In recent weeks, the battleground in the race for control of the U.S. Senate has solidified, and while some contests that we anticipated would be competitive have faded from view, control of the chamber is still in doubt. As other observers have suggested, control of the Senate now hinges on six contests—Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. In most cases, the outcome of the presidential race will play a big role.
Two Going Blue
At the very least, the Democrats will likely capture two current Republican seats in Illinois and Wisconsin. Illinois is not expected to be competitive in the presidential race, and polls have shown Democrat Tammy Duckworth with a consistent lead. In Wisconsin, Russ Feingold appears poised to reclaim his former seat over Republican Ron Johnson. Barring unforeseen events, these seats will go blue in November. Assuming the Democrats win these seats leaves them three seats shy of taking control of the Senate.
Off the Radar—For Now?
When we first looked at the playing field for this cycle in January 2015, we expected competitive races in Florida and Ohio, contests that would mirror a presidential race that will almost certainly be competitive in both states. But in recent weeks, the Republican candidates, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman, have solidified their Advantages. However, there are signs that the race in Florida is tightening once again, so it will be worth watching.
Indiana—Evan Bayh versus Natural Tendencies (Toss-up)
When former Senator Evan Bayh unexpectedly entered the Senate race in Indiana, the polls jumped in his favor, as some of the excitement and initial nostalgia catapulted him to a lead. But, as expected, the initial polls were overestimating Bayh’s support, given Indiana’s natural voting tendencies, which are heavily Republican. Unlike other contests this cycle, this race is less about turnout and singularly focuses on the pull of the Bayh name. Hillary Clinton will most likely lose the state by double digits, so the race will depend on ticket-splitters. Polling has been sparse, but we anticipate an outcome within 4 points either way.
Missouri—Kander Could Pull off a Shocker (Lean Rep)
From a political standpoint, Missouri has undergone a rapid transition from marginal swing-state to reliable Republican stronghold. While President Obama nearly carried the state in 2008, recent elections have seen Republicans solidify their advantage in statewide elections. It’s against that backdrop that most political observers considered Roy Blunt a heavy favorite for reelection. But Democrat Jason Kander has run an excellent campaign, catching Blunt by surprise. Recent polling has shown Blunt clinging to a single-digit lead. In 2008, Barack Obama lost Missouri by less than 4,000 votes, but Mitt Romney easily carried the state by 11 points in 2012. As with any Democrat running statewide in this state, Jason Kander will need to maximize his advantage in St. Louis County and St. Louis City, where President Obama outperformed John McCain by more than 219,000 in 2008, but by a much lower 168,000 in 2012. Outside of St. Louis, Jackson County is another area to watch. In 2008, President Obama carried the county by more than 86,000 votes, but again saw his advantage cut in half in 2012, when he carried the county by just over 46,000 votes.
Nevada—Can Hillary’s Coattails Deliver? (Lean Rep)
Nevada represents the only Democratic seat in jeopardy this cycle, as Democrats struggle to hold on to retiring Senator Harry Reid’s seat. Recent polling has suggested that Republican candidate Joe Heck is leading Democratic candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, but this race is one where the presidential outcome could be extremely consequential. A Clinton victory in Nevada that approaches 5 or 6 points might be enough to carry Cortez Masto to victory. She has already won a statewide contest (Attorney General, 2006), but she will need to limit Heck’s lead in the rural parts of the state and maximize her turnout in Clark County (Las Vegas) and the Reno portion of Washoe County. Congressman Heck currently represents much of Clark County, which makes this a more difficult contest.
New Hampshire—Is Trump a Liability? (Toss-up)
When it comes to any statewide race in New Hampshire, it’s hard to assign an inherent advantage to either side, because the race is always close. In 2014, Senator Jeanne Shaheen survived the Republican wave, defeating Scott Brown by less than 16,000 votes. Even in a presidential year, the demographics of the electorate will remain fairly constant, but Donald Trump may still be a liability for incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte—recent polls have shown Clinton surging to a 9-point lead. Should Clinton’s coattails extend to the southern parts of the state, such as Hillsborough County, where Brown won a small majority in 2014, Ayotte could be in real trouble.
North Carolina—It’s All About the Electorate (Lean Rep)
North Carolina oscillates between a very conservative state in midterm elections and a highly competitive state in presidential years, because the electorate looks very different. The higher turnout in the presidential election, especially among African Americans, should help Democratic candidate Deborah Ross as she tries to unseat incumbent Senator Richard Burr. Ross has proved to be a stronger candidate than Burr originally thought, which has created a real opportunity that many dismissed at the beginning of the cycle. But relying on the demographics alone may not be enough to deliver victory for the Ross campaign. In 2014, former Senator Kay Hagan received 96 percent of the vote among African Americans, but white support has dropped by double digits when compared with her 2008 race. Ross has to improve on Hagan’s performance among white voters, despite the diversification of the electorate. The urban parts of Mecklenburg County and Wake County will be the epicenter of Democratic support, as they usually are, but Ross will need to increase turnout in Mecklenburg, where it dropped precipitously in 2014. In fact, though Mecklenburg is the most populous county in the state, Wake County contributed the greatest share of the vote in 2014, so maximizing turnout there will be paramount.
Pennsylvania—Watch the Suburbs (Toss-up)
Hillary Clinton has a clear advantage in Pennsylvania, but whether Democratic candidate Katie McGinty can ride those coattails to victory in the Senate race is still very much in doubt. As in past presidential elections, victory in Pennsylvania will largely be determined by turnout in Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs. The Clinton deficit in Allegheny County will be indicative of the outcome in the presidential race, but Republican incumbent Pat Toomey will outperform Donald Trump in those same suburban counties, which will make it much closer. Toomey also has an obvious advantage in the more rural areas of Pennsylvania, of which he is a native, such as Lackawanna County, Luzerne County, and Schuylkill County. The recent Monmouth Poll exemplifies the difference in these races, as the poll shows Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by 10 points in a four-way race, while showing the Senate race tied. According to the poll, Clinton continues to do very well in the heavily Democratic southeastern corner of the state, leading Trump 62 to 30 percent in the seven congressional districts that encompass the City of Philadelphia and its adjacent suburbs. In contrast, McGinty has a much smaller 7-point lead in the same parts of Southeastern Pennsylvania, in combination with Toomey’s large lead in the eastern and central portion of the state, where he leads by 14 points.
At the beginning of the cycle, we argued that the playing field favored a new Democratic majority, but as the election has drawn closer, the likelihood of a five-seat gain has diminished, but not vanished. Much can still change between now and Election Day.