The GOP’s Senate Worries

Incumbents elected in the 2010 midterms will face an electorate that is demographically more daunting in a presidential year.

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, shown at a celebration for leading women in Washington in 2013, announced Monday that she would challenge first-term Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the 2016 election.
National Journal
Oct. 5, 2015, 8 p.m.

No mat­ter how en­ter­tain­ing the cir­cus of the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, also re­mem­ber this: Con­trol of the Sen­ate is def­in­itely in play. Mag­gie Has­san offered a re­mind­er Monday when the Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor of New Hamp­shire an­nounced that she will chal­lenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a first-term Re­pub­lic­an, in next year’s elec­tions. Has­san had been si­lent about her in­ten­tions, but pub­lic polling sug­gests that the race would be very close; most sur­veys show the Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent with the nar­row­est of leads.

Re­pub­lic­ans hold a 54-to-46 ad­vant­age in the Sen­ate. This means that Demo­crats would need a net gain of four seats if they hold onto the White House, or five seats if they don’t (be­cause the vice pres­id­ent can break a Sen­ate tie).

The GOP’s ma­jor­ity is flimsy, though. Re­pub­lic­ans have 24 seats at risk next year, com­pared to just 10 for the Demo­crats, and sev­en are in states that Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried in 2012. One of those sev­en seats looks safe; Iowa’s six-term in­cum­bent Chuck Grass­ley is widely seen as both un­beat­able and un­likely to re­tire. But the oth­er six are in real danger—in­cum­bents Ayotte, Mark Kirk (Illinois), Ron John­son (Wis­con­sin), Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), and Rob Port­man (Ohio), plus a seat in Flor­ida held by Marco Ru­bio, who is run­ning for pres­id­ent rather than Sen­ate reelec­tion.

Hap­pily for the Demo­crats, none of their in­cum­bent sen­at­ors will face the voters in states that Mitt Rom­ney, the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, won in 2012. But Demo­crats are in danger of los­ing the seat that Harry Re­id is va­cat­ing in Nevada, where Obama won. Next-most vul­ner­able is Mi­chael Ben­net of Col­or­ado, but he’s a strong fa­vor­ite for reelec­tion.

It is hard to over­state the un­usu­al boom-and-bust nature of our elec­tions these days. De­pend­ing on wheth­er the year is di­vis­ible by four, we have two very dif­fer­ent Amer­icas. One of them ex­ists when the pres­id­ency is at stake, and the elect­or­ate is big, broad, and demo­graph­ic­ally di­verse—look­ing pretty much like the coun­try. But midterm-elec­tion Amer­ica, with an elect­or­ate only about 60 per­cent the size of pres­id­en­tial years, is older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more Re­pub­lic­an. This, in ef­fect, puts a thumb on the scale that simply isn’t there in pres­id­en­tial years, when the turnout is sub­stan­tially lar­ger.

The res­ult: Demo­crats have fared well in Sen­ate races when the pres­id­ency was up for grabs. In 2008 and 2012, they picked up eight and two seats, re­spect­ively. Their gain in 2012 wasn’t lar­ger be­cause they’d already picked up four seats in 2000 and six more in 2006—the two pre­vi­ous times this class of sen­at­ors had faced voters—leav­ing few­er ad­di­tion­al seats with­in their reach.

Con­versely, Re­pub­lic­ans did won­der­fully in the midterm elec­tions of 2010 and 2014, when they picked up six and nine seats, re­spect­ively. Add in the im­pact of the polit­ic­al tox­icity sur­round­ing Obama in 2010, and Re­pub­lic­ans had a hur­ricane-force wind at their backs. The class of sen­at­ors who are up for reelec­tion in 2016 were the be­ne­fi­ciar­ies, but now they must face an elect­or­ate that is demo­graph­ic­ally more daunt­ing.

One factor may mit­ig­ate the sever­ity of the Re­pub­lic­ans’ Sen­ate chal­lenge: Of the six Obama-cap­tured states where Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents are run­ning scared, only Illinois is over­whelm­ingly Demo­crat­ic. In oth­er words, only fresh­man Kirk faces a chal­lenge as re­motely dif­fi­cult as Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents had in 2014 in strongly Re­pub­lic­an states—Mark Be­gich in Alaska, Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas, and Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana, be­sides the open seats in Montana and West Vir­gin­ia that Demo­crats lost as well. Neither Pennsylvania nor Wis­con­sin, which lean Demo­crat­ic in pres­id­en­tial races, is any­where near as hos­tile a polit­ic­al ter­rain for Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents Toomey and John­son.

Thir­teen months be­fore an elec­tion, it’s im­possible to know what the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment will look like or, for that mat­ter, who will run at the top of the parties’ tick­ets. But put­ting all that aside, and con­sid­er­ing the likely match­ups and voter turnout, Re­pub­lic­ans will be very lucky if they can keep their Sen­ate losses down to just two seats, which would give them a 52-48 ma­jor­ity. A loss of three seats, trans­lat­ing in­to a 51-49 GOP edge, seems a bit more likely. It’s very plaus­ible that the Re­pub­lic­ans could lose four seats, leav­ing con­trol of a 50-50 Sen­ate to the out­come of the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. A five-seat Re­pub­lic­an loss could hap­pen as well.

It is a little too bold to pre­dict that the out­comes of the Sen­ate and pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are in­ex­tric­ably linked. But there’s a pretty good chance they could go the same way. Many of the com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races are in states ex­pec­ted to be hard­est-fought in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, such as Col­or­ado, Flor­ida, Nevada, New Hamp­shire, and Ohio.

I’m not a be­liev­er in coat­tails—the no­tion is highly simplist­ic. But the dy­nam­ics of voter turnout, the is­sue agenda, and un­pre­dict­able events that tip a close state one way in a pres­id­en­tial race can just as eas­ily tip that state’s close Sen­ate race in the same dir­ec­tion.

Be­fore Demo­crats start pop­ping cham­pagne corks and Re­pub­lic­ans crawl out onto a ledge, it should be re­membered that 2018 will fea­ture a more Re­pub­lic­an-friendly midterm elect­or­ate, with 25 Demo­crat­ic and just eight Re­pub­lic­an seats at stake; the Demo­crats are dis­pro­por­tion­ately in polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult states. Midterm elec­tions tend to be rough for the party in the White House, as a ref­er­en­dum on the pres­id­ent. This means that the pop­ular­ity in 2018 of who­ever wins the White House next year will mat­ter a lot.

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