Mr. Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia Center for Politics put out a great preview today of the 2016 U.S. Senate picture. His conclusions are almost identical to the conclusions at which I have arrived in recent weeks, and because he beat me to the punch on publishing it, I am afraid that my own analysis is going to look quite unoriginal. I highly recommend Kondik’s analysis, which is first-rate.
As to my own analysis, I am generally in agreement with Mr. Kondik. Despite the fact that Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats in 2016, compared to only 10 for the Democrats, very few of those seats actually appear as if they are likely to be competitive at this point. In fact, at this moment, I only see eight of those 34 races as likely to be competitive, with six of those eight seats currently held by Republicans, and two by Democrats.
On the Republican side, seats that appear they could be competitive at this moment are as follows, in order from most to least competitive:
Wisconsin—Sen. Ron Johnson
Illinois—Sen. Mark Kirk
Pennsylvania—Sen. Pat Toomey
Florida—Sen. Marco Rubio
New Hampshire—Sen. Kelly Ayotte
North Carolina—Sen. Richard Burr
With the exception of Illinois, which is safely Democratic in presidential politics, the remaining five states on the aforementioned list are likely to be closely contested in the 2016 presidential race, which should also give a boost to the competitiveness of Senate races in those states. That said, only about half of those races are pure toss-ups, as Mr. Kondik noted in his article this morning: Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Once again in concert with Kondik, I consider Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin the most vulnerable Republican Senator seeking reelection in 2016. Unlike Kirk in Illinois and Toomey in Pennsylvania, Johnson has done very little to appease the moderate center. Kirk is an old-school Illinois moderate, which is the only kind of Republican who can win in that state, and he hails from the “collar counties,” the ring of heavily populated suburban counties around Chicago that can still go Republican if the GOP nominates a moderate. Kirk consistently won a Democratic-leaning U.S. House district along the North Shore for years, so he knows how to do this and will be difficult to beat, even in a presidential year. Toomey helped himself considerably with moderates when he teamed up with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on the gun issue following one of the recent massacres; his approval ratings in Pennsylvania shot up.
Additionally, Florida could turn into a tossup if Rubio foregoes another Senate run in order to run for president, but as my guess is that Jeb Bush will seek the GOP presidential nomination, I doubt Rubio will run against his fellow Floridian. Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, could make this an interesting race if he decides to run.
Ayotte is personally very popular in New Hampshire, but could face a tough race if equally popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan decides to challenge her. And Burr, while certainly the favorite right now in North Carolina, could possibly get a good race from outgoing Sen. Kay Hagan, who narrowly lost her seat this fall against a disastrous backdrop for Democrats. Hagan, by all accounts, ran a great campaign but just couldn’t overcome the midterm environment. Longtime Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper is also a contender.
So any or all of those six races could be ripe, but Democrats would need to win at least five of them to retake the Senate by the barest majority, and that, at this time, seems unlikely.
Complicating matters is the fact that two Democratic Senate seats could be vulnerable in 2016. Sen. Michael Bennet faces reelection in Colorado, and while he should be buoyed by presidential-year turnout—unlike his Democratic colleague, Sen. Mark Udall, who lost this year—if the GOP gets a good candidate, this seat is far from safe.
Also potentially in danger in 2016 is Democratic Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. Although he won in a terrible environment for Democrats in 2010, he was also facing an extremely weak Republican opponent, Sharron Angle. If current Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval decides to take a swing at Reid in 2016, this seat becomes a tossup at best for Democrats. Nonetheless, presidential year turnout could still save Reid, even if the highly popular Sandoval jumps in.
There are also some potential wild cards. A report today in the Daily Kos indicates that former Democratic governor Ted Strickland may be considering a run against Republican Sen. Rob Portman in 2016. Strickland, a popular governor who barely lost in the 2010 tidal wave, could turn this into a tossup. But if Strickland does not run, it is hard to see anybody else from Ohio’s gruel-thin Democratic bench giving Portman any heartburn. Also, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) could give Sen. Roy Blunt (R) a challenge in Missouri if he decides to run, but Nixon’s handling of the Ferguson mess might cost him crucial African-American support, without which he absolutely cannot win.
One final wild card comes from a very unexpected place: California. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) appears to be headed for retirement, with a war chest of only about $200,000 right now.
While on first glance it appears that California would be a safe hold for the Democrats, the state’s “top-two” system advances the top two candidates from the primary, regardless of party. Because the state has a spectacularly deep Democratic bench, it is not entirely unimaginable that half a dozen or more Democrats may run, especially considering how rarely a Senate seat comes open in California. A lot of top-notch Democrats have been waiting a long time for this chance, so there could easily be a plethora of Democrats against only two or three Republicans in the “jungle primary.” In such a scenario, six or seven Democrats could so divide the Democratic vote that two Republicans could finish in the top two, even if they only combine for about 40 percent of the total vote, which would give the GOP the unlikeliest of pickups. Such an eventuality would be a catastrophe for the Democrats and would all but foreclose the possibility of retaking the Senate in 2016. See an excellent recent post by Jeff Singer in the Daily Kos for further details on this potential development and the dozen or so potential Democratic candidates who may consider a run.