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Here’s How Democrats Could Take Over the Senate

by Countable | 10.31.16

With just more than a week to go before the election, much of the focus is on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. But the battle for the Senate that’s being quietly waged across 34 states is just — if not more — important. And every day, Republicans are seeing warning signs that they might lose that battle.

The last time we took a look at the Senate odds, there were six endangered Republican members. Now, Republicans could lose seven seats, which would be more than enough to give Democrats the majority. But who will control the Senate next year is still very much up in the air.

The starting point

Democrats currently hold 44 seats in the Senate, the two independent senators who caucus with them have two and Republicans have the remaining 54 seats. Fifty-one-plus grants one party control of the Senate and ties are broken by the vice president, so whichever party controls the White House would call the shots.

Why it matters

The Senate is just one chamber of Congress, sure. Republicans are likely to maintain control of the House in November, which means that if they lose the Senate, we’ll have another divided Congress, where both chambers can keep each other in check, but it’s difficult for anyone to get much done.

The Senate is particularly important, though, because they’ll confirm or deny any Supreme Court nominees the next president brings forward. There’s currently one vacancy on the court, after Justice Antonin Scalia passed away earlier this year, and there could be two more in the next four years. If the Senate is controlled by the same party as the president, chances are those nominees are going to be seated on the Supreme Court. If not, well, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for example, is already talking about indefinitely blocking any nominees from a President HIllary Clinton.

So, who’s in trouble?

Here are the Senate seats that are up for grabs right now. You can click on each candidate to get a better sense of where they stand on the issues. These will be the races to watch on election night.

(Because one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years, this just happens to be an election year in which a lot of the competitive races are for seats held by Republicans.)

  • Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) appears to be in some pretty serious trouble, with recent polls showing him down by 11 points. Kirk now holds President Obama’s old seat in the Senate and is a pretty moderate Republican. He’s worked across party lines in the Senate and has run ads distancing himself from Trump. But presidential elections are always harder on senators whose party ID doesn’t really line up well with the rest of the state and Kirk appears likely to lose his job because of that next month. Not to mention the fact that he’s running against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a popular Iraq War veteran who got a Purple Heart after losing both legs in combat. Kirk’s decision to question her family’s military history and racial background in a debate on Thursday night isn’t helping either.

  • Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) isn’t in much better shape than Kirk. Just one of ten polls conducted this month showed Johnson winning reelection against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), whom Johnson defeated in 2010. The businessman-turned-senator has only been in office for six years, but he’s already the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, where he’s pushed hard for border security. Johnson is also a big proponent of cutting government spending and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Now, he’s facing Feingold, who’s most famous for writing part of the McCain-Feingold Act, which was aimed at decreasing the amount of anonymous money in politics (pre-Citizens United). Feingold is still pretty popular in the state, which has voted Democrat (sometimes narrowly) in every presidential election since 1988.

  • Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is a pretty moderate Republican, who has focused largely on foreign policy and veterans issues. As a senator from New Hampshire, she was also one of the driving forces behind legislation Congress passed this summer to help stop the opioid epidemic in the U.S. But now she’s running against popular Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who has focused on expanding the state’s Medicaid system for low-income residents and supporting the Affordable Care Act (while calling for improvements). Although Ayotte hasn’t endorsed Donald Trump, who isn’t doing so well in New Hampshire, Democrats have repeatedly linked the two, particularly after Ayotte called him a "role model" during a debate (a statement she later took back). Polling shows that the race remains incredibly close going into Election Day, meaning that these last few days really count and whichever presidential campaign gets more voters to the polls could decide the Senate race as well.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) is caught in an incredibly tight race for reelection with Democrat Katie McGinty in a state that Democrats have won in every presidential election since 1988. Toomey is a fiscal conservative who crossed the aisle to work with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on a failed gun control bill in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. And McGinty worked in Bill Clinton’s White House on environmental issues. They’ve fought tooth-and-nail over some major issues throughout the campaign, particularly abortion (he’s pro-life, she’s pro-choice), the Affordable Care Act (she supports it, he wants to repeal it) and their preferences for president (she has backed Clinton, while Toomey has not endorsed Trump, but won’t say who he’s voting for either). Polls this week show McGinty with a slight advantage, but the race remains close.

  • Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) wasn’t really considered at-risk in 2016 until recently — and apparently he thought so too. North Carolina has only gone Democrat in a presidential election twice in the last 50 years and Burr vowed, according to Politico, not to start campaigning for reelection until October. That seemed to please national Democrats who have flooded the state with money to support his opponent Deborah Ross, a former state legislator, while Burr's focus was elsewhere. Republicans are now working to help Burr and he’s campaigning hard, but FiveThirtyEight now ranks this race as the most competitive in the country. Burr isn’t helped by a flood of national attention and money from opponents of the state’s new law banning transgender people from bathrooms that don’t corresponded to their gender at birth. The two candidates have fought over the Affordable Care Act (which she supports and he wants to repeal), the federal minimum wage (which she hopes to raise, while he argues it would cause job losses) and the Iran nuclear deal (which she supports and he opposes). For now, the race appears to be a tie.

  • Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) wasn’t considered an endangered senator until fairly recently either. And as with Burr’s race, this one is a pure toss-up. Blunt has served in Congress for almost 20 years, starting in the House where he served in GOP leadership and now in the Senate, where he’s seeking a second term. Now, he faces Democrat Jason Kander, a 35-year-old Army veteran who served as Secretary of State and in the Missouri legislature. The two actually agree on some issues, like opposing the Iran nuclear deal and keeping Guantanamo Bay open, but Kander supports expanding background checks for firearms, while Blunt does not. Kander has relentlessly portrayed Blunt as a Washington insider, arguing that the state needs new blood in Congress. Blunt, who as Politico points out, is married to a lobbyist and has a lobbyist son who is managing his campaign, has been hurt badly by those attacks in the polls. And this isn’t helping either.

Open Seats

There are also two open seats in the Senate this cycle that could go to either party.

Nevada. This is the only Senate seat currently held by a Democrat that Republicans have a chance of taking in November. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is retiring at the end of this year (Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will take over as the Democratic leader in 2017). The race features Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) and former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D).

Nevada is generally a toss-up in the presidential race and it is in the competition for Reid’s Senate seat as well. Heck is a fiscal conservative who favors a balanced budget and cutting government spending and has served in the House since 2011. Cortez-Masto, meanwhile, served as the state’s attorney general for two terms, has worked for the state’s higher education system and has the support of groups that favor environmental issues, reducing anonymous money in politics and protecting abortion rights. (She would also be the first Latina senator).

Heck and Cortez-Masto have fought over immigration policy (she favors comprehensive immigration reform, which provides a path to citizenship) as well as a ballot initiative in the state that would require background checks for all gun sales, including private sales and those at gun shows (she supports it, he does not).

Indiana. Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) is retiring at the end of the year. Rep. Todd Young (R-IN) was on his way to keeping this seat in GOP hands before former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced at the last minute that he wanted his old job back. Bayh was a popular senator and governor, who served as a centrist Democrat and fiscal conservative. Young isn’t nearly as well-known statewide, but also finds himself closer to the middle of the ideological spectrum and defeated some tea party Republican candidates to get the Senate nomination.

Young has characterized Bayh as too much of a Washington insider, highlighting his post-congressional lobbying career, personal wealth and work with Wall Street. And Bayh has highlighted Young’s inexperience and accused him of wanting to privatize Social Security (a frequent Democratic attack on Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget, which Young supported). But the biggest issue in the race is likely the Affordable Care Act. Young has repeatedly pointed out that Bayh was the "deciding vote for Obamacare" (he was, indeed, the 60th senator to say “yea”), while Bayh has argued that some of the law’s most popular provisions including coverage for preexisting conditions need to be preserved. Every major poll in this race over the last three months has shown Bayh with a lead, but not by much.

— Sarah Mimms
Photo by Michael Vadon/Flickr


Written by Countable

Leave a comment
  • Patricia

    Who wants the dem in charge I don't want them to take over the senate

    Like (2)
  • Joshua

    The reason Blunt is doing so horribly is that he has been a Republican first and conservative, not at all. Republican controlled Missouri has not seen conservative principals dictating its decisions in some time and they are loosing the independent and libertarian vote because of it. The GOP loyalists vs people loyalists is what is hurting Republican Party.

    Like (1)
  • Kay

    Conservatives wake up!! Make the Supreme Court your focus!! This election is so important. Obamacare would prevail with its extreme costs (see the plans as set forth by Paul Ryan), gun rights would be lost, refugees will pour into this country with little to no vetting, cartels and drugs will continue to pour in, military and police officers will continue to be disrespected, government will be in every aspect of your life, the deficit will continue to spiral out of control, we will be a country that no longer will be safe, etc, etc, etc. Think hard when you cast your vote!!!!!!

  • FutureRepBenjamin

    You guys have forgotten to take Maryland into account. Kathy Szeliga (R) is in a very tight race with Chris VanHollen (D). I've been doing a lot of work with her campaign and I really think we stand a chance at winning Mikulski's seat. We are going to be one of the big surprises come November 9th!