My Final Call on the 2016 Senate Races
As is often the case, I will dissent from the conventional wisdom that Donald Trump is or ever was "hurting" Republicans down the ballot. In most cases, I think Trump is actually helping downballot Republicans. There may be a couple of states where he is, but the Trump phenomenon has changed the Democratic Party's conversation in a way that has normalized conventional Republicans and conventional Republicanism. Wave elections occur when the voting public has high unfavorables with one party and not the other. In that respect, the Democrats have failed in making this election a referendum against the Republican Party at large and their method of governing which should be disqualifying, instead making this election a referendum against Trumpism, with an unspoken acceptance that the conventional Republicanism of a pre-Trump world wasn't so bad by comparison. Centrist and center-right voters are thus walking away thinking that perhaps Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte, and Marco Rubio aren't so bad by comparison. Worse yet, these voters do not like Hillary Clinton and even if they plan to support her they want as many checks on her power as possible. The result is likely to be a relatively status quo Congressional election where any Democratic gains will come primarily because the GOP is overexposed, holding Senate seats in blue states that they won in the very Republican year of 2010 and poised to forfeit some driftwood in the House that snuck in during the next GOP midterm wave of 2014.
So let's start with the seats that are not being contested by either party at this point in the race, not even remotely part of the battleground.
The Democrats will hold these seats:
New York--Chuck Schumer
The Republicans will hold these seats:
North Dakota--John Hoeven
South Carolina--Tim Scott
South Dakota--John Thune
Many of the races I'm profiling are also very close to foregone conclusions but I'll cover any open seats or any races that are now or ever have been part of the battleground....
Arizona--I was unusually bullish on Democrats' chances of making a competitive race against 30-year Republican incumbent John McCain up until the last month when he won his primary and the Democratic Party money stopped flowing in the direction of the state, indicating McCain must be hanging on to a decisive lead. It was the most promising dark horse race, with McCain having to fend off a primary challenge from his right that would theoretically weaken him, and then have to take on the strongest Democrat in Arizona, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who holds a right-tilting seat in northern Arizona and was looked at as one of the party's top recruits this cycle. McCain seems as out of touch as anyone in Washington, going on Sunday morning shows weekly to aggressively call for getting America into more and more unpopular military entanglements. He should be an easy target in a change political environment where voters are sensitive to out-of-touch career politicians. But the complete lack of polling or party money going into this race tells a different story. It'd be nice to see a couple of serious polls to confirm my hunch, but it looks like McCain is poised to be re-elected to his sixth term, and probably by a double-digit margin. GOP hold.
Arkansas--I include this race in the battleground only because young Democratic U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge was touted early on as a potential superstar, and who made waves out of the starting gate with his campaign's first ad attempting to nationalize the race in an anti-Trump direction. Couple that with the lukewarm feelings on one-term Republican incumbent John Boozman and the speculation that the Clinton name might yield some residual goodwill in a red-trending state and this race was viewed on the outer periphery of the battleground. The 2014 midterms confirmed without a glimmer of ambiguity that Arkansas realigned, at breakneck speed since 2008 when they had Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature and a 5-1 Democratic Congressional delegation, into one of the nation's most Republican states and was not going to be turning back. Both Trump and Boozman will win the state by more than 20 points. GOP hold.
California--There's no question at all that another Democrat will hold the seat vacated by long-term Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, it's just a matter of which one. California now has a (frustrating) new law where the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, face off against each other in the general election. The state's intense Democratic lean in recent years created a situation this year where two Democrats got more votes in the primary than any Republican. The frontrunner is Attorney General Kamala Harris and polling indicates she has a double-digit lead, but not majority support in the polls. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, the less liberal of the two candidates, has a wild card in that she might get a fair amount of crossover support from Republicans, as she already has from GOP Congressman Darrell Issa. It's likely most Republicans will simply skip over the Senate race on the ballot entirely, but Sanchez still has a path to victory if there's movement by conservative voters, coupled with Latino Democrats who favor Sanchez, to elect the least liberal of the two candidates. Either way, the balance of power in the Senate won't be changing. Dem hold.
