After our primer on the House races last week, I thought I’d keep this train a-rollin’ and take an initial look at the battle for the Senate. As per usual, one-third of the Senate is up for reelection this year, and unlike House races, we know a bit more about the composition of the Senate races, since their statewide nature means that they get more media coverage and attention.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the safe races. As I see it now, Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota look safe for the Republicans. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington look safe for the Democrats. Louisiana is probably safe for the Republicans too, though it is an open seat with a crowded field, so there’s a slightly larger chance that something crazy could happen to upend the race. Utah features the first-ever transgender nominee for a US Senate seat, Democrat Misty Snow. Unfortunately for her, though, she’ll probably lose.
So without further ado, let’s dive in. I took a preliminary look at many of these races back in December, so I’m going to try not to look like a graduate of the School of Redundancy School as I take stock of the developments since then (* denotes incumbent).
Arizona: Ann Kirkpatrick (D) vs. John McCain (R)*- Democrats have fantasized about taking down John McCain ever since he tacked hard to the right to win the Republican presidential primary in 2008 and gave the world Sarah Palin. The thing is, far-right Republicans aren’t so thrilled with him either, thanks to his occasional tendency toward compromise. That means that for the second election in a row, McCain faces a primary challenger in state senator Kelli Ward. McCain survived a primary challenge from Congressman JD Hayworth in 2010 fairly easily, winning 56%-32%. But the latest primary poll from Gravis Marketing showed Ward up nine, so this time could be different. Arizona has a lot of immigration hawks that could be responding to Donald Trump’s rhetoric. After all, this is the state that passed the “show your papers bill” and has this guy as one of their sheriffs. McCain famously worked with liberal lion Ted Kennedy on a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2005 that was criticized by many conservatives as constituting amnesty, so Ward has a clear line of attack that could be effective in this political climate.
But even if McCain survives the primary, the general election against Kirkpatrick will be no walk in the park. She has succeeded in Republican territory before, having won three out of four elections in Arizona’s 1st Congressional district, which is R+3. She was able to please both progressives and moderates in her district by voting for key pieces of legislation such as the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act while still maintaining a moderate voting record overall. She knows how to win this race, and if McCain’s incumbency advantage fades, he could be in for a long slog. Prediction: Republican hold. If Ward beats McCain, maybe I’ll revisit this.
Florida- Patrick Murphy/Alan Grayson (D) vs. Marco Rubio (R)*- While this primary is yet to be held, I don’t think Rubio will have any trouble securing renomination despite his late entry into the race after initially saying he wouldn’t run. Patrick Murphy has a pretty solid and consistent lead on Alan Grayson for the Democratic nomination, but primary polls are subject to significant margins of error, so don’t take those numbers as gospel.
In the general election matchup, I think Rubio has accomplished a similar task as Rob Portman in Ohio (see below), having distanced himself from Trump enough that voters are able to distinguish the two and moderate Republicans who may be voting for Hillary Clinton or Libertarian Gary Johnson will probably come home and vote for Rubio. He had the added spotlight of the presidential campaign to more distinctly break from Trump. The Democrats do appear to be about to nominate the candidate that polls best against Rubio, so any missteps may throw this race into a tie. But I think Rubio will pull this out. Prediction: Republican hold.
Illinois- Tammy Duckworth (D) vs. Mark Kirk (R)*- Duckworth won the Democratic primary for this seat as expected, and probably starts out as the favorite. Mark Kirk has shown a surprising knack for controversy, but has tried to mitigate that by withdrawing his endorsement of Donald Trump, and calling for the Senate to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. In addition, he is the rare Republican endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, which touted his support for the Equality Act, among other things. Duckworth, as a disabled veteran, has been a sharp critic of Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton will likely carry Illinois by a wide margin, and her coattails could carry Duckworth to victory, provided she avoids any gaffes. Prediction: Democratic pickup
Indiana- Evan Bayh (D) vs. Todd Young (R)- At least the Democrats benefited this time from Evan Bayh making up his mind late, given how he exited this Senate seat. He even pushed former Rep. Baron Hill out of the race after he won the primary. That instantly makes this race a toss-up. Can he convince enough voters to split their tickets in a state that Donald Trump will almost certainly carry? If anyone can, he probably can. The Bayh name goes a long way in Indiana, as Evan’s father Birch was a longtime Senator. He has the kind of moderate voting record that is required to win as a Democrat in Indiana, with a hawkish approach on foreign policy combined with a mostly liberal record on social issues.
Young, on the other hand, is probably about as close to a “generic Republican” as one can get. He won a primary over the Club For Growth-endorsed Marlin Stutzman, and votes with his Republican colleagues 95% of the time, gaining enough respect among them to gain membership on the powerful Ways and Means Committee in just his third term. Indiana is one of those frustrating states that isn’t polled frequently, so it’s hard to get a read on exactly where this contest is to make a prediction. The only poll was from about 2 weeks ago and showed Bayh up 7. Prediction: Republican hold
Missouri- Jason Kander (D) vs. Roy Blunt (R)*- Missouri is one of those red states that suddenly looks like a battleground because of Donald Trump’s mishandled campaign. Roy Blunt’s approval rating is also 11 points underwater. Mix those two together and you have an opportunity for a party switch. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Blunt is so unpopular. Perhaps it has to do with his introduction of an amendment to Obamacare that would have allowed an employer to deny health services if they conflict with their religious or moral beliefs. Maybe it has to do with his not having sponsored much consequential legislation.
