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Who’ll win Congress, and the other big races?

Election day USA is about more than who’ll be president. Our man in America previews key races in the Senate, the House of Representatives and gubernatorial elections across the nation.

OK, roll the dice, and take your chance. Yesterday I went through the Presidential permutation. Today it’s the less spectacular, but no less important, congressional elections. They’ve had far less attention, because there is virtually no chance the House of Representatives — the true seat of American government — will change hands. It’s currently run by the Republicans who hold a 50-seat majority, 240-190 (and five vacancies). N0 more than 30 seats are likely to change hands, in both directions.

But of great importance is the Senate, the house of review. Originally intended as a representative of the states (senators were selected by state legislatures until World World I), the power of the Senate increased vastly under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s, and it now originates bills in a way that it never did, nor was really intended to. It has added to that the power of the filibuster, effectively requiring a 60-40 super-majority on all legislation save for budget, and some other matters.

The procedural filibuster could be eliminated tomorrow, by the Senate itself — the fact there is no chance of that tells you a lot about the way political chambers acquire their own set of interests (that would still leave the pure filibuster in which a Senator takes the advantage of a rule that they can speak without yielding under certain conditions, holding up a debate by speaking, reading recipes, Dickens, etc, until they pass out).

Thus the Senate can block legislation, and originate its own blocking bills matching those that come from the House — requiring “reconciliation” of the two versions, a clusterfuck of all get-out. The Senate also confirms Supreme Court judges. Whoever wins tomorrow, the judges from the opposite side of politics will suddenly go and get check-ups, up their statin load, etc — as people all across the nation, red and blue, pray for the (painless) deaths of the justices they don’t like.

Actuarially speaking, the next president will have a 50% chance of appointing two new justices, who will then sit for 40 or 50 years. There’s a 5% chance they’ll get to appoint four, and thus reshape the court entirely. Once again the founders didn’t intend that justices would have the power of Pharaohs (they made provision for the impeachment of judges, and the Supreme Court itself developed the notion that it could rule laws unconstitutional in 1803, Marbury v Madison).

So the Senate matters. Let’s look at the state of play …

The current Senate

The Democrats currently control the Senate, 53-47. In 2008, with the Obama wave, they got to 58-41 (with Al Franken’s Minnesota seat in dispute for months). For two months they had a filibuster-proof majority, 60-40, after Franken was seated and before Ted Kennedy died. But, for want of a nail, and historically, Massachusetts Democrats by their complacency conspired to lose that seat to Scott Brown, Tea Party favourite and male model. After the 2010 shellacking it was all over. The Dems lost another six seats, taking them back to their current status. That status is actually 51, not 53 — the Dems rely on two independents, socialist Bernie Sanders from Vermont and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Bernie’s up for re-election, and Joe is retiring, of which more later.

After the 2010 shellacking, things looked grim. It seemed inevitable the GOP would take it in ‘12 and, if they got the presidency, would then reconstruct the nation in their image. Things came in a little, and then people started to get what was at stake, and efforts began in earnest. Then, mirabile dictu, Republicans started to talk about social issues, thank god — Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana — and the way they spoke was not so much medieval as Sumer 3000 BC. Their views on women’s bodies, basic physiology, science, etc, were sufficient to put the Democrats back into the race.

THE SENATE RACE

There’s 33 of 100 Senate seats on offer. At an outside stretch, only 21 of those are even in contention, and probably far fewer. Here’s the ones to watch …

Democrat to possible Republican:

  • North Dakota. Retiring Democrat senator Kurt Conrad shows the truth of the Senate: a local member good at getting stuff can stay in place in a contrary political environment for decades — but when they go, the seat is gone. In deeply conservative ND, Conrad’s replacement, Heidi Heitkamp, is less known and less loved. However, her GOP opponent, Rick Berg, is a Tea Party favourite, and has suggested that women seeking an abortion should be charged with attempted murder, so the seat is back in play.
  • Nebraska. Ben Nelson, one of the last of the blue dogs, is retiring. It’s pretty certain the seat will go to the GOP. Nelson gained his share of criticism, but he did what he had to do to keep that seat blue, and that mattered during Clinton’s impeachment process and Obama’s health care bill.
  • Montana
  • Virginia. Eminently reasonable Democrat, and possible Presidential candidate of the future, Tim Kaine is battling George Allen, whom he took the seat off. Neck-and-neck, but Allen has moved rightwards to gussy up the powerful Va Tea Party.
  • Wisconsin.

