By Jim Ellis
July 12, 2016 — The US Senate campaigns have attracted a great deal of attention in this election cycle, and they are likely to gain even more as the election cycle progresses. Along with the presidency, control of the legislative chamber is at stake and either party can claim a national victory.
At this point, 11 races are in the Toss-up, Lean Republican, or Lean Democratic categories. Interestingly, except for the New Hampshire campaign, the races appear to fall into five neat pairs. Therefore, the following couplings help us view the national Senate picture:
• Illinois and Wisconsin: Incumbent Republicans Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) are clearly in the most vulnerable of political positions. Both senators trail their Democratic opponents, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL-8) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), respectively, in all polls. The Illinois voting patterns are decidedly Democratic, and particularly so in presidential years, and Kirk is behind by mid-single digits in every public poll. It is possible his margin worsens.
The Wisconsin numbers are more erratic, with Sen. Johnson recently trailing from between one to 11 points. It is clear that these two states are the top Democratic conversion opportunities, and both must be won if the party is to re-take the majority they lost in the 2014 election.
• Florida and Nevada: These two states could well determine the majority outcome. If either the Republican or Democratic candidates sweep both, it is likely that their party will capture the majority. Republicans got a major break when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) decided to seek re-election. His primary polling looks very strong, but the general election pairings, particularly against Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL-18), suggests a dead heat. Rubio and the GOP would get a further break if Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL-9) were to win the Democratic nomination. Either side can win this race.
Sen. Harry Reid’s (D-NV) open Nevada seat is in almost identical position as Florida. The race between Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV-3) and former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) polls close, though the Republican congressman holds a consistent lead in all early configurations. If Heck wins and converts this Democratic seat the Republicans chances of holding the majority expand exponentially.
• Ohio and Pennsylvania: These two races, geographically adjacent, are also quite similar. Two strong Republican incumbents face opponents considerably weaker than themselves, but before two electorates that trend toward the other party in recent presidential elections (longer for Pennsylvania). Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) polls better against Katie McGinty (D-PA) than does Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) opposing former Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH), but both will be tough battles all the way to Election Day.
Portman’s current pattern is similar to his 2010 campaign. Then, he was in a tight contest with Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D) but blew away his opponent in the final two weeks. Republicans are hoping for a repeat of this pattern.
Toomey stands stronger right now against McGinty after a Democratic primary meltdown involving she and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA-7), but this race is long from being over. Donald Trump performing better in Pennsylvania than a typical Republican so far is good news for Toomey, and the senator has adroitly handled the presidential nominee.
Both of these campaigns are far from settled, and the determining factors may well reside with presidential turnout.
• Arizona and North Carolina: These races are similar in that two veteran Republican incumbents are polling close to surprisingly strong female Democratic candidates. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) seeks a sixth term, but leads Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ-1) by only two to four points in all polling. McCain does have Aug. 30 Republican primary opposition from former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), so his strength in winning the nomination could well be a harbinger for general election performance. This could well be the Democrats’ national sleeper race.
North Carolina voters routinely unseat their US Senators. In fact, when Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) was re-elected in 2010, he became the first senator to hold his particular seat since 1968. Obviously, this pattern helps Democratic nominee Deborah Ross, a former state Representative, just as it did state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) when he unseated then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D) in 2014. The early cycle was rife with complaints that the Democrats were under-recruiting here, and feared an easy Burr win. But, Ross is proving herself as more than an acceptable challenger, hence the race is on. The changing North Carolina population always makes re-election difficult for any incumbent.
• Iowa and Missouri: Democrats have been making claims that they can challenge in both Iowa and Missouri, but the voting trends suggest otherwise. Because of the Supreme Court hearing controversy, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has come under fire, and this appears to tighten his polling against former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D-IA), at least in the short term.
The Democratic challengers also tout Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D-MO) as one of their best candidates in the nation. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) leaves no stone unturned, however, and Show Me State electoral trends have moved decidedly Republican in presidential election years. Though Democrats will compete hard in Iowa and Missouri, both GOP incumbents will be very difficult to dislodge and such a result must still be considered a long shot.
New Hampshire: The Granite State stands alone in the competitive categories because the electorate’s voting patterns have swung more wildly here than in any place since 2006. It is possible that no candidates are less in control of the final outcome than Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH).
New Hampshire voters have defeated more federal office holders since 2006 than they have re-elected. And, their electoral swings have featured clean sweeps from the top of the ballot to the bottom. The fact that Donald Trump is competitive with Hillary Clinton in the state, and that the former did very well in his NH primary and the latter fared poorly, suggest the Republicans could have a slight advantage as the New Hampshire voting pendulum swings in 2016. Sen. Ayotte may well need such momentum to win this election. Clearly, this contest will be a pure toss-up until the Election Day voters finally decides the outcome.