Control of U.S. Senate Up For Grabs in 2012

With more Democrats retiring, Republicans could wrest control of both houses in 2012.

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While most are focusing their attention on the Republican presidential primary contest, the fight for control of the Senate is heating up and could be equally as intense as the campaign for the White House.

Democrats escaped the 2010 election cycle with a slim 51 to 47 edge in the upper chamber, but experts say they face an uphill climb to keep their hold in 2012. Of the 31 seats up for reelection, 21 are currently held by Democrats and just 10 by Republicans—which means Dems have a lot more defense to play in the face of a skeptical electorate.

According to a recent Gallup survey, about three-quarters of registered voters think most members of Congress do not deserve to be re-elected.

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That's the highest percentage the poll has ever registered in their 19 years of asking the question. Additionally, President Obama's job approval rating is hovering around 44 percent as the economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains high.

For all of those reasons and more, Republicans are eager to tie Democratic incumbents to Obama's agenda and unpopular policies such as passage of the federal health care bill and the stimulus package.

"Every race is different. But broadly, this election will be a referendum on the Democrats' ownership of the economy," says Brian Walsh, communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "If we want to reverse course on the Obama agenda, then vote for the Republican candidate."

Walsh, drawing parallels from Republican success in 2010, says he's optimistic about the GOP's chances for winning back control of the Senate.

"In the 2010 election cycle, there were seven states where the president's approval rating was 46 percent or below. We won six of those races," he says.

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Experts also agree that Republicans are well-positioned for success.

"My read right now is if you were making odds, it's probably fair to say that the odds of Republicans gaining the majority is greater than them not getting it," says Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for the Cook Political Report. "But we have a long way to go."

Duffy says Democrats have been made more vulnerable by key retirements in states like New Mexico and North Dakota, where Democrats held long-time seats in a Republican-leaning state.

And in addition to their Senate incumbents who are running for re-election, several Democratic Senate candidates are jumping in from serving in the House, which also makes them vulnerable on the same votes.

"In those cases, trying to separate yourself from this Congress and this president is going to be a challenge," she says.

But Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who serves as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said recently that she's "bullish" on the Democrats chances.

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"We've recruited great candidates at a time when our country is really hurting and people are looking for people who are talking about issues that mean something to them," she said at a briefing with reporters last week.

By localizing the races and supporting candidates with strong community connections and powerful personal stories, Murray said she hoped to blunt Republican attempts to nationalize the races.

Democrats also have more cash on hand than their Republican counterparts in the last quarter, $97 million compared to $75 million, she said.

Another x-factor in the race is the impact of who the Republican presidential nominee is, which can help draw out more voters and impact down ticket races.

But top contenders Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have not elicited the amount of enthusiasm in voters that Obama did in 2008, at least so far. But as Duffy points out, President Obama isn't attracting the same amount of excitement this time around either.

"Obama in 2008 won Indiana. Obama's not going to win Indiana again," she says. "I think you are looking at a slightly different map than you were in 2008."

Corrected on 12/13/2011: An earlier version of this article omitted the words "cash on hand" in a sentence; this version has been corrected.