One of the most remarked on and least predictable parts of the recklessly bizarre 2016 election cycle has been the control of Congress.
At the start of the year, the Republicans were acknowledged by all sides as being guaranteed to maintain a vice grip on the House of Representatives, while certainly being seen as on the defensive, the Senate still considered to possess a solid shot to maintain a narrow majority in the upper chamber. Enter Trump and these plans are in shambles with the House potentially being in play, and the Senate looking grimmer than it did this time last year.
Trump has burned the bridges Republicans had with the Hispanic community in important swing states like Nevada and Arizona while also potentially alienating the moderate suburban voters in states like North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio, whom Republicans have long depended on.
Because of this fracturing, the Republicans are much more vulnerable than they were once thought to be in Congress. With a 54 – 46 disadvantage in the Senate, Democrats need to win either four or five seats to take the chamber (four with the vice president as tiebreaker would win the Senate if Hillary is elected; if Trump is elected it would be a shocker if the GOP did not win every one of the Senate races discussed below).
Today we will look at the swing races in the Senate.
Democrats initially hoped to unseat high-profile Republican senators in Ohio, Arizona and Florida, a hope which has faded in the last two weeks. In Ohio and Arizona races, which were once thought to be competitive, seem to be leaning Republican – with incumbents Rob Portman and John McCain holding on due to a combination of name recognition and popularity (especially for former presidential candidate McCain) and unforced errors by their opponent (Rob Portman’s rival, former governor Ted Strickland, is a Democratic mini-Trump who cannot seem to control his mouth).
In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio holds a narrow but steady lead over Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy, polling at about 3 percent higher than Murphy – even as Trump has fallen behind Hillary Clinton in this key swing state. Murphy, the son of a billionaire construction tycoon, has been plagued by accusations of elitism and potentially disreputable financial dealings and is now considered a weaker candidate than was initially thought.
Indeed Senate Democrats halted funds to his campaign earlier this month, signaling that they do not believe that the Murphy has a true shot at unseating Rubio. However, it is interesting to note that in a display of strategic divergence, President Obama has planned a series of trips this week to Florida to stump for both Murphy and Hillary in the lead up to Election Day. Still, Rubio probably handily wins this race.
In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Illinois, incumbent Republican Senators Patrick Toomey, Ron Johnson, Kelly Ayotte and Mark Kirk were all initially favored to lose their reelection campaigns handily. in Illinois.
In New Hampshire, Senator Ayotte is facing popular Democrat and two- term Governor Maggie Hassan and will probably not be able to pull the race out in the year of Trump, whose visage has haunted her race in particular.
In Indiana, Democrats prospects swung dramatically from looking like a slam dunk win to almost an assured loss after popular former Democratic Governor and Senator Evan Bayh’s schedule was leaked and he was revealed to have spent almost no time in Indiana since retiring from the Senate several years ago, and to have started looking for a lobbying job well before retiring from the Senate. Republican Congressman Todd Young has run a disciplined campaign, and in combination with Mike Pence-driven Republican turnout and Bayh’s elitism is likely to win this race.
In Nevada, Republicans are looking to take the seat of retiring Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid, the longtime mastermind of the Democratic Party. The race is between Republican Congressman Joe Heck, a doctor and Army Reserve brigadier general who has led in almost every poll conducted, and former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. If the Republicans win this one it will be because Heck is such a strong candidate and has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Trump in heavily Hispanic Nevada, but at the moment Masto is probably the candidate with the best bet to win this race.
In North Carolina, incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr is facing a blitz from Democratic former State Senator Deborah Ross. Burr is known as someone who is willing to wait for it, famously declaring that he would not start campaigning till the fall (much to the chagrin of Republican leadership). Still, he is probably not throwing away his shot: Democrats waited too long to shift adequate resources to this state, Ross is a weak candidate with glaring vulnerabilities, and Burr is a fairly strong two-term incumbent who is outperforming Trump in polls conducted in the Hillary-leaning state.
This crazy election cycle is not over yet. Millions of fresh dollars are being poured into Senate races nationwide, the President and the Speaker of the House are crisscrossing the country in a torrid campaign frenzy, and no one knows yet what the outcome will be. I would guess the GOP has a 50-50 shot at maintaining a majority – a slim majority, to be clear – in the Senate, but no one can truly say with any degree of reliability what the outcome will be and who will control the Senate until election day has come and gone.