2016 Senate Landscape Reset

August 6th, 2015

Now that the last Independence Day fireworks have gone dark, it is a good time to take another look at the overall U.S. Senate landscape. To recap, Republicans enjoyed a 2014 where Democrats were defending seven seats in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012, with Republicans winning all seven as well as seats in Colorado and Iowa. In 2016, it is Republicans who will be defending on blue turf, in seven Republican Senate seats in states twice won by Obama: Florida, Iowa, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

With the close of the second quarter for fundraising at the end of June, fundraising totals can show which races may have serious competition and which races may still need candidate recruitment. Since the Senate still files their fundraising reports by hand, not all totals are immediately available. Ratings are based on composite ratings from the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.


Safe Democratic Holds (7): Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington
No real surprises in this category. All of these states are Democratic strongholds in presidential years and, with the exceptions of Connecticut, Hawaii and Maryland, are currently held by prominent Democratic incumbents. In Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal is running for a second term after serving 20 years as the state’s Attorney General. In Hawaii, Brian Schatz is seeking a full term after winning 2014’s special election to fill the remainder of Democratic icon Daniel Inouye’s term. Only in Maryland is no incumbent running, but with two prominent Democratic U.S. House members (Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards) running in a presidential year, it will be difficult for a Republican to succeed the retiring Barbara Mikulski.

Safe Republican Holds (11): Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah
Like the Safe Democratic Hold category, no major surprises here. All of these states, with the exception of Iowa, are strong Republican presidential states and Iowa is represented by Charles Grassley, the widely respected current chair of the Senate Judiciary committee. An early effort to challenge Utah Senator Mike Lee at the state party convention fizzled. One state to potentially watch going forward would be Kentucky. Senator Rand Paul is running for the Republican primary and the Kentucky Republican Party in May changed their presidential primary to a caucus to accommodate his bid without forcing him to vacate a reelection campaign (as Marco Rubio had to do in Florida). It is not yet clear whether Paul would appeal on the ballot for Senator should he win the presidential nomination, since Kentucky law prevents a candidate from appearing on the ballot more than once.

Likely Democratic Holds (1): California
California’s rating as a Likely Hold instead of a Safe Hold is mostly related to California’s jungle primary system and the diminishing possibility that an additional prominent Democrat may join the field. As of now, state Attorney General Kamala Harris is the clear leader, having raised $2.5 million in the first quarter and garnering endorsements from several national Democrat groups. The only other prominent Democrat in the race is U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, who is not even remotely the type of candidate credibly needed to challenge Harris. Should another Democrat get into the race like U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra, its possible for the race to become competitive and potentially split Democratic votes enough to allow two Republicans to sneak into the top two run-off. This scenario looks increasingly unlikely, and Harris would be heavily favored in any head to head matchup against any of the current Republican candidates. Expect this race to eventually move to Safe Democratic Hold.

Likely Republican Holds (5): Alaska, Indiana, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri
This category has an interesting group of races that fall under Likely Hold mostly due to uncertainty. In Alaska, Lisa Murkowski could face a potential match with former Senator Mark Begich in a general, as well as a potential rematch against 2010 primary opponent Joe Miller. If both challenges, materialize, Murkowski could be forced to spend significantly, but as of yet, neither opponent has officially joined the race. As of now, Murkowski remains unopposed. In Indiana, Dan Coats retired after a second tour in Washington, and several credible Republicans are looking to replace him, notably former state Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb, and U.S. Representatives Marlin Stutzman and Todd Young (though Young has yet to officially announce). With former U.S. Representative Baron Hill running for the Democrats, this race could potentially be competitive, especially with Democrats running stronger here in presidential years recently. Louisiana’s rating is based on considerable uncertainty. Incumbent Senator David Vitter is the favorite in 2015’s Louisiana governors’ race and would be able to appoint his replacement to serve out the balance of his term. Combined with the state’s jungle primary system, it is unclear how that would play out, especially with Vitter’s Congressional colleagues Charles Boustany (LA-03) and John Fleming (LA-04) actively looking at the race should Vitter win this fall. Finally, Roy Blunt should win in Missouri, but Democrats have a very strong recruit there in the young state Secretary of State Jason Kander.

