Senate Map Poses Challenges for GOP

Senate Map Poses Challenges for GOP
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In last year’s Senate elections, Democrats were forced to defend a number of vulnerable seats, ultimately losing their majority as a wave of Republicans cruised to victory in states that President Obama had lost in previous elections. Next year, however, the script will flip, with Republicans defending swing-state seats during a high-turnout presidential year and trying to maintain their control of the upper chamber.

Though the presidential election is in full swing, with the candidate ranks seeming to swell every week, 2016 Senate races are still in the very early stages. But with a number of candidates having announced, the battle for the majority is beginning to take shape.

The map itself puts Republicans in a tenuous position from the get-go: They are defending 24 seats compared to just 10 for Democrats, and many of them are in blue states. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that difficulty while back home in Kentucky last month, saying the chances are “pretty slim” that his party will increase its four-seat majority in the Senate next year.

"I don't think we're going to have a bigger number. We're hoping not to have a smaller number," McConnell said, according to the Associated Press.

The Lay of the Land

Two of the seats Republicans are defending, in Illinois and Wisconsin, will be particularly tough to hang on to. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics ranks the former race – where first-termer Mark Kirk hopes to retain a seat he narrowly won in 2010 -- as a tossup. Wisconsin is even dimmer, given the state’s longtime Democratic lean. There, Sen. Ron Johnson (pictured) is facing a challenge from the man he ousted six years ago, former three-term Sen. Russ Feingold.

Republican incumbents in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire also have to defend seats in states Obama won in 2012, and there is an open race in Florida because Marco Rubio is abandoning his seat to run for president.

“Clearly, for the first time in a while, the Republicans are defending a lot more seats than we are and Democrats have an opportunity to play offense and turn up the score and take back the majority -- there’s no doubt about that,” said Matt Canter, a former deputy executive director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Despite the difficult road ahead, the 2016 map is not without bright spots for the GOP. McConnell pointed to Nevada and Colorado as places where Republicans could gain ground – and breathing room to maintain the majority. In Nevada, five-term senator and current minority leader Harry Reid announced his retirement earlier this year, opening up the race. Reid was quick to anoint his successor, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who announced her bid in April. It remains unclear who will run against her. The GOP’s likely top choice, popular Gov. Brian Sandoval, appears to have little interest in the race, but Rep. Joe Heck is publicly weighing a bid, according to CQ Roll Call. A Republican poll in May found that Heck would have an eight-point lead over Masto, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.

In Colorado, Democrat Michael Bennet won in 2010 – an extremely difficult year nationwide for his party – by less than one percentage point. Republican Cory Gardner unseated incumbent Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, and the GOP is hoping for a similar outcome this time too.

“Colorado came online very late last year and that was successful for us,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “If they get a decent candidate there, they’re going to have a real shot. That’s a state where the presidential focus is going to be heavy, and that may end up benefiting Republicans.”

The GOP’s odds in the Centennial State took a hit last week, however, when Rep. Mike Coffman, considered their top potential candidate, decided against challenging Bennet.

Beyond those two states, however, the chances of Republicans picking up seats are slim, even though a pair of longtime Democrats – Barbara Mikulski in Maryland and Barbara Boxer in California – are retiring. Those states are seen as reliably Democratic, though that doesn’t mean the races will lack interest. Democrats have largely avoided messy primaries in recent years, but 2016 will feature some high-profile candidates battling it out in primary season. In Maryland, Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen have both announced runs for the Senate, and others, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, are weighing possible bids. In California, both Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez are running.

Presidential year

Conventional wisdom suggests that down-ticket Democrats generally perform much better during presidential years, boosted by higher turnout for the top of the ticket. Because of the way the map looks in 2016, with most of the key Senate contests in swing states, the races might be tethered even more than usual to the presidential outcome.

With a growing Republican field for president (Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the crowd last week), the Senate candidates have a vested interest in whom the party nominates. And with announced or likely candidates from some of these swing states – Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, Gov. John Kasich in Ohio –Senate aspirants could receive a boost.

