Republicans Will Need to Sweep to Hold Onto Senate Majority in 2016

Democrats could easily win the Senate back if Republicans only net the bare minimum seats necessary to retake the majority.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 14: (L-R) U.S. Senate Minority Whip Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) walk from McConnell's office to the Senate Chamber on October 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. As Democratic and Republican leaders negotiate an end to the shutdown and a way to raise the debt limit, the White House postponed a planned Monday afternoon meeting with Boehner and other Congressional leaders. The government shutdown is currently in its 14th day. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
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Emily Schultheis
Sept. 16, 2014, 5:34 p.m.

For polit­ic­al strategists, the biggest ques­tion head­ing in­to Elec­tion Day has been wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans can pick up the six seats needed to re­take the Sen­ate.

But look­ing ahead to 2016, when Re­pub­lic­ans will face a tough Sen­ate map of their own, the mar­gin by which the GOP wins the Sen­ate this fall is just as im­port­ant as wheth­er or not they win it in the first place.

Polit­ic­al han­di­cap­pers are pre­dict­ing some­where between a four- and eight-seat gain for Re­pub­lic­ans in Novem­ber, and most see a GOP Sen­ate takeover as the likely Elec­tion Day out­come. But there’s a big dif­fer­ence between a six-seat pickup—which would give the GOP the nar­row­est of mar­gins in the Sen­ate—and a big­ger win, with eight or more new Sen­ate seats.

Win­ning more seats this year could help pad a Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate ma­jor­ity enough that the tough 2016 map won’t force them to cede con­trol right back to the Demo­crats in two years, even if they lose a few seats back to Demo­crats that Novem­ber. Fur­ther­more, the path to a big­ger ma­jor­ity runs through swing states like Iowa and Col­or­ado, which will be must-win battle­grounds in the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” said GOP strategist Brad Todd, whose firm, On­Mes­sage, works with top GOP Sen­ate hope­fuls like Tom Cot­ton and Cory Gard­ner. “This is the cycle for us to flip red states and purple states and get some mar­gin. The next map is pretty blue.”

If Demo­crats lose the Sen­ate this fall, it will be in part be­cause of the in­hos­pit­able map they face: The party is de­fend­ing sev­en seats in states Mitt Rom­ney won in 2012, in­clud­ing four in­cum­bents. But the map looks al­most equally fraught for Re­pub­lic­ans in 2016, which party op­er­at­ives read­ily ac­know­ledge: The GOP must de­fend 24 seats, com­pared with just 10 for Demo­crats. GOP in­cum­bents are up in five states that Pres­id­ent Obama won twice—Flor­ida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin—and two states Obama won once, North Car­o­lina and In­di­ana.

Plus, the po­ten­tial for GOP in­tra-party fights—Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who lost a primary bid in 2010, could very well get a ser­i­ous chal­lenge again—and pos­sible big re­tire­ments, like Sen. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona, could put ad­di­tion­al seats in­to play.

For Demo­crats, by con­trast, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Sen. Mi­chael Ben­net of Col­or­ado are the only two in­cum­bents who thus far look likely to have com­pet­it­ive races.

Ac­cord­ing to the The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port‘s rat­ings for 2014, there are plenty of po­ten­tial places where Re­pub­lic­ans could pick up ex­tra seats this fall: Sev­en Demo­crat­ic-held seats are cur­rently toss-ups, and three—Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia—are ex­pec­ted Re­pub­lic­an pickups.

A big win by the GOP would re­quire the party to pick up most of the deep-red states with Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents, like Alaska and Louisi­ana, as well as purple states that lean Demo­crat­ic in pres­id­en­tial years. Top­ping that list are Col­or­ado, Iowa, North Car­o­lina, and even New Hamp­shire, per­en­ni­al pres­id­en­tial swing states that are home to com­pet­it­ive races this cycle and will host Sen­ate races next cycle as well.

Nick Ry­an, an Iowa-based strategist and pres­id­ent of the Amer­ic­an Fu­ture Fund, named Iowa, Col­or­ado and New Hamp­shire as “stretch” states the GOP needs to win this fall in or­der to help pad the mar­gins and prove that it can win out­side of red states in 2016.

“Those stretch states are vi­tal in 2014—be­cause if you do buy in­to the ana­lys­is that the en­vir­on­ment’s right and you have a pres­id­ent that’s not very pop­u­lar, you have to be able to pick up some seats like this,” he said. For ex­ample: “A Scott Brown vic­tory in New Hamp­shire makes it pos­sible that you could ac­tu­ally de­fend a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in 2016.”

The GOP’s chal­lenge in 2016 is two­fold: The party has more ter­rit­ory to de­fend, first of all, and it will have to do so with a pres­id­en­tial-year elect­or­ate that leans far more Demo­crat­ic. The class of GOP sen­at­ors up in 2016 were elec­ted in the GOP wave of 2010—and es­pe­cially in blue states, they will face a sub­stant­ively dif­fer­ent group of voters than the one that first elec­ted them.

Per­haps at the top of that list are Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Wis­con­sin’s Ron John­son, both of whom are ex­pec­ted to face tough reelec­tion races in 2016.

Toomey, the former Club for Growth pres­id­ent who de­feated Demo­crat Joe Ses­tak by just 2 points, will face sig­ni­fic­ant hurdles in a state that has voted for every Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee since 1988—es­pe­cially if Hil­lary Clin­ton, who won the Pennsylvania primary by 10 points in 2008 and has fam­ily ties to Scrant­on, is at the top of the tick­et.

Still, Toomey has taken con­scious steps to bol­ster his im­age as a bi­par­tis­an guy, said vet­er­an Pennsylvania poll­ster Terry Madonna, and has avoided the kind of “par­tis­an rants” and “rhet­or­ic­al hy­per­bole” that helped bring GOP Sen. Rick San­tor­um to a 17-point loss in the state in 2006.

Also in ques­tion are Illinois, a typ­ic­ally blue state where GOP Sen. Mark Kirk won by a small mar­gin in 2010, and Flor­ida, where Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio will either be up for reelec­tion or could be giv­ing up his seat in fa­vor of a White House bid.

In New Hamp­shire, mean­while, GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte has an ap­prov­al rat­ing that sits at or above 50 per­cent, and she looks to be in good shape for reelec­tion—but a chal­lenge from cur­rent Demo­crat­ic Gov. Mag­gie Has­san, which Gran­ite State in­siders say is likely if Has­san wins reelec­tion this fall, would set up a race between two pop­u­lar statewide pols.

Ayotte is “not a shoo-in by any means, but she’s in a pretty sol­id po­s­i­tion,” said Andy Smith, who polls for the Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire. “Cer­tainly she’s go­ing to be chal­lenged by Demo­crats, and it’s go­ing to be a strong chal­lenge, but she’s not in as weak a po­s­i­tion as some oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans.”

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