Colorado--Even after running one of the worst campaigns in recent memory, Democratic Senator Mark Udall lost by only two points to a very strong GOP challenger in a very Republican year in 2014. That pretty much describes the demographic shift that has occurred in Colorado in recent cycles, which portends a pretty safe re-election bid for Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, up for re-election this year and having narrowly holding his seat in the tough 2010 cycle. This year, Bennet seems poised to have an easier go of it against Darryl Glenn, a Republican challenger who was not his party's first choice in the primary. Colorado polling has been erratic this cycle but even the more bearish polls show Bennet with a comfortable lead. The majority of the polls show him leading by double digits, which is where I suspect the race will end. Dem hold.
Florida--What a difference a couple of months make! The Democrats were in the catbird seat to hold this seat two months ago with their promising young moderate candidate Patrick Murphy the frontrunner for the primary and a fairly weak selection of Republican challengers that didn't seem likely to be up to the job of taking Murphy on. But then the open seat quit being an open seat as Republican Marco Rubio was talked out of retiring and cynically decided to run for re-election to the Senate seat he said had no interest in only weeks earlier. Suddenly, Florida voters seem likely to re-elect the guy who very recently refused to show up for work because he said the Senate was such a worthless wasteland. Interesting choice. Rubio's secret weapon here is the Miami Cuban vote. In the past this voting bloc was a monolithic wall of Republicanism, but younger voters who don't care about Castro have been pushing the Cuban vote dramatically leftward in recent cycles, and are poised to move it even more leftward against Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. At this point, Cubans could be described as the swing vote in Florida, an unthinkable scenario a generation ago, and identity politics seem poised to lead the Cuban vote to rally towards fellow Cuban Rubio. Most polls show Murphy is still within striking distance, but at this point the national Democratic Party has been starting to pull money out of this race, which is not a good sign at all. Rubio is likely poised to win by mid-to-high single digits. GOP hold.
Illinois--Republican Senator Mark Kirk slipped into office in 2010 by less than two percentage points in a very blue state against an unappealing Democratic challenger. He had a stroke during his term and was away for more than a year, returning to ill health and making some controversial comments that hurt his popularity further. He was considered a dead man walking going into re-election and still is as he's losing in most polls. Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth is a Chicago-area Congresswoman who is also a paraplegic veteran injured in a helicopter crash during the Iraq War with a great candidate profile but a history of underperforming in her elections. While I still think Illinois is too high of a mountain for the Republicans to climb in a Presidential year, I think Kirk may stand to benefit from the phenomenon I mentioned above of non-Trump Republicans being normalized, and Kirk has been taking every step imaginable to make himself look moderate in the last year. I'm not at all ruling out the prospect of Kirk winning. He should be losing by double digits given his inherent disadvantages, but I think his worst-case scenario is losing by about five points, and if Duckworth wins, she'll win no more than five of the state's 102 counties, her strength limited almost entirely to Chicago. The fact that Duckworth still hasn't put this race away underscores how bleak the Democrats' fortunes are this year compared to expectations. Dem gain +1
Indiana--While the Republicans turned around their bleak fortunes at holding their seat in Florida, the Democrats did the same by parachuting popular former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh into the race at the last minute and instantly changing the odds from a likely Republican hold (Senator Dan Coats is retiring for the second time) to a likely Democratic gain. I was a little skeptical of the certitude with which prognosticators suggested Bayh would skate back into the Senate as Indiana has really hardened into a Republican stronghold these last few cycles and his challenger, Republican Congressman Todd Young, seemed like a promising emissary for his party. Worst of all, Bayh cashed in as a lobbyist after leaving the Senate in 2010 and has gone Washington to the point that he couldn't recall the address of his Indiana residence when pressed. Most polling still shows Bayh with a lead, but I still see him as very vulnerable. This is one of four races I qualify as pure tossups and one of the hardest for me to predict at this time. Gun to my head, I'll predict Young narrowly wins and holds the seat for Republicans. GOP hold.
Iowa--I submit that if Chuck Grassley had run for re-election in the Iowa of 2006 or 2008 with his current age and profile of accelerating partisanship, he'd have been defeated. But the Iowa of 2016 is a much different place than 2006 or 2008. This is Joni Ernst and Donald Trump's Iowa, resembling Kansas more than its own recent past, and Grassley is poised to hang on yet again. His margin seems likely to be less than the 2-1 blowouts he usually gets with former Democratic Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge running, but even that's no sure thing as Judge is mostly off the airwaves with empty campaign coffers and a national party that has written her off while Grassley continues to saturate. Polling currently shows Grassley with a 10-15 point lead, and I'd say Judge would be lucky if she was able to hold him to that come November 8th. GOP hold.
