In Senate Races, Republicans Have the Upper Hand

The 2012 election is shaping up a lot like 2006 -- except this time the GOP is poised to oust Democratic incumbents

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The political environment in 2006 was almost uniquely well-suited for the Democrats who kicked out incumbent Republicans from the Senate. Now, as they prepare reelection bids at a time when everyone in Washington is more unpopular than ever, those same Democrats are on the front line of the difficult battle to retain a slim majority.

A year before the 2012 elections, Democrats face a rare situation as a majority that starts an election year as the underdog. Democratic hopes of keeping the Senate are dauntingly narrow. Thanks in part to the party's success in 2006, they are defending twice as many seats as Republicans; thanks to a lousy economy and a furious electorate, those seats are tougher to defend. And swing-state Democrats who carefully cultivate their independent brand have a virtual running mate they didn't anticipate--President Obama, who faces his own difficult reelection path.

Republicans, who need a net gain of four seats to win back control of the Senate, plan to spend millions linking vulnerable Democrats to Obama and his policies. In must-win states for Democrats--Montana, Missouri, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida--Obama's approval rating is low enough to drag down Democratic performance.

"President Obama and his policies are the issue," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas. "Ultimately, what we're going to see is a referendum on the president and his policies. They can't run from the fact that they have been in charge, particularly in the Senate.

"We've seen this already manifest itself when it comes to the president traveling to various states, where Democratic officeholders and candidates are nowhere to be found, because they realize the negative association with the president and his policies. The fact of the matter is, they're not going to be able to escape it," Cornyn said.

Indeed, Democratic candidates face uncomfortable questions any time Obama stops in their home states. During a recent visit to Virginia, for example, Obama did not appear with former Gov. Tim Kaine--a Democratic candidate for Senate--but Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was all too happy to join Obama at a veterans event. (Kaine, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, wasn't invited to the official event, but he's likely to appear with Obama when the president campaigns in the Old Dominion over the next year.) Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey's campaign made a public point of removing him from Obama's list of campaign bundlers. And Republicans made hay when Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., didn't bother changing her flight so that she could meet Obama in Las Vegas last month.

But the reality is that the photos of a Democratic candidate and Obama embracing probably exist somewhere. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a major Obama backer in 2008 who is fiercely protective of her independent image, recognizes that reality and is taking advantage of it: This week, she told a home-state newspaper she would ask the president to raise money for her reelection.

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