The 2016 presidential election is inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV or go on the internet without hearing about walls or emails. But many Americans fail to realize just how important the Congressional elections will be in the fall. The Republican hold on Congress over the last two years is what has led to the one of the most obstructionist legislative eras in history. Most recently, Senate Republicans have decided not to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, the nominee to fill the Supreme Court’s vacant seat, which is probably collecting a lot of dust by now.
This obstructionism serves as a reminder that Congress is the only thing that stands in the way of the President, which in January, may be everyone’s favorite tall oompa-loompa, Donald Trump. Should he win the election, the balance of Congress may prove to be critical in stopping, say, a ban on Muslim immigration into the country. If Hillary Clinton is elected, but both houses of Congress remain in Republican control, you can expect to see another four (or eight years) of obstructionism.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is controlled by a Republican majority of 54 seats, against the Democrats 44, and 2 Independents, though both Independents (Bernie Sanders and Angus King) caucus with the Democrats. This means that if the Republicans lose four seats that they currently hold, they will lose their majority in the Senate. Luckily for the Democrats, there are five seats held by Republicans to be considered Toss-Up elections by leading political analysis sites such as Ballotpedia or The Cook Political Report. On top of those five, there’s one other seat that I consider to be a wild card, which would surprise critics in the fall by swinging Democrat. Here are the key Senate races to watch going into November:
NOTE: All polling data can be found at Ballotpedia’s excellent polling data collection site for the Senate races.
Poor, poor Marco Rubio. The incumbent Florida senator declared that he would not run for reelection in order to seek the Republican nomination for President. Well, clearly Marco Rubio did not know what he was doing. His seat is now considered to be a Toss-Up by almost all major political analysts. What makes this even more intriguing is the fluctuation Florida experiences in its elections between midterm and presidential years. For instance, Marco Rubio won his Senate seat in the 2010 midterm by a landslide margin of 19 points over Independent and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Meanwhile, incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) won reelection in 2012 with a comfortable 13 point lead. Nelson’s coincided with President Obama winning Florida by less than a point. This senate election being held in 2016 could have a huge impact on the results, and possibly lead to the seat going back to the Dems.
The Democrats will most likely be represented by Rep. Patrick Murphy. Murphy holds a slight lead in the polls over Rep. Alan Grayson, and Murphy has been endorsed by President Obama, VP Biden, and none other than Rubio’s old foe, former Gov. Charlie Crist. Meanwhile, the Republicans have no clear leader. According to the latest Mason-Dixon Poll, Carlos Beruff holds 17% of the Republican vote, with David Jolly at 13% and Ron DeSantis at 10%. 49% of Republican voters are still undecided. The race gets even more interesting when you look at Republican support for Donald Trump, or lack there of. Both Jolly and DeSantis have said they will support the Republican nominee, but both statements came before Trump became the presumptive nominee. This state could be ripe for the picking for Democrats in the fall.
The home state of President Obama is also the site of a key Senate showdown in November. Incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R) won his seat in the 2010 midterm during the height of the Tea Party movement that saw Republicans gain six seats in the Senate. Kirk won his election by the narrow margin of 1.6% in a midterm year that featured low Democratic turnout. This election should be considered an exception rather than rule. Illinois’s other Senate seat is being held by Sen. Richard Durbin (D), who won re-election by 11 points in 2014, a feat considering that was a midterm election.
Illinois is a consistent blue state in presidential elections and, being the home state of President Obama, showed up huge in ’08 and ’12, putting up landslide victories of 25% and 16%, respectively. Chicago especially will cater to Hillary Clinton’s base, featuring staunch Obama supporters and people of color. Clinton has already endorsed Democratic contender, Rep. Tammy Duckworth. Recent polling has Duckworth with a small but comfortable lead, and considering that she’ll get a bump from Hillary on election day, I expect Rep. Duckworth to snatch a seat back for the Dems here.
