With any hope of retaking the White House slipping behind the big Blue Ball, Republicans badly need to retain the Senate. Regardless of what happens to the House, another four-to-eight years of Democratic control of the Presidency promises a massive remake of the court system. Holding the Senate will be a critical brake on that revolution.
A big win in 2014 provided a valuable cushion. That buffer should help Republicans avoid a Democratic super-majority after the 2016 election, but it wasn’t big enough to sustain any hope of Senate control. The math is relentless. Republicans will lose the Senate in 2016 and face long odds against regaining it in 2018.
This is the shape of the game:
Currently we get a very different electorate in a Presidential election year from the one we see in off-years. That gap is slowly closing, but for now it remains pretty pronounced. Turnout for the 2016 national election will be 70-90% higher than it was in 2014. That voting pool will be the least white and most Hispanic in our history, trends which are accelerating.
Compared to the 2014 voting pool voters in 2016, and to a lesser extent 2018, will on average be younger, less religious, more urban, and less white than in 2012 and 2014. The amplitude of the Democratic wave will vary based on location, but it will be higher than the difference between 2010 and 2012. These demographic trends are slowly cutting into the Republican off-year advantage, forcing the party to start playing defense on a broader and broader front.
Republicans currently hold the advantage in the Senate by a margin of 54-46. In 2016, Republicans will be defending 24 of the 34 seats up for election. Out of those 24, ten are in a state that 1) Obama carried at least once, and 2) already has one Democratic Senator. In other words, these are places where Democrats can and consistently do win in a Presidential election year.
Democrats will be defending two seats that Republicans could conceivably win, Colorado and Nevada. Unfortunately under 2016 conditions those states will be almost as difficult for Republicans as New Hampshire or Pennsylvania. Given the shape of the electorate in a Presidential election year, it will be almost impossible for Republicans to flip any Democratic seats in 2016.
Keep in mind that detailed analysis isn’t easy this far out. Senate races are more fluid than the Presidency. Personalities and local forces have a greater impact on the outcome. Let’s break the Republicans’ 24 seats in the 2016 election into four buckets: the Kiss List, certain holds, likely losses, and likely competitive wins.
1) The ‘Kiss List,’ as in, ‘kiss ‘em goodbye’ (4)
IL – Mark Kirk
NH – Kelly Ayotte
PA – Toomey
WI – Johnson
It hardly matters who runs in these races. These seats were won solely on the power of the 2010 Obamacare paranoia. It would take a Democratic collapse on an epochal scale for Republicans to retain any of those seats.
Drop four seats without gaining one elsewhere and the Republicans have lost the Senate.
2) Certain GOP holds (5)
AL – Shelby
ID – Crapo
OK – Lankford
SC – Scott
UT – Lee
There are some places that just aren’t going to be competitive no matter how weird things get. Demographics mean that South Carolina might become competitive soon, but Democrats show no signs of assembling any credible organization. Scott is vulnerable there, but it doesn’t look like anyone is going to challenge him in a serious way. Lee might lose a primary, but whoever beats him has a ticket to DC.
3) Interesting races, in order of vulnerability (6)
OH – Portman
FL – (retiring)
NC – Burr
IN – (retiring)
MO – Blount
AZ – McCain
Based on demographics, candidates, and current polling, Democrats can be reasonably confident of winning the first three. The second three are vulnerable based on contingencies.
In all of the bottom three races, Republicans are likely to do something stupid, making it possible for Dems to pick one up. McCain is a wildcard. If McCain loses his primary, that seat will flip. Flake won Arizona in 2012 by only a few thousand votes. You can expect that Hispanics are going to be motivated, organized and deeply hostile to Arizona Republicans in 2016.
4) Competitive, but likely GOP wins (9)
IA – Iowans like Grassley, but the state has gone blue in the last three Presidential years.
ND – Depends on who runs. North Dakotans elected a Democrat in the last Presidential year.
AK – Murkowski is very popular, but it depends on who runs. AK had a Democratic Senator and Independent Governor until last year.
AR – Boozman is a cardboard cutout who will attract a strong challenger. The race is a good test of whether Democrats can still be competitive in the South under even the most favorable conditions.
GA – Democrats proved in ’14 that the state can be competitive. Demographics are trending hard in their favor.
KS – Discord inside the GOP is high and climbing. In a Presidential year there could be a surprise.
KY – Rand Paul is an awkward fit there.
LA – Vitter has a lot of ugly baggage. Again, demographics have potential to make this interesting.
SD – Just like ND, SD does elect Democrats to the Senate in Presidential years. Depend on candidates.
Looking across the entire field, it’s clear that Republicans can’t realistically hold the Senate in 2016. Barring some historic Republican collapse, losing in places in Georgia, Louisiana and Kentucky, it will be also be impossible for Democrats to gain a super-majority. Democrats should pick up somewhere between seven and twelve seats.
A good Republican rebound in the 2018 races could help Republicans gain back as many as seven seats, but probably no more than that. If Democrats pick up eleven seats in 2016, which is a possibility but a stretch, they will likely hold the Senate for a very long time.
There is one other likely outcome from the 2016 races that should worry everyone on both sides. Unless the Democrats have a very big year, only three or four states will continue to have Senate delegations split between parties. If the map holds as expected, we will see a geographic consolidation of our political parties more extreme than at any time since the Civil War. All policy questions aside, this is an unhealthy trend with uncertain implications.