Kentucky--Like Arkansas, few ever considered Kentucky to be genuinely competitive this year, but incumbent GOP Senator Rand Paul looked weak enough at the end of his failed Presidential bid that it put the race on the very outer periphery of the Senate battleground. The Democrats ran Lexington Mayor Jim Gray who is openly gay. I think we're at the point where sexual orientation wouldn't matter that much in most places, but I think it would still be a tough sell to the electorate in Kentucky even in the best of circumstances, and with Trump poised to dominate at the top of the ticket and Rand Paul looking far more like a moderate than was expected six years ago, these will definitely not be the best of circumstances for Kentucky Democrats. I expected Paul will win by about 30 points. GOP hold.
Louisiana--It seems likely that a Republican will win the seat being vacated by two-term incumbent David Vitter, but we probably won't know on November 8th because of the state's jungle primary. It's very possible that the top two to come out of the primary will be Republicans, with John Kennedy and John Fleming being the most likely to face off in the typical December runoff in Louisiana. After last year's amazing Democratic victory in the Louisiana Governor's race following a perfect storm of events, one has to conceded anything is possible in this environment, but the only way a Democrat could realistically prevail here is if the top-polling Democratic challenger manages to face off against disgraced Republican David Duke, who is running but with little support. Seems wildly unlikely. GOP hold.
Maryland--I include this race only because it's an open seat, vacated by long-time Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski. Maryland has become one of the bluest states in the country and its demographics portend a particularly bad night for Donald Trump, meaning Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen should have no problem whatsoever scoring his promotion to the Senate up against anonymous GOP challenger Kathy Szeliga and should win by more than 20 points. Dem hold.
Missouri--One race that shouldn't be competitive but is is in the red-trending state of Missouri, where quintessential Republican insider Roy Blunt is running for a second term and found himself in a surprisingly close race with Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander, whose proven himself a fantastic candidate and recently got a windfall of cash from the DSCC to take on Blunt. Given that Missouri is racing to the Republicans and will undoubtedly go for Donald Trump by double digits, a victory by Kander here is an exceptionally tall order, but it's a dark horse race that has defied gravity thus far and Blunt has shown no signs of pulling away yet. Unfortunately, I suspect he will in another month. GOP hold.
Nevada--Going from a Republican-held seat that shouldn't be competitive to a Democrat-held seat that shouldn't be competitive, Senate leader Harry Reid is retiring and attempting to bequeath his seat to his hand-picked successor, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. The Republicans have a strong candidate of their own in Congressman Joe Heck, who has represented an Obama-voting swing-ish seat in the Las Vegas suburbs for several cycles now, but Nevada's rapidly diversifying electorate made this seat seem like a heavy lift for the GOP. Polling suggests otherwise, both in the Presidential race and in this Senate race, showing the race either tied or with Heck holding a small lead. Polling in Nevada almost always undercounts Democrats though, largely thanks to the stealth "Reid machine" of SEIU nonwhite voters that come out en masse for Democrats on election day and dramatically overperform what Democrats ultimately do in the polls. This has been true for most recent election cycles and while there's no guarantee it will this time, this year's particular dynamic pitting the Reid machine versus a completely disorganized Donald Trump candidacy at the top of the ticket leads me to believe Cortez Masto pulls this out, but it's still likely to be far closer than it should have been given that Nevada's electorate will probably be 38% or more nonwhite in 2016. Dem hold.