The Granite State may be very tough for Democratic contender Gov. Maggie Hassan to win her bid for the U.S. Senate. She’s taking on incumbent Kelly Ayotte (R), who won a landslide of 23.5 points during that faithful 2010 midterm. Early polling has Sen. Ayotte maintaining her seat by margins ranging from 2 to 7 points. However, Gov. Hassan has some elements going for her.
For one, the aforementioned polls still have as many as 15% of voters undecided. Another factor is that this is the first Senate election in NH that coincides with a presidential election since 2008. In that election, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen took the seat from incumbent Sen. John Sununu (R). Sen. Shaheen then won reelection in 2014 (again, a midterm year) by 3 points. Hassan will see help from NH presidential voters, who voted for Obama in both ’08 and ’12. While one of the trickier elections, New Hampshire could see both its Senate seats in the hands of Democrats come November.
Incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) will have to hold off his seat from challenger Katie McGinty (D). The Keystone State could be a battleground state in the fall. That being said, it swung for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012 by at least 5 points in each election. Sen. Toomey won his seat in the 2010 midterm in a nailbiter, beating out challenger Joe Sestak by a margin of 51% to 49%. Toomey is on the long list of Republicans who are waiting to be swooned by Donald Trump.
The last Senate election held in Pennsylvania saw Democrat Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. hold his seat by a margin of 9 points in 2012, which again, saw his state go for President Obama. McGinty, who has been endorsed by the President, trails Toomey in the polls, but all of the incumbent’s leads lie within the margin of error, and anywhere from 10% to 20% of voters are still undecided. Keep your eye on this swing state in the months to come.
Oh, boy. This race is my favorite. In my final Toss-Up state, we go to Wisconsin, where incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R) must fend off his challenger former senator Russ Feingold (D). Wait, former senator? You read that correctly. Feingold was Wisconsin’s senator until 2010, when Johnson unseated him and added another tally to the Republicans storming of Congress that year. Now, Feingold is back with a vengeance.
Sen. Johnson beat former senator Feingold by a margin of 5 points in 2010. However, Wisconsin went blue in both 2008 and 2012, with Pres. Obama winning the more recent election by nearly seven points. That election also saw Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) get elected. All major polls so far have Feingold re-taking his seat by around 10 points, with a margin of error at 3.4%. This is a sequel I can get behind, coming this November.
WILD CARD RACE
Woah! Wild Card you say? I do. This one will be by far the hardest for the Dems to take back. Incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R), is hoping to keep his seat from Former State House Majority Whip Deborah Ross.
North Carolina is much murkier than the above states. For one, North Carolina went to Obama in a narrow victory in 2008. However, the state reverted back to Romney in a 2 point victory in 2012. This is the ONLY state of those I’ve listed which Obama did not win in 2012. While Burr is the incumbent in a red-leaning state, recent polls show Burr only holding a 3-4 point lead in the general, with the margin of error being 3.2%, and undecided voters around 18%. The additional wrench thrown into this race is that Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh is consistently polling 7-8%. If Haugh’s presence in the race grows, it could affect either candidate negatively.
What makes this race special is the national attention that North Carolina’s controversial transgender bathrooms laws have been getting. Ultimately, the Republican-sponsored bill led to many companies taking their business out-of-state, as well as notable musicians refusing to play in NC. In addition to that, Hillary Clinton won North Carolina comfortably in her primary there, while Donald Trump only won his primary by 3 points over Ted Cruz. Hillary supporters and Trump naysayers can push Deborah Ross over the top in November, and shock critics everywhere.
This is all far from a sure thing. But this is the best chance the Democrats have to break the Republican majority in the Senate until 2020. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, Democrats would only need four seats to flip in the Senate to have a majority, as a 50-50 tie would see Clinton’s VP with the tie-breaking vote. If Trump wins in November, the Dems would need five seats to flip to get a majority. But to be honest, they’ll probably have much bigger fish to fry.