Democratic Hopes Of Winning Back The Senate Seem To Be Slipping Away

Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate aren't going so well at the moment.

Capitol Dome

While most of the attention of the political media has been focused on he race for President, Republicans and Democrats are also battling for control of the Senate. While previous years have seen Democrats at a disadvantage in having to defend seats in increasingly Republican states, a phenomenon which resulted in the GOP picking up nine seats in the 2014 midterm election, this year’s election has been one that many analysts believed would be to the advantage of Democrats seeking to win back the Senate. The main reason for this, of course, is the fact that several of the seats that Republicans are trying to defend are in states that have gone for the Democratic candidate in at least one or both of the last two Presidential elections. This put as many as eight seats on the list of vulnerable Republican seats, and to retake the Senate Democrats need to win five of them to take control of the Senate, or only four if the Democrats win the White House and with it the tie-breaking vote of a Democratic Vice-President. With Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, many assumed that the odds of the GOP holding onto the Senate would shrink significantly. As it turns out, though, Democrats are finding it much harder than they anticipated:

Democrats are now facing a tougher road to capturing the Senate majority as the presidential race tightens and Donald Trump is not proving to be the dramatic drag on down-ballot candidates that Republicans once feared.

Trump’s resilience and faltering Democratic campaigns in battleground states mean the fight for the Senate has settled into a knuckle-to-knuckle brawl likely to result in a chamber that will be closely divided or potentially even tied.

Democrats can still manage to win the four or five seats they need to claim the Senate majority, but the battle has shifted from purple states that Barack Obama twice carried — Ohio and Florida — to Indiana, Missouri and North Carolina, where Obama lost in 2012.

While Democrats are continuing their efforts in select states to tie incumbent Republican senators to Trump, Republicans are looking to flip that script in those redder states, yoking Democratic candidates to their own unpopular nominee.

“Evan Bayh voted with Hillary Clinton up to 85 percent of the time,” a voice-over intones in an ad now being aired in the Hoosier State by a major Republican super PAC. ”Bayh voted with them; not with Indiana.”

The significant shift in the Senate battlefield appears to be the result of voters separating Trump — once considered so toxic that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) waffled about whether to support him — from Republicans running on the same ballot with him. That recognition could lead to more voters splitting their ticket between Clinton and a Republican House or Senate candidate.

“There is very much a feeling among voters that Donald Trump is sort of his own brand,” said Ian Prior, the communications director of the GOP-allied Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, citing internal research. “People don’t view him as this traditional Republican where he says something and that means that everybody else in the House or Senate must agree with him.”

Trump is also holding his own at the top of the ticket, with a new Washington Post/ABC poll showing him locked in a virtual tie with Clinton among likely voters, with Clinton leading 46 to 44 percent.

With six weeks until Election Day, a new map has emerged as Democrats trying to buck recent history in winning back the majority in a presidential election year. Over the past 60 years, the majority has only changed hands once in those 15 presidential elections — in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s landslide swept Republicans into the Senate majority.

As things stand right now, Democrats seem likely to pick up Republican seats in at least two states, well below where they need to be on Election Day. Their best state at the moment is Wisconsin, where former Senator Russ Feingold has an average 9.7 point lead over Senator Ron Johnson according to RealClearPolitics. Another state that is clearly in the Democratic column is Illinois, where Senator Mark Kirk is trailing Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, although the margin between the two has tightened in recent weeks. Despite that surge, Kirk is likely to lose simple due to the fact Illinois will go heavily for Hillary Clinton in November. Beyond these two states, though, Democratic candidates don’t seem to be far as well as anticipated even in states where Democrats have done well in Presidential elections in recent years. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, for example, currently has a comfortable lead over former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland and in Florida, Marco Rubio has a 6.1 point lead over Congressman Patrick Murphy in the RealClearPolitics average. Similarly, Senator Kelly Ayotte has a somewhat surprising 2.5 point lead over Governor Maggie Hassan, who has not led in a poll in the Granite State in nearly a month now. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey finds himself in a competitive race against Democrat Kathleen McGinty that could go either way and which is far more competitive than the Presidential election in the Keystone State.

