Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Why Six Seats Isn't Enough

Sen. Harry Reid: The once and future majority leader?

In recent weeks, the consensus has started to form that the Republicans are likely to reclaim the Senate this November.  No one seems to want to say who will be the losers on the Democratic side once you get past the first three states (Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia), but everyone agrees that with the Republicans making gains in Arkansas and Iowa and keeping most of the red states extremely close, that the math is there to hit the requisite six seats.

This is hardly good news for the Democrats, and it’s atrocious news for President Obama, despite what you might read in spin articles.  There is little incentive for the GOP to try and appoint more of the President’s judicial and executive appointments, which at this juncture is probably the only thing that seems to be able to get through Congress.  President Obama will still be able to raise money and command some respect through executive orders, but his ability to govern in a checks-and-balances system will be DOA for the final two years, and he’ll have to fight off claims that he is an ineffective leader for the rest of his second term.

However, there is a slight silver lining here.  About the best that the President will be able to do is issue vetoes, and neither house of Congress will remotely approach a veto-proof majority for the Republicans even in the rosiest of situations.  Therefore, the Republicans still have to wait for Chris Christie or Jeb Bush or Rand Paul for two more years before they are able to finally pass some legislation that will resonate with their conservative base.

The problem with waiting is that six seats isn’t enough.  The Republicans, if they get a bare minimum majority (something, like, say, AR/MT/SD/WV/LA and either AK/IA, which is probably the most logical turn-of-events), will almost certainly lose their majority in 2016.

Democrats will have the advantage of considerably stronger turnout in 2016, and if Hillary Clinton is the nominee (and every indication is that she would be), a lot of the harder-to-GOTV Democratic demographics (single women, African-Americans, and Latinos) may well turn out for such an historic candidate from a demographic standpoint, as well as her strong connections to these communities.

This could be disaster for the GOP with the reverse of 2014 taking place.  Whereas this year only one Obama-held state is held by a Republican (versus seven Romney-held states being held by Democrats), in 2016 every Democratic incumbent senator is running in a state that Obama won in 2012.  On the flipside, seven Republicans are running in states that the President won in both his reelections, and North Carolina (which the president barely lost in 2012 and won in 2008) also has a Republican up for reelection.  It’s admittedly foolhardy to postulate two years in advance in politics, but the facts in this race are hard to argue with.

Not all of these seats are created equally, of course, but they are enough so that the GOP should be extremely worried about retaining their hypothetical majority.  At the top of the list would have to be Illinois, which is the bluest state in the country to have elected a Republican to the Senate, and while Sen. Mark Kirk has done a relatively decent job at maintaining a moderate record, is probably toast in a partisan environment that would have a Democrat at the top of the ticket (to put it in perspective, no Republican in the country represents a bluer constituency in either house of Congress or as governor).  With national Democrats high on Rep. Tammy Duckworth, they may even be able to avoid a primary.

There’s also Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, another persistently blue state that is seeing its governor’s race tighten in recent weeks.  Even if Scott Walker or Paul Ryan are at the top of the ticket, that may not help Ron Johnson.  Tommy Thompson, arguably the state’s strongest Republican on-paper, couldn’t win in a presidential race in 2012 against a liberal congresswoman; it’s hard to see Johnson surviving with Democrats excited to elect Hillary in a blue state.  The Republicans best hope would be a splintered Democratic primary or a lack of a top tier challenger, but most people think that former Sen. Russ Feingold has held off on running for Herb Kohl’s seat and challenging Scott Walker because he wants to defeat the guy who took his job, and his popularity amongst Democrats would ensure a cleared primary field.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte has a slightly redder state to deal with, but arguably has the toughest challenger of the three.  Gov. Maggie Hassan is a rising star in Democratic circles, and seems intent on becoming part of the national conversation.  Short of running for the White House her only real shot at doing this would be to take on Ayotte, and depending on how the Democrats do in 2014, she may be able to carry yet another New England Republican out of Washington (Ayotte is one of only two currently, the other being Susan Collins in Maine).  Keep a close eye on Carol Shea-Porter this cycle in NH-1 and see if she wins.  If Shea-Porter can carry the more conservative of the state’s two seats in a GOP-favored year, Ayotte’s chances of being a one-termer increase dramatically.

The other four Obama-held states are all vulnerable, but not nearly to the extent that these three are.  Sen. Pat Toomey has moderated his rhetoric and voting record, though he could be vulnerable (his biggest asset may be the flawed bench Pennsylvania Democrats have in Washington and Harrisburg).  Sen. Rob Portman will likely battle from both the left and the right in 2016, thanks to his support of gay marriage, though I think his personal popularity makes him the favorite over someone like Reps. Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan.  Sen. Marco Rubio represents the most marginal state in the union, and while the Democrats don’t have a particularly robust bench there, there are people like Rep. Patrick Murphy who are young enough to make a dent in the electorate.

Finally there are Sens. Chuck Grassley and Richard Burr in Iowa and North Carolina, respectively, both of whom have retirement rumors spreading about them two years out, and may want to try and make a run for it after seeing what happened to Richard Lugar and Thad Cochran.  Either open seat would become a major draw for both parties, but the Democrats in particular would relish a chance at either seat in a presidential year considering people like Gov. Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Roy Cooper are amongst the more popular politicians in their home states.  Even John McCain’s seat could be vulnerable if the iconic senator were to retire.

The Republicans, admittedly, have their chances in 2016, but they are in blue states like Nevada and Colorado, and are against incumbents that survived the Republican tsunami in 2010-these are not gadfly candidates and don’t have the luxury of coasting through their previous election.  The GOP may be in for a strong battle win in 2014, but could well lose the war when 2016 comes and all of the cards have been dealt.

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