If Republicans Win The Senate, They May Not Hold It For Very Long

If the GOP wins the Senate in November, their majority could prove to be fleeting.

Capitol Building

While the attention for the next four weeks is focused on whether the Republican Party will be able gain control of the Senate in November for the first time since the 2006 elections, The Atlantic’s Russell Berman points out that any majority they do win could be short-lived, not so much because of what Republicans might do if the win as because of simply mathematics and political reality:

“It’s important for Republicans to do as well as they possibly can this fall, because the 2016 election is going to be fought on much different terrain,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report.

Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida all will be seeking second terms in states won by President Obama in 2012. Rubio is eyeing the White House and might not run for reelection at all, having said he won’t seek both offices at the same time.

Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate, and while a complete sweep of races now in play would give them a net pick-up of 10, their majority is most likely to be narrow.

That reality could quickly temper the jubilation for conservatives who have long dreamt of ousting Harry Reid from the majority leader’s perch and confronting President Obama on equal footing during his last two years in office.

It would also present party leaders with a critical—and immediate—choice.

“One of the first things Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell will have to do is sit down and decide how much they want to legislate and compromise versus how much they want to use the floor of the House and Senate to protect their presidential candidates,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former Reid adviser.

Their decision will have implications not only for Obama’s hopes of getting anything through Congress for the remainder of his presidency, but also for the internal dynamics of a Republican Party that has been riven by divisions in recent years.

The six Senators named above, of course, all won election in 2010, which was both a year that was very favorable for Republicans generally and a midterm election year, where turnout generally favors Republicans and is without fail lower than it would be in a Presidential election year. Additionally, several of these states aren’t just states that the President won twice in the last six years, they are states that have been strongly Democratic for quite a long period of time. A Republican candidate for President, for example, hasn’t won Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide and hasn’t won Illinois or Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988. New Hampshire has gone for the Democratic nominee in five of the last six Presidential elections stretching back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory there. Florida and Ohio, of course, have more traditionally been toss-up states in the recent past, although Ohio has been won by a Democratic in four of the last six elections and Florida has been gone blue in three of the last six (with the 2000 result, of course, being incredibly close). This means that the Republicans seeking re-election in those five states are likely to face an uphill battle, with this being especially true for Johnson in Wisconsin Kirk in Illinois, and Toomey in Pennsylvania. The others, Ayotte, Portman, and Rubio, would still face a tougher battle than they did in 2010 but it is honestly quite easier to see them pulling off a victory than the Senators running in states that are most assuredly going to fall into the Democratic column in the Electoral College.

Along with this more daunting electoral math, Republicans could find themselves faced with the possibility of having to find entirely new candidates to run in some of these states. As noted above, Marco Rubio has hinted that he might not run for re-election if he runs for President. Along the same lines, and not on the list above, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul would be barred by state law from simultaneously running for re-election and for President in Kentucky, meaning he may have to make a choice between the two unless the law is changed in the next year or so. Additionally, and probably more immediately, there is the case of Illinois Senator Mark Kirk. As you may recall, Senator Kirk suffered a stroke in January 2012 that left him unable to perform most of his duties for the better part of a year. Thankfully, Senator Kirk has recovered sufficiently to resume the duties of his office, but there has been some speculation that he may decline to run for re-election. If that happens, then it’s unclear who Illinois Republicans could put up in his place, especially if a popular statewide politician like Attorney General Lisa Madigan ends up running on the Democratic side of the ballot. Republicans could also face vulnerabilities in North Carolina, where Richard Burr will be up for re-election, Iowa if Charles Grassley declines to run for re-election, and Arizona if John McCain declines to run for re-election. In other words, Republicans will be facing a somewhat daunting Senate map in 2016 that suggests at this very early stage both that they would be unlikely to make any further gains and that they could face the prospect of enough losses to cost them the majority they might win in 2014.

