While most of the nation’s political attention has been focused on the upcoming presidential race, there is a high-stakes battle under way for control of the U.S. Senate. The policy implications for both Democrats and Republicans are substantial. Control of the Senate will go a long way towards determining how successful the next President will be in shaping domestic and foreign policy and define the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.
One-third of U.S. Senate comes up for election every two years. The Republicans scored a major victory in the off-year election in 2014 when they picked up nine seats and won control of the Senate 54 to 44, marking the first time the Republicans controlled the Senate since 2007. It was the largest midterm Senate gain by any Party since 1958.
What goes around comes around
In 2014, Democrats had to defend seats in 21 states while the GOP only had to defend 15. However, what goes around comes around and in 2016 the shoe is on the other foot with the Republican needing to defend 24 seats compared to only ten seats for the Democrats. To win control of the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of five seats – or four if a Democrat is elected President since the vice president breaks a 50-50 tie.
Can Democrats Gain Control in 2016?
According to Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, it will be a close call. In a report issued on June 1, Sabato concluded that Republicans look likely to win 48 seats and the Democrats 47, with five seats rated as tossups. The races that rated as too close to call are in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Florida. It is no coincidence that these five states are key battleground states in the presidential election as well.
The stakes are high. The Republicans look certain to retain control of the House of Representatives, so a Democrat victory in the battle for the Senate would result in a split Congress. If Trump wins the Presidency and the Republicans retain control of the Senate, we could expect to see dramatic reversals of many policies enacted over the past eight years. If Clinton wins, a split Congress will make it more likely that many of Obama’s policies will continue. There is currently one vacant Supreme Court seat and filling Justice Antonin Scalia’s empty chair will be the first order of business for the new Senate in 2017.
The Five Key Tossup Races
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore
Florida – Incumbent GOP Senator Marco Rubio announced he would not run for re-election when he sought the GOP presidential nomination. However, there has been increasing speculation that Rubio might change his mind, which would be good news for the GOP. Rubio has until June 24 to file should he decide to run. The likely Democrat candidate is Congressman Patrick Murphy, while Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera are locked in a tight race on the GOP side. The primary election is on August 30.
Unless Rubio changes his mind, Democrat chances in The Sunshine State are looking good.
If Rubio does change his mind about running, he will become the instant front-runner.
Pennsylvania – The two candidates were selected in the primary election held on April 26. For the Republicans, incumbent Pat Toomey will be taking on Katie McGinty. A mid-May Quinnipiac poll gave Toomey a one-point lead highlighting the closeness of the race.
Ohio – The two candidates were decided last March, and incumbent GOP Senator Rob Portman will face Democrat Ted Strickland in the general election. Strickland served as Governor of Ohio until 2011 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for twelve years before that. Age could work against Strickland as he will be 75 by Election Day.
Prior to his election to the Senate in 2011, Portman had been a Congressman for twelve years and served in the Bush administration as Director of the OMB and as Trade Representative. The edge in the race goes to Portman.
Nevada – Incumbent Senator Harry Reid, who began serving in the Senate in 1987, decided not to run for re-election in 2016 leaving the seat open. There is a crowded field running for Reid’s seat, with the primary election set for June 14.
For the GOP it looks like Rep. Joe Heck will be the standard-bearer and will face Harry Reid’s choice of Catherine Cortez Masto in the general election. The race is tight, but at the moment, it looks like the Democrats may well hold onto Harry’s seat.
The contest in New Hampshire between these two charismatic women has been anticipated
New Hampshire – Incumbent GOP Senator Kelly Ayotte looks likely to face Governor Maggie Hassan in November. The contest between these two charismatic women has been anticipated, and polls have been tracking the race since last fall. In most of the polls, Sen. Ayotte has held a small but steady lead over Gov. Hassan.
Politico Magazine has noted, “in recent presidential cycles, there has been a consistent uptick in the correlation between Senate and presidential election outcomes.” In 2016, with two such polarizing candidates leading the tickets this may prove even more accurate than in the past.
Both political parties and both presidential candidates have a vital stake in the outcome of this year’s high-stakes battle for control of the Senate.