George Mason Law School

51, 50 or Fight! The 2016 Race for Control of the Senate

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October 5, 2016

9:14 PM

Hello people of William and Mary! This week, Johnathan is here to give you all the run down about this year’s Senate elections. “Why should I care,” you might ask? Well, chances are some of you, might even live in one of these states and it’s easy to forget about goings-on back home while we’re here at school. Moreover, understanding the simultaneous elections this you can give you some insight into the strategy behind this year’s presidential election.

Every four years people are, more or less, giving votes about which party they want in power more than votes about the specific people involved. While your congressman and the President are two, presumably, very different people, they chose the D or the R(or the I or the G) next to their for a reason and this is why. Some stick close the the nominee and hook themselves to a rising star, others may try to run away as fast as they can. That choice tells you a lot about how each candidate is fairing within their own party — the ultimate apparatus that gets them the votes to 270.

Have any thoughts on this? Do you disagree with the forecast? Write us! We’d love to hear your opinion. Also, follow us on Twitter because or sassy debate commentary needs readers. Thanks a lot and enjoy!

— Mike

 

For the fourth election cycle in a row, control for the Senate is up for grabs. (You would think someone would want keep it). With the Republicans likely to maintain the House of Representatives, the Senate is the focus for all that sweet “dark money”. Republicans currently have 54 seats so if Democrats want to gain control of the Senate, they need to net at least five seats to gain a pure majority, or four, if Clinton beats Trump. Republicans started the cycle as clear underdogs, holding 24 of the 34 seats currently up for election. Beyond simply defending those states they already held, Republicans had the unique challenge of defending seats in hostile territory as well, since many Republicans won purple or blue states in the GOP landslide of 2010. The GOP needed to hold seats in places like Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio and Florida. Add onto that, the most unpopular nominee in recorded history, and Democrats, only defending one competitive seat in Nevada, seemed to be in a very strong position to win the Senate. However, as of press time, the Republicans have exceeded expectations set out for them at the start of the cycle and are slight favorites to win the Senate, according to The Upshot. While Trump’s rise in the polls helps, as the name at the top if the ballot is known to impact the popularity of those below, it’s important to note that many Republican candidates for Senate are out-polling even The Donald himself.

So, are you in need some something to think about other than the presidential election? Well then you’re in just the place because, below, there are a rankings of the ten most competitive Senate races. They are ranked by the likelihood that the incumbent party loses the race. Enjoy!

*Ratings denote which party is the favorite to win and how likely they are to win. Ratings can be Safe D/R, Likely D/R, Lean D/R, or Tossup.

1) Wisconsin

Incumbent Ron Johnson beat fairly popular three-term incumbent Russ Feingold in the 2010 Republican tidal wave. Feingold is running again for his old seat, and Johnson has trailed in every single public poll, dating back to 2013. While other Senators from competitive seats have often embraced moderate positions, Johnson has been one of the most conservative Senators out there. Johnson voted with his party 93% of the time, fifth highest among GOP Senators in 113th Congress. Moreover, in a recent Monmouth poll, only 34% of voters viewed Johnson favorably, a mere 8 points higher than Trump. Even more problematic for Johnson, 46% of respondents viewed Feingold favorably. And, Huffington Post’s Pollster currently has Johnson trailing Feingold by 8%. In short, doesn’t look good for Old Ron.

Rating: Likely Democrat Pickup

2) Illinois

Mark Kirk is one of the last true moderate Republicans. He is pro-choice, supports Planned Parenthood, supported Cap and Trade, disavowed Trump, and received an F from the NRA. He was also the second Senate Republican to support gay marriage, and he was even endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign. On the other hand, Kirk has made a series of embarrassing gaffes , including calling Senator Lindsey Graham “A bro with no ho.” Bottom line, he is probably going to lose. Illinois is the most Democratic state on the list. Democrats have won Illinois by an average of 16% over the past four presidential elections and Kirk barely beat a, at best flawed, Democrat, whose family bank had mob connections (although, who doesn’t have mob connections in Chicago).

His opponent is Tammy Duckworth, a two-term Congresswoman from Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs. Duckworth got a break when the trial date of a whistleblower lawsuit originating from when she was head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs was delayed to after the election. Also, as of the last fillings, Duckworth has under five million dollars of cash on hand, while Kirk only has three million dollars of cash on hand, or the amount of money in the campaign’s bank account. Only one poll has been released since early August, and the poll from Loras College showed Duckworth up 5 points, with a whopping 24% of voters still undecided.

