Everything you need to know about the fight for Senate control

By Jennifer Yachnin | 11/09/2015 06:58 AM EST

Democrats want to retake majority control of the Senate in the 2016 elections — but with very few competitive races on tap, it’s going to take some help from the top of the ticket to get them there.

Democrats want to retake majority control of the Senate in the 2016 elections — but with very few competitive races on tap, it’s going to take some help from the top of the ticket to get them there.

While voters will decide a total of 34 Senate races across the country a year from now, only about a half dozen or so will offer voters the ability to flip party control: one seat controlled by Democrats and the rest by Republicans.

"Given this playing field, you have to think Republicans are favorites to hold onto the Senate, but I wouldn’t call them the overwhelming favorites," said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.


Democrats need to claim five seats to win back the Senate majority they lost in 2014, or four seats if they retain control of the White House.

That narrow margin means whichever party wins the Senate majority will likely do so riding on the coattails of the White House victor. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner, while the Republican presidential race is unusually fluid.

"We’re in a very polarized era, and so if the election isn’t close at the top, that’s going to have serious negative ramifications on whatever party is on the losing end in the presidential race," Skelley said, suggesting that Democrats would need to win the presidency to have a hope of flipping competitive Senate seats in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Incumbent Republicans in both of those states, Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, have built significant war chests to fend off their Democratic rivals.

"If Republicans hold onto both of those seats, about the best Democrats can probably do is 50-50 by winning Florida and New Hampshire, holding Nevada, and taking over Wisconsin and Illinois, and also holding on to Colorado," Skelley added. Both Nevada and Colorado are currently the only competitive seats now held by Democrats.

But with competitive races shaping up to flip an open Florida Senate seat and oust incumbents in New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin, Republicans have their work cut out for them to keep the majority in 2017, political analyst Charlie Cook said last week.

Speaking at a National Journal event in Washington, D.C., Cook noted that presidential election years tend to hold a demographic advantage for Democrats.

"It’s big, it’s broad, it looks like the country," Cook said of the turnout. "It looks like what the Census Bureau reports."

But during midterm elections, "it’s only 50 percent as high, it’s older, it’s whiter, it’s more conservative, it’s more Republican."

For example, Democrats won the White House in 2008 while picking up House and Senate seats. The midterm elections in 2010 were good to Republicans, when they regained control of the House.

While Democrats in 2012 kept the White House, "they just got completely hosed" two years later, when they had to compete in multiple red states, Cook said.

"In 2016, the shoe is on the other foot," he added.

That’s tough math for Republicans, who have 24 seats at play, as opposed to Democrats’ 10. Making matters worse for Republicans is the fact that seven of the GOP seats are in states that President Obama won in 2012 and 2008. Democrats, meanwhile, have none in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012.

That leaves six GOP incumbents with an uphill fight next year, while Democrats will struggle to keep retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada seat.

"Basically, you have six Republican seats that are in real, real, real, real danger here," Cook said. "And conversely, you only have one on the Democratic side, and that’s in Nevada."

Cook has basically written off Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). "If he got re-elected, it would be an enormous upset," he said.

The "best scenario" for Republicans is a two-seat loss next year, Cook maintained.

"I personally think a three-seat loss is more plausible," he added. "That would take Republicans down to 51. Wow, that starts getting close. And four seats is entirely possible, that’s 50-50," which would mean the presidential race would be the deciding factor, as the vice president would cast the deciding vote in the Senate for who will control the chamber.

"And five seats is not out of the question," Cook said.

"We’re looking at a heck of a race for the Senate underneath what is obviously one of the weirdest and most fun presidential races we’re ever seen," he said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee projected confidence in its prospects despite the narrow margin for victory, arguing the party has achieved recruiting successes not only in competitive states like New Hampshire but in more difficult territory like Arizona.

"Senate Republicans are facing an incumbent-heavy map this cycle, meaning there are just a few states where they had to recruit candidates — and they have come up short in each of these states," the DSCC stated in a strategy memo late last week, pointing to Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to skip the open Nevada Senate race and recruiting challenges in Colorado, where several marquee candidates have declined to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet (D).

"Republicans are facing a bleak map in 2016, and with recruitment failures and fundraising woes in key states — not to mention months of partisan gridlock — their chances of maintaining their fragile majority look slimmer by the day," the DSCC memo said.

