Going Out on a Limb: Will the Democrats Hold Onto the Senate?

To keep open the Government of the United States, protect a balance of progressive influence in the Federal appellate courts, and block extreme legislation passed by the House: The Democrats must maintain control of the U.S. Senate. But, with days to go before November 4, it now seems distinctly less possible.

If Sen. Mitch McConnell were to become the majority leader of the Senate--replacing Sen. Harry Reid--the power and agenda in the Senate would decidedly shift. Republican control would do little to forestall gridlock, however. A small Republican majority--(51-49; 52-48, if Independent Angus King of Maine were to switch and caucus with the Republicans)--would be well short of the 60 votes required to shut off debate and move controversial legislation over the objections of the Democratic minority.

The odds favor the Republicans in this election cycle. Holding a majority--55-45 (counting the two Independents from Vermont and Maine)--the Democrats cannot afford a net loss of six seats. A loss of five seats would create a 50-50 split; a "Biden majority" would result from the Vice President breaking the tie.

Nevertheless, I will go out on a limb and forecast continued--if very narrow--Democratic control. Below is the most plausible scenario for the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate, given that Michele Nunn (D) is running ahead in Georgia--an open seat--and Independent Greg Orman is running neck-and-neck with Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in Kansas. But the polls favor Republicans nationwide.

The Republicans need at least a net gain of six seats to win the upper chamber of Congress. The math is complicated by the close race in Kansas. Note: Even if Roberts wins, the Republicans may not get to 51 seats until after Dec. 6 (Louisiana's runoff) or even Jan. 6, 2015 (Georgia's runoff), making it difficult to actually call the Senate for the GOP until well after Nov. 4.

The arithmetic at this point: The Republicans look reasonably certain to win Democratic-held seats in Montana and West Virginia and South Dakota. Down South in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor's hopes are fading; as are the chances of Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. That would make for a net gain of five for the GOP.

Up north in Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) seems to be headed for defeat. But would that give the Republicans a sixth seat, and a majority? Not necessarily. With the Kansas race "close, but unclear," that state's uncertainty keeps the Republicans from getting to a sixth net gain, at this point; and prevents the Democrats from counting even one Republican incumbent scalp.

The Democratic margin for error is thin. Each of the most likely paths to a Democratic majority requires wins in Kansas, North Carolina and New Hampshire. North Carolina (Sen. Kay Hagan) and New Hampshire (Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) are both leaning Democratic.

A Kansas victory would leave the Democrats needing just two more seats to bring them to 50.

The most plausible path of least resistance to 50 requires winning at least two seats among Colorado, Iowa, and Georgia--three races that at times have leaned Republican to a varying degree but that are within reach for the Democrats. Win two or more of these three, and Democrats' chances of controlling the Senate dramatically rise.

Scenario: Rep. Bruce Braley (D) wins in Iowa--my shakiest assumption--against Joni Ernst; while Sen. Mark Udall loses in Colorado, despite mail-in voting. In Georgia, Michele Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is the decisive key to continued Democratic control.

If both Kansas and Georgia go Democratic, that would represent a net gain of two previously Republican seats, canceling out the prospective loss of Democratic seats in Colorado and Alaska.

Conclusion: With a week to go, I forecast continued Democratic control of the Senate--@ 50-50. President Obama would not have to face a solid wall of Republican opposition in both branches of Congress.

[Served as chief legislative assistant to the Democratic Majority Whip, Alan Cranston--1974-77--and have been counting votes in the Senate ever since.]