Political Vine: The Insider's Source on Georgia Politics

Political Vine: The Insider's Source on Georgia Politics

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U.S. Senate Will Change in 2010

by Randy Evans

J. Randolph Evans
Column No. 998 (01/08/10)

In the United States Senate, 2010 will be the year of change. Constitutionally, it cannot be too large since only one-third of the United States Senate is elected in any single election year. This year, actually thirty-six states, including Georgia, will elect their U. S. Senator in November. Thirty-four Senators make up the one-third up for election in 2010. Two Senators are appointees who face an election to fill an unexpired term of a Senator.

(Interestingly, there have been several recent appointments to the Senate. Three appointments resulted from the Presidential election with replacements for Senators Barack Obama in Illinois, Joe Biden in Delaware and Hillary Clinton in New York. One resulted from the death of Senator Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts, and one resulted from the resignation of Senator Mel Martinez in Florida.)

Currently, Democrats hold a commanding sixty vote majority in the Senate with fifty-eight Democrats and two independents (Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who caucus with the Senate Democrats. Under the Senate rules, the sixty vote threshold is enormous.

With sixty votes, Senate Democrats can control the calendar, pass legislation, and most importantly, end debate on legislation. This last issue can not be overstated. Without sixty votes, the minority can stymie the will of the majority with a filibuster. In that way, the sixtieth vote is actually as valuable as the fifty-first vote in the Senate when viewed in the context of actually getting things done.

Hence, even a one vote change in the balance of the Senate is a big deal. Because there are a couple of moderate Senate Republicans (Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins from Maine) who are prone to vote with Democrats on some issues, a three vote change would meaningfully change the balance of power in the Senate. A five vote
margin would of course be a huge change.

It happens. Just look at what happened over the last two election cycles. Heading into the 2006 elections, Republicans held a fifty-five to forty-five margin in the United States Senate. By the time the elections were over in November 2006, Democrats held a fifty-one to forty-nine margin. Just two years later, the Democrats (with independents) increased their margin from fifty-one to sixty in November 2008. In just four years, there was a fifteen vote swing from Republicans to Democrats.

As odd as it sounds given that Senators have a six year term, and only one third are up for reelection in any one cycle, things can actually change very quickly in the United States Senate. One thing that helps speed the change can be retirements. Winning a vacant Senate seat is much easier than beating an incumbent (although the elections in 2006 and 2008 prove that incumbents can be beaten in big swing elections.)

Of course, retirements can be a harbinger of things to come as incumbents decide that seeking reelection is not worth the effort. But not always.

In 2010, the actual numbers at risk appear, on their face, even. For example, eighteen of the thirty-six Senators up for election in 2006 are Democrats and eighteen are Republicans. There are ten retirements: five Democrats and five Republicans. Similarly, there are eighteen states in the country that appear safe: nine Democrats and nine Republicans (including Georgia – Senator Johnny Isakson).

The number of toss-ups range from eight to twelve seats. The remaining six to ten seats are at risk. The numbers for each (toss-ups and at risk) are about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

With these numbers, an actual change in control from Democrats to Republicans is possible although unlikely. (Since Vice President Joe Biden would cast the deciding vote in the event of a 50/50 tie, Republicans have to actually gain eleven to retake control.) Yet, in the context of the fifteen (15) vote two cycle swing in the last four years, anxieties for both parties are high.

The situational dynamics have added to these anxieties. The President’s political party typical loses seats in the midterm election. In addition, the President’s bold but unpopular agenda which includes the Stimulus packages, Cap and Trade legislation, and healthcare reform have led to plummeting approval ratings for the President and the Congress. The rising deficit, struggling economy, lingering Afghan and Iraqi wars and looming tax increases all combine to create a largely unhappy
electorate.

Yet, even some Republican incumbents appear to be struggling as an anti-incumbent (as opposed to anti-Democrat) sentiment emerges around the country. Amidst these numbers and dynamics, it appears that 2010 could be anybody’s game. The only thing for certain, with ten retirements and a handful of incumbent losses, is that the faces of the United States Senate will definitely change.

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I think there is more wisdom in a single drop of rain than there is in all the books in all the libraries of the world. Wait, not rain. Super-concentrated brain juice.



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