Politics & Policy

Trump 2016 and the Fate of the GOP Senate

(Larry Downing/Reuters)
The 2016 Senate map couldn’t get much tougher for the GOP.

How much does a Donald Trump nomination endanger the GOP Senate majority?

Maybe not that much at all. A series of polls in the past week point to a much closer presidential race than preceding surveys: Reuters puts Hillary Clinton up by just one point nationally; Public Policy Polling puts her up by only four points; and Quinnipiac found Trump and Clinton within the margin of error in three swing states that feature key Senate races (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida).

Or maybe all of that is whistling past the graveyard, a brief polling bump reflecting Trump’s victorious status and Clinton’s still losing primaries to Bernie Sanders.

To win back the Senate, Democrats need to pick up either four seats and the presidency or five seats without the presidency. Republicans are trying to hold on to 24 seats, and a slew of them in states that trend blue in presidential years. Besides the big three swing states mentioned above, they’re trying to reelect GOP incumbents in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. Voter turnout in presidential years is usually higher and more diverse than in midterm years, and the likely GOP nominee, Trump, has awful approval numbers among women, Latinos, African Americans, and young voters. The ingredients are there for a wipeout, and after 2006, 2008, and 2012, Republicans know that when it can rain, it can pour.

The 2012 cycle taught Republicans that their Senate candidates can lose in friendly territory, even when their nominee is carrying the state comfortably.

The 2012 cycle taught Republicans that their Senate candidates can lose in friendly territory, even when their nominee is carrying the state comfortably. Mitt Romney won Indiana by ten points, but Democrat Joe Donnelly won the Senate race by six points; Romney won Missouri by nine points, but Claire McCaskill beat the radioactive Todd Akin by 16; Romney won Montana by 14 points, but Jon Tester won Montana by three; and Romney won North Dakota by 20 points, but Heidi Heitkamp won by less than 1 percent of the vote.

For Democrats, hopes of retaking the Senate begin with six key targets: Illinois’s Mark Kirk, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Ohio’s Rob Portman, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, and the open seat created by Marco Rubio’s retirement in Florida.  

In a normal political environment, the GOP could feel pretty good about its chances with those five incumbents and one open seat — but this presidential cycle has been anything but normal. In Pennsylvania, Toomey hasn’t trailed in a poll yet, nor has Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, up against Democratic governor Maggie Hassan. In Ohio, Portman’s neck-and-neck with former governor Ted Strickland. In Florida, the GOP nominee – either Representative Doug Jolly, Representative Ron DeSantis, or Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera – will start with a small advantage if Democrats nominate the obnoxious Alan Grayson; they’ll start with a slight disadvantage if Democrats pick comparably milquetoast Patrick Murphy.

The darkest outlook comes in Illinois, where there’s been little polling, but Democratic challengers Tammy Duckworth will start with a blue-state advantage over Kirk, and in Wisconsin, where Russ Feingold, the man who lost his seat to Johnson in 2010, has enjoyed a usually small but consistent lead in polling this year. In a normal year, Republicans could keep half of these six seats; in a bad one, they could lose all of them.

#share#The opportunities for a GOP pickup of a Democratic seat are sparse. Their best shot will come in Nevada, where Harry Reid is retiring, and perhaps in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet managed to survive the GOP wave of 2010 and should have the more heavily Democratic high turnout helping him. Keep in mind that these states have been looking a bit more blue than purple lately; neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney got more than 46 percent in these key Western states.

The next tier of Democratic targets will include Richard Burr in North Carolina, who enjoys a small lead in polling so far this year. The Obama wave in 2008 helped carry Kay Hagan over incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole, so Democrats will hope to duplicate the results. Current presidential-race polling is odd here; the Democratic firm PPP shows Hillary Clinton tied with Trump here, while the Republican Civitas poll puts Clinton ahead by nine points. If either of them is right, the GOP won’t be able to take Burr’s re-election for granted.

If the Democrats win a Senate seat in Indiana this year, it’s a sign the bottom has fallen out for the GOP.

Hyperbolic headline writers for the Washington Post recently contended that the “post-Trump reality” was that “no seat is safe” for Republicans, but their spotlighted case study, incumbent Missouri senator Roy Blunt, isn’t such an obvious example. Blunt can’t take it for granted, and Hillary’s small lead over Trump in the state is unnerving, but he leads over his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Jason Kander, by either seven points or 14 points, depending upon which poll you prefer. It’s a race to keep an eye on for Republicans, but no reason to panic yet.

There’s an open-seat race in Indiana, and Joe Donnelly demonstrated that the right kind of Democrat can beat the wrong kind of Republican in the Hoosier State. Current polling gives the Republican nominee, Todd Young, a twelve-point advantage over former Democratic congressman Baron Hill. If the Democrats win a Senate seat in Indiana this year, it’s a sign the bottom has fallen out for the GOP.

One other wrinkle: Three GOP Senate seats that would be safe under normal circumstances feature octogenarian incumbents: John McCain of Arizona is 80, Alabama’s Richard Shelby is 82, and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley is 83. They’re all hale and hearty for men in their eighth decade, but it’s not unthinkable that age and many years in Washington turn into disadvantages in this cycle.

#related#This assumes McCain wins his primary on August 30 against former state senator Kelli Ward.  (For what it’s worth, no Republican incumbent has lost a primary so far this year.) McCain is polling even with the expected Democratic nominee, Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, in the two polls conducted so far this year.

The good news for Republicans is that they have that four-seat cushion, most of their incumbents are skilled campaigners, and, after the chaotic, divided primary, no GOP campaign should be taking anything for granted this cycle. If Trump’s non-traditional Republican fan base votes for the GOP down-ticket, that could be a big boost for Portman in Ohio, Toomey in Pennsylvania, and the Florida nominee. But after watching one red state Senate seat after another slip through their fingers in 2012, pessimistic Republicans might look at the widespread challenges of this cycle and feel an unnerving déjà vu.


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