Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat and a leading crusader for reform of the money-in-politics mess, has confirmed that he will seek his old Senate seat next year in a rematch with first-term Republican incumbent Ron Johnson.
Feingold, who won four Senate terms starting in 1992, was defeated in 2010, 52-47 percent, by political newcomer Johnson, an Oshkosh businessman and multimillionaire, and, as things stand now, Feingold will likely be running against Johnson next year. Feingold will be 63. Johnson will be 61.
You might think Wisconsin is trending strongly Republican because of all the attention Gov. Scott Walker has received for his election and re-election, his successful defeat of the effort to recall him, and his current high standing in polls for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. But don’t overlook the last Senate election in which Democrat Tammy Baldwin defeated long-time Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson by a solid 51-46 percent margin.
Minnesota won’t have a U.S. Senate race next year, but we will have front-row seats for the Feingold-Johnson contest, a race that could be one of the marquee matchups of 2016. In 2016, Democrats need a net gain of either four or five seats (depending on which party controls the vice-presidency) to take control from the Republicans, who gained control in 2014 with a huge nine-seat gain.
But, as I wrote last year right after the big Repub gains, pretty much all of the factors that led to those gains will favor a big Dem pickup in 2016. Charlie Cook, relying on the same set of factors, wrote on Monday that the 2016 map heavily favors the Dems.
Next round favors Democrats
As you know, the staggered nature of Senate elections puts a different third of the states into play every cycle. The last map heavily favored the Repubs because it featured more seats (by 21-14) held by Democrats than Republicans, which means more pickup opportunities for Republicans. The next cycle (barring any deaths or resignations that add to the list) is tilted the other way, only more so, with 24 seats (including Ron Johnson’s) on the ballot, compared to just 10 seats currently held by Democrats.
In addition, the location of the seats helps the Dems even more. In search for seats that are likely to flip from one party to the other, the pundits generally start with the list of seats in which the incumbent senator is from Party A, but the state gave its electoral votes to Party B in the last presidential election. In 2014, seven seats, held by the Dems, were on the ballot in states that Mitt Romney had carried in 2012, and most them were in states that Romney carried by double-digit margins. In fact, the Repubs picked up all seven of those seats, which constituted the majority of the overall nine-seat gain that enabled them take over majority status.
Of the 24 currently-Repub-held-seats that will be on the ballot in 2016, seven of them (including Wisconsin) are states that went blue for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Of the 10 states that have races in 2016 for Senate seats that are currently held by Democrats, not a single one was carried by the Republican presidential nominee in either of the last two elections.
In short, if every state that went blue in the last two presidential elections were to elect a Democrat to the Senate in 2016, and every state that went red in the presidential elections were to elect a Republican Senate candidate, the Dems would have a net pickup of seven seats and would take control.
And there’s one more factor that, like all of those above, has nothing to do with the actual identities of the candidates. 2016 will be a presidential election year. Turnout in presidential election years is reliably about 20 percentage points higher than in midterm elections. Democrats generally get more benefit from high turnout than do Republicans (and vice versa).
I wouldn’t bet the farm on Feingold defeating Johnson. The track record of defeated former senators coming back for a rematch against the person who ousted them is not that great. But it will be big surprise if Democrats don’t make substantial gains in the Senate races of 2016.
I headlined my December 2014 piece “Republicans face serious barriers to holding U.S. Senate majority in 2016.” I’ll stand by that. Cook’s piece of earlier this week was headlined: “Handicapping a Democratic Takeover; The 2016 Senate cycle is shaping up to be the opposite of 2014, with the map heavily stacked against the GOP.”