The 2016 Senate Map Is Now Quite Shaky For Republicans

Matt Vespa
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Posted: May 14, 2015 3:00 PM
The 2016 Senate Map Is Now Quite Shaky For Republicans

Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom on Republican chances of holding the Senate, but he’s isn’t positive either. As it was in 2014, it’s all about the candidates–and if Democrats can find solid folks to run in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; it could be a nail-biter of a Senate slugfest. Rubio’s soon-to-be former Senate seat in Florida and Sen. Mark Kirk’s Illinois seat are already toss-ups–and Ohio is on the fence. Cook noted the ever-growing danger of Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire jumping in to challenge Sen. Kelley Ayotte. That electorate up there has changed a lot since 2010. So, in all, there are a lot of Republican seats to defend in territory that isn’t favorable to Republicans, especially in a presidential year, whereas there are currently two seats in play for potential GOP-pickups: Colorado and Nevada (via National Journal):

Today, The Cook Political Report puts two Republican-held seats in the "Toss Up" category—the open seat in Florida and Kirk in Illinois. That toss-up column will certainly grow as the recruiting season progresses. If Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan challenges Ayotte in New Hampshire, former Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan runs against Republican Sen. Richard Burr in North Carolina, and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold stages a rematch with Johnson in Wisconsin, all of those races would become toss-ups. Democrats are trying to recruit a stronger candidate in Pennsylvania to challenge Toomey. If they succeed, Toomey would also land in the toss-up column. Ohio, where Republican Sen. Rob Portman is seeking a second term, has the potential to end up in the toss-up column as well.

There remain a lot of "ifs" out there, but if Democrats get the candidates they want, as many as seven seats could end up in the Toss Up column, which is more than enough to net Democrats four or five seats.

Beyond this group of seven seats, though, it is harder for Democrats to expand the playing field further. They talk about waging competitive races against Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Sen. John McCain in Arizona, but the chances that they will are pretty remote today.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, only the open seat in Nevada is in the Toss Up column today. The only other seat that is likely to be in play is in Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett is seeking a second full term. Beyond that, it isn't likely that Republicans can make any of the other eight Democratic-held seats competitive. This means that Republicans don't have a lot of opportunities to offset their losses.

Yeah, Republicans have some obstacles ahead, though in Florida; it looks like all out civil war could potentially break out between Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Oh, and Mr. Grayson is throwing quite the temper tantrum after Sen. Jon Tester (D- MT) pretty much told him he was “unelectable.”

As he faces the pressures of a potential Senate bid in the nation’s biggest swing state, Florida Rep. Alan Grayson has hurled angry expletives at reporters and described his likely rival in crude terms during a tense conversation with the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Grayson, who wouldn’t comment on his tirades, didn’t dispute participating in a difficult phone call a few weeks previously with DSCC Chairman Jon Tester, who informed the representative that the committee would likely soon endorse Rep. Patrick Murphy. Grayson denied he directly swore at Tester — as two sources alleged — but he wouldn’t comment on what he said.

“What’s the deal here? You publish whatever colorful lies people toss your way, for their own obvious political purposes?” Grayson asked via text message.

Tester’s spokesman at the DSCC declined to comment. However, in multiple interviews with Democrats from Washington to Florida, it’s clear that the Montana senator tried to pressure Grayson to stay out of the Senate race because Democratic establishment figures believe he’s unelectable in a statewide race.

“You’re making a mistake,” Grayson said, likening Murphy to a piece of excrement. “When I’m a senator, it’s going to be hard to work together.”

The DSCC then decided to endorse Murphy outright, while Grayson said he’s still probably going to run, much to Democratic operatives’ chagrin. Yet, it’s dubious to see if Republicans could exploit this, as Rep. Ron DeSantis and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera have avoided–more or less–creating such drama on the Republican side. Lopez-Cantera hasn’t formally announced, but a super PAC supporting his candidacy has been established.

Behind the scenes, both men are working at cobbling donors and supporters. DeSantis received the endorsement of RedState’s Erick Erickson when he ran for Congress, but has maintained good relationships with every wing of the Republican Party, including the establishment. As Andrea Drusch wrote for the National Journal, both DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera haven’t really aligned themselves with any one wing of the party, though Lopez-Cantera seems to be having trouble courting the more hard-core conservative groups, like Club for Growth, who have gone to DeSantis. Nevertheless, these groups insist that such reasons are not personal. Drusch added that both sides lack candidates with good name ID, but Murphy has proven to be a good fundraiser in a year that tilts toward the Democrats in terms of voter turnout.

In Illinois, we shouldn’t be surprised if Sen. Mark Kirk is sent packing on Election Night, given that the state went to Obama by double-digits in 2012. Then again, there’s some drama on the Democratic side, where not everyone is happy that Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a war veteran who lost both her legs, is running since there’s uncertainty if her candidacy could maximize black voter turnout. At the same time, it’s unlikely this will actually benefit Kirk since Duckworth has the backing of most of the party, and the fight over the nomination is held early in Illinois.

North Carolina is a state that splits right down the middle in terms of politics and incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr is leading his potential Democratic challengers, but virtually just as many North Carolinians don’t know how to feel about him as those who think he’s doing a poor job. As Stuart Rothenberg wrote in Roll Call, his low numbers were present in 2010 since voters (still) really don’t know what to think about him:

This cycle, Burr’s early poll numbers appear a bit stronger than in the past. His job approval sits in the low- to mid-30s and is about equal to his disapproval numbers, and a recent Elon University poll showed Burr and Democratic former Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost a squeaker in 2014, running even. But three early Public Policy Polling polls found the Republican holding leads in the 6- to 12-point range.

The list of potential Democratic challengers to Burr should not be particularly frightening to Tar Heel Republicans. It includes Hagan, former members of Congress and a number of ambitious state legislators and local elected officials.

But if Republicans nominate a mainstream presidential candidate and the national political environment is relatively neutral, candidate quality will grow in importance. And that probably would benefit Burr, who looks and sounds like central casting’s idea of a U.S. senator.

The nature of North Carolina politics these days is reason enough to watch the North Carolina Senate race now, and I certainly understand why handicappers rate Burr’s seat as merely leaning toward the GOP. But count me as skeptical that Burr will be in very much trouble when Labor Day 2016 rolls around.

In Wisconsin, former Sen. Russ Feingold is seeking revenge against incumbent Republican Ron Johnson, who beat him in 2010. Yet, victory for Feingold isn’t guaranteed (via Cook Report):

[T]his race is hardly a slam dunk for Feingold. He will still have to defend his voting record. In addition, the art of running a political campaign has changed a great deal in six years. Finally, it is rare that a former Senator seeking to avenge a defeat is successful. The last time it occurred was in 1934 in Rhode Island when Democrat Peter Gerry defeated Republican Felix Hebert after losing the seat to Hebert six years earlier (courtesy of The Rothenberg Gonzales Report). This should be one of the most competitive races of the cycle. It moves to the Toss Up column.

We should expect a fierce battle to maintain the Republican majority.