Hey, Look at the Senate
While we have all been consuming Trump related news, and struggling with what his impending nomination means for the Republican Party, the 2016 race, and America’s future, there’s also that whole battle for the other political branch of government, which doesn’t dominate as much of our attention. But the Senate has consequences – especially when it comes to confirmation votes for cabinet and judicial posts.
American federal elections are waves that crest in presidential years, and trough in mid-terms. The crest elections in recent history have been good to Democrats and the trough elections quite generous to Republicans – and if right-leaning turnout suffers in 2016 due to lack of enthusiasm for the GOP presidential nominee, it could be even better for Democrats.
Of the 100 seats in the senate chamber, 34 are up for grabs this year. Only 10 of them are currently held by Democrats, and a whopping 24 of them are currently held by Republicans. With the Trump nomination now a foregone conclusion, it’s pretty clear that many of those 24 GOP seats will have some worries about the effect the man at the top of the ticket will have on turnout for the rest of the ballot. They will be playing defense. Even worse, they will be playing defense in many states that aren’t particularly solid red: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.
The Democrats running for re-election in the Senate are almost all safe according to current projections by all the major prognosticators. Larry Sabato, at the University of Virginia has designated 8 as “Safe D”, 1 as “Leans D”, and only 1 as “Toss Up” – that last one being Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. Charlie Cook agrees, and Stu Rothenberg agrees also. That’s only two seats for Democrats, Nevada and Colorado, that seem to even be in play.
The Republicans on the other hand, have a lot more to worry about. Of the 24 seats they control, Sabato ranks only half as “Safe R”, 6 as “Likely R” or “Leaning R” and 3 as true toss-ups. That’s 9 seats in play compared to only 2 for the Dems. None of the other professional prognosticators disagree by much.
So let’s take a closer look at the top 8 most interesting races right now:
Nevada: (Current polling: n/a)
Last time around, despite being majority leader (or because of being majority leader?) Harry Reid had to put up a hell of a fight, even when he was pitted against an unpolished second-tier candidate. He beat Sharron Angle 50.3% to 44.6% when all the votes were tallied, but in order to accomplish this he had to put together what many political junkies consider to be the most impressive campaign ever assembled. This time around the candidates look to be Reid’s hand-picked successor, Nevada AG Catherine Cortez Masto and GOP U.S. Representative Joe Heck. Although there is no “reliable” (as in nonpartisan) polling in the race yet, one less reliable poll shows a dead heat. That poll was done before Trump was announced to be the nominee for the GOP. So how might a border state with idiosyncratic politics react to this? My take is the Trump nomination fires up both sides in Nevada, and with the senate race in the balance this might be one of the states with the highest turnout in the entire election. But another way of looking at it is this: Reid won in 2010 in a midterm election, while the rest of the party was decimated. Two incumbent Democrats lost, and 4 open-seats formerly controlled by Democrats switched hands – all while Reid held on somehow. This might mean the state of Nevada, especially in a presidential year, could still be a Democratic win despite being deemed a toss-up. But it’s going to take a good campaign organization. In 2012 GOP candidate Dean Heller won the Senate seat in Nevada by one point over Shelley Berkley. With both Republican and Democratic victories in Nevada lately, it’s nearly impossible to predict what happens here.
Colorado: (Current polling: n/a)
Bennett is the most endangered Democrat running for re-election. But even so, it’s not looking to be a true toss-up, and there’s a funny reason why. If you go to Real Clear Politics right now you will find that the only poll in this race is between Bennett and a non-candidate. The Republican Party is struggling to find someone willing to take on Bennett despite his potential weakness in the race, in this deeply purple state. Of the four candidates that seem to remain in contention, each of them have serious hurdles to pass, and their primary is not until June 28th. One of the candidates is a former athletic director at Colorado State University, Jack Graham. Graham is self-funding to the tune of about a million dollars. He also has decent fundraising, and was the first to qualify for the ballot with signature petitions. But he has no political profile, and is largely unknown to the state. Another candidate, Darryl Glenn will only be on the ballot because of a strong showing at the state convention, but has only raised $11,000. The establishment candidate, State Representative Jon Keyser is raising less money than Graham, almost didn’t qualify for the ballot, and has less than $200K on hand to challenge Bennett’s war chest of nearly $8 million. Beating Democratic incumbents in presidential years is a tall order, especially anywhere outside of a red state. Beating well-funded incumbents with a second-tier challenger is nearly impossible. I’m no Charlie Cook or Larry Sabato, but to me Colorado looks entirely “Safe D” by any reasonable measure.
Arizona: (Current polling: McCain 42, Kirkpatrick 42)
Hey folks, we have ourselves a neck and neck race in Arizona of all places – a state that has not had a Democratic senator since 1995. McCain was caught on tape at a private fundraiser last month saying “If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life.” Keep in mind, he was neck and neck with Kirkpatrick before any of us knew Trump would be the nominee, meaning if McCain is right, he will be polling as the underdog soon. McCain knows his state: a full 22% of eligible voters are Latinos. That’s more than any other state with a race happening this year. Additionally, Kirkpatrick does not seem to be a lightweight, having hauled in nearly $3 million before the race has even heated up – a massive sum for a challenger – and with much of it having been raised in 2015, she got to work early on this race. With his strong name recognition for all kinds of obvious reasons, McCain can never be counted out, and indeed is still favored to win. He raised 10 million buckaroos, with more where that came from, and Arizona is still a red state that favored Romney by nine points over Obama in 2012, and favored McCain over Obama by the exact same margin in 2008. Kirkpatrick might have been doing her homework, but those facts mean she has a mountain to climb despite her sweet looking early poll numbers.