New Hampshire--One of the battleground states where Hillary has been holding up okay even as her numbers crater nationally is New Hampshire, which is historically libertarian and has been trending Democratic for a generation now. This is theoretically a bad combination for Republicans, but incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte was elected in a landslide in the GOP-friendly year of 2010 and still has some residual political capital that might be enough to help her weather the Trump storm at the top of the ticket. Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan is challenging Ayotte and it's been a tight race in most polls, but operating under the premise that the party of the challenger is better positioned to pick up the late-breaking voters, especially when there are liable to be some coattails in the Presidential race, I'm giving Hassan a small edge here. It wouldn't surprise me if Ayotte found a way to hold on though. Dems +2
North Carolina--Two-term Republican Senator Richard Burr is a milquetoast backbencher in the Senate who hasn't made much of a name for himself and faces the prospect of a backlash in a Democrat-trending state. DSCC funds are now flowing into the state to help otherwise unimpressive Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, so the potential exists for an upset here. There's always a ton of polling out of North Carolina and this year is no different, with most polls showing the race a toss-up. Ultimately I think the Republicans still have a bit of an edge here and I suspect will be helped at the margins by voter response to the ongoing Charlotte protests. Ross could get very close but I'm not yet convinced she can get more votes than Burr. GOP hold.
Ohio--There were warning signs a year ago that former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland wasn't doing what he needed to do to effectively take on the savvy GOP incumbent Rob Portman, with soft fund-raising numbers quarter after quarter, but Strickland's residual love from Ohio's conservative Appalachian counties coupled with Democratic Party resources expected to fill the holes where Strickland fell short still led most to believe this would be one of the marquee Senate races of 2016. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Portman built up a massive warchest and effectively fired an arsenal of missiles at Strickland, who responded with a few verbal blunders that really put his back against the wall in this race. I was still skeptical that Strickland would be triaged by the national party that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago as he fell further and further behind. Polls now show Strickland, one of my favorite Democrats around, losing by 10 points or more and too broke to make up any ground, limiting his campaign ad buys to only two Ohio media markets. It's an epic fail of the highest order and Portman appears poised to be gifted this seat. It would have been hard to imagine six months ago that Missouri and North Carolina would stay competitive longer for the Democrats than Ohio but that's where we are. GOP hold.
Pennsylvania--I was very much on Team Sestak in the Democratic primaries, but the national party made a top priority out of crushing Joe Sestak, the 2010 Senate nominee who came within two points of victory in an extremely tough year for Democrats. Their Manchurian candidate of choice was Katie McGinty, Chief of Staff to the Democratic Governor, who has always struck me as about as generic of a candidate as the party could find. The national party got their way though and McGinty won the primary. I was at first skeptical she'd be able to topple incumbent Republican Pat Toomey, given that Toomey has been moderately successful in selling himself as a moderate to the key voters in suburban Philadelphia who pretty much decide every election in Pennsylvania these days. Polling indicates that McGinty built a small lead though, most likely buoyed by Hillary's strength in those socially liberal Philly suburbs. I definitely don't count Toomey out though and could imagine a scenario where a mismatch in the debates helps Toomey regain his footing, but I'm calling this as a narrow McGinty win for now. Dems +3
Wisconsin--There's only one race at this point in the campaign where I am supremely confident that the Democrats will gain a seat, and that's in Wisconsin, where popular former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold seems to have learned his lesson from six years ago and is taking this race seriously. Every poll I've seen has shown him decisively leading accidental Republican Senator Ron Johnson who beat Feingold six years ago in the GOP wave that crashed upon Wisconsin particularly hard. I've seen no indication that Johnson has a path for a comeback here. Something big would have to come up to change the trajectory of this race. As it stands, I'll call this one for Feingold by 7 points. Dems +4
So there it is. I have the Democrats picking up four Senate seats on November 8, which would get them to 50 total seats. If Hillary wins the Presidential election that will be enough for a majority, but if Trump wins they'll be one short. Considering what Democrats were anticipating a few months ago based on their delusional "Trumpocalypse" forecast, it must be humbling for them to be at the end of September in a position where there are only four races that are pure tossups (IN, NH, NV, PA) and that they need to win three of those four to have a chance at winning back the Senate. They do still have the semi-promising dark horse races in MO and NC to hang their hopes on, but both of those are long shots. I'll get more into the impact the Presidential race is having on the shape of the 2016 electorate when I make my state-by-state predictions for that race in the next week or two, but for the time being suffice it to say that the unthinkable weakness of Hillary Clinton's candidacy has needlessly turned a golden opportunity for Democrats into a nailbiter, and one that is likely to have devastating consequences for Congressional Democrats in the years to come if Hillary ekes out a win.