Hanging on to the Senate in 2016, assuming that's worth doing

I’m not going to dredge up a bunch of links or rehash all of the discussions we’ve had about the disappointing start to the new GOP Senate majority here. Suffice it to say that I’ve lost a bit of enthusiasm for how critical it is to hold on to the majority if you’re not going to do anything with it. But by the same token, even if you’re not getting anything important done that the voters wanted you to do, holding the majority still maintains the virtue of stopping the opposition from introducing even more, new bad things I guess. (As an aside, if anyone from the Senate committee wants to hire me to write inspirational advertising copy like that, my rates are available on the home page.)

With all that said, while most of the press focuses on the presidential race, we also have the usual raft of congressional contests to deal with next year. The GOP faces a very different landscape than they did in 2014 on two fronts. First of all, it’s a presidential year so turnout for the Democrats will be up. Even more importantly, the tsunami conditions of the last midterms are pretty much reversed. The Republicans will be defending 24 seats while the Dems are only challenged in ten. And quite a few of the GOP contests are in states where Obama managed to pull off a win. The Hill has a rundown of the top ranked seats which may flip and the news isn’t good for the Republicans.

The Democrats need to take 5 (or 4 if they win the Vice Presidency) and there is room for them to maneuver. Top on their list will be Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). They will also look at Rob Portman (R-Ohio), but if he’s going to run against Ted Strickland that should be a fairly safe bet for Portman.

Kirk and Johnson already have the RINO tag on them with the base for more reasons than we need to list here. But just as an early warning, these aren’t races where we can really afford to try to stick a more conservative candidate in on the ballot if you actually care about keeping the majority. Some of these guys are in parallel positions to the NERPs (Northeastern Republican Politicians) and have had to adopt some distasteful positions on guns, immigration and other topics just to maintain a grip. In a presidential election year those seats could slip away in a heartbeat.

Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey probably have a lot more staying power than they are being given credit for and the value of incumbency shouldn’t be discounted. With a little solid support from the home offices, those two might be okay. (There’s also nobody really stellar on the Dem side talking about either seat that I can see so far, so it’s not time to panic.)

Rubio’s seat is another question entirely. If, as he has previously indicated, he won’t run for reelection at the same time as running for the presidency, then there is an open and very competitive seat in play. It would be the ultimate embarrassment if Debbie Downer were to win that one, but there’s never any telling what Florida voters will do. However, the combination of Debby and Kirsten Gillibrand forming some new Democratic Sisterhood of the Fellow Traveler’s Pantsuits should be enough to rouse up the conservative base to action.

Do the Republicans have any hopes for a takeaway to counter this math? Interestingly, maybe one…

3. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (last ranking: 3)

The Senate minority leader is unpopular back home, but the man who could likely crush him — Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) — appears unlikely to run.

Nevada has been trending Democratic due to its fast-growing Hispanic population, and the party tends to do much better there in presidential years.

Reid also won by a surprisingly comfortable margin in 2010 against a deeply flawed GOP nominee. He’s proven to be a scrappy campaigner, and it’s unclear whether Republicans will be able to avoid the type of nasty primary that has hurt them before.

I’m not getting my hopes up there, but it would be cause for a party next November if Harry was sent packing, no matter who won the White House. And hey… stranger things have happened. Just ask Eric Cantor.

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