WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans' plans to defend their Senate majority in 2016 just got a bit more complicated.
GOP Sen. David Vitter's loss in Louisiana's governor's race over the weekend, and his decision to leave the Senate next year rather than seek re-election, creates an open seat that Republicans will have to defend. It's a deep-red Southern state and the GOP will be heavily favored, but Democrats hope they might have a shot, especially with a newly elected Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, as an unanticipated asset.
The Louisiana race is the latest wrinkle as Republicans face what's already a tough Senate map next year. They are defending 24 seats, compared to 10 for Democrats, and seven of those GOP seats are in states President Barack Obama won in 2012.
Democrats are sounding increasingly confident they will pick up the seats needed to win back the Senate control they lost just last year. They need to net four seats if they hang onto the White House, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate; or five seats if Republicans win the presidency.
But Republicans insist they will keep Louisiana safely in their column and keep their majority, too. They point to strong incumbents in battleground states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Ohio, although Illinois and Wisconsin may be tougher for them to hold.
And although there's talk of a primary challenge against New Hampshire GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who will face a tough general election against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, Republicans boast of steering clear of disastrous primaries that plagued earlier election cycles, most notably 2010 and 2012, when tea party Republicans with odd views on rape and even witchcraft emerged from primaries only to lose the general election.
"None of our members have put their foot in their mouth but never underestimate us to screw it up because we have before," Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview Monday.
"As of today I feel pretty good, I don't think you could point and say in our top couple races 'man they've really screwed up here', or 'this person's really killed themselves,'" Baker said. "We're still here fighting and that's more than people thought they were going to think."
Strategists of both parties make a few points about the Senate map:
—In Louisiana, Vitter's loss in the gubernatorial race amid accusations of prostitution could have turned into an even bigger disaster for Republicans had he decided to run for re-election to the Senate. Democrats would have jumped at challenging such a damaged incumbent. Yet Vitter's departure also creates an open seat that Republicans will now have to defend, with several candidates sounding eager to run. On the Democratic side, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is most often mentioned and Democrats see an outside chance there, arguing that Republicans will at least have to work for it.
"Republicans now have another open seat to defend and it appears as though there will be a rush of candidates on the Republican side who will be battling one another," said Sadie Weiner, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
—As Ayotte positions herself for a general election in independent-minded New Hampshire she has broken with her party on a series of issues, including backing Obama rules on power plant emissions. That's upset some conservatives in New Hampshire who are now talking about a primary challenge. That could significantly complicate Ayotte's campaign, though national Republicans play down the threat.
Indeed Republicans argue that Democrats are the ones with problematic primaries, as their chosen candidates contend with vigorous challenges from the left in states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.
"We have a hell of a lot less problems with primaries than they do at this stage," said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
—With Hillary Rodham Clinton likely to emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee, it's going to matter, a lot, whom the Republicans select as their presidential candidate. Republicans dread Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and sound most excited about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio with his forward-looking message and prospect for generational change.
—And, no matter what happens in 2016, it could all be turned upside down again two years later in 2018, when Democrats will be the ones defending vulnerable incumbents in competitive states. That's partly why Democrats are hoping for as big a margin of victory as possible, including pressing into less-winnable states like Missouri and Arkansas.
"Those states are difficult and Democrats oftentimes find themselves on the wrong side of history in those states," said Matt Canter, a strategist formerly with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "But it's not insurmountable and politics is filled with surprises."