyst on Senate contests.
The presidential race is also expected to affect Senate battles in Ohio, where Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is up for reelection against state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R); in Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is defending his seat against Rep. Connie Mack (R); and in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller (R) is up against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D). So far, polls show the three incumbents leading.
In Virginia, the Allen and Kaine campaigns are well funded and draw on a well of experienced political hands. But in terms of political electricity, they don't hold a candle to the juggernaut of a presidential race.
The Senate candidates are watching as Obama and Mr. Romney spend heavily, in time and treasure, in the Old Dominion. The state's four major media markets – Washington, D.C.; Norfolk; Richmond; and Roanoke – are all in the top 20 for presidential campaigns' ad buys. That distinction is matched only by perennial swing-state Ohio, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
Virginia has collected 52 visits from the presidential contenders, their wives, and their vice presidential picks, trailing only Ohio (63) and Florida (68), according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
How should the Senate candidates campaign? Hold on for the ride, says Virginia-based political analyst Quentin Kidd, and be careful.
Kaine, one of the first governors to endorse Obama in 2008 and chairman of the Democratic National Committee at the start of the president's term, is tied deeply to Obama's popularity in the state. Mr. Allen is in a trickier situation, needing to embrace Romney enough to ride his coattails should he win in Virginia but not wanting to come too close in the event Romney falters.
"The extent to which George Allen is going to link himself and his turnout operation very closely with the Romney campaign is limited," says Mr. Kidd, a professor of political science at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. "If Mitt Romney slides among independent [voters], George Allen doesn't want to be too closely tied to that because he needs those independent voters to vote for him."
Against the grain in the Big Sky
Another type of race in 2012 will feature either a Democrat running strong in a "red" state that is expected to go for Romney, or a Republican running strong in a "blue" one probably destined to pick Obama.
Among these contests are Republican Sen. Scott Brown versus consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren in liberal Massachusetts, and the campaign by Republican Linda McMahon, cofounder of World Wrestling Entertainment, to take down Rep. Chris Murphy (D) in left-leaning Connecticut.
On the other side, former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is trying to beat Rep. Rick Berg (R) in right-leaning North Dakota, and Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly is vying against state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in conservative Indiana.
In each case, the candidates going against their state's presidential preference are championing their moderate bona fides and arguing that they wouldn't be a rubber stamp for their own party's agenda in Washington.
That's the case in Montana, where incumbent Sen. Jon Tester (D) and the state's only congressman, Denny Rehberg (R), are neck-in-neck in the polls while battling to answer one question: Who is more Montanan?
Senator Tester, the only member of Congress who works his family farm, has cut advertisements highlighting his vote against the Wall Street bailout package – and taking viewers on a spin on a combine around his farm in Big Sandy, Mont.
Representative Rehberg, who claims a ranching lineage five generations deep, also touts his independent streak. Although a member of the House Republican leadership, he twice voted against the GOP budget plan championed by Rep. Paul Ryan, now the party's vice presidential nominee, and criticized House leaders for failing to move on the farm bill.
The Montana Senate race may also be a proving ground for outside groups spending big money to try to tip it – and control of the Senate – their way. It has been flooded with more advertisements than any other Senate campaign – more than 44,500, according to the Wesleyan Media Group. That ad spending, $4.5 million, comes from the two campaigns and 19 outside groups, by Mr. Parker's count.
That amount doesn't compare with the $12.5 million spent just on the Republican Senate primary in Texas, but money goes a lot further in Big Sky country.
"It's just amazing ... all this money and sway in a state of a million people [with] 300,000 voters – a lot of them who have already made up their minds," says Parker.
Republicans are hurting, too, because two Senate races they had expected to lock up may now be irretrievable.
The Missouri seat, held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), was the GOP's top takeover target. But GOP challenger Todd Akin's errant comments about "legitimate rape" and conception have probably derailed his campaign.
And in Maine, GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe's abrupt announcement earlier this year that she planned to retire threw that previously "safe" seat into the hopper. Former Gov. Angus King, an independent who many believe will caucus with Democrats, leads a three-way battle there.
Postelection, will Washington work again?
Gridlock didn't begin with the tea party-fueled wave of House Republicans in 2010, as Democrats say. It also didn't set in, as Republicans argue, with a recalcitrant Senate failing to pass a budget since 2009.
Rather, Congress's recent standstill took root after the 2006 midterm election, when Senate Republicans latched onto the filibuster, a procedure used to halt votes on legislation barring a 60-vote supermajority, as a tool to exert the will of the minority party, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Republicans "decided to use the power of the minority in an extremely aggressive fashion," he says.
Since 1917, motions to end Senate filibusters have been made some 1,300 times. Nearly one-third date from the three terms of Congress since 2007.
Could this election outcome shake up that dynamic? It's not likely.
Neither party has a plausible path to 60 votes. And freshman lawmakers, no matter how strong their bipartisan intentions, have a hard time breaking through – just ask Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, a popular former governor who in his first term has led a thus-far quixotic charge for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal.
The "reality is that the institution – the way it's structured, the way in which the parties conduct their business – is set in place," Mr. Zelizer says. "There's a lot of pressure from the Senate leadership of each party to toe the party line."