This year’s Senate elections are widely expected to produce substantial Republican gains in the Senate, producing a much less Democratic chamber come January. But in fact, some races present the possibility of the GOP making gains almost immediately, with the winners (of whatever party) sworn in soon after the election.
The reason is simple: These are special elections, with current incumbent members who were appointed to fill vacancies. (Only one sitting member in these seats, Dem Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, is seeking election — the others are open seats). Just as the upset win of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) in this past January’s special election enabled the GOP to immediately improve from 40 seats to 41 — and change the entire dynamic of the Senate — any additional GOP members from a few key states could immediately strengthen the GOP for the lame duck session between the election and January.
Indeed, at least two candidates, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois and Republican Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, have expressly campaigned on the prospect of taking office immediately. While it remains unclear just how much Democrats would be able to do in a lame-duck session that they couldn’t do now — after all, Republicans would be able to filibuster any major policy changes until January already, regardless of how many new Republican senators are seated right after the election — it nevertheless has lingered as a political issue.
So let’s take a look at these races.
In Delaware, where Vice President Joe Biden was re-elected in 2008 to a seventh term at the same time as he was elected nationwide alongside President Obama, former Biden aide Ted Kaufman was appointed to serve as an interim Senator through the 2010 election. Until recently, this race seemed like a very probable pickup for the Republicans — longtime Rep. Mike Castle was the favorite for the Republican nomination, and Dems missed out on their strongest recruit when state Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Joe Biden, opted not to run.
But a funny thing has happened. Tea Party insurgent Christine O’Donnell has surged in the Republican primary against the more moderate Castle. A recent poll shows O’Donnell pulling ahead, with Tuesday’s primary set to decide who will actually win the GOP nomination. It should be noted that the TPM Poll Average for the general election has Castle leading the presumptive Democratic nominee, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, by a margin of 47.0%-37.1%. On the other hand, Coons leads O’Donnell in the average by 44.0%-37.5%.
So if Castle wins the primary today, this seat remains a probable Republican pickup — but if O’Donnell takes it, then it likely swings back into the Dem column.
This seat, of course, has had the most notable soap-opera storyline attached to it. After Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly attempting to sell the Senate appointment. Blagojevich was then impeached and removed from office — but not before he appointed Democratic former state Attorney General Roland Burris to the seat.
Burris ultimately opted to not run for a full term, in the face of abysmal poll ratings and continued questions about his connections to Blagojevich. The Democratic nomination ultimately went to state Treasurer Alexi Giannnoulias, and the Republican nod to Rep. Mark Kirk.
The TPM Poll Average currently gives Kirk a lead of 41.3%-40.0%, with very high undecideds. Each candidate has his own dirt that has driven up his negatives in the polls. For Giannoulias, it is the failure of his family’s business, the Broadway Bank. For Kirk, it is the matter of his repeated misstatements about his military record.
Another thing: This race will be on the ballot twice this November — once in the form of a special election for the remaining two months of Burris’s term, and once for the regular six-year term that the seat would have been up for anyway.
This seat is easily the most likely to remain in Democratic hands, but should nevertheless be included in this list. After Hillary Clinton was appointed as Secretary of State, Gov. David Paterson appointed Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand — who hailed from upstate New York, which is typically not represented for top Democratic offices, and had little to no name recognition statewide.
Immediately, Gillibrand seemed vulnerable to a challenge from a New York City Democrat. But a funny thing happened — she proved to be invincible within the party, as the national Dems lined up behind her and one New York Dem after another chose not to challenge her. At the same time, Gillibrand campaigned actively in New York City, getting to know her urban constituents — and nailing down the support of major political leaders there, too.
On the Dem side, this included big names like gun control advocate Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, and the farcical flirtation with the race by former Tennessee Congressman and now New York transplant Harold Ford. Big-name Republicans opted not to run, such as former Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, despite the fact that they often led Gillibrand in the polls.
The Republican primary, between three little-known candidates, is being held today, The TPM Poll Average for the general election shows Gillibrand leading all of her challengers by about 20 points each.
This seat became vacant this past June, with the death of the longest-serving Senator in the country’s history, 92-year-old Democrat Robert Byrd. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin became an immediate favorite for the seat — but first he spent some time revising the state’s laws in order to allow a timely special election, instead of an appointment that would last through 2012.
With the legislation finished up, Manchin appointed his former aide Carte Goodwin to serve as interim Senator, and shortly afterward declared his candidacy for the seat. The Republican nomination was won by businessman John Raese, who previously lost a close Senate election way back in 1984 against Democrat Jay Rockefeller, and lost more substantially to Byrd in 2006.
The big question in this race is whether Manchin’s popularity can overcome a growing shift to the national Republican Party in this state. George W. Bush and John McCain carried the state by 56%-43% margins in 2004 and 2008, while at the same time Manchin won each of those races with 64% of the vote. The TPM Poll Average puts Manchin ahead by 49.7%-40.7%.