The Thin Red Line: Donald Trump and the Slim Republican Senate Majority

McHenry Lee, Johns Hopkins University:

With the Presidential election a little over a month away, most Americans are obviously preoccupied with following the national campaign. The GDELT project, a media watchdog group, recently compiled a list of mentions that each candidate received on cable news programs in the last 100 days. Predictably, Donald Trump topped the study at 315,000 mentions, followed by Hillary Clinton with 179,000. This isn’t surprising, but it doesn’t give the average voter a fair picture of what else is at stake in November.

Many Americans may not realize that control of the Senate is also up for grabs. The highest mentioned Senate candidate in the same study, current Florida Senator Marco Rubio, was mentioned just 2500 times in that same period. Despite this lack of coverage, whoever wins the Oval Office in November will depend on command of the upper chamber to help push through their legislative agenda. Just ask President Obama how important control of Capitol Hill is when it comes to governing in this era of partisan gridlock.

As the race currently stands, the embattled Republican Party is holding onto their four-seat majority for dear life. Even after winning a resounding victory in the midterms just two years ago, Republicans are firmly on the defensive this cycle. Specifically, 24 GOP incumbents are protecting their seats, as opposed to only 10 Democrats. Of those 10 liberal seats, only Nevada is close. On the other hand, Republicans are defending deep blue Illinois as well as swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, and North Carolina. The GOP is also facing stiff tests in the definitive ‘red states’ of Missouri and Indiana. This battleground map is ruthlessly unforgiving to the Grand Old Party, as shown in the chart below.


(source: the Cook Political Report).

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said that “all politics is local.” However, he didn’t live through the 2016 campaign. The defining issue of this cycle so far is the two presidential candidates themselves. This means that Republican senators facing re-election can’t avoid being tied to Donald Trump, even if they flatly refused to endorse him. Despite Trump’s recent surge in the polls, the New York real-estate mogul and reality TV star remains extremely unpopular with several key Election Day demographics that Republicans depend on.

According to election guru site 538, Trump trailed in all but one national poll among suburban and college-educated white voters during the summer. This is a historically stalwart republican bloc, which the GOP has won in every national election since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Trump’s inability to win a majority of these voters, combined with the unforgiving battleground map, puts the Republican majority in real danger. In the end, however, the Senate will be won or lost in each state election. Let’s take a look at a few of these contests.

New Hampshire

Unlike the presidential election, where both national candidates are extremely polarizing, voters in New Hampshire have a choice between two popular and well-established local politicians: former Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan is facing off against Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte. On the issues, Hassan has attempted to paint Ayotte as a stooge of the gun lobby while also criticizing her for refusing to hold confirmation hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. On the other side of the aisle, Ayotte has attempted to deflect these attacks by portraying herself as a moderate bipartisan republican with extensive foreign policy experience from her time on the Senate Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees. Polling in the Granite State has fluctuated pretty dramatically. The Real Clear Politics chart below shows how Ayotte has overcome a large deficit just in this month. Almost every polling organization classifies this race as a toss-up, so look to New Hampshire on election night for an interesting finish.



In another swing seat, Republican Congressman Joe Heck and former Democratic state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto are duking it out. As mentioned earlier, Nevada is the only credible option for a GOP pickup, and outside spending groups know it. Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch brothers-backed organization, has already spent more than $4.5 million in the race while liberal PACs like the League of Conservation Voters and Senate Majority PAC have invested $2.5 million in TV ads attacking Heck.

This influx of outside spending is largely due to the historic nature of the seat, which was held for decades by former Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. If Heck can pull out the victory, it would be a huge symbolic win for Republicans. The race is currently in a dead heat, with Heck up only 1 point in the RCP average. Nevada remains a key swing state. Expect to see this contest intensify before Election Day. If Republicans manage to keep the majority, it may be because of a pickup in Nevada.


In a bright spot for Republicans, Ohio incumbent Rob Portman is handsomely leading a once tightly contested seat. The RCP average of Ohio polls currently place Portman 13 points ahead of former Democratic governor Ted Strickland. Portman has even successfully distanced himself from Trump. The same average of polls place the incumbent Senator winning over 50% of the vote, while the Republican nominee is stuck in the low 40s in the Buckeye State. This is because Portman is largely seen as a successful senator with an almost pristine record. Despite his Republican moniker, many Democratic groups respect the senator. Portman has even won the endorsements of local police, teamsters, and mine workers’ unions as well as a Black Lives Matters group, a rarity for a Republican. Although this race once seemed critical, it’s looking more like a Republican hold.


Incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and former EPA bureaucrat Katie McGinty are clashing in Pennsylvania, another key presidential swing state. Toomey has campaigned by attempting to tie McGinty to her past career at the EPA, which many blue-collar voters blame for crippling environmental regulations that forced manufacturing companies to leave the Keystone state.

On the other hand, McGinty has been hammering Toomey for refusing to clarify whether he’ll support Donald Trump. Pennsylvania is by far the closest race at the moment, with McGinty and Toomey in a virtual tie. However, the incumbent was up by 10 points in July and has subsequently lost his once commanding lead, despite spending the summer months barnstorming 26 counties on a bus tour. As of now, this race is trending blue and could be the seat that pushes Democrats over the edge.

The Rest

In the Tar Heel State, Republican Richard Burr is up against unknown challenger Deborah Ross. Although Burr is up 6 points, the race is tightening as outside liberal groups build a substantial ground organizations in an effort to unseat both Burr and controversial conservative governor Pat McCrory.

The Wisconsin race is a rematch of 2010 between former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold and incumbent Republican Ron Johnson. The former seems to have an edge, currently with an average 9-point lead, and Wisconsin is looking like a safe Democratic pickup.

Down south, Democrats saw a huge opportunity when current Florida Senator Marco Rubio declared that he wouldn’t seek re-election, opting instead to run for his party’s presidential nomination. However, after losing his home state’s primary, Rubio decided to return to his old stomping grounds and declared his candidacy for re-election just before the filing deadline. The race has largely tilted Republican since Rubio rejoined the fray, especially since Democrat Patrick Murphy was caught embellishing his business resume.

Despite his record as a moderate, Illinois Republican Mark Kirk faces an almost insurmountable challenge against Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth. Kirk rode the record Republican wave in the 2010 midterms to victory and was always destined for a difficult re-election during a presidential year, when liberal turnout is sure to be higher in deep blue Illinois.

As straight ticket voting grows more common in American elections, control of the Senate will likely go to the party that wins the White House. Consequently, Republican candidates are left walking a tightrope with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket. They cannot fully repudiate their nominee, at the risk of alienating his base of white, rural and largely uneducated voters. However, a full endorsement could turn off suburban educated voters who remain wary of Trump’s brash rhetoric.

If the GOP wants to keep a majority, their candidates must find a delicate balance. If Donald Trump can manage to do well in states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada, he’ll likely propel down-ballot GOP candidates to victory. For instance, Kelly Ayotte’s recent success in New Hampshire has coincided with a boost in Trump’s numbers. But if the nominee’s poll numbers fall back down to mid-August levels, the Republican majority will be a short-lived one, considering Democrats only need to win 4 of 10 Republican held seats. As of now, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana are likely Democratic pickups, meaning that liberals may only need one more GOP seat to flip.


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