The 2014 election is critical for Republicans in ways that few pundits are addressing. As the party steadily retreats into a regional strategy, focusing more intensely on aging, rural whites who make up a steadily declining percentage of the electorate, the party becomes increasingly vulnerable to wave elections – major disruptive events that can shift power for decades. One of those may be looming in 2016.
This year’s election is the GOP’s last hope to build a bulwark against its declining national presence. The vagaries of the election cycle mean that a large percentage of Democratic Senate seats are up for grabs in 2014, many of them on terrain that still favors Republicans. The flipside of this happy coincidence is that a tsunami looms in 2016 that could put the GOP in danger of dropping a dozen or more Senate seats and put the House back in play.
Control of the Senate for a couple of years is the least of the GOP’s priorities in this election. Republicans need more than a mere majority in the Senate. Unless the party can get at least 52 or 53 seats, which would represent a remarkable showing, they face a catastrophe in the election that follows.
To get a sense of the growing national gap between the parties, compare the prospects for the 2014 and 2016 elections. Based on current numbers and the assumption that Republicans generally fare better in off-year elections, a massive GOP sweep might give them as many as 53 Senate seats. Facing their best electoral landscape in decades they still have no shot at absolute control of the Senate.
Now look at 2016.
Of the 33 seats facing election in 2016, Democrats hold only ten. None of those ten are in states won by McCain or Romney. Colorado and Nevada could potentially be competitive depending on who runs, but there is little likelihood of a contest elsewhere. Barring a major flub or retirement, the Democrats will not be playing defense anywhere on the map in 2016.
Worse, Democrats traditionally perform at their peak in Presidential election years. Even worse, there is no Republican frontrunner for the 2016 Presidential race. Since the fifties, Republicans always nominate the runner-up from the last election cycle (’64 and ’00 are the exceptions, in which the previous runner-up did not run). The runner-up from the bizarre 2012 campaign, Rick Santorum, is not a major figure.
Republican Senate candidates in 2016 will be getting no help from the top of the ticket. There is no sane Presidential candidate waiting in the wings.
Neither Jeb Bush nor Chris Christie shows any sign of winning over the frothing base. If it seemed like the 2012 nominating race was freak show, get ready for some truly nauseating action in 2016. Unless the Democrats can find another Black Communist Fascist Muslim born in Africa to nominate for President, Republicans will be struggling to manufacture even the marginal enthusiasm that left them short in the last two elections.
Many of the 23 seats Republicans will be defending sit in territory where the party is steadily losing ground. Seven of them are in states the party lost in both of the last two Presidential campaigns. Barring an extraordinarily poor Democratic nominee, Republicans can expect to start each of those campaigns at either a toss-up or trailing. Those Senators:
Florida – Rubio
Illinois – Kirk
Iowa – Grassley
Wisconsin – Johnson
Ohio – Portman
Pennsylvania – Toomey
New Hampshire – Ayotte
The rest of the Republican field will be defending seats in states Obama lost, but that provides limited comfort. Another eight of those Republicans will be running in states that have already elected a Democrat to their other Senate seat.
Alaska – Murkowski
North Carolina – Burr
Indiana – Coats
Louisiana – Vitter
Arkansas – Boozman
Missouri – Blunt
North Dakota – Hoeven
South Dakota – Thune
That’s 15 seats Republicans will be defending in states that either voted for Obama or have recently sent a Democrat to the Senate. Some of them should be pretty solid, like Murkowski and Thune, but the map gives them no guarantees. And with the party in such a deep defensive stance, resources will be scarce.
The news gets worse when you look into the narrow pool of what should be “sure-thing” states. The Arizona Senate race in 2012 was surprisingly close. Whether Arizona comes into play may depend on whether McCain decides to run again and if not, how daffy the Arizona GOP’s replacement candidate is.
Likewise, Georgia and Kentucky ought to be safe, but this year Democratic challengers are running unexpectedly close races. Altogether, Republicans will be defending 23 seats. At least seven of them will face strong headwinds from the start. Another eight have to be expected to be competitive. And three more warrant watching.
With seven Republicans defending Blue-state seats, another eight in competitive states, and three others teetering toward purple, just a modest overall Democratic showing in 2016 would be enough for an epic-making sweep. And that’s before you look at the ways that demographics are eroding the already tenuous gerrymandering that protects Republican control of the House. A subject for another time.
If Republicans somehow manage to sweep all eight of the tossup Senate races in 2014 they will hold a narrow majority of 53 Senate seats. Almost anything less than that gives Democrats a solid shot at a super-majority in 2016. Failing to take the Senate would give Democrats an opening to rack up the kind of overwhelming Senate majority in 2016 that they haven’t seen since the sixties.
This is the kind of math Republicans can expect to face on a consistent basis as the consequences of a decade of mounting extremism become increasingly difficult to escape. Chickens are coming home…
Review the list of Senate races in 2016 at Wikipedia.