"Oh, Bart, I'm not sure random locker searches are permitted by the Supreme Court." - Principal Skinner
"Pfft, Supreme Court? What have they done for us lately?" - Bart Simpson
NOTE: This is the third of three articles about the 2016 U.S. federal election. The first was about Trump's misadventures and the second dealt with the terrible way the Republicans mutilated the House of Representatives. Today we're moving on to the point of greatest uncertainty about this year: can the Democrats regain control of the Senate?
The 2010 election may have been an unmitigated disaster that haunts us still, but it was a full Senate term ago, and all those seats the Republicans took in Blue states are back in the mix, which means the good guys are in the luxurious position of playing on a very friendly map. They need 4 seats to tie and 5 seats for a majority. There are seven Republicans running for re-election in states that Obama carried twice, plus possible pickups in North Carolina and Arizona.
Control of the Senate will be tremendously consequential for Hillary Clinton's Administration, even more than the Republican margin in the House. Without Senate control, not only can you forget about any kind of major legislation getting passed, but every nominee she appoints will be turned into some kind of bomb throwing anarchist before they get to committee hearings. And that doesn't even include any Supreme Court nominations she makes.
A Democratic Senate means that Clinton will be able to confirm not only a new justice (or justices), but whole slates of federal judges and commissioners on the FCC, FEC, SEC, and all those other important sounding acronyms. (Fergawdsakes, put people on the Postal Board!) It also means that whatever ten cent cronies she nominates as ambassadors to Ghana, Fiji, and the Republic of Kraplakistan will sail through against little more than a few outraged op-eds in the Wall Street Journal.
For a Presidential term that is likely to be hobbled legislatively from before it even begins, a friendly Senate majority is the biggest single factor in whether or not she'll be able to govern effectively and, as they say, "get things done". So let's take a look at the big board!
(The obvious way to divvy these up is geographically, but that's hardly any fun. So let's look at these Republican seats in terms of oldness of the incumbents.)
Tier 1 - *Really* Old White Guys
Iowa - Charles Grassley (b. 1933) - Since getting elected with an 8-point margin the same year Reagan won the White House, Grassley has been re-elected five times. The closest shave he had was in 2010, when he got 64% and won by 31-points. On the surface there wouldn't appear to be much hope, except for two wrinkles. First, Grassley has a real opponent on his hands in Patty Judge, a former Lieutenant Governor who has actually won statewide office. Second, those good government Iowans are none too pleased that their longtime senator, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has refused to so much as grant a hearing to Merrick Garland. Unfortunately, Judge is only ten years younger than he is, and that election she won was in the wave of 2006, so the sharks don't see much chance for her.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Safe-Republican
Arizona - John McCain (b. 1936) - Obama never won Arizona, but polls have Clinton up there because Trump gonna Trump. McCain has a credible challenger this year, Ann Kirkpatrick, a three time Democratic House rep. But however much fun it would be to see McCain go down, if he does it probably means most if not all of the races below went Democratic as well, so control of the Senate is unlikely to hinge on Arizona.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Favored-Republican
Tier 2 - Moderately Old White Guys
Wisconsin - Ron Johnson (b. 1955) - Johnson is a Tea Party nutbar from Wisconsin who was one of those rich guys who'd never held office before deciding he wanted to be a Senator. He's among the richest men in the Senate, and spent millions of his own money to take Saint Russell Feingold's seat. He has tip-top ratings from a whole horrorhouse of conservative asylums: he's got an "A" rating from the micro-penises down at the NRA, a perfect 100% from the anti-women Bible thumpers at National Right to Life, and he got an "All Charges Dropped" from the Domestic Violence League. I made that last one up, but you had to think about it, and he really did vote "No" on the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.
Now Feingold is back, and since he was Elizabeth Warren before it was cool, returning him to the Senate would not only help Clinton, but also make America a non-trivially less shitty place.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Tilt-Democratic
Ohio - Rob Portman - (b. 1955) - Portman was a longtime Republican Congressman who decided - in 2005! - that he wanted to work for the plainly hapless and dysfunctional Bush Administration. Then he took over an already Republican Senate seat in Ohio in 2010. All you need to know about him is that the "Issues" page on his campaign site has six categories, and three of them are "2nd Amendment", "Obamacare", and "Protect Life". That certainly seems like a list of half of America's problems to me. His opponent is former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, who is even older than Portman but isn't a right wing kook.
Sabato: Toss Up
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Tilt-Republican
North Carolina - Richard Burr (b. 1955*) - Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 and then narrowly lost it in 2012. Like McCain in Arizona, if Burr goes down it will probably won't matter for control of the chamber. But North Carolina has been trending Blue of late, and locking in a Senate seat from there throughout Clinton's first term would be a big win, now and in 2022. His opponent is Deborah Ross, a longtime state legislator.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Lean-Republican
(*Jebus, '55 must've been a vintage year for wingnuts. Possibly unrelated note: that was the peak of atmospheric nuclear testing.)