Rating: Likely Democrat Pickup

3) Indiana

When incumbent GOP Senator Dan Coats decided to retire, most Republicans were confident in Congressman Todd Young’s ability to hold the seat. However, when former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh jumped into the race for his old seat, the fundamentals changed. Bayh last ran for and won his seat in 2004 with 61.7%, for reference Outkast’s “Hey Yeah” was a number one song. Bayh entered the race with $9 million in the bank, and polls initially had Bayh up by 20 points. However, the race has since narrowed with the most recent poll giving a Bayh four-point lead. Republicans have poured millions into the state in an attempt to damage Bayh’s image, but Bayh seems to be doing that already. Bayh’s voting status in Indiana is inactive, and he seems less than certain about his Indiana address.  Although in his defense, he does have three houses outside of Indiana, two of which are D.C. mansions, so it understandably can be confusing to keep them all straight. Republicans smell blood and have reserved $7 million in T.V. airtime. Still, it seems that the Bayh name still carries some cachet among Hoosiers.

Rating: Lean Democrat Pickup

4) Pennsylvania

Incumbent GOP Senator Pat Toomey won narrowly in 2010 with 51%. During his tenure, he maintained a fairly conservative record, with one notable exception when he worked with Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) on gun-control legislation. His work earned him endorsements from Gabby Giffords and Michael Bloomberg. Toomey faces Katie McGinty, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s former Chief of Staff. Pennsylvania has not voted Republican for president since 1988, and Pollster gives McGinty a 2-point lead. However, a Public Policy poll released yesterday shows McGinty up 5 points. It is important not to dwell too much on a single result and instead look at a polling average, like Pollster. Nevertheless, Toomey is running about 5 points ahead of Trump and has $5 million more than McGinty has in cash on hand, which will help him down the stretch in the expensive Philly media market. The key will be if Toomey can remain competitive in the Philadelphia suburbs he once represented in Congress. If he holds his own, or Trump keeps Pennsylvania close, Toomey may pull out a victory.

Rating: Tossup

5) Nevada

Nevada is the only Democratic seat on this list. Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring after thirty years in the Senate. Three-term GOP Congressman Joe Heck faces off against Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. Heck is a disciplined campaigner and represents Nevada’s ultra-competitive 3rd District, which Obama won twice. Cortez Masto is Reid’s hand-picked successor and has the backing of the powerful Reid political machine. Nevada is quirky and a notoriously hard state to poll. Recent polls show the state drifting towards Republicans. Trump recently drew even with Clinton, and Heck leads Cortez Masto by three points. In fact, the last four polls had Heck up by at least four points. In 2012, Nevadans simultaneously gave its electoral votes to Obama and elected Republican Dean Heller to the U.S. Senate, although Heller ran against a flawed Democrat. This is the cycle’s only legitimate Republican pickup opportunity, and Republicans are committed, recently announcing a $6 million ad campaign. Nevertheless, the Reid political machine is not to be underestimated. Insiders cite Reid’s machine as instrumental for Clinton’s caucus victory over Sanders, and his own upset victory in 2010. Needless to say, this one will be a barnburner.

Rating: Tossup

6) New Hampshire

Kelly Ayotte first won the seat back in 2010 by 23 points in an absolute skunking. This time, she is in a dogfight against popular two-term Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. This race has been effectively tied since July. Currently, Hassan leads by a statistically insignificant .2%. Both candidates are focusing on impressive ground games to put them over the top in the Granite State. Some Republicans are concerned about Trump’s weak ground game and its impact on Ayotte. Ayotte is running well ahead of Trump, but Obama outperformed his national average twice in New Hampshire. As of the most recent FEC filings, Ayotte holds a $2 million advantage in cash on hand, which may be the difference in southern New Hampshire, which falls into the pricey Boston media market.

Rating: Tossup

7) North Carolina

Despite having served two-full terms in the U.S. Senate, a recent poll found almost half (47%) of North Carolina voters held “no opinion” of GOP Senator Richard Burr. That is awfully high for a two-term incumbent, but on the flip side, only 21% of respondents held an unfavorable view. Burr faces former Democratic State Rep. Deborah Ross. Burr currently holds a lead just under three point, according to HuffPost Pollster. More importantly, however, Burr’s lead has remained remarkably consistent since March. Three points is often within the margin of error, but Burr’s lead is unquestionably firm and consistent. Republicans, however, are growing increasingly concerned over Burr’s campaign. Outside GOP groups also pledged over $8 million for Burr. Democrats have recently moved millions out of both Ohio and Florida, and have chosen to instead spend $2.5 million in North Carolina. The late shift in Democratic strategy shows North Carolina is very competitive and could easily go for Ross. At the end of June, Burr had $5 million more in cash on hand than Ross. So, as long as Trump remains competitive in North Carolina, and Burr maintains his lead in the polls and cash, he still remains a slight favorite.

