Published on TheHill.com on May 19, 2015
Democrats are salivating at the prospect of recapturing the Senate in 2016. With 24 of the 34 seats up in this cycle currently held by Republicans, the Dems are hoping to make up for the ground they lost in 2010 and 2014 in the upper chamber. The decisions of Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) not to seek reelection whets their appetites further.
But not so fast! A close analysis of the seats in play shows that the composition of the 2017 Senate is not likely to be much different from its current makeup.
Indiana, one of the two states where a vacant seat is attracting Democratic interest, is a solidly Republican state. Carried by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, it only elected a Democratic senator that year because Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate nominee, called a pregnancy stemming from a rape “something that God intended.” Barring such self-immolation, there is no reason not to believe the Republicans will hold Coats’s seat.
Republicans might lose the Rubio seat in Florida, but the possible loss could be offset by a GOP victory for the Nevada seat being vacated by Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Florida and Nevada are genuine toss-up states. President Obama beat Romney in the Sunshine State by only 0.9 percent of the vote, the smallest margin of victory for the president in any state. Republican Gov. Rick Scott won reelection two years later by only 1.1 percent. Florida could go either way.
And so could Nevada. Republican Brian Sandoval won the governorship in 2010, defeating Rory Reid — Harry’s son — by 53 percent to 42 percent. In 2014, he was reelected with 71 percent of the vote. While Obama carried the state in both elections, Nevadans in 2012 elected Republican Dean Heller to the Senate, albeit by only 1.2 percent of the vote.
Beyond these two toss-up states, the best Democratic hope for a pickup is Illinois, where Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is handicapped by the possible lingering effects of a stroke he suffered early in his tenure. Kirk’s efforts to sanction Iran, however, give him a great issue to take into the election. Still, Illinois is a quintessentially Democratic state and could revert to form in 2016.
But Republicans could well offset any losses by winning in Colorado, where Michael Bennet, the surprise winner of a tight race in 2010, is up for reelection. Having won by only 1.7 percent, despite a terribly flawed campaign by Tea Party favorite Republican Ken Buck, Bennet should be in Republican crosshairs this year. Sen. Cory Gardner’s (R-Colo.) upset win in 2014 and two Republican gains in the House in 2010 could indicate a swing to the right in this formerly reliable Republican state.
And don’t forget — as Democrats tend to — Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray (D) survived a strong challenge from Republican Dino Rossi, with 52 percent to 48 percent. In the two weeks before the 2010 election, Rossi was running even or slightly ahead of Murray, forcing her to turn to slashing negative ads in the final days. Rossi, ineptly, failed to answer the attacks, and they did their damage. But Murray is no shoo-in this time around.
Wisconsin could pose a problem for Republicans as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) seeks to turn back a challenge from Russ Feingold, whom he defeated in 2010 by 5 points. With Gov. Scott Walker’s increasingly successful runs in the state and Johnson’s record as senator, it is hard to see Wisconsin electing Feingold.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), elected in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote, faces former Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost to Gov. John Kasich by 2 points in 2010. Portman should be able to keep his seat.
Democrats hope that Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa) or Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) could prove vulnerable, but it’s not very likely.
So Democrats could lose Nevada and Colorado. And the Republicans could lose Illinois and Florida. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
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