The Senate Reset

By Jim Ellis

Oct. 20, 2016 — It’s now inside of three weeks before the election, and hearing leaders of both parties claim they could control the Senate in the next Congress, it’s time to take a step back and see where the candidates actually stand.

To re-cap, Republicans are risking 24 seats as compared to the Democrats’ 10. In order to re-capture the majority they lost in 2014, the Dems must retain all 10 of their defensive seats, and then convert at least four Republican states if Hillary Clinton is elected president and five if she is not.

The Democrats appear safe in nine of their 10 seats: California (open-Barbara Boxer), Colorado (Michael Bennet), Connecticut (Richard Blumenthal), Hawaii (Brian Schatz), Maryland (open-Barbara Mikulski), New York (Chuck Schumer), Oregon (Ron Wyden), Vermont (Patrick Leahy), and Washington (Patty Murray).

The Republicans appear headed for victory in 14 of their defensive states: Alabama (Richard Shelby), Alaska (Lisa Murkowski), Arkansas (John Boozman), Georgia (Johnny Isakson), Idaho (Mike Crapo), Iowa (Chuck Grassley), Kansas (Jerry Moran), Kentucky (Rand Paul), North Dakota (John Hoeven), Ohio (Rob Portman), Oklahoma (James Lankford), South Carolina (Tim Scott), South Dakota (John Thune), and Utah (Mike Lee).

The lone competitive Democratic state is outgoing Minority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada seat where former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson) are in a dogfight battle. Heck has been leading in most polls, but a new CNN/ORC survey (Oct. 10-15; 698 likely Nevada voters) finds Masto ahead 52-45 percent, her best poll of the campaign. But, these numbers are contradicted by Monmouth University’s (Oct. 14-17; 413 likely Nevada voters) data that gives Heck a 45-42 percent edge; the latter result from a sampling group that favors Hillary Clinton by seven points. Finally, to make things even more confusing, CBS News/YouGov (Oct. 12-14; 996 likely Nevada voters) sees the race in a flat tie with both candidates attracting 39 percent support.

The rest of the playing field lies in Republican states. The races leaning toward an individual GOP candidate comes from a group that includes: Arizona (John McCain), Florida (Marco Rubio), and Louisiana (open-David Vitter).

Republican seats that are moving clearly, or appear leaning, toward the Democratic column are: Illinois (Mark Kirk; latest poll: Tammy Duckworth +14), Indiana (open-Dan Coats; latest two polls: Evan Bayh +6 apiece), and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson; latest two polls: Russ Feingold +12; +5). The aforementioned trio contains three of the four seats Democrats need to convert assuming they hold Nevada, which is still a big assumption at this late juncture of the campaign.

Extrapolating further, all of this yields four Republican seats either residing in the toss-up category or barely leaning to the incumbent, and how they fall determines the Senate majority. The states are: Missouri (Roy Blunt — latest poll: Blunt +2), New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte — latest poll: tied, Ayotte +1), North Carolina (Richard Burr — latest three polls: Burr +1, +4, tied), and Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey — latest polls: Toomey +4, -2).

The underlying trends in Missouri generally favor the Republicans, especially when considering Donald Trump still leads in all polling. The Democrats do appear well positioned to retain the open governor’s race, however. They hope to translate the momentum generated from Attorney General Chris Koster’s (D) campaign to catapult Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) ahead of Sen. Blunt.

The New Hampshire race between Sen. Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) has been virtually tied for more than a year. With no early voting mechanism in the Granite State, this race will truly go down to Election Day.

Sen. Richard Burr has been rebounding of late after a couple of surveys began to show him trailing slightly in his battle with former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D). He now holds a small lead in the latest polling, but sees a potential drag on Republican turnout both from Trump and the governor’s race where incumbent Pat McCrory (R) is in danger of losing to Attorney General Roy Cooper (D).

The Pennsylvania race has gone back and forth as well, but recent data is showing improvement for first-term Sen. Pat Toomey (R) despite Donald Trump’s statewide fortunes fading fast. Turnout will be key here, and the Republican base must be highly mobilized if Sen. Toomey is to survive. The fact that Trump likely stifles GOP momentum is a clear negative for Toomey. Former gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty is the Democratic nominee.

Therefore, using the numbers from above, today’s count is likely 48 Republicans, 48 Democrats, with four seats set to go down to the political wire.

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