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Republicans face serious barriers to holding U.S. Senate majority in 2016

REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Will Mitch McConnell only have two years at senate majority leader?

Forgive me in advance for even thinking about, let alone writing about, the next election already. But for those who can’t help themselves, it might be worth noting that the next round of federal elections will provide Democrats with a playing field that makes it very likely they will take back much of the ground they just lost in the U.S. Senate, with a decent possibility that control of the Senate will once again be in play in November 2016. This is mostly about the lineup of seats that will be on the ballot, but also several other factors, all of which are serious barriers to Republicans holding their just-won 54-46 majority.

You know this but don’t always think about it: Our bizarre system of staggered Senate terms (there’s little in the rest of the world that resembles this feature) means that one third (give or take) of the Senate seats come up for election or reelection every two years. The success of one party or the other in winning overall control of the Senate depends very strongly on which seats come up in which year.

You’ve read or heard it said a million times heading into the 2014 cycle that that quirk of our system created a very favorable playing field for Republicans in the Senate elections. Of the 36 seats that were on the ballot (a couple of extras because of special extras necessitated by deaths or retirements), Democrats had to defend 21 seats, the Republicans just 15. Although incumbency is generally an advantage, in this context, every Senate seat on the ballot represents a pick-up opportunity for the other party. So the Repubs entered 2014 with considerably more potential pick-up opportunities.

It was also the sixth-year of President Obama’s tenure, and the politically obsessed believe (with plenty of support for this belief in recent history) that the midterm of a president’s second term is very hazardous for the president’s party. Midterms are also, always, low-turnout elections and there is a growing body of evidence that low-turnout elections favor Republicans, who seem to have more support among the demographic groups that tend to turn out most reliably.

The particular feature of the 2014 Senate field that gave great fodder for analysis — and it indeed turned out to be huge — is that the Democrats had to defend seven Senate seats that they held in states that Mitt Romney had won in 2012. And six of these seven states had been routs that Romney carried by margins of 10 percentage points or more (and three where Romney’s margin was greater than 20).

In fact, the Republicans did pick up all seven of those seats, constituting the greatest part of the nine-Senate-seat pickup that gave them their new majority.

Looking ridiculously far ahead at the map for 2016, every one of these elements is not only reversed but totally reversed.

In 2016 (and leaving open the possibility that the Senate race map might expand via death or retirements):

  • Thirty-four seats are on the ballot, 24 of them currently held by Republicans, just 10 by Democrats, a much more lopsided starting point of pick-up opportunities than the one Republicans enjoyed this year.
  • Of the 10 states that have races featuring Dem incumbents, not a single one was carried by the Republican presidential nominee in either of the last two elections. None of them were even particularly close. Two of them (Nevada and Colorado) were carried by Obama with margins of 5-10 percentage points, the rest were carried both times by the Dem ticket by at least 10 points and several of them are among the safest of blue states which Obama carried twice by more than 20 points.
  • In 2016, the Republicans will have to defend 24 seats and seven of those are in states that Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012. Many of those are states that were considered to be in play in those presidential elections, a few are more reliably blue in presidential elections. There is, of course, no iron law of politics that a state that is dominated by one party in presidential elections cannot elect and reelect a popular senator from the other party. Minnesota has been among the most reliably blue states in presidential elections going back to the FDR era, but it has nonetheless elected and reelected many Republicans to the U.S. Senate. But this trick of a “wrong-party” senator staying popular in a state that leans the other way is getting harder to pull off. It certainly was hard for Dem senators in red states this year.
  • 2016 will be a presidential election year. President Obama will not be on the ballot but that may not stop Republicans from running against him. It is not the case that Democrats always pick up Senate seats in presidential election years, but it is virtually an iron law of U.S. turnout that voter participation will be up, roughly 20 percentage points, over the midterm turnout, which generally favors Dems and which at the very least means a substantially changed group of voters will be deciding the next round of Senate races.

This link will get you the list of 34 states that will have Senate races in 2016, and the current incumbents (although some of them may not run for another term. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, will be 83 on Election Day 2016. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, will be 80.) Barring the unforeseen, Minnesota will have no Senate race in 2016. Ron Johnson in next-door Wisconsin will likely get a strong challenge.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/08/2014 - 01:27 pm.


    Republicans are going to blow their opportunity to govern effectively… they’ll do this so long as they refuse to believe in government. They’re already planning to steer the government towards deficits and shut downs… they can’t help themselves. American’s are getting tired of it and even this distracted population of voters is starting to recognize the pattern of financial crises the republicans always manufacture. So, in addition to the math, their behavior will hurt them.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/08/2014 - 02:21 pm.

    Paul, still waiting…

    I am still waiting for the Democratic plan to save SS and Medicare.

    I do not anticipate any solutions to be proposed by the President or his party for these senior programs. However, I do predict that the Democrats will try to scare seniors into believing that the GOP is out to destroy SS.

    If the Democrats believe so strongly in government, why are they not proposing solutions to these problems?

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/08/2014 - 04:46 pm.


      You’d like to raise the cap on earnings, we’ll be waiting.

    • Submitted by Dave Eischens on 12/08/2014 - 06:05 pm.

      Democrats have proposed solutions

      Democrats have proposed (and are still proposing) solutions to improve SS and Medicare and more. Check out the Congressional Progressive Caucus website . Also the Progressive Change Campaign Committee .

      One might surmise these solutions don’t fit our major media’s narrative however, so they don’t get as much air time as shocking tripe like “death panels” or the manufactured conflict of right v. left. Since the emotional volume is constantly turned up so high, it’s difficult to hear the really good ideas that are out there.

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 12/08/2014 - 11:14 pm.

    Too Early

    Eric, You are correct… It is too early for this discussion, though it will be interesting to see how the states respond to Obama and the GOP tying each other up in knots for the next 2 years.

    Remember: I believe it takes 2 parties to have gridlock.. And both are very entrenched in their positions.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/09/2014 - 03:41 am.

    Republican plus on energy policy

    The new Republican congress in 2015 will reverse Obama energy program and reopen Yucca Mountain, start the northern segment of the Keystone pipeline project, and reduce the large subsidies for renewables. IMO these moves will be popular and help them in 2016. Negative for Republicans will be gradual awareness of the benefits from Obama’s health insurance programs.

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