Save Our Senate!

In the 96-year history of popularly elected senators, the Senate has been more likely to change hands than the House. This is logically a little odd, because the entire House is up for election every two years, as compared with just a third of the Senate. And yet, there it is. Perhaps the races being at the state-level make them generally closer, which makes them easier to flip? I don’t know. But this historical fact, combined with the fact that the Senate really was never in control of the Democratic leadership, even with 60 members in the caucus, has lead me to be a little surprised by the focus on the Senate by the netroots and other Democratic activists. Liberal blogs and e-mail lists have been full of fundraising and volunteer requests for Senate candidates in tight races this year — Feingold, Sestak, Giannoulias, Conway, Reid. By contrast, I’ve noticed relatively little national activist attention on particular House races, or region- or state-based bundles of races. Attention to gubernatorial races — that is, the races that will have enormous impact on state spending, the lack of which is likely to exacerbate the economic downturn — seems to have been largely about uncompetitive sideshows, particularly in New York, Colorado and California. The competitive race in Florida got some attention, but Illinois, Pennsylvania and Minnesota didn’t.

Now, whether or not the Senate or House were structurally more likely to flip is an open question. I think the answer is probably the House, given the make-up of this year’s open Senate seats (some were looking at 2010 as a potential Dem pick-up year in the Senate, way back when), but that’s easy to say in hindsight. The question of whether the Senate was worth focusing on is also an open one, considering that the likely 53-47 majority isn’t going to be able to do much in the face of continuing minority obstinance. But what I find interesting is that the Senate focus seems like it might have worked. Democrats underperformed both the model consensus (loss in the mid-40s) and the poll consensus (loss in the mid-50s) by losing 65 seats in the House. They lost some potentially winnable governorships and state legislatures, with Pat Quinn hanging on by a Chicago neighborhood in Illinois. And yet, they beat the Senate consensus by one seat, and nearly hung on in Illinois and Pennsylvania. In 2012, of course, the lion’s share of the attention will be focused on the presidential race, but in 2014 it’ll be worth looking at this as something of a firewall strategy and examining how it can be understood and built upon the next time the campaign gets decentralized.

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