On paper, it would appear then that Republicans will need to count on a few things when 2016 rolls around if they want to keep the Senate. First of all, this year they would likely need to win more than just a bare 51-49 majority, and even a 52-48 majority would be vulnerable to losses in the states noted above. To be safe, I would guess that Republicans would need at least a 53-47 majority coming out of 2014 in order to have some assurance that they could hold a majority in two years. With that kind of number, or something better of course, they could afford to lose a seat or two without losing the majority. Second, as Berman notes above, the House and Senate leadership will need to calculate the impact of any proposed agenda on the 2016 election. This was going to happen in any case, of course, but it would be especially true in the case of holding on to Senate seats in states where Democrats are likely to be stronger in 2016 than they were in 2010 or are likely to be this years. Finally, of course, they are going to need no small degree of luck. Obviously, the situation on the ground will be much better if 2016 turns out to be a year where the Republican nominee is competitive in states like Ohio and Florida but that’s going to require a nomination process that doesn’t push the nominee to the right the way that Mitt Romney was pushed to the right in 2012. The final note, of course, is that if the Republicans don’t win the majority in the Senate this year, it’s unlikely that they will in 2016 either, and even the math for 2018 isn’t entirely favorable for them.

The Senate has been quite fluid in terms of party control since the beginning of the Bush Administration, of course, and this is just a reflection of that fact, but it seems quite apparent that Republicans probably shouldn’t get too comfortable in the majority if they do manage to win this year.

FILED UNDER: 2014 Election, 2016 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Ron Beasley says:

    This is what I have been saying all along. Winning the Senate may actually hurt the Republicans in 2016. They will have defend a lot of wave Senators in a presidential election year plus the American people will have the opportunity they have no real interest in actually governing.

  2. Eric Florack says:

    @Ron Beasley: aftwr witnessing what the Dems have been doing since 08, i suggest that will be a little different than your obvious hope makes it

  3. Neil says:

    As of now 2016 does not look good for the GOP but Senate elections have often produced surprises. We shall see. Is it possible any Demo senators, especially Reid and Bennet, would be vulnerable in two years?

  4. stonetools says:

    Latest polls in Kentucky shows Alison Grimes leading McTurtle. And that was before the good economic news came out. It’s going to be down to the wire, but I think the Democrats will scrape in.

  5. stonetools,

    That’s just one poll in Kentucky. I will need to see more polling to see if that is an outlier or an indication of a trend.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Eric Florack:

    @Ron Beasley: aftwr witnessing what the Dems have been doing since 08, i suggest that will be a little different than your obvious hope makes it

    What Democrats have been doing: You mean like keeping the economy from going into another Great Depression? Odious things like that?

  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    I think everybody knows, on some level or other, what will happen if they take the Senate. They will be unable to restrain themselves, or more aptly put they will be unable to restrain the crazies in the caucuses they are apparently unable to control, from going off the deep end of dark red lunacy.

    I suspect that, if that happens, the Dems will gleefully sit back and give them rope with which to hang themselves.

    For examples of the above, see : Kansas & North Carolina.

  8. Scott F. says:

    As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Pitfalls abound for the GOP should they win the Senate:

    1. Obstructionism is a much harder game to play when you completely control one of the co-equal branches of the government. It suddenly becomes less about Obama getting a program of his through the Congress and more about what the Republicans have to offer for policies.
    2. Related to #1, the Republican base is going to want their Congress to Go Big or Go Home. The first time the Democrats prevent a vote for cloture (payback’s a bitch, BTW) and the right wing will be calling for the “nuclear option” on filibusters.
    3. Related to #1 and 2, creating policies, as opposed to standing in the way of whatever the Democrats propose, requires actually defining what you stand for. Methinks fighting the good fight on behalf of the oligarchs is going to be a hard sell for the GOP.

    Obama’s veto pen can protect the country from the most egregious plans of a fully Republican Congress. In the meantime, the GOP can show their true face and open the door to losing not only the Senate in 2016, but potentially the House as well (gerrymandering notwithstanding).

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    RCP has McConnell leading by 4, which is the MOE, so essentially they are in a dead heat. I’m not willing to say that Grimes WILL win, but at this point it’s certainly still in the realm of the possible that she COULD win. We’ll know more once the leadups are posted.

  10. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis: the poll is also +2, which is within the margin of error. We’ll know soon enough if it’s an outlier or the first sign of a real trend. A Dem can hope!

