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2012 Elections May Settle Scores In The Senate, Too


While all focus on has been on the future of the White House, the fate of the Senate hangs in the balance of 2012, as well. In the last election, Republicans ate into enough of the Democrats' majority to put the kibosh on much of the Obama administration's agenda in the Senate. This time around, the GOP only needs a net gain of four seats to take control of the Senate.

Here to talk about which states are in play is Jennifer Duffy. She's the senior editor for The Cook Political Report.

Jennifer, welcome to the program.

JENNIFER DUFFY: Thanks, Audie. Happy to be here.

CORNISH: So Jennifer, there are more than two dozen Senate races in 2012, but realistically what number of those are actually competitive?

DUFFY: Right, there are 33 Senate races on the ballot in 2012. Today, I'd say 10 are truly competitive. But that's a list I expect to grow between now and November.

CORNISH: And I want to start with Republicans because they seem to have a shorter list to defend than the Democrats. Which state - or which seats are they worried about?

DUFFY: Well, I think there are two that they're most concerned about. One is Scott Brown in Massachusetts. And, as you know, he was elected in a special election in 2010...

CORNISH: Right, the original Tea Party victory.

DUFFY: Exactly, is quite an upset surprise. But because Massachusetts is such a democratic state and it is a presidential year, Republicans are very concerned about that. Democrats also got a very good opponent in Elizabeth Warren, who was sort of the overseer of Wall Street reform for the Obama administration, and a Harvard law professor.

The other seat they're very worried about is in Nevada. Nevada has to be one of three or four ultimate swing states.

CORNISH: Now on to Democrats. Of course, they have a much larger number of seats to protect, and it seems like they're in danger of losing several off the bat. I know a lot of people are looking at Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska; his seat, since he decided not to seek a third term. That, right away, that's a soft target for Republicans.

DUFFY: Oh, absolutely. And right now, it's a seat that they are poised to win. The next one I think would be North Dakota. North Dakota in 2010 became one of the most Republican states in the country. Republicans gained significant ground there at every level. And in a presidential year, in a state that has grown that Republican, I think Democrats again are going to be hard-pressed to keep that seat.

CORNISH: And there's a couple things like that in states - I'd say Missouri, Virginia - states where there's been changes demographically or they've been considered swing states, and now Republicans are eyeing them again, right, for 2012?

DUFFY: Well, absolutely. I mean I think that there are a couple of Senate races that are probably going to be, you know, decided almost as the presidential race is decided.

CORNISH: Jennifer, this list is so long for Democrats - seats for them to defend and protect or hold on to. I mean what exactly do Republicans need to do then?

DUFFY: Well, Republicans are going to try and expand the Democratic list to make it a little bit longer than the eight seats it is. But what Democrats are going to have to do is take that small Republican field and try and put more seats on the board. We talked about Massachusetts and Nevada, but they are now pinning their hopes on making the open seat in Arizona, for example, a race; hoping that, you know, Hispanic voters turn out in force and help their candidate.

They'd also like to make Indiana a pivotal race and put that into the toss-up column. Senator Richard Lugar, who has held that seat, you know, since the 1980, has a Tea Party primary. And Democrats are hoping that this Tea Party candidate is successful and ousts him. If that happens you might be looking at another target for Democrats.

CORNISH: Jennifer, right now, which side is feeling more confident about actually getting or maintaining the majority, and should they be?

DUFFY: Well, it's interesting. You know, Democrats, over the past few weeks have become more confident. They feel like they have good recruits, especially in their open seats, which are their most vulnerable. Republicans have from day one been cautiously optimistic. They know that they have to do well in a lot of these states. They also know that even if they win the majority it's going to be a slim one - 51, 52 seats. And, you know, in the Senate you may have the majority but you don't have control until you're at or near 60 seats.

CORNISH: Jennifer Duffy is a senior editor at The Cook Political Report. Jennifer, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

DUFFY: Thank you.


CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.