Republicans always knew that holding their Senate majority would be tough. But now they are learning just how tough with the unexpected retirement of Senator Dan Coats of Indiana. The state, a second-tier pick up opportunity for Democrats is yet another state the GOP will have to defend and drain resources on.
Democrats have a target rich environment this cycle. Among those most mentioned are Illinois Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania as well as Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. The first three represent the party’s best shots while the latter require the party’s preferred candidate to run or the incumbent to retire for Democrats to have a shot.
Democratic leadership has blasted from the airwaves they want to clear their primaries in competitive states but so far it is debatable whether they can. In Ohio, former Governor Ted Strickland will face an up and coming Democrat in PG Sittenfield. In Pennsylvania, 2010 Senate nominee Joe Sestak has announced he will run again but the party is actively looking for an alternative. In Florida, Democrats have rallied around centrist Congressman Patrick Murphy but the more liberal elements of the party want somebody else (ie. Congressman Alan Grayson).
Republicans know how tough a challenge they face this cycle. Defending numerous seats in states that have voted for Obama twice (or at least once in NC’s and IN’s case) the party has been working with members to bolster fundraising and improve their ground games. Still, it might all be naught if the stars align for Democrats or the political environment tilts against the GOP.
If Hillary Clinton or another Democrats starts to run away with the Presidential race Republicans like Johnson (WI), Toomey (PA) and Kirk (IL) can all but kiss their seats goodbye. Split ticket voting has all but disappeared at the federal level and only the most entrenched incumbent seems able to weather such a storm. Democrats strong recruiting record also bodes ill for the GOP in many competitive states in this scenario.
Further compounding GOP woes may be the issue of it being a Presidential election year. No, I am not talking about the increased Democratic turnout it will likely bring but rather the oxygen it will suck out of the room for down-ballot federal races. The Presidential race is likely to dominate radio, TV and online ads in close states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, now Nevada with Harry Reid’s retirement, making it hard for down-ballot candidates to break through. Want a case study? Sure you do.
In 2014 the Alaskan Senate race sucked all the life out of the Governor’s race and the hopes of Republican Sean Parnell. Unable to buy any air time for ads promoting his candidacy he was effectively defined by the time the campaign hit top gear and he was in idle due to being unable to advertise. Parnell ultimately lost by 2% and many blame his loss on the Senate race.
Now, admittedly this is a smaller scale but the concept remains the same. All the top Senate races in the country, minus Illinois, will be hotly contested by both parties Presidential candidates and that means a deluge of advertising spending. Worse, it will not just come from the parties and their candidates but also third party groups like Moveon.Org on the left and Club for Growth on the right.
Perhaps this explains why Harry Reid is acting like an ass in the Senate and holding things up as if he was still Majority Leader. Perhaps it explains why Obama is getting his mojo back at a time when few feel confident in the economy. Lastly, it likely explains why McConnell is trying to make the GOP Senate appear more centrist than its members are. Voters views of the the parties may matter more this cycle than the individual talents and abilities of the candidates.
Regardless, Democrats know they have a strong leg up this cycle. The only question is whether they can exploit their advantages or not.