Rating: Lean Republican Hold

8) Missouri

Republican Roy Blunt comfortably won his first term in 2010 (notice a trend?) by almost 14 points. This time, he faces Jason Kander, Missouri’s Secretary of State. Consultants of both parties concede Kander, who served in Afghanistan as a Captain in the U.S. Army, was a great recruit, especially against Blunt. If there is an “establishment,” Blunt is in it. However, Missouri has slowly drifted towards Republicans recently as Romney’s 2012 Missouri victory was the best GOP presidential performance in Missouri since Reagan in 1984. Not surprisingly, Kander is running as a conservative Democrat, highlighting his dexterity with guns in this fantastic ad. Blunt, however, has almost twice as much cash on hand as Kander. Furthermore, Trump has gained a commanding lead in Missouri, according to recent polls. Blunt is actually running behind Trump. HuffPost Pollster has Blunt leading Kander by about 5 points. Unlike his colleagues, Blunt can’t blame his loss on Trump.

Rating: Lean Republican Hold

9) Florida

At the beginning of the year, Republicans were looking at a bloody primary and a formidable opponent in moderate Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. The dynamics changed, however, when incumbent Marco Rubio un-retired and declared his candidacy for re-election. Rubio cleared the field, and he is now poised for a victory over Murphy. Rubio first won in 2010, in a three-way race, after he scared noted fan enthusiast, and now Democrat Charlie Crist from the GOP into running as an independent. Recent polling has the presidential contest in a statistical tie, and Rubio, like his colleagues, is running well ahead of Trump. Pollster shows Rubio beating Murphy by 6 points. What makes this all the more surprising is that Public Policy Polling recently found Rubio’s approval rating was a paltry 32%. Finally, the Democrats just waved the white flag earlier this month, pulling millions of dollars out of the Sunshine State. And to think, Rubio won just ONE county in the GOP primary against Trump and was left for dead.

Rating: Lean Republican Hold

10) Ohio

If this contest was a book title, it would be Things Fall Apart. Democrats were initially bullish about their prospects to beat freshman Senator Rob Portman. They recruited former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, whom they hoped would contrast well with Portman, a consummate insider and former OMB Director for George W. Bush. However, Republicans labeled Strickland as “Retread Ted,” and it all went downhill from there. To Portman’s credit, he has stockpiled money since he first won in 2010; Portman has $9 million dollars more in his coffers than Strickland. Portman also has invested millions in an expansive ground operation and swiftly attacked Strickland’s job-creation record as governor, putting Strickland on his heels. Moreover, Portman has run a disciplined campaign focusing on issues like opioid addiction and courting labor unions. Strickland has attacked Portman heavily on trade issues, but the attacks have not stuck. In fact, the Ohio Conference of Teamsters and the United Mine Works actually endorsed Portman over Strickland. Pollster has Portman up by about 12 points, and last week, a William and Mary/TargetSmart poll showed Portman up by about 15 points. This race is here because Top 9 lists don’t test as well.

Rating: Likely Republican Hold

*Note: The numbers in the article may not be the most up to date if new polling came out after publishing. Click the links for the most recent numbers.

us-map

Mike Kikta and Johnathan Nowakowski / The Flat Hat

Path to 51, or 50

The map above has the GOP at 49 seats and Democrats at 48, with three tossups. A party needs only 50 seats to control the majority, if it controls the White House; the V.P. can vote to break a tie.

For Democrats, if they hold the White House, the easiest path to a majority is to win Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. From there, they need to only win either New Hampshire or Pennsylvania, assuming they hold Nevada. If not, then they must win both New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, or expand the map and win either Missouri or North Carolina. If Clinton were to lose, it would be incredibly unlikely they win a majority.

On the other hand, Republicans can hold the U.S. Senate if Trump loses. Winning Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio gets the GOP to 49. From there, they need to win two of the following states to get to 51: Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. This is very doable, given Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania are statistical ties, and it appears that Republicans have momentum in Indiana.

P.S. If you would like to play around with different scenarios, click here for an interactive Senate map.

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  • Mike Kikta and Johnathan Nowakowski