Either way, Secretary of State Jason Kander sees an opportunity. He has some credibility on national security issues, having served a decorated career in the Army National Guard. Either way, given Blunt’s incumbency advantage and Missouri’s red tint, Kander has an uphill battle ahead of him. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average has Blunt up nearly 5 points. Prediction: Republican hold
North Carolina- Deborah Ross (D) vs. Richard Burr (R)*- North Carolina seems to be the next Southern state in line to turn purple, the way Virginia did starting in 2008. Hillary Clinton is also polling fairly well there, which could spell trouble for incumbent Richard Burr. He’s one of those Senators that’s never in the limelight, but seems to do juuust enough to survive every election. But this year, partisan gravity may be too much to overcome. Burr’s constituents seem to be drifting away from him on some issues. In a recent PPP poll, 78% of North Carolinians support banning those on the terror watch list from buying guns, and 60% want the Senate to move forward with President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. Burr is running ever so slightly ahead of Donald Trump in the state, but if the political winds shift in an ugly direction, he could lose. I’m going to be slightly bold here and predict a Democratic pickup.
New Hampshire- Maggie Hassan (D) vs. Kelly Ayotte (R)*- I’ve always wondered if Maggie Hassan being the only Democratic governor to halt Syrian refugee immigration would hurt her with her fellow Democrats in New Hampshire. That doesn’t appear to be the case though, as she’s gotten three good polls in a row, including one likely outlier that shows her up 10 (!) over Kelly Ayotte. Ayotte has said she plans to vote for Donald Trump, which Hassan is seizing on and I think is a big risk in New Hampshire. Donald Trump won the Republican primary there, but the Northeast has a lot of highly educated voters, which are a demographic that Trump does especially badly with. I think Trump will probably lose the state by a wide margin, and take Ayotte with him. Her incumbency advantage may push her over if the presidential race tightens, but Hassan is a fairly popular governor, and I think she may even run ahead of Hillary Clinton when all is said and done. Prediction: Democratic pickup
Nevada- Catherine Cortez Masto (D) vs. Joe Heck (R)- Shortly after his nasty encounter with a treadmill, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would not seek reelection this year. Polls show a razor-thin race that tilts Heck’s way. Trump is keeping it closer with Clinton in Nevada than expected, which may mean Heck can steal a win. Both candidates are heavily quoting the Asian-American vote. With the state’s other two racial groups likely to be won by one candidate or another (Latinos for Masto, whites for Heck), that narrow 9% slice of the electorate could swing the election. Many credit this voting bloc with powering Reid to a six-point victory in 2010 despite polls showing a close race against Sharron Angle. Both candidates start out with roughly the same level of name recognition, as Masto is a former Attorney General of Nevada and Heck is a sitting Congressman from the 3rd District. I think Heck is a better campaigner than Trump, and in the end he’ll be able to convince some Clinton voters to split their ticket and get the only Republican pickup of 2016.
Pennsylvania- Katie McGinty (D) vs. Pat Toomey (R)*- I commented in December that Pat Toomey’s polling had held up well against his prospective Democratic opponents despite his extreme conservatism (though he did try to make a small compromise on gun policy). Now that he actually has an opponent, it seems the script is flipped. McGinty currently holds a slim lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average of the race, and Toomey is now in real danger of losing his seat.
McGinty, meanwhile, defeated former Congressman Joe Sestak and others in the Democratic primary. Sestak, whom I interned for in the summer of 2009, annoyed many Democratic insiders when he defeated party-switching Senator Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic primary for Senate, though he nearly beat Toomey in the general election despite a bad national climate for Democrats. It seems that many in the party are still annoyed by this move, as McGinty earned the backing of most establishment Democrats in Pennsylvania. In an interesting development given the presidential race, Mayor of Braddock and self-described democratic socialist John Fetterman finished a distant third. I think, since Toomey is now trailing and Hillary Clinton is expected to wipe the floor with Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, it’s not crazy to predict a Democratic pickup here.
Ohio- Ted Strickland (D) vs. Rob Portman (R)*- Rob Portman is one of the few Senators who seems Trump-proof, even against a popular former Governor in Ted Strickland. FiveThirtyEight theorizes that Portman’s low-key, Chamber of Commerce-style conservatism is playing better in the state than Trump’s bombast, and Ohio’s Republican Party has taken great pains to distance themselves from Trump, led by the state’s current Governor John Kasich. Also, Portman has just embarked on a huge ad blitz that may explain why his numbers turned around after Strickland took a lead at the start of the race. He has also shown the ability to moderate when needed, having become one of the first Republicans to support gay marriage when his son came out to him a few years ago. Hillary Clinton has opened up around a five-point lead in the state, and if that grows, the straight-ticket Democratic vote could be too much for Portman to overcome. But for right now, this looks like it will likely be a Republican hold.
Wisconsin- Russ Feingold (D) vs. Ron Johnson (R)*- Very little has changed in this race since December. Former Senator Russ Feingold is still trouncing Johnson in polls, and there’s little reason to believe they will change. The reason is simple: Johnson’s positioning near the extreme of his party is out of step in a blue state that has repudiated the Republicans’ presidential nominee. Feingold is quite liberal himself, but is much better fit for the state, and in what is likely to be a pro-Democratic national mood, little should stand in the way of his return to the Senate. Prediction: Democratic pickup
Based on the projections I have here, Democrats will gain four seats, the exact number they need to win control of the Senate if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency as expected. Of course, a lot of seats are in play, so that number could vary wildly by the time Election Day arrives. But it seems that the Trump candidacy has dragged down several of the Republican Party’s Senate candidates, and unless they can reverse that trend, they will likely lose at least some seats.