A possible bright spot for Republicans this election year are Senate races. Once widely believed to be ripe for a Democratic takeover, the Senate looks likely to remain in Republican hands, although the Republican majority will almost certainly be diminished. Even though Donald Trump is struggling in the presidential race, voter dissatisfaction with Trump does not appear to be trickling down to most Republican Senate candidates.
This year Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats while Democrats only defend 10. This gives a structural advantage to Democrats. Half of the Republican seats were considered safe from the outset, while seven Democrat seats are safe. Six Republican seats were considered at risk, rated as either tossups or leaning Democrat. Only the Nevada seat of Harry Reid, who is retiring, is considered a possible Republican pickup.
Many defending Republicans are members of the Tea Party class of 2010 and are up for reelection for the first time. These candidates were part of a wave and may have won office in states that are not typically as conservative as the Republican Party. This could give another edge to Democrat challengers.
The current division of the Senate is 54 Republicans to 46 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with Democrats). The Democrats would need a net pickup of five seats to win control of the Senate.
Here are summaries for the six threatened Republican seats:
- In Florida, Marco Rubio has established a six-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average over Democrat Patrick Murphy. At this point, the state is leaning Republican.
- In Illinois, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) has a slight lead over Republican incumbent Mark Kirk. Many analysts consider the race a tossup, but given the status of Illinois as a deep blue state, this seat will probably be a Republican loss.
- In New Hampshire, incumbent Kelly Ayotte has a margin of error lead over Gov. Maggie Hassan. The race must be considered a tossup.
- In Ohio, where Donald Trump is performing better than expected, incumbent Rob Portman has established a double-digit lead over former governor Ted Strickland. Republicans are likely to hold Portman’s seat.
- In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey is in a dead heat with Katie McGinty, a former business executive and lobbyist who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2014.
- In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson is being challenged by the Democrat that he unseated in 2010, Russ Feingold. Feingold leads by an average of 10 points. This seat will almost certainly be a Republican loss.
As the campaign unfolded, other Republican seats were threatened as well. Seats previously considered safe in Georgia, North Carolina and Missouri became very close in polling over the summer. At this point, Johnny Isakson seems safe with a double-digit lead in Georgia. Roy Blunt has a slight lead in Missouri, but the race should still be considered a tossup since the most recent poll shows a nine-point shift toward Democrat Jason Kander. The North Carolina average is a dead heat with the most recent polls show Republican Richard Burr trailing Democrat Deborah Ross. The Charlotte riots and North Carolina’s gender bathroom controversy may be impacting the race as polling shows a 10-point swing in the past week.
The sole Democratic seat vulnerable to a Republican takeover is the Nevada seat of Minority Leader Harry Reid. Republican Joe Heck, a congressman, is facing Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the state attorney general. This race is also a tossup with Heck with a 4-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average.
Democrats are favored in Illinois and Wisconsin for two of the five seats required to win the Senate. There are four remaining tossup races in Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Democrats would need to win three of these four tossups, as well as holding Nevada, to take control.
Given the unusual election season and the unpopularity of the presidential candidates in both parties, it is not impossible for the Democrats to sweep the tossup races and become the majority party in the Senate. The looming government shutdown may also impact races. Present trends suggest that the Republicans can expect to lose at least some of these tossup races and emerge with more tenuous control of the Senate if they are able to hold onto majority status at all.
The odds are long that Democrats will sweep the tossup races to win the necessary seats. Nevertheless, Republicans should not be too confident of maintaining Senate control. They need only look back to 2014 to find an example of a time when a party made a sweep of tossup races to flip Senate control… against the odds.