While most of the punditry is focused on President Obama's recent campaigning and the quest for the Republican Party presidential nomination, the bigger story seems to be that of the United States Congress. Every four years, congressional elections are usually seen as second fiddle to the race for the White House; 2012 may prove to be very different, and thus very much important. The political stress and economic turmoil engulfing the country right now have coincided with perfect timing for the Republican Party in the congressional elections, and placed the Democrats at a disadvantage.
In the 2010 elections, Republicans came to regain control of the United States House of Representatives, gaining 63 seats in the largest turnover of that chamber since 1948. Six seats in the United States Senate drifted into Republican hands, allowing the still-minority party to maintain the power of the filibuster over the majority Democrats. More importantly, though, a stunning 680 seats in the various state legislatures shifted into Republican hands, the largest turnover in our history, granting Republicans control of 25 of this country's legislatures (compared to the 15 controlled by Democrats, and the remaining being split). After 2010, Republicans took charge of 29 governors' mansions. Timing here will be key to future Republican victories, as the newfound widespread GOP influence came at a time when we took our regular census and are set to draw new congressional districts. Through the process of gerrymandering (which, just to be clear, is something I personally dislike), Republicans are protecting their incumbents and weakening Democratic positions from North Carolina
and more, giving them an advantage in at least the next two election cycles.
With the gerrymandering throughout the country mostly favoring Republicans, not only will they retain their control of the House of Representatives, they are likely to pick up at least a dozen more seats. It should be noted, though, that the approval rating of Republicans in Congress is just as low as the approval rating of Democrats, and anti-incumbency is a huge problem for everyone right now, but from what it looks like this will still favor Republicans instead of Democrats. With President Obama now focused on repealing tax cuts and raising taxes, and if the economy fails to see any type of improvement over the next year, another wave could hit the House. A long way off to know for sure, of course, and much can change in a year, but it is entirely safe to wager that the Republicans will at least maintain the House and likely increase their numbers a bit.
Now comes the much more interesting and much more important matter of the Senate. In this election, as has been pointed out by many before, the Democrats are already playing defense--24 of the seats that caucus with the Democrats are up for reelection, while only ten Republican seats are. Republicans need to only gain four seats and they become a majority in the Senate, and this task looks likely to happen. Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and Virginia all seem to be pretty safe bets to go to the GOP, and Florida and Wisconsin may very well end up in Republican hands as well. Ohio and New Mexico are both leaning the way of the Democrats, but Republicans have a serious shot in those races. Scott Brown will probably end up on the losing end in Massachusetts, which will be a Democratic gain there-- though these traditionally liberal areas have been very surprising of late. Olympia Snowe may also face a bit of a tough race, but given the flip in the Maine legislature last election, I think she's pretty safe. At minimum, the Republicans will probably grab a 52-seat majority in the Senate, with a chance at having as many as 56 of the seats. But wait--there's more!
Thinking long-term, the 2014 U.S. Senate elections will present a further disadvantage for Democrats. True, the opinion of whoever is president at the time may drastically change things and circumstances are volatile, but the seats up for grabs already put the Republicans at an advantage. Democrats will be defending 20 seats, while Republicans will be defending 13. Except for perhaps Susan Collins (like Snowe, depending on how much Maine has shifted or not at the time), most all of the GOP seats will be safe or leaning GOP. Some of the Democratic seats, however, could very well be in toss-up territory--Arkansas, Iowa, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. 2014 (which will coincidentally mark 100 years of the direct election of Senators) will present the Republican Party with the opportunity to do something it hasn't done in the past century--grab a filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate.
All-in-all, I would venture to say the congressional elections are what to pay very close attention to this year, and the Senate in particular. How much Republicans shore up their majority in the Senate will set them up for most of the next decade. After a century of progressive dominance in Congress, if the Republicans are successful in this (and bear in mind that they are not only able to but often prone to shooting themselves in the foot), it could signal the start of a long-term realignment much more than the fight over the Oval Office. Regardless of the fight for the White House, it just looks like the next five years are going to be bad for Democrats in Congress, and Republicans ought to realize how rare such an opportunity is and start working now if they want to do something with it. Interesting stuff to watch.