Leans Democratic Hold (1): Colorado
Democratic Senator Michael Bennet has had a charmed political life. First, he was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to replace Ken Salazar. Then, he won barely the full term in 2010 after both his opponent and the Republican gubernatorial candidate imploded. Now, he seeks a second term as the Colorado Republican Party faces its weakest bench in years. Bennet has improved as candidate, but will probably never be considered a political talent. A candidate like now-U.S. Senator Cory Gardner would definitely make this race competitive, even as Colorado has voted more Democratic in presidential years. There is still time for Republicans to find a strong candidate, but time is running short.

Leans Republican Hold (4): Arizona, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio
Similar to Colorado, these states should be competitive but are not quite as competitive as the tossups for structural reasons. In Arizona, John McCain would be a favorite to win against U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick in a general election, but may get a challenge from the Right in the Republican primary. If he were to lose to U.S. Representative Matt Salmon or U.S. Representative Dave Schweikert, both of whom have been rumored primary opponents, Republicans would probably still be favorites to hold the seat. Despite Democrat efforts to increase Latino turnout, Arizona is not quite yet a swing state. In New Hampshire, this rating is based on the Democratic candidate being unknown, as Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte remains a strong candidate in her own right. Should popular Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan decide to challenge her, this race could easily move to Tossup. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is also waiting on an opponent, after former Senator Kay Hagan decided against another run. While North Carolina has become incredibly competitive in national elections, the absence of a strong Democratic opponent will be a hindrance in attempting to beat the very vanilla Burr. Finally, in Ohio, incumbent Republican Rob Portman faces a very likely competitive general election against former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland. Portman is counting on his financial muscle to carry him, as he reportedly has over $10 million in cash on hand, nearly ten times that of Strickland. Given Ohio’s bellweather status, this race could easily become a tossup, but Portman begins with the advantages of incumbency and money.

Pure Tossups (5): Florida, Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
At last, the tossups, with Republicans defending four. Like the Lean races, these races are fluid and could easily move to Lean on either side. In Nevada, Harry Reid’s retirement opened the other competitive Democratic held seat. Both parties got their preferred candidates in former Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican U.S. Representative Joe Heck. With Nevada Democrats getting a first-hand look at the impact poor turnout in Clark County (Las Vegas) can have, expect them to redouble their efforts in a presidential year. In Florida, neither party was able to exercise the same degree of control over the process. On the Democratic side, U.S. Representatives Patrick Murphy (FL-18) and Alan Grayson (FL-09) will square off, with Murphy being the preference of most national Democrats. On the Republican side, U.S. Representatives Ron DeSantis (FL-06) and Jeff Miller (FL-01) and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopex-Canterra are running, though only DeSantis has officially announced. With the state Supreme Court recently ordering the state legislature to substantially redraw the state’s Congressional map, other members of the state’s Congressional delegation may take another look at the Senate race. Like Ohio, Florida has become a key presidential bellweather, and a close Senate race could be tipped by the presidential race.

Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are nearly identical and are the three most vulnerable Republican held seats in 2016. In Illinois, Mark Kirk has made an admirable recovery from a stroke he suffered in 2012, but that has not stopped Democrats from making him a prime target in 2016. U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth was the Democrat’s top recruit for the seat, even though she will face a primary against Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp. Still, with Obama having won the state with 58 percent of the vote in 2012, Democrats are confident they can defeat Kirk in a presidential election year. Likewise in Wisconsin, Democrats got their top recruit when former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold agreed to rematch again Republican Ron Johnson. Johnson stunned Feingold in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and Democrats seem sure that a presidential year will wash Johnson back out of the Senate. Early polling would agree, though Johnson has not conceded from a fundraising standpoint, with both candidates raising comparable Q2 totals according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Finally, Pennsylvania may be the most winnable of these three seats from a Republican standpoint. Incumbent Pat Toomey has built up a sizable warchest, reporting over $7 million in cash on hand at the end of Q1. He’ll need it, as he has already started running ads in the expensive media markets in Pennsylvania. In additional to financial resources, Toomey has also been fortunate that Democrats have largely struck out in candidate recruitment. As of now, his likely opponent would be former U.S. Representative Joe Sestak, who Toomey defeated in 2010 to win the seat. Sestak has an impressive resume as a retired admiral in the Navy, but he has a reputation of being a difficult candidate. Despite all of that, Toomey only won 51 percent of the vote in a non-presidential year, and 2016 will present a different electorate. Toomey is running a good campaign, but sometimes the fundamentals are too much to overcome, as Kay Hagan learned in North Carolina in 2014.