  11. PAUL HOOSON says:

    Some of my Democratic Party insider friends told me about their get out the vote efforts are being organized. Despite Obama down in the polls, Democrats have this internal organization advantage as well the ability to capitalize on the fact that Republicans generally do not have a recognizable message or give many voters any solid reason to vote for them. In many cases, many Republican candidates have had campaign structure problems, unable to raise much money, instead counting on one of about 50 Koch brother funded front groups running attack ads. These attack ads may attempt to tear down the Democratic candidate, but often fail to give voters any reason to support the Republican. In Oregon, for example, the Republican candidate’s campaign organization is in a shambles, and is even losing ground in the polls, now down around 16 to 20 points behind a lukewarm Democrat. Democratic get out the vote internal efforts might still be able to rescue three close races in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana, where the Democrats retain senate control.

  12. James Pearce says:

    @Scott F.:

    Obama’s veto pen can protect the country from the most egregious plans of a fully Republican Congress.

    I’m not so sure Obama’s going to need his veto pen. I don’t think the Republicans would use their majority to push for legislation necessarily.

    The first year is going to be about Benghazi hearings and pressuring the president to take a bigger bite out of ISIS. The second will be about putting a Republican in the White House. Expect budget shenanigans and bombs.

  13. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Scott F.: You have the closest vision of reality, I think. Moreover, it will continue to be difficult to govern when whoever is in charge will need a supermajority in the Senate to enact legislation and I don’t see where that situation will necessarily change simply because the Kenyan Usurper is gone from office. Wing-nuts on the right will be equally incensed by “a Clinton Dynasty” or any other sort of government that relies on compromise to propel legislation through the system. The right would rather be in charge of the burned rubble of the former nation than be a loyal opposition, so they will continue to destroy whatever they can and thwart when they can’t destroy.

  14. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Republicans generally do not have a recognizable message or give many voters any solid reason to vote for them

    They are interested in two things and two things only – making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That’s how you win elections in a reality TV world.

  15. Moosebreath says:

    @James Pearce:

    “The first year is going to be about Benghazi hearings and pressuring the president to take a bigger bite out of ISIS.”

    You forgot finding ways to defund Obamacare.

    And put a shirt on, please.

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ Florack

    what the Dems have been doing since 08

    You mean not starting wars so that Cheney’s buddies can make billions?

  17. Guarneri says:


    I hope that was just a wisecrack. If serious, do you realize how you diminish yourself with such a cartoonish assertion?

  18. Peacewood says:

    This entire year I have more or less expected the Republicans to take control of the Senate. But between Obama’s veto pen and 2016, I haven’t really stressed out about it.

  19. @HarvardLaw92:


    But look at every other poll out of Kentucky for the past two months or more, and consider this from the NY Times:

    The movement between the polls could be real, but it is not sufficient to describe Ms. Grimes as ahead.

    The four-point margin of sampling error takes into account the total number of respondents for each poll, but does not include any additional error that could result from the complexity of the sample design caused by using two different modes of interview. The polls were conducted using automated telephone interviews along with online questionnaires on smartphones and tablets.

    Like I said, let’s see some other polling out of Kentucky before concluding if this is something significant, or just an outlier

  20. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    Right…because all they did was reverse the Republican economic death spiral…get health care for millions…improve the environment…and reform education. Oddly enough Obamas 4 domestic policy promises.
    Why is it that the facts never match your ideological claims?

  21. superdestroyer says:


    Your post is a good demonstration of why the U.S. will soon be a one party state. No one in the Democratic caucus is ever thought of as crazy. It does not matter when Charlie Rangel proposes bringing back the draft, or race-based reparation, or doing away with educational testing,. It does not matter how many Democratic politicians are arrest for corruption. It does not matter how many elections Marion Barry wins in the District of Columbia. The media just does not present Democrats as crazy.

    Instead of worrying about the show term prospects of the Republicans picking up a few seats in the Senate, maybe pundits, wonks, and political scientist should think about when the Democratic Party will regain control of the House and how that will affect policy and governance. Who cares if the Republicans control the SEnate for two years since they will still have no effect on policy or governance.

  22. James Pearce says:


    You forgot finding ways to defund Obamacare.

    Well to be fair, I think the House is going to take care of that one, although no doubt the Republicans in the Senate will do their part.

