South Dakota is one of several states where Republicans are competitive, if not likely, to pick up a seat in the U.S. Senate. There are as many as a dozen seats currently being held by Democrats that are at least plausible pick-ups. In some cases, as in South Dakota, the Republican candidate is a clear favorite.

Why this GOP advantage? Partially it is timing. The 2008 election, spurred by Barack Obama, sent many Democrats into office. Democratic Senators elected that year are now up for re-election. Because of that 2008 success, Democrats now have more seats to defend.

Also, the Obama coattails in 2008 brought some marginal Democrats into office. In states such as North Carolina, Alaska, and Arkansas, Democrats won in normally “red” Republican states. Without Obama on the ticket in 2014, to say nothing of the president’s decline in popularity, these marginal Democrats find themselves imperiled.

We must remember, as well, that politicians are entrepreneurial. Incumbents who see a tough re-election looming will often retire rather than fight the fight. Also, the perception of “blood in the water” brings out higher quality challengers. We have seen “red state” Democrats in South Dakota, Montana, Iowa and West Virginia retire rather than stand for re-election. While not all these retirements are from merely political considerations, it is likely that politics played at least some role. Also, in states such as Colorado, Arkansas, and Virginia, Republicans have recruited unusually high quality challengers for sitting senators.

As noted, the president’s relative unpopularity is making “red state” Democrats particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile weakened Democrats in “blue” and “purple” states are facing tougher races than expected. For example in Michigan, Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado, senators in states that Barack Obama won twice are at least somewhat vulnerable to Republican opponents.

South Dakota is indicative of all these trends. Given his long tenure and health issues, it isn’t clear whether Sen. Tim Johnson would have run for re-election in the best of circumstances. But surely the likelihood of a tough re-election campaign helped make his decision to retire easier. Also, note that there are five Republicans vying for the seat, but only one Democrat. Republicans know that this seat is ripe for the picking. One of those Republicans, former governor Mike Rounds, personifies the kind of high quality candidate that runs when success seems likely. Finally, it’s worth noting that President Obama is remarkably unpopular in the state.

Republicans need six seats to take control of the Senate. This outcome, while not certain by any means, seems more likely than not. This eventuality would require President Obama to do something he has seemed allergic to up to now, namely negotiate in good faith with Republicans. He will have to change his governing style if we are to see any action in Washington.

Jon D. Schaff is a professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. His opinions are his own, not those of the university.

Load comments