Republican to possible Democrat:

  • Massachusetts. This is the big kahuna. Liberal favourite Elizabeth Warren has been running hard against Scott Brown, Tea Party upstart and former male centrefold. This seat should never have been lost, and Brown isn’t even describing himself as a Republican. Warren is a liberal hero, pilot of the consumer watchdog authority, one of the success stories of the Obama era. Partisan polls put her as toss-up — Nate Silver has her as slamdunk, so we’ll see.
  • Indiana. Senator Richard Lugar, one of the last moderate Republicans, was replaced by a Tea Party favourite in the primaries. Indiana law prohibits an independent run by a former party candidate (freedom, much?) so Lugar couldn’t contest (he would have won). Instead they have Richard Mourdock, who believes that a child of rape is a gift from God, and in saying so, may have lost this seat for the GOP.
  • Nevada. Dean Heller took over this seat for the GOP, after family values champion John Ensign was caught lying about a long-term affair and resigned. Demographic change, a strong union presence (the Culinary union, throughout the casinos) and impatience with the GOP have put Shelley Berkely in the running.
  • Maine. Grande dame of moderate Republicans Olympia Snowe resigned last year, with a coded speech basically saying her party was nuts. Charlie Summers, secretary of state in the new nutso-right state government of Maine, stepped in, and Cynthia Dill gained the Democratic nomination. But the latter is running dead to favour former independent governor Angus King, who is polling at close to 50%, and appears a lock for the state. It’s widely believed he’ll caucus with the Dems, but who knows?

Democrats fighting to hold:

  • Connecticut. Droopy-dawg Joe Lieberman was the Democratic VP candidate in 2000, but then supported the Iraq war and was deselected by his New England voters. He ran as an independent and won with right-wing votes. He’s caucused with the Dems on domestic matters. Now he’s retiring and the seat is being contested by Chris Murphy, a congressman for the state, and expressionless white-boy mask face. He’s opposed by Linda McMahon, the co-founder of WWE — the joke wrestling company whose pointless matches form an able metaphor for McMahon’s perennial candidacy. By now she has spent $70 million trying to win this seat. If Murphy wins, it’ll be a big victory against plutocracy.
  • Missouri. The race that defines 2012. A year ago, Democrat Claire McAaskill was toast, in a state rapidly going rightwards. Comes the hour, comes the man — Todd Akin, Tea Party fave and amateur physiologist, announcing that legitimate rape doesn’t cause pregnancy. The remarks persuaded the GOP to denounce Akin, but he refused to stand away for another candidate. So McAskill now leads and will most likely retain.
  • Ohio. Veteran Senator and old hippie Sherrod Brown is running again. His challenger, Josh Mandel, is 35, looks like a six-foot uncircumcised penis, and hired all his mates to run the state. He’s now running about five points behind, and Dems are quietly confident.

Likely/virtually certain Democrat holds:

  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • New Mexico
  • Michigan
  • Hawaii
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • (Some other ultra-safe states).

Likely/virtually certain Republican holds:

  • Missisippi
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Wyoming
  • Arizona.

The result?

It’s looking good for the Democrats. If they can take Indiana, Massachusetts and gain a Maine left independent, then they can offset likely losses — say three of the four Dem-GOP handover states above. If so, or even if the GOP gain four seats while losing three, they prevail with a 53-48 majority. It’s even possible that they’ll push it to 54-46.

Which would be a good result indeed . But Nebraska and North Dakota will turn red, and if by some chance Massachusetts and two of Indiana, Missouri and Nevada hold on, then the Democrats will start to go south. Two more seats — Connecticut and Virginia, say — and the Senate will be 50-50, with Maine independent Angus King holding enormous power. In that situation, if he goes with the Democrats, then the Vice-President gets a Senate vote, and breaks the tie. Anything can happen.

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES RACE 

Less so in the House. Of the 435 districts, around 350 are either so safe or so gerrymandered that there is no real competition. Most Americans are thus effectively disenfranchised from active competition for their vote. The race is close: the Congress overall is running at about a 1% tilt to Republicans, balancing out Obama’s 1% lead, but well within the margin of error. If the vote ran in the same direction as the presidential polling, the Dems would gain no more than a net handful of seats. Let’s take a look at the table …Likely Democratic gains:

There are only two seats the Dems are very likely to gain. The Maryland 6th is uninteresting, but then there’s the Illinois 8th. There, Dem challenger Tammy Duckworth is a war hero, an amputee, an Asian-American, and a quiet, decent woman. Sitting member Joe Walsh is filth, who has repeatedly attacked her patriotism. He’s running behind by 10 points and will not be missed by anyone.

Likely/possible Democrat gains:

There’s four GOP seats where the Dems may have a chance …

  • New Hampshire 2nd. The second takes in New Hampshire’s rural west, and doesn’t know what to think. It’s half libertarian state HQ, half Boston liberal dorm town. It went red in the 2010 rout; may come back now. Its return to the Dems would be a sure sign the Tea Party insurgency is being leached away. The 1st, around the major cities, is a chance too.
  • Illinois 11th (a redistricting)
  • New York 24th
  • Florida 26th (like NY 24th, ex-urban/feeder town seats — very dull).

