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.