    And put a shirt on, please.

    And lose this glorious tan?

  23. grumpy realist says:

    @James Pearce: Also impeachment proceedings.

    The Republicans are going to be like the dog that finally caught the car and have no idea what to do with it.

    Me? I figure I can always emigrate to anywhere that appreciates scientists and entrepreneurs.

  24. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    You’re not wrong.
    But if you look at the MOE and the Undecideds…that race has been pretty much neck and neck all along.
    Sam Wang’s model currently has Grimes by 2%.
    I imagine ol’ Turtle-Face has a pretty tight sphincter these days. I’d like him to lose just to hear him cry. Talk about your hypocritical small-government guy making a career of sucking on the Government teet……

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: If Yertle the Turtle loses, it would almost be worth losing the Senate just to see his frustration at gaining the Senate and not getting to be Leader. Almost, not quite.

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    That the Republicans are having to compete hard in Kentucky and Georgia while the Democrats are not breaking a sweat in Virginia should be clear evidence that the U.S. is headed to being a one party state. As more states are lost to the Republican Party, why will the big money donors keep pouring money into losing campaigns when it will be easier to just start funding conservative Democrats? When the Democratic Party primary becomes the real election in most states, the money will flow into those elections.

  27. C. Clavin says:

    So you think this country will soon be a one party state?

  28. superdestroyer says:

    @C. Clavin:

    You constantly makes post that can be summed up with ” Go Team Blue, we’re going to win, win, win.” I happened to agree with you. However, at least I am willing to think about what will happen to governance and policy when Team Blue dominants. I would hope that progressives would do the same thing.

  29. Barry says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: “Wing-nuts on the right will be equally incensed by “a Clinton Dynasty” or any other sort of government that relies on compromise to propel legislation through the system. The right would rather be in charge of the burned rubble of the former nation than be a loyal opposition, so they will continue to destroy whatever they can and thwart when they can’t destroy.”

    The right will not accept any Democratic president as legitimate. The rest is true; however, it’s only true so long as the elites can get their pork, and the Tea Partiers get their Social Security and Medicare.

  30. C. Clavin says:

    Actually I would love to see Conservatives in office.
    Unfortunately they no longer exist.
    I deplore team politics…but Republicans have left thinking people with no other choice.
    Failed economic policies, failed foreign policies, denial of environmental issues, homophobia, xenophobia, voter suppression, anti-choice policies…the list of issues where there are not simply policy disagreements, but major disconnection from the facts and reality by the Republicanists is too long to ignore.
    You want a two party state? I suggest you stop the insanity in your party.

  31. superdestroyer says:

    @C. Clavin:

    First, I am not a Republican which should be very clear by now. Second, do you really think that if the Republicans adopted the same policies on economics, social engineering, education, foreign policy, environment, etc that it would affect one non-white voter? What is interesting is that the Democrats can be the party of Detroit, the District of Columbia, and Newark and no one ever accused them of failing.

    so what is more likely, that a conservative party finds a way to function in the U.S .or that the Democrats become so dominant that no other political party is relevant.

  32. grumpy realist says:

    @superdestroyer: Dude: well, considering that the Republican Party is perfectly fine with a) denying science b) gerrymandering and other stuff to keep the black and poor wrong people from voting c) ripping up all safety nets and giving tax cuts to rich people, and d) doing their damnedest to turn the US into a Godly, Christian Nation (a.k.a. let’s get rid of all the witches and Jews)–why in the heck should I EVER vote for a Republican, period? Too many of their ilk sound like they want to burn me at the stake!

  33. superdestroyer says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Progressives have a long history of their own with denying science when it does not suit them. Progressives have a long history of gerrymandering. Chaka Fatah does not get to have a district where he gets 90% of the vote without that district affecting other districts. Progressives cannot even decide whether they want open borders or a stronger safety net. And remember, the most religious people in the U.S. are blacks and they are the most loyal Democratic Party voters.

  34. HarvardLaw92 says:


    God, don’t start that shit again …

  35. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    RCP combines all the polling, and every poll on this race is essentially within the margin of error. Like I said, it’s a dead heat until we get the lead ups.