Tier 3 - Regular Old White Guys
Illinois - Mark Kirk (b. 1959) - Mark Kirk is doomed. He knows it. His opponent, two-time Democratic House rep Tammy Duckworth, knows it. Even the National Republican Senatorial Committee knows it. They're barely even bothering with this race and they're supposed to help everybody.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Lean-D
Pennsylvania - Pat Toomey (b. 1961) - The Club for Growth is one of those marvelously misnamed Washington influence outfits. The only thing they care about is cutting taxes, preferably on rich people. To that end, they believe in both the flat tax and the Balanced Budget Amendment, either of which would cast America into a 19th Century dark age where rich men hunt the rest of us for sport. Before he became a Senator, Pat Toomey was their president. His opponent is a longtime Democratic functionary named Kathleen "Katie" McGinty. If she wins, she would be the first female Senator from Pennsylvania, so that'd be a nice cherry on top of that whole first woman President thing.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Tilt-Republican
Tier 4 - The Non-Old People: Kelly Ayotte and possibly Marco Rubio
New Hampshire - Kelly Ayotte (b. 1968) - There aren't a lot of Republicans in New England, and there's a reason. Ayotte won office in the 2010 wave, and knew from the get go that she couldn't vote straight ticket wingnut if she wanted a second term. So she's voted for things like immigration reform and accepts that climate change isn't a hoax cooked up by greedy scientists. After Trump clinched the nomination, her semi-non-endorsement of him didn't even include his name.
However, she's still a wingnut at heart: anti-choice, deep in the pocket of Big Gun, and cheerfully breaking with centuries of tradition by studiously ignoring a pending Supreme Court nominee. Her opponent, New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, is none of those things and would happily vote for a Democratic Supreme Court justice.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Toss-Up
Florida - Marco Rubio (b. 1971) - Befitting Florida, this entire race is a shitshow. Marco Rubio was going to vacate the seat, but then he realized [circle one: he wasn't going to get a good lobbying job / his 2020 presidential bid looks better if he's still in office]. So now, after denying all last year that he was running, he's running. Since nobody thought he was running, he actually has a serious primary opponent who is still being backed by the governor, so whether or not he'll even get the chance to defend his seat is an open question.
On the Democratic side, things are possibly even worse. The state party establishment is backing Patrick Murphy, the idiot son of a very rich Republican who lied about his professional past and flirted with switching parties. The insurgent is Alan Grayson, an enjoyably lunatic left wing firebrand who is nevertheless the kind of loose cannon no one can trust. Why? Well, the already 8-figures wealthy Grayson decided it would be a good idea to run a Cayman Islands hedge fun while he was in office. That's ten times as dumb as Hillary Clinton giving speeches to Wall Street when she a) didn't need the money and b) knew she was running for President.
The primary is on August 30th, so maybe the entire state will vanish into the sea before then and the rest of us will be spared this horror.
Rothenberg & Gonzalez: Toss-Up
Tier Sleazy Bastard - Is Evan Bayh Running?
Earlier this week, word broke that the presumed - and presumably doomed - Democratic nominee in Indiana dropped out. This was followed by a bunch of repetitive clickbait stories about former Democratic Senator, No Labels fraud, and Indiana heavyweight Evan Bayh running instead. Befitting a man who keeps his options relentlessly open, Bayh hasn't actually said he's running yet. If he runs, the Indiana seat goes into play. (The Republican incumbent isn't running.) If Bayh doesn't run, it probably stays Red and doesn't affect the analysis below.
The map above shows all seven Senate races in states with a Republican incumbent that were also twice won by Obama, plus North Carolina and Arizona, both of which Clinton looks likely to carry this November. Of those, Illinois is the only one that's a foregone conclusion. Wisconsin is close, however, with polling there showing Feingold well ahead. The Real Clear Politics average has him up by 8-points, and Pollster has him at 9-points. Given that Feingold was a popular and long serving Senator before Johnson edged him in the 2010 wave, we can safely put that one in the Democratic column.
With those in the bag, that leaves 2 more seats for a tie, 3 more for a majority, and the rest is gravy. Of the 7 remaining, Iowa (due to Grassley's durable popularity), Arizona (same with McCain), and North Carolina (it's in the South and hates Clinton) are the heaviest lifts. If the Democrats get even one of those, it probably means they already got all the ones below and are just adding to their majority. Not bad, but not decisive.
Florida is a gigantic unknown and, if Murphy ends up winning, probably can't be counted on that much anyway. Democratic Senators who are closet Republicans are better than plain old Republican Senators, but that's a low bar.
That leaves New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. If the Democrats are going to regain a Senate majority - and put Hillary Clinton's Administration on a solid footing - they need to sweep those three races. Unfortunately, there isn't much in the way of polling yet. Toomey is ahead in Pennsylvania, but he's the incumbent and better known, so that isn't surprising in July. Ohio appears to be a dead heat. And in New Hampshire, RCP has Ayotte ahead, while Pollster likes Hassan, but both margins are small.
In these contested states (as elsewhere in the country), Democrats are going to do everything they can to tie Republicans to Donald Trump and all the evil for which he stands. The Republican incumbents, if they have even the least bit of sense, are going to ignore Trump and run hard against that reviled and corrupt socialist, Hillary Clinton. The absolute best pitch someone like Ayotte or Portman can make is: send me to stop Hillary. You don't have to vote Trump, but you don't want that radical [locally appropriate female slur] running the whole government, do you?
That kind of ticket splitting used to be common, but has declined almost to nothing in recent years. If it stays dead, the Democrats will take the Senate and ease Hillary's troubles considerably. If it revives, if lots of people vote Republican in Senate races while ignoring Trump or even voting for Clinton at the Presidential level, the Republicans may be able to hang on to the upper chamber and gum up the works like we've never seen before. The last time a Democratic President took office with a Senate minority in place was Grover Cleveland in 1885. If Hillary becomes the next, expect 2017 to be a nightmare of confirmation hearings.
So this election season, as your brain goes numb from the latest Trump outrage, soothe yourself by remembering that he's going to lose in humiliating fashion. He'll never live it down, which for him is worse than death. Unfortunately, and despite his embarrassment, he probably isn't going to take the Republican House majority down with him. The tightest action this year is in the Senate, and when you break it all down it's really only three states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire. Keep an eye on those, everything else is noise.