Senate GOP for 114th Congress has not reached its ceiling yet

Last night turned an expected Republican wave into a tsunami, the parameters of which we will probably spend all day dissecting in one way or another. The Senate was the grand prize and the key focus for Republicans, for reasons dealing with both long-term strategy and payback for eight years under the nasty regime of Harry Reid. I’ll have more on Reid in another post, but the strategic victory has not fully unfolded yet.

At close of business last night (or actually early this morning), Republicans had won a net gain of seven Senate seats:

  • West Virginia
  • North Carolina (surprise)
  • Arkansas
  • Iowa
  • South Dakota
  • Colorado
  • Montana

The GOP also held serve on Georgia without having to go to a runoff. At this moment, the Peach State has counted 90% of its vote, and David Perdue — who was supposedly slipping a month ago — has an eight-point lead over Michelle Nunn. They also held serve in Kansas, where the RNC pulled out all stops to rescue Pat Roberts, who now has a nine-point lead over crypto-Democrat Greg Orman. (Kansas also re-elected the supposedly doomed Sam Brownback as governor, about which more later as well.)

That gives the GOP 52 seats, a solid majority, for the next two years. But they are not done yet. Louisiana will have a runoff election in early December, and incumbent Mary Landrieu is in serious trouble. In a three way race against two Republicans, Landrieu barely stayed ahead of Bill Cassidy, only getting a 16,000-vote lead over Cassidy. Combined, the two Republicans got almost 200,000 more votes than Landrieu in a race were 1.4 million votes were cast. Landrieu is toast in a runoff, especially since the special-election turnout model will likely favor Republicans even more.

That makes 53, but we’re still not done. Alaska’s returned about 73% of its vote, and Dan Sullivan has hung onto a four-point lead over incumbent Democrat Mark Begich. That race could still turn; Alaska’s a difficult state to predict and to poll. Sullivan appeared to be leading in polls, and it at least looks a little more likely that he’ll pull out the win.

That would bring the GOP caucus to 54. In the longest shot still on the table, Democratic incumbent Mark Warner is leading in Virginia over Ed Gillespie, but only by 12,000 votes, and 5% of the precincts have not yet reported. Warner has claimed victory, but Gillespie has refused to concede and may want a re-canvass of votes before doing so. If Gillespie pulls this out, then that would give the GOP 55 seats in the Senate — but again, this is a long shot at the moment.

That’s still not the end, although those are the last of the open races. Angus King in Maine has some decisions to make now. The independent who replaced Olympia Snowe has caucused with Democrats since taking office in January 2013. That made sense for King and for Maine, as Democrats had the majority, and King was a Democrat before becoming an independent in 1994’s gubernatorial election.  Life in the minority will not be pleasant for King, and his endorsements of Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander in Senate elections this year might be a signal that he’d be open to a flip.

He may not be the only one, either. West Virginia turned totally red in this year’s election; their state legislature went Republican, Shelly Moore Capito won the open Senate seat, and the only WV Democrat in the House (Nick Rahall) lost his seat by 10 points. West Virginia will not be friendly turf for Democrats, not even one as popular as Joe Manchin, who sits in the other Senate seat. He may not like life in the lesser lane either, and he’s even more temperamentally suited for the GOP caucus than King.

There is a potential ceiling here of 57 seats for the Republicans, and certainly 56 is within the realm of probability. That would make it very difficult for Democrats to win back control in 2016, as the odds get much longer after one gets to R+53 in the Senate. King would flip back if they got close enough for it to matter, but Manchin wants to win re-election in West Virginia and the progressive tilt of Democrats and the legacy of Barack Obama practically force Manchin to realign himself, and sooner rather than later.

I’ll predict that the 114th Congress starts with at least 55 Senators in the Republican caucus. Those are the consequence of wave elections, and of setting precedents for abusing the minority in the years preceding them.