US08: State of the Senate


In addition to the Presidential election and the House of Representatives, one third of the US Senate will be elected. In addition to the 33 “class II” senators last elected in 2002, two special elections will be held to fill casual vacancies in Mississippi and Wyoming, which means those two states will elect two Senators at this year’s election.

Following the 2006 election, the Democrats held 49 seats, the Republicans held 49 seats, along with two independent: Vermont independent socialist Bernie Sanders, who moved from the House to the Senate in 2006, and Al Gore’s former running mate Joe Lieberman, who lost the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary in 2006 over his support for the Iraq War, then went on to win as an independent in the general election.

Because Vice President Dick Cheney has the casting vote in the Senate, a 50-50 split would result in Republicans enjoying the privileges of the majority. Lieberman and Sanders both officially caucus with the Democrats, which allows Democratic leader Harry Reid to claim the majority.

While the House rules mean that the Democratic majority is sufficient to pass most Democratic legislation, the Senate makes it much more difficult. Recent convention means that you require 60 votes to block a fillibuster, which is threatened by the Republicans on most legislation, and has managed to block much of the agenda the Democrats took to the 2006 election. If the Democrats can win 60 seats, it will make it a lot easier for a possible President Obama to implement his agenda.

Senator Lieberman has moved much closer to the Republican Party during the last two years, culminating in his active endorsement and support of his friend John McCain in the presidential race and his speech at the Republican National Convention. Rumours suggest he will be expelled from the Democratic caucus following the election. I am working on the assumption that the Democrats’ numbers include Senator Sanders but not Senator Lieberman. Effectively that means they need to gain 10 seats to win the magic 60.

It’s also worth remembering when the current class of Senators were last elected. The 2002 election was in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, as well as being the first national election since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Republicans won 22 seats, against 12 seats for the Democrats. Such a low level of support for the Democrats makes it easy to expect them to win seats.

There are many, many, many polls flying around in the US at the moment, so I rely on the poll averaging website, although Real Clear Politics also performs this role.

To cut to the chase, the Democrats are currently leading, according to, in nine Republican-held seats:

  • Oregon – Held by Gordon Smith, who is running for re-election, Dems winning 46-41
  • Alaska – Held by Ted Stevens, running again while facing a corruption trial, Dems winning 48-46
  • Minnesota – Held by Norm Coleman, who won the seat in 2002 following the death of the sitting Democratic senator in the last days of the campaign, he is losing to former SNL cast member and radio host Al Franken 40-38
  • Colorado and New Mexico – Both states held by retiring Republican senators, cousins Mark Udall and Tom Udall, both sitting House members, are leading by solid margins in these two states over their Republican rivals.
  • New Hampshire – Sitting Senator John Sununu is losing 48-42 to the Democrat
  • Georgia – This has just flipped over to the Democratic side, with the Democrat leading by only 0.5%
  • North Carolina – Kay Hagan leading over sitting Senator Elizabeth Dole 46-41
  • Virginia – Former Governor Mark Warner is leading over his Republican opponent by 27%. Sitting Republican Senator John Warner is retiring.

Some of these are clearly very close. rates Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia as “toss ups”.

The only Democratic seat targetted by the Republicans, Louisiana, is strongly leading to the Democratic opponent, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has considered pulling out support in the state.

So clearly the Democrats are in an incredibly strong position. A few months ago, most considered the 60-seat majority only achievable in 2010 after reaching 55 or 56 in 2008. So can the Democrats win the full 60?

The most likely races to fill out the 60 are:

  • Mississippi B – where the Democrat is only 1.5% behind. Mississippi now has three House Democrats, as opposed to only one House Republican, and the largest African American population in proportion to the total population in the entire US. If that constituency comes out in large numbers to vote for Obama, this seat could flip.
  • Kentucky – Held by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Democrats are behind by 4.5%. This would be a big blow to the Republican rump if their leader is defeated.
  • Texas – Senator John Cornyn is now just 6% ahead of the surging Democratic Rick Noriega.

If Obama keeps his dominant lead, with the Democrats also dominant in the House of Representatives, this handful of Senate races in solidly Republican states could be the races to follow on November 4, to see if the Democrats can complete their humiliation of the GOP.

Update 8:01pm – Wayne in comments has pointed me to this classic video promoting Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn’s re-election campaign. It looks like an episode of Deadwood.

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  1. Very informative post, Ben.

    Just to clarify, the “60 seat majority” is not the majority required to pass legislation, but to filibuster proof the Senate?

  2. Very comprehensive post.

    60 seats is very attractive to the Democrats but 59, 58 or even 57 would be still quite attractive and effective. The Senate is more of a bipartisan body with a strong centrist wing of both parties. This means moderate Republicans from the New England area or other ‘progressive’ states could well be persuaded by a strong Democratic caucus and a feeble Republican one.

    Also, House pickups could mean that the whips could allow socially conservative “Blue Dogs” from the south to vote against party lines on certain issues therefore maintaining the electoral support of their conservative constituents while allowing Democratic legislation to be passed.

  3. “Just to clarify, the “60 seat majority” is not the majority required to pass legislation, but to filibuster proof the Senate?”

    Oz, correct. 51 or 50 + VP is required to pass legislation but 60 is required for ‘cloture’, ie. the halting of debate. It is an unusual system somewhat unique to American Senatorial standing orders and it is not in the Constitution, it is a modern construction.

    Interesting so see some explanation of it.

  4. Sorry to spam but I keep thinking of things to comment on.

    “Texas – Senator John Cornyn is now just 6% ahead of the surging Democratic Rick Noriega.”

    John Cornyn, big John, big bad Senator John.

    Oh I love Texas even more now. Republican Senators are into poetry and verse apparently.

  5. No, please spam on.

    That is classic video. I’ll update my post with it.

    It’s true, if they really want to they could abolish the 60-vote rule. Indeed, in the early 2000s when the Republicans were dominated they threatened “the nuclear option” – abolishing fillibusters – if the Democrats didn’t support their judicial nominees.

    But it’s not gonna happen, the Senate is too slow-moving for that.

    Also, with cloture, the Senate Democrats have pretty much made it a rule that legislation is not passed without 60 votes. They’ve made barely any attempt to break a Republican filibuster, meaning the Republicans can just threaten a fillibuster and never actually have to carry it out.

    As far as the party mix, it is true that party identification is much less significant in the US than most western democracies, but it is slowly changing. The Democrats being elected in conservative districts and states are more conservative on average, but they aren’t like the Dixiecrats, the last of whom were wiped out in 1994. They remain to the left of the Republicans in their home state, and are actually quite left-wing on some issues.

    Also, if Obama gets elected and tries to push through his agenda, it’s gonna be a lot harder for conservative Democrats who were elected on his coat-tails in places like Mississippi to block his agenda than it would be for Republicans with their back against the wall.

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