Likely/possible Republican gains:

All seats are held against hope by Dem candidates in hostile or borderline states. The Indiana 2nd, based around South Bend has been redirected to the sitting members disadvantage. The Oklahoma 2nd in the state’s east is one the last of the seats that voted for Dixie-style Democrats, and is now coming in line with the Republican south. The North Carolina 11th is another redistricting excising suburban voters, and making this safe GOP, same with the 8th. The GOP may also take the Massachusetts 6th, a rural seat that was one of the last holdout of New England Republicanism. They may be back in because the Dem incumbent has become tangled up in scandal.

The toss-ups:

Going off the RCP toss-ups list, there’s 12 Dem seats up and eight GOP seats. They’re clumped — five GOP held seats in California are in play (7th, 10th, 26th, 36th, 52nd) and one Dem (24th). Three Dem NY seats are in play: the 1st, 24th and 27th, the result of redistricting. Three Illinois GOP seats — 10th, 13th and 17th  — are a chance, as are a couple of southern seats that have stayed well past time: the Kentucky 6th and Georgia 12th. Also note:

  • Utah 4th. This is interesting — the hard-right state government has denied the reasonably liberal Salt Lake City (Mormons are a minority in the capital) fair representation by successive redistricting. Now, to get rid of popular rep Jim Matheson, they’re running a black woman Mormon, Mia Love, who’s kinda groovy and intriguing, but very, very right wing.
  • Michigan 1st and Michigan 11th. These went to the GOP in the anti-establishment revolt of ‘10. They may hold on, but they too, if they return, would be a sign that the Dems could regain the House in four to six years.
  • Florida 18th. Oh this is a doozy. Based around Tampa, it was won by black, ex-Air Force conservative and Tea Party darling Allen West, who has called President Obama a communist and says that social security is worse than slavery, and much more besides. What the Tea Party loved spurred the state to revolt, and groups devoted to getting rid of him flourished. He was eight points down — with the help of a lot of outside money he’s clawed that back. If he goes, it’s the beginning of the end of the Tea Party.
  • Another measure of that would be the Colorado 6th, which takes in a swathe of territory below Denver. Solidly GOP, they have tested that loyalty with a hardcore Tea Party sympathiser and nutso anti-abortionist Mike Coffman, pushing moderate rightists back to the Dems.
  • Texas 23rd. A huge district on the Mexico border, it reminds one of Keith Talent’s remark about some booze in London Fields: cheap because it’s been stolen twice. This district has been gerrymandered twice by the Texas state government, only to have it undone by courts (some states have to have their changes ratified by courts, under civil rights law). That’s put substantial numbers of Hispanics back in, giving the Dems a new chance.
  • Pennsylvania 12th: Deer Hunter country, the middle of the state, full of Polack Catholic unionists. Went for Kerry in ‘04, but McCain in ‘08, the only district so to do - and was the basis of McCain’s improbable Pennsylvania strategy in 08. Champion porkbarreller John Murtha kept it Dem for decades, but it’s really a southern seat stuck near Philly, and may yield to the GOP.

The wildcards:

  • Minnesota 6th. Based on the northern suburbs of St Paul, this is the home of crazy lady Michele Bachmann, whose wild-eyed stare has given us so much pleasure over the years. Having won the Ames straw poll, Bachmann then faded quickly. For a while she was under serious challenge, but appears to have clawed back a lead of sorts. Can’t say I’m sorry to still have her around.
  • Ohio 9th. Represented by Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, the 9th is a redistrict by the Ohio GOP of districts based round Cleveland and Toledo, to eliminate either Kaptur or Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich lost the run-off which is a pity because Kaptur’s opponent is now Sam Wurzelbacher, aka Joe The Plumber. Joe wont win, and he didn’t do much except draw a campaign salary so as to denounce entitlements, but his concession speech from Joe’s Ribs, if he makes it, may be worth watching.

The result?

So all in all about 12 seats that are very likely to change hands, with a slight Dem edge — they may make a net gain of two or three. There’s about 30-35 seats that are toss-ups, slightly tilted to the Dems. My prediction is they’ll make a net gain of around six, hardly anything at all really.

GUBERNATORIAL ELECTIONS

There’s about 17 state governorships up for grabs this year, but with slim pickings for the Democrats. No GOP holds are likely to change hands, unless something really freaky happens in Indiana.

Instead, Democrats are fighting to hold the mansions in North Carolina and Montana (where popular governor Brian Schweizer is term-limited) and with some threat in Washington state and New Hampshire.

State-house wise, the Democrats have a few more possibilities — they could regain state lower houses in New York, Maine, Oregon and, most importantly, Colorado and Minnesota. The Republicans have slimmer pickings — only Arkansas and Kentucky could be flipped. However, the GOP made so many gains in 2010 that they are now holding, and three quarters of state houses will remain in GOP hands, including many swing states (where they can control voting procedure).

So, get your preferred viewing device, your preferred tipple, mark out your drinking game (shots for: “too close to call”, “broken voting machines”, “thousands didn’t get to vote”, “party issuing lawsuits”, “only in America”, “this is what makes this country unique”, “God bless America” and “where’s the birth certificate?”).

Forward!

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