Democrats’ Favorable Odds in 2016

Democrats have it tough in Senate races this year; the GOP is looking at an even worse scenario in 2016.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 02: U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) waits to greet a veteran group from Chicago at the World War II Memorial October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congressional members opened up the barricades of the memorial again and welcomed veteran groups to visit, most of them came on Honor Flights from around the country, on the second day of the government shutdown.
National Journal
Oct. 3, 2014, 1 a.m.

While the out­comes of pres­id­en­tial races are pretty much de­cided by how the swing, or “purple,” states split, in the fight for con­trol of the U.S. Sen­ate that is not al­ways the case. The chal­lenge for Demo­crats in this elec­tion is hav­ing so many seats up in very Re­pub­lic­an states. Sev­en of those seats are in states car­ried by Mitt Rom­ney, and—tough­er still—six of the sev­en are states Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more.

Sen. Mark Kirk waits to greet a vet­er­ans group from Chica­go at the World War II Me­mori­al in Wash­ing­ton. (Alex Wong/Getty Im­ages)The chal­lenge cur­rently fa­cing Demo­crats will likely be mirrored on the GOP side in 2016, when the Re­pub­lic­ans have 24 Sen­ate seats up, to only 10 for the Demo­crats. Sev­en of those 24 GOP seats are in states that Pres­id­ent Obama won in 2012, and five are in states that he won by 5 points or more.

In Illinois, Mark Kirk will face voters in a state that Obama won by 17 points. Ron John­son in Wis­con­sin will be run­ning in a state where Obama pre­vailed by 7 points. Both Kelly Ayotte in New Hamp­shire and Chuck Grass­ley in Iowa will have races in states that Obama won by 6 points. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania will be run­ning in a state Obama won by 5 points. Ohio’s Rob Port­man will be up in a state Obama won by 3 points. Marco Ru­bio is up in Flor­ida, which Obama won by 1 point.

While not all of those sen­at­ors will ne­ces­sar­ily seek reelec­tion—Grass­ley, for ex­ample, will turn 83 in 2016—these aren’t great states for Re­pub­lic­ans in gen­er­al, and in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year there will prob­ably be a lar­ger and more Demo­crat­ic voter turnout. That is very un­like what we ex­pect to see this year, when a smal­ler, older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing midterm elect­or­ate will likely put a thumb on the scale for the GOP.

While I was do­ing a dog-and-pony show the oth­er day with my good friend and com­pet­it­or Stu­art Rothen­berg, he made the ex­cel­lent point that if Re­pub­lic­ans do pick up a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity this year, their gov­ern­ing chal­lenge will be keep­ing some of their fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans in line—those who know they will even­tu­ally be fa­cing voters who don’t al­ways fall in lock­step be­hind all of the goals and as­pir­a­tions of the GOP. As a res­ult, the Re­pub­lic­an agenda, should the party win a ma­jor­ity this year, might not be as ag­gress­ively con­ser­vat­ive as some in the party would hope.

This is the new polit­ic­al world we live in, as poin­ted out by a fas­cin­at­ing re­port on polit­ic­al po­lar­iz­a­tion pub­lished in June by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. The Pew team that wrote the re­port, headed by Mi­chael Dimock, as­ser­ted that “Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are more di­vided along ideo­lo­gic­al lines—and par­tis­an an­ti­pathy is deep­er and more ex­tens­ive—than at any point in the last two dec­ades.” The share of Amer­ic­ans who ex­press “more con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive or con­sist­ently lib­er­al opin­ions” has more than doubled over the last 20 years, from 10 per­cent to 21 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, and ideo­lo­gic­al think­ing is more con­sist­ent with par­tis­an­ship than be­fore.

The re­search­ers found that 92 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans are more con­ser­vat­ive than the me­di­an Demo­crat and 94 per­cent of Demo­crats are more lib­er­al than the me­di­an Re­pub­lic­an. Along with this great­er ideo­lo­gic­al and par­tis­an co­he­sion, Pew also finds that par­tis­an an­im­os­ity has doubled since 1994. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, “Most of these in­tense par­tis­ans be­lieve the op­pos­ing party’s policies are so mis­guided that they threaten the na­tion’s well-be­ing.”

The end res­ult of this new polit­ic­al world is that it is far more dif­fi­cult for in­cum­bents to sur­vive if they are out­side the ideo­lo­gic­al box of their own party or state. This year, it is Demo­crats Mark Be­gich in Alaska, Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, and Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana who are try­ing to sur­vive in states where there are few con­ser­vat­ive and mod­er­ate Demo­crats left, and even few­er Re­pub­lic­ans will­ing to break ranks to sup­port someone not wear­ing a GOP jer­sey. Two years from now, it will be Re­pub­lic­ans in this po­s­i­tion, as not a single Demo­crat will be up in a state that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried in 2012.

If this year’s Sen­ate races were largely be­ing fought in purple, swing, light-blue, or softly Demo­crat­ic states, Demo­crats would still likely lose a few seats. They could eas­ily lose the open seat in Iowa, as well as Mark Ud­all’s race in Col­or­ado, but it is un­likely they would be in as much danger of los­ing their Sen­ate ma­jor­ity as they are now. Demo­crats simply have so many blue seats up in red states such as Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia—in ad­di­tion to the highly vul­ner­able Be­gich, Landrieu, and Pry­or.

That’s why Re­pub­lic­ans don’t ne­ces­sar­ily need a wave to win a ma­jor­ity. They just need red states to stay red.

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