By Randy Evans –
While the presidential election has become a noisy spectacle of personalities and tabloid accusations and counter-accusations, the U.S. Senate quietly hangs in the balance. Certainly, the presidential election is more consequential. Yet no Washington, D. C., insider would question that nothing happens in the nation’s Capitol unless it passes through the Senate.
Currently, Republicans control the Senate by what appears to be a comfortable margin with 54 Republicans, 45 Democrats and one independent (who caucuses with the Democrats). Thirty-four senators are on the ballot this November. Twenty-four are Republicans. There is an important Democratic vacancy in the group in Nevada where former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is retiring.
To capture control, Democrats need to pick up four or five Senate seats depending on the outcome of the presidential election. Should Donald Trump win, Democrats would need five seats since Vice President Mike Pence, as the president of the Senate, would cast the 50/50 tie-breaking vote in favor of the Republicans.
No one disputes that control of the Senate is genuinely at play. Between the number of Republicans up for re-election to the dynamics of the presidential election, Democrats could easily pick up the necessary seats to regain control.
In fact, early in the election cycle, many believed it was more likely than not. Since then, some of the dynamics have settled with Donald Trump performing better than expected and some individual Senate races turning out to be not much of a contest.
Georgia is a good example. Both national and state Democrats felt (and continue to feel to some extent) that Georgia’s demographics have pushed the state from solid red
to probably purple. This was the same optimism that prompted Georgia Democrats to believe in 2014 that Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn could win Georgia’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections.
As history confirmed, this optimism was misplaced as neither race was competitive notwithstanding strong Democratic challengers with ample financial and organizational backing. Georgia remained solid red.
Heading into the 2016 election, Democrats had some of the same optimism for carrying Georgia for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and mounting a serious challenge to incumbent Republican Senator Johnny Isakson. In fact, many national pundits actually moved Georgia out of the solid red category, fueling Georgia Democrats’ optimism for 2016.
But, as the year progressed, the odds of unseating Senator Isakson became longer and longer. Most notably, while insisting that Georgia had become purple, Georgia Democrats failed to field a serious Democratic challenger for Senate. As those prospects crumbled, so did former Secretary Clinton’s chances to put Georgia at play in the presidential election.
Most polls now confirm political prognosticators’ predictions that Senator Isakson holds a safe Republican seat. Similarly, notwithstanding token operations, national Democrats have largely abandoned any meaningful efforts at making Georgia a battleground state in the presidential race.
Another example is Ohio — historically a true battleground state. With Donald Trump’s nomination and the refusal of Republican Gov. John Kasich to endorse the GOP nominee, many national Democrats believed that the Ohio Senate seat was theirs for the taking. Yet, things have not progressed in the way most thought they would.
By all accounts, Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman has run one of the best Senate campaigns in the country. The net result is that predictions of a likely Republican loss during the early part of the year have translated into a Republican hold. Indeed, in most lists, Ohio is now regarded as a safe “R”.
Notably, a similar thing has happened in Florida, another perennial battleground state. Once incumbent Republican Senator Marco Rubio decided to seek re-election, all bets were off for the Florida Senate seat. Now, like Ohio, most insiders expect Republicans to hold in Florida.
Yet, not everything is pretty and rosy for Republicans. Three seats held by Republicans remain a complete toss-up: Indiana, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. With the retirement of Republican Senator Dan Coats, Indiana is actually an open seat. Of course, former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s appearance as the Republican vice presidential nominee should have some impact in the Indiana race.
In two states, Illinois and Wisconsin, most pundits expect Republican incumbents to lose. If Democrats sweep the toss-ups and get these two, then they would gain control of the Senate, subject only to one other big “if” — if they can hold in Nevada where Democratic Senator Reid is retiring.
Nevada’s Senate seat is also in the toss-up category. Should Republicans win there and pick up a seat currently held by Democrats, then the map gets very difficult for Democratic control of the Senate. That is just how close the contest is.
The best barometer for election night may be North Carolina where Republican Senator Richard Burr is in a hotly fought reelection race. If Democrats pick up his seat, then look for a long night for Republicans in the Senate.