Outside of the vulnerable list candidates, Democratic hopes in other parts of the country don’t appear much better.Of the open seats this year, for example, the Democrats best hope of success appears to be in Indiana where former Senator Evan Bayh continues to hold a modest lead over Republican Congressman Todd Young, although that lead is far smaller than what many observers anticipated when Bayh announced that he was going to try to win back his old Senate seat. Democrats seem likely to lose the open seat race to succeed Harry Reid, though. In that race, Republican Congressman Joe Heck has a solid lead over former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Finally, in two other races where Democrats had hoped of possibly making a run, in North Carolina and Missouri, the Republican candidate appears well-positioned for re-election absent a massive change in the polls over the coming weeks.  Currently then, this leaves the Democrats with picking up four seats while Republicans pick up one seat currently held by a Democrat, leaving the Republicans with the slimmest of majorities at 51-49 if the election were held today. Nate Silver, meanwhile, forecasts a 50.2% chance that the GOP holds on to the Senate, and a  49.8% chance of a Democratic takeover. Obviously, these number could change over the next six weeks, but they represent good news for Republicans,  who will have an opportunity to pick up seats in the Senate in 2018, and a problem for Democrats, who could be faced with the prospect of winning the White House only to see both houses of Congress remain in Republican hands.

Obviously, a good part of the reason that the battle for control of the Senate has gotten more difficult for Democrats can be attributed to the fact that the Presidential race has tightened significantly and, especially, the fact that Donald Trump’s rise in the polls has largely negated for the moment any negative impact he might have on down ballot races. If there’s any change in the nature of the race for President, that could have an impact on the down ballot races, of course, but for now things are looking much better for Republicans in the Senate than many people anticipated, and that could have a real impact on the climate in Washington if we need up with two more years of a Democratic President and a Republican Congress.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. MBunge says:

    According to Gallup, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable ratings went higher than her favorables in August, 2015, and stayed there. That’s about six months before the Iowa Caucuses and long before anyone in politics thought Trump had a shot at the GOP nomination.

    Did anyone in the party consider for a second what having Hillary at the top of the ticket would mean for their Senate chances?


  2. gVOR08 says:

    @MBunge: It’s not as extreme as the situation the Republicans find themselves in, but there basically is no “the party” with the ability to steer the nomination. Running for prez has become an entrepreneurial activity. Look at what happened with the Republicans. After they lost in ’12’ the Party establishment did a post mortem and made several sensible recommendations, which were then soundly ignored. It’s been assumed for a couple years that Hillary would be the nominee. Who was going to stop it? Bernie tried, and lost fair and square. I now see people saying O’Malley would have been a better candidate. Maybe so, but how was that going to happen? Everyone’s hindsight will be perfect after the election. A year ago Hillary looked pretty good to all concerned. And who among us can honestly say they thought a year ago that a) Trump would be the nominee, and b) that he’d actually have a shot at the general?

    After the election everyone’s hindsight will be perfect and we’ll have a list of reasons Bernie or O’Malley, or Webb, or Chafee or Larry Lessig (remember Lary Lessig?), or even Vermin Supreme (check wiki, I didn’t make that up.) would have done better. They all had their shot to show they were a better candidate. Only Bernie made more than a ripple and he lost fair and square. On the other hand, if Hillary wins, everyone will have been squarely behind her all the way.

    The idea was to open up the nomination and the best candidate would prove it in the primaries. We’ve become so polarized that winning your party’s primary seems to say little about appeal in the general. Remember back when conventional wisdom was that the Rs would nominate Jeb! and easily beat Clinton?

  3. Jenos The Deplorable says:
  4. C. Clavin says:

    The only scarier thing than the cheeto with a comb-over becoming president, is becoming president with a republican controlled congress.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: Vermin Supreme would have polled worse than Clinton in the general election — his campaign is based in large part on dental hygiene, and if there is anything Americans can agree on, it’s a hatred of flossing.

    So, Mr. Supreme was not going to be the white knight people hoped for.

  6. MBunge says:

    @gVOR08: there basically is no “the party” with the ability to steer the nomination.

    But there’s a whole bunch of superdelegates who could have NOT lined up behind HIllary Clinton before the race even started. There’s a whole bunch of pundits who could have been talking and writing about “Hey, maybe nominating a candidate the American people ALREADY say they don’t like might not be a great idea.”

    Instead, the superdelegates did the exact opposite and the pundits neither spoke nor wrote a word.

    Donald Trump and GOP voters are not the only reasons we find ourselves on this precipice.


  7. Thor thormussen says:

    dems winning the senate depends on the people not being deplorable. A large % of americans are terrible and/or clueless people.

  8. Davebo says:


    So were back to blaming super delegates and the media are we?

    I thought we got past that 2 months ago?

    Who do you think would have been better at the top of the ticket?

  9. Tillman says:

    The significant shift in the Senate battlefield appears to be the result of voters separating Trump — once considered so toxic that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) waffled about whether to support him — from Republicans running on the same ballot with him.

    This was a deliberate strategic decision made by the Clinton campaign. Commenters here for months were saying the same thing Democrats were — Trump was the result, the embodiment of Republican extremism — and it seemed like tying every Republican to Trump would indeed win them the Senate. Hell, there were fever dreams expressed here of taking the House.

