February 2016 Senate Update

February 29th, 2016

U.S. Senate – February 2016 Update

Republicans currently hold 54 seats and must defend 10 of the 12 most competitive seats up for election, creating a major challenge to holding the Senate. Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, and New Hampshire are Republican seats characterized as Tossup or Tilt Democrat. Democrats are defending two vulnerable seats, Colorado and Nevada, though only Nevada is considered a Tossup.

The table below shows summarizes and aggregates ratings for the most competitive Senate races of 2016. It utilizes the four most recognized, nonpartisan political newsletters to paint a complete picture of each race.

Senate Chart Feb 2016

Since Republicans will likely lose a Senate seat in Illinois, the balance of power is increasingly focused on four Republican held seats: Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, as well as one Democratic held seat, Nevada. These seats are considered the most competitive in the nation.

In Wisconsin, public polling consistently gives former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold a modest lead over incumbent Republican Ron Johnson, who defeated Feingold in 2010. Johnson has been a principled conservative, while Feingold occupies the far left of the political spectrum.

Florida, being vacated by Republican Marco Rubio, is the site of competitive primaries for both parties. Three Republicans dominate the GOP primary. Ron DeSantis, who is backed by conservative groups including Club for Growth, has dominated the fundraising race. In the fourth quarter, DeSantis raised $772,000 and ended 2015 with $2.6 million cash on hand. David Jolly, a Congressman from the St. Petersburg area, raised just $112,000 in the fourth quarter, while Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera raised $318,000. Democrats, meanwhile, face a primary between progressive Rep. Alan Grayson and Rep. Patrick Murphy, who occupies a Republican-leaning seat on the state’s east coast and enjoys the backing of most party regulars.

Instead of running for what would have likely been an easy reelection, New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan decided to challenge incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte, in what Politico refers to as a “smackdown.” Neither candidate faces a substantial primary threat. The race is likely to be one of the most expensive and brutal in the country. Ayotte reported $6 million cash on hand at the end of 2015 to Hassan’s $1.5 million. Ayotte enjoys a slight advantage in early head-to-head polling.

As a slightly Democratic-leaning state in federal elections, Pennsylvania is always a challenge for Republicans. Pat Toomey’s standing has improved slightly over the past year, as Democrats Joe Sestak and Katie McGinty face off for the Democratic nomination. Toomey posted strong fourth quarter fundraising numbers, bringing his cash on hand to an impressive $9.6 million. With largely unknown opponents, general election polling showing Toomey with slight leads over the Democrats are largely meaningless at this point.

Nevada presents a rare opportunity for a Republican pickup. Republican Rep. Joe Heck will almost certainly face off against former Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. Heck has held down a highly competitive seat in the Las Vegas suburbs and is viewed as a very strong candidate against Masto, Harry Reid’s hand-picked candidate.

The only Democrat incumbent facing a competitive race is Colorado’s Michael Bennet, where 11 Republicans have already lined up to challenge him. Bennet’s unpopular vote in support of President Obama’s Iran deal has become a central focus of the campaign. With poor reelection numbers, Republicans view this seat as a potential pick-up, though Bennet has amassed a giant war chest for the fight ahead.

Republican incumbents in Ohio, Missouri, and North Carolina are hardly in the clear, but thus far lackluster Democratic candidates give each a leg up in their contests.