Democrats, however, are confident that with Hillary Clinton on the ticket, they will have a strong advantage in these states.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement for Hillary’s campaign. I think that she’s going to have a major turnout effort and she’ll be all over the country in many places where we’re waging competitive Senate races,” said one Democratic operative involved with Senate campaigns. “Every state is going to be different. That’s kind of the thing about a Senate map … an issue might matter in one state where it doesn’t matter in another state, based on local politics. But excitement for Hillary and her candidacy, assuming she’s the nominee, will absolutely filter down and help our candidates.”

Nonetheless, Republicans aren’t resigned to a tougher climate simply because it’s a presidential year. One Republican operative said it’s “too simplistic” to view Senate races as a Democratic advantage in 2016. The operative pointed to Pennsylvania, where results have been mixed over the years. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey will likely face former Rep. Joe Sestak, whom he defeated in 2010. And though incumbent Democrat Bob Casey won in 2012, when Obama carried the Keystone State, longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter won in 2004 even though John Kerry carried the state at the top of ticket. Specter also won in 1992 when Bill Clinton won Pennsylvania, and Republican Rick Santorum won re-election in 2000 even though Al Gore carried the state over George Bush.

Jesmer predicted that the fate of the GOP Senate majority goes “hand in hand” with the presidential race. He said he expects a wealth of money to be spent in the swing states, and that it would be hard for Senate campaigns to differentiate themselves from those facing off for the White House.

“You’re not going to be able to outperform the top of the ticket by more than a few points in these states. You’re somewhat out of control of your own destiny, or you don’t control it like you would in an off year,” Jesmer said. “I think we’ll produce a strong nominee and I think our chances are decent, so that will help everyone. But if we have a disastrous nominee, then I think we’re in real trouble.”

Six Years After the Wave

2010 was the year of the Tea Party, with a strong Republican wave taking control of the House from Democrats and nearly taking over the Senate – the GOP gained six seats there, trimming the Democrats previously large advantage. Six years later, however, the Tea Party influence has diminished and the environment is different.

Part of the latter is having to defend a record in the Senate as an incumbent, instead of just challenging. And Canter, the former deputy executive director of the DSCC, said the close margin for the 2010 wins by Kirk and Toomey was telling (the Illinois Republican won by just under two percentage points, and Toomey by exactly two points).

“These are Republican candidates that barely won by the skin of their teeth after having outspent their opponent exponentially in the greatest Republican year of our lifetime,” Canter said. “So I think those folks should be very concerned and might want to consider throwing in the towel at this point.”

Like the presidential year analysis, however, Republicans argue the case isn’t black and white. There are numerous advantages to being an incumbent, including having spent much of the six-year term fundraising, crafting a record, gaining name recognition, and knowing far in advance that they plan to run.

“Knowing who your candidates are in advance is an obvious advantage for fundraising, getting campaign teams established, recruiting top talent and getting everything together earlier than if you are a challenger getting into the race later,” the Republican operative said.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to tell 18 months before the elections take place what the environment will be on Nov. 8, 2016. A particular issue could take hold with the electorate, giving one party the advantage; or one of the presidential candidates could develop a large lead in the polls, creating an expectation of inevitability and giving the bottom of that party’s ticket a boost. Regardless, Republicans’ and Democrats’ goals are clear: maintain control of the Senate, or win it back.

“We are here for one reason and one reason only: to hold the majority,” NRSC spokesman Matt Connelly said. “If we do not, we have failed. It is that simple.”

Update: Canter, the former DSCC deputy executive director, and his firm are working for 2016 Senate candidates, including polling for Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is seeking re-election in his Florida district. Jesmer, the former NRSC executive director, and his firm are doing work for Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s re-election campaign, and for Republican Rep. Marlin Stutzman’s Senate campaign in Indiana. 

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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