    But the campaign decided to drop that strategy to make inroads across the aisle. Massage the “moderate” Republican by distancing his outlook from Trump’s, and give him an excuse to vote Clinton. The rise of voters thinking of a split ticket was documented by USA Today about a month ago. Pretty much all of August was spent courting the endorsements of Republican officials and policymakers. Kissinger for one, but the large amount of Bush administration officials was the real get. It was the numbers that mattered: get as many Republicans to abandon Reagan’s orthodoxy — “thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican” — as you can, and make the case that Trump is an aberration.

    As the first link notes, this makes it easier for Clinton to get elected but harder for other Democrats seeking office. Perhaps we’ll still get a landslide, who knows.

  10. stonetools says:


    Look, mate, give it up. Clinton is the nominee, and that’s that . FWIW, I see zero reason to think that Sanders or O’Malley would have any longer coattails than she does. Meanwhile, today’s polls show movement in her direction, and if she aces the debate, the polls will move even further in her favor. If she opens up a big lead again, then the Democrats’ Senate chances improve.
    And there will be a big campaign blitz by Obama yet to come…

  11. Tillman says:


    I now see people saying O’Malley would have been a better candidate.

    No one has ever said this.

    A year ago Hillary looked pretty good to all concerned.

    No. A year ago everyone kept telling me we had to go with Clinton because she was “a sure bet.” That’s the phrase that encapsulates how her candidacy was sold in the early running. We had to be sure we could beat whatever asshole the Republicans nominated. Clinton was battle-tested, her possible challengers were political children with no name recognition, no funding, etc.

    Later on, Sanders wouldn’t win any states in the primaries aside from probably Vermont. Later still it was “but socialism!” and then “Bernie Sanders isn’t a real Democrat.” Any issue someone had with Clinton was dismissed as being of a derangement syndrome, an invented desire for purity, or from being duped by right-wing smears, this last being possibly one of the most offensive things you could say to a fellow Democrat.

    Fear of having to make a case beyond “keep on keepin’ on” is what attracted people to Clinton, not any particular virtues that weren’t provided later in political hagiography.

    @Thor thormussen: Yeah, that’s a winning strategy. Let’s hope there are more good people than bad!

  12. dennis says:

    I hope Trump wins. And I hope the GOP retains the House and Senate. That way, we can watch – in shock and awe – the Republicans plunge the country unto a social, financial, and cultural cesspool, yet again. There’ll be no black, Muslim, Kenyan devil for them to scapegoat this time.

  13. dennis says:

    @Thor thormussen:

    Nah, Thor; they just hate that black devil Muslim Kenyan occupier/usurper currently residing in the WH.

  14. Senyordave says:

    @dennis: I hope Trump wins. And I hope the GOP retains the House and Senate. That way, we can watch – in shock and awe – the Republicans plunge the country unto a social, financial, and cultural cesspool, yet again. There’ll be no black, Muslim, Kenyan devil for them to scapegoat this time

    I think what you say would very possibly happen, although I suspect we would just lag well behind the rest of the world in any measure of progress. But I want this country to succeed, I have two young grandchildren who don’t deserve a “Disgusting human being” as POTUS (thank you Thomas Friedman for that op-ed in the NYT where he called Trump that). I’m retiring soon, I’d like to think that we won’t have a con man in the WH to crash the stock market.

  15. dennis says:


    I’m in absolute agreement with you; and, in the same situation: about to retire to enjoy my grandchildren. I’ve had it up to my ears with silly, racist, irrational, non-thinking rubes tearing down the President and this nation. So, I say let them take us on to the dark side. That will ensure their bitter end.

  16. Tillman says:

    So we’re all clear, after watching that fracas of a debate and a bottle of wine later, I can clearly say Trump lost.

    I mean, really. Is this debatable?

    Trump somehow managed to be both incoherent and fascistic.

    He’s borderline fascist — he’s almost never given fully into advocating political violence — but the fear here is his supporters will do it for him and he’ll tacitly accept what they do. A neat method of plausible deniability. A fascist without any fwckin’ conviction in the end.

    Clinton remains disappointing in ways — I like Peter Sagal’s take here about one of them — but the contrast is pretty damn deep here. If you think the two are equivalent in any way, and this motivates you to a third-party vote, you’re an idiot.

  17. DrDaveT says:


    Clinton remains disappointing in ways


    Trump says “Law and Order” — here’s your chance! Time for the ringing catchphrase that people will be talking about at the water cooler tomorrow…

    “We don’t need more law and order, we need more justice and order.”

    Equal law for all, and then we’ll have order”

    …or whatever. But no, Hillary has to piss away that golden moment with more wonkish talking points.