Here’s a look at Senate races that are likely to be competitive in 2016:

Alaska — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 41%

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R) is ready for a re-election fight, although it’s not clear whether she’ll have much to worry about.

The senator won a comeback bid of sorts in 2010 after she lost the GOP nomination to attorney Joe Miller but won her re-election in the general election as a write-in candidate.

This cycle, Murkowski has yet to draw either a primary challenge or a Democratic challenger, with no other candidates registered with the Federal Election Commission to date. The filing deadline is not until next June.

While Miller, who also lost a 2014 GOP Senate primary, hasn’t ruled out a third Senate attempt, he has remained coy about his intentions. Meanwhile, former Sen. Mark Begich (D) is not expected to seek a political comeback after losing his re-election bid last year.

Murkowski reported $2.9 million in her campaign coffers at the end of September.

Arizona — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 45%

Conservative groups would like to see Sen. John McCain defeated in a Republican primary this cycle, but so far recruiting efforts have failed to produce a top-tier challenger.

Although state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) has announced her candidacy, House lawmakers preferred by conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have passed on the race or indicated they are unlikely to run.

A bloody, high-profile GOP primary would appeal to Democrats, who see Arizona as a potential pickup if McCain is not on the ballot or is badly wounded. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is expected to claim the Democratic nomination.

McCain posted $5 million in his campaign account at the end of September, while Ward reported $321,000 in cash along with nearly $100,000 in debt. Kirkpatrick reported $767,000 in the bank.

California — Open Democratic seat; 2012 Obama vote: 60%

The Golden State is hosting its first open-seat Senate race since 1992, when retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) won their first terms.

Boxer’s announcement in January that she would give up the seat set off a scramble among California politicians, where strict term limits for state lawmakers can create a tidal wave of candidates for open seats.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) claims front-runner status among a field of about 20 contenders, while Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) and former state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro also stand out.

Harris reported $3.3 million in the bank for her bid at the end of September after raising $1.8 million in the third quarter. Sanchez raised $379,000 last quarter to bank $1.6 million, while Del Beccaro reported a comparatively meager $55,000.

In California, all candidates compete in a single primary with the top two vote-getters advancing to the November election regardless of party. Democrats are favored to hold the seat, but if the party splits the vote, a Republican could make it onto the November ballot. Even then, Democrats are likely to win.

Colorado — Democratic seat; 2012 Obama vote: 51%

Republicans would like to boast back-to-back victories in the Centennial State — the party successfully swapped out Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in 2014 for then-Rep. Cory Gardner (R) — but the GOP has faced recruiting troubles against Bennet this cycle.

Numerous well-known Republicans have already turned down the contest, including Rep. Mike Coffman and his wife, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, as well as Colorado District Attorney George Brauchler.

While the GOP waits to see whether a candidate like Rep. Scott Tipton wades into the race at the last minute, numerous lesser-known candidates are starting to mobilize.

Among them, businessman Robert Blaha has said he plans to kick off a bid later this year. Blaha made a failed 2012 GOP primary challenge against Rep. Doug Lamborn, in which he put up nearly $800,000 of his own money to fund his campaign. Other candidates in the GOP primary include state Sen. Tim Neville and El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn. Former Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D) in 2010, recently indicated he is contemplating a run.

But Bennet claims a significant cash advantage over his would-be Republican challengers, with $5.4 million in the bank at the end of September after adding $1.5 million to his coffers in the third quarter.

Neither Glenn nor Neville, who announced his bid last month, has filed campaign finance reports yet.

Florida — Open Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 50%

It’s a battle royal in the Sunshine State as both parties field crowded primaries for the right to succeed Sen. Marco Rubio, who is giving up his seat to seek the GOP presidential nomination.

Democrats want to flip the Senate seat back into their control, but first voters must pick between Reps. Patrick Murphy, who has the backing of the Democratic establishment, and Alan Grayson, whose outlandish persona snags headlines.

That primary could also grow to a three-way race if Rep. Gwen Graham — who may wind up with a considerably more Republican district as the state Supreme Court reviews new congressional lines next week — opts into the contest, although she is also a potential contender for the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Republicans must similarly winnow a crowded field that includes Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera and Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, plus several lesser-known contenders.

