Buckle Up for More Gridlock

Majority status in the Senate could swerve back and forth over the next few elections.

National Journal
Charlie Cook
March 31, 2014, 5:40 p.m.

By a quirk of fate, we may be in for some pretty tur­bu­lent Sen­ate elec­tions, not only this Novem­ber but in 2016 and 2018 as well. Ma­jor­ity status could re­semble a rub­ber band as much as any­thing else. It is en­tirely plaus­ible that the Sen­ate will tip back in­to GOP hands in 2014, re­turn to Demo­crats in 2016, and then flip again to Re­pub­lic­ans in 2018. It’s all about how many — and which — seats on each side are up and ex­posed to losses, not to men­tion wheth­er it is a pres­id­en­tial or midterm elec­tion. Ob­vi­ously oth­er factors could come in­to play, chiefly the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment over the next four years, but also what the pres­id­en­tial tick­ets will look like in 2016, who will be in the White House come 2018, and how that per­son is do­ing.

As reg­u­lar read­ers of this column know, Sen­ate Demo­crats face a gruel­ing chal­lenge this year, de­fend­ing 21 seats to Re­pub­lic­ans’ 15. If they don’t lose any of their own seats, Re­pub­lic­ans could win a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity just by win­ning in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more — land­slide states if there ever were any. This is a midterm elec­tion, mean­ing that the elect­or­ate will likely be older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more Re­pub­lic­an than in a pres­id­en­tial year. Fi­nally, Demo­crats are play­ing de­fense in a tough polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, with Pres­id­ent Obama’s job ap­prov­al, as well as his sig­na­ture le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment, the Af­ford­able Care Act, both un­der­wa­ter, suf­fer­ing from high­er rates of dis­ap­prov­al than ap­prov­al in the polls. Thus, Demo­crats have a per­fect storm on their hands in try­ing to de­fend their ma­jor­ity this year.

Ob­vi­ously, things can change over the next sev­en months, but aside from the three open Demo­crat­ic seats that the GOP is already favored to pick up (Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia), every oth­er likely Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee in a com­pet­it­ive gen­er­al-elec­tion situ­ation has a floor vote in fa­vor of Obama­care to de­fend. (Every Demo­crat­ic mem­ber of the Sen­ate voted for it, as did Reps. Bruce Bra­ley and Gary Peters, the likely nom­in­ees for the party in Iowa and Michigan, re­spect­ively.) It’s a good bet that the ACA is un­der­wa­ter in the polls in every state with a com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate race.

However, in 2016, Re­pub­lic­ans will go from be­ing on the of­fense to be­ing very much on de­fense. This is be­cause the set of Sen­ate seats that will be up in 2016 were last up in the GOP wave elec­tion of 2010, caus­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to have 24 seats to de­fend com­pared with only 10 for Demo­crats. An­oth­er key factor is that 2016 is a pres­id­en­tial year and will thus likely have a big­ger and more di­verse voter turnout that will fa­vor Demo­crats.

What’s more, sev­en of the GOP seats are in states that Obama car­ried in 2012. In Illinois, where Mark Kirk will be up for reelec­tion, Obama won by 17 points.

Four Re­pub­lic­ans will be on the bal­lot in states where Obama pre­vailed by between 5 and 7 points: Kelly Ayotte (New Hamp­shire), Chuck Grass­ley (Iowa), Ron John­son (Wis­con­sin), and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania). In two oth­er states where Re­pub­lic­ans will be up, Obama eked out nar­row wins: Marco Ru­bio (Flor­ida) and Rob Port­man (Ohio). Of the 10 seats Demo­crats are de­fend­ing, none went for Rom­ney in 2012; in fact, Obama’s worst mar­gins of vic­tory were still in the 5-to-7-point range: Mi­chael Ben­net (Col­or­ado), Harry Re­id (Nevada), and Ron Wyden (Ore­gon). Of these three Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents, at least the first two can be ex­pec­ted to have ag­gress­ive chal­lengers, but each last won un­der hor­rif­ic cir­cum­stances for their party (the 2010 GOP wave), and in 2016, they will have a tail­wind from the pres­id­en­tial turnout. On pa­per, any­way, the 2016 Sen­ate elec­tions look pretty good for Demo­crats, and if they head in­to Elec­tion Day with 48 or 49 seats, they would seem to have a pretty good chance of re­gain­ing the Sen­ate.

Then comes 2018. It will be an­oth­er midterm elec­tion, so turnout will be­ne­fit Re­pub­lic­ans, and Demo­crats will have 25 seats to de­fend to just eight on the GOP side.

Mak­ing mat­ters still worse for Demo­crats, they will have five seats up in states that Rom­ney car­ried by at least 9 points in 2012. These in­clude Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), in a state that voted Re­pub­lic­an for pres­id­ent by 20 points; Joe Manchin (West Vir­gin­ia), in a state that the GOP won by 27 points; Claire Mc­Caskill (Mis­souri), which voted Re­pub­lic­an by 9 points; Joe Don­nelly (In­di­ana), where Rom­ney won by 10 points; and Jon Test­er (Montana), which went by 14 points for Rom­ney. The year 2018 will be a chance for the GOP to re­bound if they had a bad Sen­ate year in 2016.

In a weirdly co­in­cid­ent­al way, midterm-versus-pres­id­en­tial turnout dy­nam­ics are syn­chron­ized with ex­ag­ger­ated par­tis­an Sen­ate ex­pos­ure to cre­ate the po­ten­tial for a whip-saw­ing Sen­ate pic­ture, one that would at least sug­gest that neither party is likely to build any­thing re­motely re­sem­bling out­right con­trol of the up­per cham­ber — just nar­row ma­jor­it­ies. Add to that pic­ture the like­li­hood that Re­pub­lic­ans will keep their House ma­jor­ity at least un­til the 2022 elec­tion — the first elec­tion after the next re­dis­trict­ing — and the odds of the cur­rent polit­ic­al stale­mate con­tinu­ing re­main pretty high, re­gard­less of who wins the pres­id­ency in 2016.

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