Despite the extraordinary amounts of time, money and political energy being expended by both sides, the 2012 elections are unlikely to resolve the partisan gridlock and paralysis that have defined Capitol Hill during the past year.
A key reason is that the Senate, which will provide some of the most competitive and expensive contests on the election calendar, is likely to function, or not, in January 2013 the way it does now, regardless of which party holds the majority. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are expected to make the sort of sweeping gains at the polls that are necessary to take effective control of the chamber, where work has been hobbled by a constant flow of filibusters and other political and procedural gimmicks.
Shifting seats in the Senate
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There were early expectations of large Republican gains — based on the disproportionate amount of territory Democrats are defending this year — but those have subsided amid signs of an economic rebound, increased approval for President Obama’s performance and a GOP presidential contest that’s left independent voters feeling uneasy about that party’s issue focus.
While Republicans are still expected to gain seats — they need a net gain of four to secure a clear majority — independent handicappers now forecast an outcome that could produce only the fourth evenly split Senate in history.
“We’re headed for another tied, or 51-49, Senate. Regardless of which party keeps the majority, nobody is going to have anything that resembles control,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report and longtime expert on Senate campaigns.
Such an outcome, no matter who claims the White House, could leave the next president in a fairly similar situation to the past 14 months: a paralyzed Senate and an unstable House majority that has transformed Washington governance into something resembling a never-ending hostage negotiation in which each side latches on to an issue and demands some form of political ransom in exchange for its survival.
Because of the Senate’s reliance on rules that allow the minority to sometimes compel 60-vote majorities, this will likely leave Congress in a gridlocked state over most issues next year unless broad bipartisanship develops, an unlikely scenario given the history of the current Congress.
Nevertheless, just beneath the radar of the increasingly intense presidential contest, campaigns are well underway for up to a dozen Senate races that will determine whether Republicans can vault back into the majority for the first time since 2006.
In the two battleground states of Ohio and Missouri alone, Democratic incumbents have already faced a combined $8 million in campaign-style ads from outside conservative groups, going back to last summer’s debate over the national debt. More than eight months ahead of the election, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) returned fire Thursday with her first ad of the year, attacking the “special-interest agenda” of groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who have run ads against her.