But candidates on both sides of the race appear to be struggling with fundraising in the shadow of the presidential contest — particularly the GOP presidential primary, which includes both Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

DeSantis leads his fellow Republicans with $2.5 million in the bank at the end of September, while Jolly posted $600,000 at that time, and López-Cantera reported $379,000 in the bank.

In the Democratic primary, Murphy posted a significant advantage with $3.5 million in his campaign coffers, while Grayson reported $250,000, along with $2.5 million in debt from previous campaigns. Grayson is personally wealthy and could subsidize his campaign.

Georgia — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 46%

Despite revealing a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in June, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson vowed to seek a third term.

Isakson had socked away $5.4 million in the bank at the end of September, in expectation of both a primary challenger and a Democratic fight, but he has yet to draw serious competition on either front.

While Democrats put up a fight to flip the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) last year, nominee Michelle Nunn lost to now-Sen. David Perdue by 8 points.

No high-profile Democratic candidates have emerged to take on Isakson, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and political scion and former state Sen. Jason Carter have both declined bids.

Just as significantly, no conservative challenger has emerged to take on the two-term incumbent in a GOP primary.

Illinois — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 58%

Kirk is a top target for Democrats this cycle, as they look to flip the Senate seat once held by Obama back into their column.

But first Democrats must decide their own competitive primary battle, featuring Rep. Tammy Duckworth and former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp, as well as state Sen. Napoleon Harris, who is expected to formally file for the race this week.

Duckworth, who claims establishment support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, leads the money chase with $2.9 million in the bank at the end of September, followed by Zopp with $816,000 in the bank at that time.

The general-election battle over Kirk’s seat is set to be an expensive race, with third-party groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club already filling the state’s airwaves with millions of dollars in issue ads in recent months. Environmental group have targeted Kirk over votes he cast in opposition to the Clean Power Plan (Greenwire, July 6).

Kirk, who won his first term with only 48 percent of the vote, is also stocking his war chest with cash, posting $3.6 million at the end of September as he seeks a second term.

Kirk is a moderate Republican — and when he served in the House, he was one of eight Republicans to vote for a cap-and-trade bill in 2009. But environmental groups have been critical of his Senate voting record, and Kirk, along with three moderate Republican colleagues, last week formed the Senate Energy and Environment Working Group in an effort to burnish his green credentials (Greenwire, Oct. 29).

Indiana — Open Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 44%

Republicans are favored to hold retiring Sen. Dan Coats’ seat next, but the vacancy has created a crowded GOP primary field that features two House lawmakers.

The contenders include Reps. Todd Young and Marlin Stutzman, former state GOP Chairman Eric Holcomb, and financial consultant Kevin Grant, who made a failed primary challenge against Rep. Todd Rokita (R) last year. Former Rep. Baron Hill is expected to win the Democratic nomination.

Among the Republican field, Young and Holcomb are expected to compete for the establishment vote, while Stutzman is the preferred candidate of the party’s tea party wing.

Young has so far excelled in the money chase, with $2.3 million in the bank at the end of September while Holcomb posted $295,000 at that time. Stutzman reported $1.1 million in his campaign coffers at the end of the third quarter.

Hill trailed with $293,000 in his campaign account, but Democrats remain cautiously optimistic, considering Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s Hoosier State win in 2012.

Iowa — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 52%

Sen. Chuck Grassley is favored to win a seventh term, but the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is still showcasing a healthy $3.9 million in the bank at the end of September.

The 82-year-old lawmaker has drawn challenges from a trio of current and former state Democratic lawmakers, none of whom is a significant threat.

Of the trio, only state Sen. Rob Hogg has reported fundraising data to date, with $59,000 in the bank at the end of September. Neither former state Sen. Tom Fiegen nor former state Rep. Bob Krause have filed fundraising reports.

Even though Iowa is a swing state, Grassley is likely to be safe — unless his age somehow becomes a factor.

Kentucky — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 38%

If candidates need to learn how to lose before they can win, Republican Sen. Rand Paul is on the right path.

Despite flagging poll numbers and pressure from state Republican leaders to pick a single race, the Kentucky lawmaker has vowed he will remain in Republican presidential primary, while at the same time seeking a second Senate term.

