Senate Trends

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 24, 2016 — While national pollsters are detecting a tightening presidential race, the US Senate campaigns are also beginning to reveal some potentially defining trends.

Safe Republicans & Democrats

Of the 34 in-cycle US Senate campaigns currently underway in 2016, half of them are in the safe category and won’t change. Nine Republican senators and eight Democrats are assured of re-election:

Republican senators: Shelby (AL), Murkowski (AK), Crapo (ID), Moran (KS), Hoeven (ND), Lankford (OK), Scott (SC), Thune (SD), Lee (UT)

Democrat sentors: California (Open Boxer), Maryland (Open Mikulski); Blumenthal (CT), Schatz (HI), Schumer (NY), Wyden (OR), Leahy (VT), Murray (WA)

Likely R / D

Four Republican incumbents and seats and one Democratic senator are rated as close to safe in their re-election battles, but they have drawn opponents who have some potential of running a competitive race:

Republicans: Louisiana (Open Vitter); Boozman (AR), Isakson (GA), and Paul (KY — because the Democrats fielded a potentially strong candidate in the person of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, this race could conceivably move to the trending Republican column.)

Democrats: Bennet (CO)

Trending Republican

Arizona: Sen. John McCain (R) faces GOP primary opposition on Aug. 30. Once securing the nomination, he will then battle Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff) in the general election. The McCain-Kirkpatrick battle is competitive. The most recent general election poll dates all the way back to late June (Public Policy Polling), and finds McCain on top only 42-40 percent.
Florida: Things have been improving steadily for Sunshine State Republicans since Sen. Marco Rubio (R) decided to seek re-election after initially saying he would retire. Democrats are expected to nominate Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Jupiter) on Aug. 30. The most current Florida public poll comes from Monmouth University (released Aug. 16), and finds Sen. Rubio improving to a 48-43 percent general election advantage.

Iowa: Six-term Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) has developed a consistent 10-point lead over former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D). Five consecutive polls found Grassley holding either a 52-42 percent advantage, or a 51-42 percent margin. The latest poll, however, from The Economist/YouGov (released Aug. 21) saw the Grassley edge slightly decrease to 45-38 percent.

Missouri: Sen. Roy Blunt (R) stands for his first re-election and his opponent, Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), draws rave reviews from Democratic Party leaders. Missouri has been trending decidedly Republican since the turn of the century, and Sen. Blunt is well prepared for re-election. Though polls are few and far between in this contest, the latest one was conducted Aug. 5-6 and projected Sen. Blunt to a 47-40 percent margin.

North Carolina: Sen. Richard Burr (R) is falling into a tighter battle with former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D) in a state whose electorate routinely defeats its incumbent senators. The preponderance of polling gives Sen. Burr a slight lead, but a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College survey (released Aug. 12) found Ross holding a two-point edge. A Public Policy Polling study released two days earlier, however, projected Sen. Burr with a four-point lead.

Ohio: There has been a significant shift toward Sen. Rob Portman (R) in the past three weeks, allowing him to finally put some distance between he and former Gov. Ted Strickland (D). Four polls, from an equal number of pollsters, released since Aug. 9 place Portman between 46 and 49 percentage points, and provide him leads of eight, seven, nine, and five points.

Trending Democratic

Illinois: This race has been heading in Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Hoffman Estates) direction for months. Polls here have been few and far between. The latest one, conducted during the Aug. 1-4 period, finds Duckworth topping incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R), 44-37 percent. The Illinois race is clearly the Democrats’ best opportunity to convert a Republican Senate seat.

Indiana: Democrats injecting former Sen. Evan Bayh into the race at the last minute is putting the party in position to steal this seat back from the Republicans. With Sen. Dan Coats (R) retiring, Rep. Todd Young (R-Bloomington) won the open Republican nomination. Democratic polls are giving Bayh leads of between 15 and 21 points. The closest data, from Monmouth University (Aug. 13-16) portends a 48-41 percent Democratic advantage. Before Bayh replaced former Rep. Baron Hill (D-Bloomington) as the party’s senatorial nominee, Rep. Young looked to be a lock for victory.

Wisconsin: Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) has been ahead of first-term incumbent Ron Johnson (R) for the entire election cycle. His lead has recently expanded. The latest poll (Marquette University Law School, released Aug. 10) finds him ahead 11 points, 53-42 percent. Unless Sen. Johnson finds a way to seriously change his campaign direction, Democrats will be favored to convert this seat in November.

Pure Toss-Ups

Nevada: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s open seat may become this election cycle’s focal point. With Democrats potentially converting Indiana, a state previously defined as safe for Republicans, picking up open Nevada now becomes a GOP must. Polls have consistently given Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson) a slight lead over former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D). The most recent data, from Suffolk University (released Aug. 18), however, detects the two candidates tied at 37 percent apiece.

New Hampshire: This state’s electorate has swung more wildly than any other place since 2006, and we could see another top-to-bottom sweep again this year. Whether the wave favors Republicans or Democrats remains yet to be determined. New Hampshire has been polled frequently and found both Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) taking the lead at various times. The most recent survey, from CBS News/YouGov (released Aug. 14), reveals Gov. Hassan holding a slight 42-41 percent edge. In late June, the American Research Group found Sen. Ayotte up by nine percentage points.

Pennsylvania: Sen. Pat Toomey (R) has run a strong re-election effort to date but the machinations at the top of the ticket have apparently begun to negatively affect the senator’s own run. After consistently leading the race, late July and August polling catapulted challenger Katie McGinty (D) to advantages of varying size. The most recent four polls, coming from a quartet of survey research firms, find the Democrat ahead from between one and four percentage points. The Pennsylvania Senate race is a must-win for both sides.


If the current trends hold, either side could take control of the Senate chamber by winning two of the three toss-ups. Should Democrats score a pair of toss-up wins, an overall 50/50 split would result, meaning the victorious presidential candidate would also allow his or her party to claim the Senate majority.

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