May 26, 2015 — It’s not too early to begin handicapping the 2016 in-cycle Senate races, and projecting whether the Republicans’ can hold their hard-fought majority. Having to defend 24 of the 34 states hosting a Senate race, the Democrats have ample opportunity to convert the four GOP seats they need to re-claim control; or, five if presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton fails to keep the White House.
Beginning in easy fashion, the following Republicans and Democrats appear, at this time, safe for re-election:
• Richard Shelby – Alabama
• John Boozman – Arkansas
• Johnny Isakson – Georgia
• Mike Crapo – Idaho
• Chuck Grassley – Iowa
• John Hoeven – North Dakota
• James Lankford – Oklahoma
• Tim Scott – South Carolina
• John Thune – South Dakota
• Richard Blumenthal – Connecticut
• Brian Schatz – Hawaii
• Chuck Schumer – New York
• Ron Wyden – Oregon
• Patrick Leahy – Vermont
• Patty Murray – Washington
Primaries, Other Factors
The next group is secure before a general election voting base, but could find potentially problematic primary opposition or other unrelated factors that could conceivably change their political position…all are Republicans:
• Lisa Murkowski – Alaska
• Jerry Moran – Kansas
• Rand Paul – Kentucky
• David Vitter – Louisiana
• Mike Lee – Utah
Sen. Murkowski lost the 2010 Republican primary, only to win the seat in the general election as a write-in Independent; Sen. Moran will face at least one Republican primary opponent, but at this point does not look like the nomination battle will threaten him or cause further competition in the general election; Sen. Paul is running for president with an uncertain outcome to his campaign effort; Sen. Vitter is likely to be elected governor later this year meaning an appointed interim Louisiana senator will likely be seeking election in his place; and moderate Republican opponents have been searching for a primary opponent for Sen. Lee, but so far to no avail.
Defined General Elections
Already, a trio of states has well-defined general election battles:
• Sen. Roy Blunt – Missouri
• Sen. Rob Portman – Ohio
• Sen. Ron Johnson – Wisconsin
Sen. Blunt will almost assuredly face Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), a top Democratic recruit. Blunt appears poised to record a strong re-election victory, however.
Though former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) has annoying primary opposition, the general election lines appear to be drawn between the ex-governor and Sen. Rob Portman (R). With the presidential election conceivably coming down to Ohio, it will bring enormous pressure to bear on the Senate race. Sen. Portman should prevail, but no one can ignore this state as a potential Democratic conversion opportunity.
Sen. Johnson (R) facing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) will be a political back alley brawl. Since Wisconsin will be in play for the presidential election, and particularly so if Gov. Scott Walker becomes the Republican nominee, outside factors here, too, could be determining. Feingold leads in early polling, but his advantage may quickly prove fleeting.
The next group could be headed for tough general election campaigns depending upon how the opposition candidate field develops. In each case, the challenger field is underdeveloped:
• John McCain – Arizona
• Michael Bennet – Colorado
• Kelly Ayotte – New Hampshire
• Richard Burr – North Carolina
All but Sen. Bennet are Republicans. Each would win re-election today, but strong potential opponents exist, but unclear as to whether any or all will actually run.
We have five open seats, and all are yielding major competition in either the general election or incumbent’s primary:
• California – Barbara Boxer (D) – retiring
• Florida – Marco Rubio (R) – running for president
• Indiana – Dan Coats (R) – retiring
• Maryland – Barbara Mikulski (D) – retiring
• Nevada – Harry Reid (D) – retiring
The California race could well feature two Democrats in the general election; Indiana and Maryland lean heavily toward respective incumbent political party retention; Florida and Nevada have conversion potential, and hard-fought races are expected in each state.
The previously mentioned Wisconsin (Johnson vs. Feingold) and Florida open seats are pure toss-ups, with Nevada also having that potential once the Republican field solidifies. In terms of incumbents seeking re-election, there are already two in that category, but both have a distinct lean:
• Mark Kirk – Illinois
• Pat Toomey – Pennsylvania
Sen. Kirk could well be the most vulnerable Republican standing for re-election. Facing a presidential year turnout model in a heavily Democratic state against what will be a top challenger – probably Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) – while still recovering from a debilitating stroke, Sen. Kirk faces severe obstacles in order to secure re-election.
Sen. Toomey has so far been fortunate as Pennsylvania Democrats continue to stumble over their attempts to recruit a strong nominee. In the absence of a strong, consensus Democratic candidate, Sen. Toomey has the chance of skating through the turmoil to secure a second term despite the favorable Democratic presidential year Pennsylvania turnout model.
With Republicans having to protect so many incumbents, it is likely that the Democrats will gain Senate seats. Whether that number is enough to reclaim the majority is unclear. The future political waters appear murky. The presidential race, and which party eventually claims the White House, will go a long way to deciding these many tight senatorial campaigns.