"I’m running for both. … We plan on being in until voters say otherwise," Paul said at a recent campaign event (E&E Daily, Oct. 29).

In fact, Paul raised $250,000 to do just that: The Republican funded a special presidential caucus in the state to circumvent rules that would have otherwise prevented him from seeking two offices in the GOP primary next year.

Paul caught a break in last week’s statewide election: His expected Democratic challenger, state Auditor Adam Edelen, lost his re-election bid. While that does not preclude Edelen from running, his star has certainly dimmed. He spent about $900,000 on his re-election while his Republican challenger spent just $40,000.

Although he is focused on his presidential bid, Paul did report banking $1.4 million for his Senate campaign at the end of September.

Louisiana — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 41%

Competition over Louisiana’s Senate seat is in a holding pattern at the moment: First, Republican Sen. David Vitter must compete in the Nov. 21 runoff election for the governor’s office.

Although Vitter had once been favored to succeed term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal, the senator faced a tough primary battle last month with two other Republicans — narrowly eking out a second-place finish that qualified him for the runoff with Democrat John Bel Edwards — and saw his likability ratings tank after new focus on his role in a 2007 prostitution scandal.

A poll released Nov. 3 by Baton Rouge NBC affiliate WVLA showed Edwards, the state House minority leader, leading Vitter 52 to 32 percent, with 16 percent of voters undecided. The survey included 600 likely voters.

If Vitter wins the governorship, he is widely expected to tap his own temporary successor, who would serve the remainder of his term and gain an immediate advantage in the contest for a full term in 2016.

But should Vitter lose his bid, he could face an intraparty challenge from some of those same candidates, including Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, state Treasurer John Kennedy, and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, who placed third in the 2014 Senate primary against then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D).

Democrats have yet to field a candidate for the 2016 Senate race, although Edwards could opt into that contest if he loses the governorship later this month. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is Mary Landrieu’s brother, is also regularly mentioned for higher office.

In Louisiana, all candidates compete in a single primary regardless of party. Although a candidate can claim victory with at least 50 percent of the vote, elections typically proceed to a runoff featuring the top two vote-getters.

Vitter would need to shore up his Senate campaign account if he fails to win the governor’s office. He reported $26,000 in his campaign coffers in September. Boustany reported $1.5 million at that time, and Fleming banked $2.3 million.

Maryland — Open Democratic seat; 2012 Obama vote: 62%

Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s retirement could trigger a much larger turnover in the state’s congressional delegation as House lawmakers look to succeed the five-term incumbent next year.

Among the race’s top contenders are Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards, and Rep. Elijah Cummings is also weighing a potential bid and could announce his candidacy in the coming weeks.

Although Republicans seized the state’s governorship last cycle in an upset victory, Democrats are all but guaranteed to retain the Senate seat in a presidential year. Although she has not formally announced her candidacy, state Del. Kathy Szeliga (R), who is close to the state’s lone Republican member of Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, is preparing to run.

Van Hollen, who recently put up TV ads touting his environmental credentials (E&E Daily, Oct. 22), claims a lead in the money chase with $4.1 million in the bank at the end of September.

Edwards reported $369,000 in cash at that time, while Cummings had $981,000 in the bank.

Although he has yet to declare, Cummings led a hypothetical three-way race in a recent University of Maryland poll conducted for The Washington Post. The October survey found Cummings with 33 percent, and Van Hollen and Edwards tied with 20 percent each, while the remaining 27 percent of those polled had no opinion or selected none of the candidates. The survey of 1,006 Maryland adults had a 3.5-point margin of error.

Missouri — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 44%

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) is considered a rising star, but he will likely serve as the sacrificial lamb in Democrats’ uphill effort to oust first-term Sen. Roy Blunt (R).

Blunt, the House Republican whip before his ascension to the Senate in 2010, is favored to win a second term in the Show Me State.

He recorded $4.4 million in the bank at the end of September while Kander posted $1.5 million at that time.

Nevada — Open Democratic seat; 2012 Obama vote: 52%

Senate Minority Leader Reid’s seat is always a top target for Republicans, but his decision to retire at the end of this Congress elevated the open-seat contest to tossup status — and makes it the only Democratic seat truly in play so far this cycle.

Although political observers had expected a face-off between former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D), who received Reid’s early blessing in the race, and Republican Rep. Joe Heck, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle could soon complicate the contest by forcing a GOP primary.

