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Web Chat: Senate Seats Up for Grabs

On May 18, William Galston took your questions in a live web chat, moderated by POLITICO, on what the retirement of long-term senators means for the two parties and who potential candidates will be for the open seats.

12:29 Seung Min Kim: Hi everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. Today, we'll be talking about the political landscape of the Senate in 2012, and here with us to answer all your questions is Bill Galston, senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings. Thanks, Bill, for being here.

12:29 [Comment From Kristen: ] Do you think Republicans will win back the Senate, given all the Democrats who are retiring?

12:30 Bill Galston: I think it is more likely than not, with the following caveat: if the Republicans put up a weak presidential candidate and Obama wins re-election by a wide margin, the Democrats could conceivably hang on to the Senate.

12:30 [Comment From Pat D.: ] Who do you think are likely candidates for the now open seats?

12:32 Bill Galston: In many cases it's too early to tell, but in a few it's clear. For example, Tim Kaine in Virginia. If Russ Feingold chooses to vie for the Democratic nomination in Wisconsin, he's likely to be his party's candidate.

12:32 [Comment From Rob: ] Is it advantageous to their respective parties that the senators are announcing their retirements so early?

12:34 Bill Galston: Typically, the earlier a retirement is announced, the more time other candidates have to organize, raise money., etc. Waiting until the beginning of an election year to announce a retirement is usually a disadvantage for would-be successors from that party.

12:34 [Comment From Rob: ] Will announcing their retirement early make these senators less effecitve during the remainder of their terms?

12:35 Bill Galston: I don't think so. It may actually free them to say what they really think and to vote their conscience, and they may be more credible to their Senate colleagues.

12:35 [Comment From Gabe (DC): ] Which retiring senator represents the biggest loss?

12:37 Bill Galston: That's a tough one, and I don't want to make negative comments about individuals. But I will say that because I case a lot about fiscal issues, I'll miss Kent Conrad, who has been a real leader in that area. Perhaps because I'm frrom Connecticut and have known Joe Lieberman for a long time, I'll regret his departure as well.

12:37 [Comment From Jamie: ] What do you think will happen in Wisconsin? Will Feingold run? Could Thompson win?

12:39 Bill Galston: If Feingold is the Democratic nominee, it will be a heavyweight contest. Tommy Thompson, a former governor and HHS Secretary, could indeed win, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

12:39 [Comment From Janice: ] With all the Democratic retirements it seems likely that both houses of Congress will be led by Republicans after 2012. Do you agree?

12:40 Bill Galston: I'm not so sure. If the Ryan budget, especially its medicare provisions, remains unpopular, a lot of Republican House members who voted for it could be in serious trouble. And if Obama were to win relection by his 2008 margin (7 points), some close Senate races could tip in the Democrats' direction.

12:40 [Comment From Guest: ] Have the senators given any special reasons why they're retiring? I'm wondering if some of them are unhappy with the current administration.

12:42 Bill Galston: Looking over the list, I don't think that's the reason. A lot of them have been in the Senate for a VERY long time. Maybe they're just tired and ready to move on. The obvious exception is Jim Webb; my guess is that the pace of the Senate annoyed someone of his more executive temperament.

12:43 [Comment From Terrence: ] Will the departure of long-time senators clear the way for younger, potentially more bipartisan-friendly individuals to step up to the plate?

12:45 Bill Galston: Not necessarily. In the past two decades, many senators have come from the House, whose more polarized and confrontational style has changed the Senate, and not for the better, in my opinion. If a fair number of new senators in 2013 are former governors, on the other hand, that could change things for the better.

12:45 [Comment From Ray: ] What do you think about Lieberman's retirement? Not so long ago he was a VP candidate and heavy-hitter.

12:47 Bill Galston: It's a source of sadness. Lieberman is a man of integrity who represented a conception of the Democratic Party that fewer and fewer rank-and-file Democrats identified with. That became painfully clear in 2004, when his race for the presidential nomination went nowhere. And then of course there was 2006, when his support for the Iraq war led to a successful challenge to his renomination. It's hard to be a man without a party in American politics.

12:47 [Comment From Jason R.: ] It seems like several of the retirees have a "bucket list" of sorts - things they want to accomplish before they leave Congress. You mentioned that retiring might free senators to vote their conscience, but do you think that without the pressure of reelection they will be able to accomplish something momentous?

12:48 Bill Galston: Probably not, mainly because the Senate isn't on track to accomplish much of anything between now and the end of 2012.

12:48 [Comment From Hank: ] Are any of the retiring senators big players on committees? How will replacements for those spots be determined?

12:50 Bill Galston: Yes: Lieberman on Government Operations, Conrad on Budget, Bingaman on Energy, among others. As a formal matter, the selection of their successors will occur through the leadership and party caucuses.

12:50 [Comment From Eric: ] Have there been other years recently with a large number of freshmen senators? Does having a lot of newbies n the house make it difficult to get things done? Or perhaps easier?

12:52 Bill Galston: Yes--for example, 1980, 1986, and 2006. A lot depends on the kinds of new people who enter the senate. As I said before, if they're from the House, that probably won't make it any easier toget things done.

12:52 [Comment From Ray: ] How do you think these retirements will impact Obama?

12:54 Bill Galston: Not all that much. I don't think he has formed particularly close personal bonds with very many senators, even within his own party. Of course, if the retirements (most of which are Democratic) lead to a switch of party control, that would have a large impact on his second term (assuming he's reelected).

12:54 [Comment From Xan: ] You mentioned that it's common for new senators to come from the House. Is it possible that some of the new senators will be people who aren't on the political map yet?

12:55 Bill Galston: Sure. Just look at what happened in 2010. The primaries should be of mroe than usual interest this year.

12:55 [Comment From DaveDave: ] Any thoughts on Trump's "campaign?"

12:55 Bill Galston: I regarded it as a narcissistic joke from the beginning, and I wasn't surprised that it collapsed as fast as it did.

12:55 [Comment From Sally: ] Any predictions on the budget compromise? You sound pretty pessimistic about action but it seems like retiring Senators could push for action there.

12:57 Bill Galston: They could, but the difficulty the "Gang of Six" is experiencing suggests that the pessimists are on to something. I say that as someone who was somewhat optimistic a few months ago.

12:57 [Comment From Tom: ] Can you talk more about the Virginia race? Didn't Obama carry Virgial ever so slightly?

12:59 Bill Galston: Not so slightly--by 6.3 points, in fact. I don't expect him to do as well there this time around. In addition, both of the Senate candidates are very well known. Every survey so far has shown the race dead-even. This one is likely to go down to the wire, as it did in 2006, when Webb wonn by the narrowest of margins.

12:59 [Comment From om: ] And as a follow up, what's going on in Connecticut? I have heard very little about the field there.

1:00 Bill Galston: Neither have I, frankly. But CT is a blue state in presidential years, and I'd be very surprised if the Democratic nominee didn't win.

1:00 Seung Min Kim: And that's it. Thanks to everyone for joining us!

  • William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a senior fellow. A former policy advisor to President Clinton and presidential candidates, Galston is an expert on domestic policy, political campaigns, and elections. His current research focuses on designing a new social contract and the implications of political polarization.