Democrats Drive for 5: An Early Overview of 2016 U.S. Senate Races

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A potentially weak presidential ticket is making the Republican defense of Senate seats even more difficult than before.

Control of the U.S. Senate is a big and achievable goal for both parties this November. The stakes are high, no matter who wins the presidential race, with the power to control Judicial and Executive branch confirmation votes and to determine rules governing filibusters being the most obvious. If either party emerges with control of the White House and both congressional chambers, the Senate will be the staging area for a budget reconciliation bill that could remake the federal government by a simple majority vote.

Right now Republicans control the Senate by a four-vote majority, which makes a “drive for five” net seat gain the overriding Democratic goal (four seats alone would ensure Democratic control if their party hangs on to the White House and the tie-breaking vice-presidency). All other things being equal, the landscape is strongly pro-Democratic, with Republicans defending 24 seats and Democrats defending only 10. In addition, seven of the GOP seats are in states carried twice by Barack Obama, while none of the Democratic seats are in states Republicans carried in 2008 or 2012. Three Republican and three Democratic incumbents are retiring. 

Complicating the picture is the very high likelihood that either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz will be the Republican presidential nominee; neither is considered a particularly strong top-of-the-ticket candidate at a time when ticket-splitting is at a relatively low frequency. This reality has boosted Democratic optimism while potentially putting a new set of Republican Senate seats into play. 

Looking at the Senate races by category, eight Democratic seats (in California, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) and 11 Republican seats (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah) are considered safe from any significant risk of partisan turnover. 

Among “unsafe” seats, the following are of most interest:

1) Blue-state Republicans

Races for six of the seven Republican seats located in states carried twice by Obama are considered highly competitive. The most vulnerable is probably Illinois, where Mark Kirk, despite a relatively moderate voting record, is a ripe target for Democrats, with Asian-American Iraq War vet and double amputee Representative Tammy Duckworth the probable Democratic nominee. Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson is also an underdog in a rematch with former senator Russ Feingold; the Democrat has been leading solidly in polls for months. Two closer races involve New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, who’s being challenged by governor Maggie Hassan, and Ohio senator Rob Portman, being challenged by former governor Ted Strickland (who must get through a primary). In Pennsylvania, Senator Pat Toomey had been seen as a favorite in a rematch with former representative Joe Sestak, but now the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (with backing from the president and vice-president) has recruited former U.S. and state environmental official Katie McGinty to challenge Sestak. The Florida seat of Senator Marco Rubio is universally considered a toss-up with representatives David Jolly and Ron DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera leading a large Republican field, while two congressmen, Establishment favorite Patrick Murphy and progressive gadfly Alan Grayson, are vying for the Democratic nomination. 

A seventh blue-state Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, is in stronger shape than his peers, but former lieutenant governor Patty Judge has given Democrats a credible challenger with statewide name recognition. Grassley is among the Republicans who could be endangered by a very weak presidential candidate. 

2) Other potentially vulnerable Republicans

North Carolina is a competitive presidential state where Senator Richard Burr has never made himself a hard target. Ex–state representative Deborah Ross has won the Democratic nomination, and the presidential/senatorial/gubernatorial races here could make the state a national party priority — meaning a flood of money from both sides. Missouri is a stronger Republican state at the presidential level, but Democrats there have maintained some ticket-splitting appeal; Secretary of State Jason Kander, an Afghanistan veteran with some demonstrated fund-raising prowess, could give Senator Roy Blunt a serious challenge. And in Arizona, tensions between Senator John McCain and both potential presidential nominees, and a possible Latino backlash against the entire ticket, have made some Republicans nervous about McCain, who turns 80 this summer and will have a credible Democratic opponent in Representative Ann Kirkpatrick.

3) Democratic targets

Barring a presidential albatross, Republicans have been reasonably optimistic about picking up two Senate seats in battleground states Colorado and Nevada. In Colorado, where Democratic senator Mark Udall lost in 2014, a host of GOP candidates expressed interest in taking on Senator Michael Bennet. Several, however, were eliminated in the recent Colorado State GOP convention when only one, county commissioner Darryl Glenn, received the percentage of votes necessary to be placed on the primary ballot. Four other candidates, none of them extremely well known, made the ballot by petition; the primary will be held in June. In Nevada, the race to succeed Harry Reid should be a barn burner with both parties recruiting their favorites: Representative Joe Heck for the GOP and former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto for the Democrats.

4) Primary fights

Aside from the above-mentioned free-for-all among Colorado Republicans, there are two open-seat Senate races that are mainly of interest because of very competitive Democratic primaries. One is in Maryland, where two prominent House members, Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards, are locked in a tight battle to succeed Barbara Mikulski that has aroused some ideological and racial tensions (Edwards is both African-American and an outspoken progressive, while Van Hollen is quietly being backed by the White House and the House Democratic leadership). 

In California, a host of Democratic and Republican candidates will compete in the state’s nonpartisan top-two primary on June 7 to succeed Democratic senator Barbara Boxer. Thanks to an obscure group of GOP candidates and the state’s partisan leanings, there’s a very high probability that two Democrats, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Representative Loretta Sanchez, will make the general-election ballot, where Republicans will then play a potentially crucial role in electing their favorite from the opposition ranks. The scuttlebutt at present suggests the conspicuously centrist Sanchez could get enough business and Republican support to supplement her regional (Los Angeles) and ethnic (Latino) appeal and overwhelm the African-American progressive favorite Harris, who is from San Francisco. 

Once the dust settles on the Senate battlegrounds of 2016, a new cycle will begin with a landscape at least as strongly pro-Republican as this year’s is strongly pro-Democratic. So if Democrats do luck into a presidentially driven wave, it would behoove them to win as many Senate seats as possible in order to build a majority with a fighting chance of surviving the next cycle.