It appears continuing the new-found Senate majority could well turn on the 2016 presidential election, and that puts Republicans in a precarious position.
When the GOP captured the Senate in 2014, much was made that their fledgling majority could be short-lived. Seeing that 24 of the 34 in-cycle 2016 seats are Republican-held means that Democrats need a minimum net conversion of only four states to re-claim control. That is, if the Ds – presumably in the person of former Secretary of State and First Lady Hillary Clinton – hold the White House upon President Obama’s exit. Otherwise, they would need to gain five.
In looking at the Senate players for the coming campaign we see not only a Republican Party forced to protect two dozen seats, but 10of those 24 can already be considered as highly competitive complete with a pair (IL-Kirk; WI-Johnson) in the toss-up category.
Of the vulnerable 10 states, seven (Arizona-McCain; Florida-Rubio, New Hampshire-Ayotte, North Carolina-Burr, Ohio-Portman, Pennsylvania-Toomey and Wisconsin-Johnson) are high-level presidential campaign targets. Likely putting the Republicans in even greater peril for the next election, President Obama twice carried five of the seven.
With Clinton in the early driver’s seat and polling ahead of any potential Republican nominee, particularly one who today would have to traverse a highly fractured primary and caucus process if not an open national convention, the Republican senator or successor nominee in these seven places has problems.
Primarily, the specific Republican senator would be forced to reverse the effects of what is likely to be an unfavorable voter turnout model. And, an opposite party victory in the presidential election before the senator’s same constituency adds yet another factor that promises to make an already trying re-election situation even more challenging.
Those 10 most vulnerable Senate Republicans are:
Arizona: Sen. John McCain – will likely draw significant Democratic opposition, because he is almost certain to face a credible Republican primary opponent. This will leave him weaker in the general election.
Florida: Sen. Marco Rubio – looking now as a better bet to run for president, the Florida Senate seat would come open. Under that scenario, we will immediately see a toss-up campaign featuring Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL-23) or another major Democratic contender. Florida is the most important state on the Republican presidential map, but the GOP nominee lost it in the last two elections.
Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk – this state is probably the Democrats’ best conversion opportunity. Illinois’ presidential election year voting history has been solidly Democratic in every election since 1984. The 2016 vote should be no exception, meaning a strong Dem Senate nominee can expect assistance from a major political wind at his or her back.
Kentucky: Sen. Rand Paul – should be safe for Sen. Paul, but if he runs for president the seat could be open and confusion would become a factor, particularly if the Dems can recruit outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear into the Senate race.
Louisiana: Sen. David Vitter or interim – if Sen. Vitter is elected governor this year, an interim senator would likely be on the ballot in 2016. Though the GOP would be viewed as the favored party, a strong Democrat such as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, if he were to run, would at least make the campaign a serious contest.
New Hampshire: Sen. Kelly Ayotte – though scoring relatively strong approval ratings, Sen. Ayotte will be in a very close re-election contest and her victory is far from assured.
North Carolina: Sen. Richard Burr – aside from the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R) who was re-elected four times, Sen. Burr is the only North Carolina senator to win re-election since 1968. In this increasingly marginal state, a close contest is guaranteed.
Ohio: Sen. Rob Portman – like Florida, Ohio is critical to Republican presidential hopes. But, here too, the Democrats carried the Buckeye State in the last two national campaigns. Incumbent Portman is strong, but the state’s political nature dictates that the Senate race will be close.
Pennsylvania: Sen. Pat Toomey – the senator won a close election (51-49 percent) in a strong Republican year to claim this seat. The turnout model will not be so kind in 2016. Former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA-7) and 2010 senatorial nominee who lost to Toomey, is back for another try.
Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson – the incumbent won a strong victory in the Republican year of 2010, ousting then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D). It looks like 2016 will set the stage for a re-match. The campaign has to be viewed as a toss-up, at least at the beginning.