Targets of Democratic Opportunity – U.S. Senate
Saturation media coverage of the 2016 presidential race has so far largely crowded out coverage of the 2016 Senate races. The majority party controls the Senate agenda, even if a cloture-proof minority of 40 or more can largely block that agenda.
Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2016 – 24 currently held by Republicans and 10 currently held by Democrats. Six Senators are not running for re-election – three Democrats and three Republicans. Republican Senator Rand Paul can’t legally run both for re-election to the Senate and for the presidency, but, given how badly his presidential campaign is going, it’s likely he’ll withdraw in time to run to keep his Senate seat.
By two important measures, 2016 is a year of opportunity for Democratic Senate candidates. First, more than twice as many Republican seats than Democratic seats are up for election. Second, seven seats are up that are held by Republicans in states that went for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 – Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. By contrast, no Democrat seats up for election are in states that Obama lost either time.
Democrats have reasonable chances in six out of those seven seats:
- Republican Marco Rubio is vacating his seat to run for president. At least two of the Democratic candidates, Representatives Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, would be viable in November.
- Ohio Republican Rob Portman is likely to have a tough re-election race against former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. Strickland lost a very close re-election race to John Kasich in 2010, which was an unusually good year for Republicans.
- Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey may have a rough time with the Democratic nominee – who could be former Congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010.
- Assuming that New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte gets past a likely Tea Party challenge, she will face Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, who is polling well so far.
- Illinois Senator Mark Kirk seems likely to face Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth in his bid for a second term. Duckworth is a popular veteran of the Iraq War who lost both legs while serving as a helicopter pilot. Duckworth might clobber Kirk in a very blue state.
- Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson will probably run against Russ Feingold, who lost re-election to Johnson in 2010. Feingold has been polling consistently ahead of Johnson.
- Of the seven Republican seats in states won twice by Obama, only Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley looks reasonably safe. Even that could change if Grassley faces a serious challenge from the very narrow space to his right – for instance, from Representative Steve King.
Two other Republican seats present interesting opportunities. In Louisiana, Republican Senator David Vitter announced after he lost the governor’s race to John Bel Edwards that he would not run for re-election to the Senate. Louisiana holds a “jungle primary,” in which candidates of all parties run in one race, and if no one gets 50 percent of the vote the top two finishers contend in a run-off. If several candidates divide the Republican vote, the run-off can be between a promising Democrat and a problematic Republican – as happened with the Vitter-Edwards race.
Indiana Republican Senator Dan Coats is vacating his seat, in a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 but not 2012. Indiana is a pretty red state, but in addition to voting for Obama in 2008 Indiana elected Democrat Joe Donnelly to the Senate in 2012 after the Republicans nominated Tea Party candidate Rchard Mourdock over long-time Senator Richard Lugar. If Indiana Republicans go crazy again in 2016, the seat becomes a viable target for Democrats.
The current Senate is divided 54 to 46 for the Republicans, counting independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King as Democrats. That means Democrats have to pick up five seats to take a majority if the next Vice President is a Republican, or four seats if the VP is a Democrat – plus one more seat for any currently Democratic seat that is taken by Republicans.
Barring a Republican presidential landslide, a Democratic Senate majority is a serious possibility regardless which party wins the White House.