Angle is a tea party favorite who bested the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate in the 2010 primary and then lost to Reid by 5 points. Two Nevada state lawmakers have set up an account to draft Angle into the 2016 contest.

In the meantime, Democrats are banking on a presidential cycle boost to help them retain the seat.

But Heck is amassing a war chest for his bid to join the Senate, with $2.3 million in the bank at the end of September. Masto reported $1.5 million in the bank at that time.

New Hampshire — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 52%

Democrats scored a recruiting victory in the Granite State last month when Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) agreed to take on first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) for her seat.

Hassan’s entry into the race prompted several political handicappers to upgrade the contest’s rating to a tossup, suggesting the race could break for either party (E&E Daily, Oct. 6).

Democrats are expected to target Ayotte, a moderate Republican, as too conservative for the state by attempting to tie her to billionaire GOP donors David and Charles Koch, while Republicans will use state budget battles to paint Hassan as too partisan.

But Ayotte could also draw a Republican challenger this cycle. Former state House Speaker Bill O’Brien told New Hampshire ABC affiliate WMUR that he hoped to draft a challenger to Ayotte, pointing in part to the fact that she became the first Republican senator to back U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan last month (Greenwire, Oct. 26).

Ayotte banked $5 million at the end of September to defend her seat. Hassan has just begun fundraising.

North Carolina — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 48%

Republican Sen. Richard Burr is supposed to be a top target for Democrats this cycle, but the party’s recruiting efforts in the state have yet to produce a top-tier challenger.

Former Sen. Kay Hagan; state Treasurer Janet Cowell; and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., all passed on the race, leaving Democrats with lesser-known state and local officials in the contest.

The Democratic field is now led by former state Rep. Deborah Ross and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, while state Sen. Joel Ford is also contemplating a bid.

Burr, who heads the Select Committee on Intelligence, claims a hefty financial advantage over his current would-be challengers, with $4.7 million in the bank at the end of September.

Ohio — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 51%

Political prognosticators like Cook give Portman a slight edge in his re-election fight — rating the race as "lean Republican," one step up from the most competitive rating of "tossup" — but there’s one place the GOP lawmaker claims a clear advantage: the bank.

Portman posted $11.1 million on hand at the end of September.

And Portman will need those funds: Not only is his seat a top Democratic target, but the Republican has already been the target of outside spending from environmental groups including the Sierra Club, NRDC Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters.

Both former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld are competing for the right to take on Portman. Strickland, who claims the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, posted $1.5 million in his campaign coffers at the end of September. Sittenfeld reported $784,000 at that time.

Pennsylvania — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 52%

Although Democratic strategists view Toomey as one of the GOP’s more vulnerable incumbents this cycle, polling in the Senate contest has yet to indicate the first-term senator is in significant trouble — even showing him with double-digit leads over his would-be challengers (Greenwire, Oct. 8).

Toomey has also banked $8.6 million in his bid for a second term.

Among the Democrats vying to take on Toomey are former Rep. Joe Sestak — who lost the 2010 race against Toomey by 2 points — former White House Council on Environmental Quality Chief Katie McGinty and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

Sestak leads the Democratic money chase with $2.4 million in the bank, but McGinty banked $892,000 after her first two months in the race. Fetterman reported $144,000 at the end of September.

Wisconsin — Republican seat; 2012 Obama vote: 53%

It’s a do-over election in the Badger State, as former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) aims to oust Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican who knocked him out of office in one of the biggest upsets of 2010.

Democrats are hoping that a presidential election cycle will help boost their candidate in a nominally blue state, despite Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s electoral dominance in recent years.

The airwaves in Wisconsin are already alive with third-party issue ads taking aim at both candidates. Environmental groups have criticized Johnson for his opposition to the Clean Power Plan with a million-dollar ad campaign, while the conservative Club for Growth Action ran a pair of ads disparaging Feingold as "too yesterday" and reminding voters of his previous 18-year congressional career (E&ENews PM, Sept. 22).

While both candidates posted similar fundraising totals at the end of the third quarter — Feingold banked $3.4 million at that time, while Johnson reported $3.5 million in his account — the Republican senator could pump his own funds into the race, as he did in 2010.

Reporter Geof Koss contributed.