Pennsylvania (Current polling: Toomey 45, McGinty 33)
If you look at the Real Clear Politics polling page for this race, it looks like it should not be categorized as a toss-up. It looks like a pretty decent lead for Toomey. But everyone knows the importance of Pennsylvania to the presidential race due to their purple status and their hefty number of electoral votes. Throw into the mix that Toomey is a Republican in a state that voted for Obama twice. Obama performed 5 points over Romney there in 2012, and 10 points over McCain there in 2008. Toomey, who won his seat in 2010 after Arlen Specter’s death, has not had to win this seat during a presidential election year before, and that truly changes the ballgame. Plus, instead of taking on the charmingly quirky Joe Sestak this time, he has the more establishment-loved candidate of Katie McGinty to grapple with. The state is still learning who she really is, having only secured the nomination recently. As she raises her profile, polls will inch closer and closer. Toomey has said he will back Trump as the nominee, but he doesn’t seem particularly happy about it since currently polling shows Clinton will beat Trump there by around 8 points – a realistic prediction considering Obama’s performance there in the past two cycles. Toomey will have to outperform Trump by a sizable margin if he wants to win, and that can’t be easily done when you’re supporting the man. Also worthy of mention: the Democratic National Convention will give McGinty a lot of reliable Democratic donors to fundraise from for a few days in the state.
Ohio (Current polling: Strickland 41, Portman 40)
O-me, o-my, o- Cleveland Ohio! The GOP convention is scheduled to be there, along with its guaranteed protests and clashes in the streets. Their Governor has been traveling the country attempting to become the President. And the two candidates battling for the Senate this time around are both heavyweights. Not to mention, Ohio is ground zero of the presidential campaigns as well because of its very swingy status. This poor state is no stranger to mega-saturation political campaigning, but this year it’s going to be on steroids. My bet is this will be the closest race out of all the Senate races this year, because, if anybody has a decent shot at outperforming Trump on the GOP side, it’s Rob Portman – who has very publicly rejected any VP speculation, and unlike many of the other GOP candidates in competitive Senate races this year, has refused to either support or endorse Trump. Portman has a money edge, which is unsurprising for an incumbent in a major state, having raised more than $18 million, and with a substantial portion of that remaining entirely untouched just sitting there ready to burn. My guess is that out of the four Senate races designated as toss-ups, this one is the most likely GOP win. But that’s little encouragement to a Senator who has to take on a popular former Governor during a presidential year.
New Hampshire (Current polling: Ayotte 45, Hassan 42)
I’m surprised at Ayotte’s staying power, especially polling above a relatively popular Governor. It’s pretty sweet to see a two-woman senate race. If any state is prone to split their ticket, it’s New Hampshire, which despite favoring Obama twice, has also sent at least one Republican senator to D.C. (and usually two) since 1979. Trump won the Republican primary here while Clinton did not win her primary here. In my view it’s Ayotte’s race to lose unless Trump becomes too much of a drag to overcome. She’s out-fundraising Hassan by double, and has been trying to paint an image of herself as a constituent-services workhorse (sort of like Clinton did as a senator in NY). Let’s be clear: if Ayotte loses, it will be the first time in more than three decades that New Hampshire will not have a Republican senator. That would be remarkable.
Illinois (Current polling: n/a)
We just watched a couple weeks ago as Tammy Duckworth won the Democratic nomination for senate in Illinois. Not much polling has been done yet, but all three of the prognosticating trio: Sabato, Cook and Rothenberg, count this race as the second most favorable Democratic pickup opportunity. In 2012 Senator Kirk was left paralyzed on his left side by a major stroke, from which he has been recovering for four years. Duckworth, a combat veteran, has two prosthetic legs. Kirk has been attempting to moderate his political personality over the past couple of years, foreseeing that his race would be tough for re-election. POLITICO accused him of “going full RINO” in order to save his own skin. Criminal justice reform is suddenly on the table, and he supports giving Merrick Garland an up or down vote. One other thing worth noting: it is extremely rare for an incumbent to be behind on fundraising compared to their challenger, but Kirk has less than Duckworth’s $4 Million stash. Knowing that Illinois is all but assured to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, Kirk would have attract ballot splitters galore to pull this off. He is a nice fellow, and a perfectly good politician, and in any other year he might be able to do it. But his challenger is feisty, has a good story to tell, and there’s also the Trump problem.
Wisconsin (Current polling: Feingold 49, Johnson 43)
Russ is back with a vengeance, after being booted by the voters in the GOP wave of 2010 he is taking on the same nemesis, Senator Ron Johnson, but he’s likely to wallop him this time. Johnson has had an embarrassing run as a senator; first empowered by the Tea Party mood of the country, he has watched as the country has begun to reject the Tea Party purists. Michele Bachmann chose not to run in 2014, Allen West lost in 2012 to Patrick Murphy, and Ted Cruz struggled to the bitter end against The Donald only to come up short. Ron Johnson is not particularly eloquent on the stump, and has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. What worked in 2010 isn’t working in 2016, and of all the current senators up for re-elect, Johnson is the most likely to learn that lesson the hard way. Not all of this is his fault. He has the bad luck of battling a former Senator who the people of Wisconsin have learned to miss. And despite Wisconsin carrying Scott Walker to the statehouse, famously, three times in four years – it’s still a pretty darned blue state in presidential years.