What If Republicans Don’t Win Control Of The Senate?

The odds say that the GOP will end up with a Senate majority in the 114th Congress when all the votes are counted, but if it doesn't happen then there's likely to be quite a battle inside the GOP.

Elephants Fighting

The polling all seems to be showing things moving in the Republican Party’s favor, as does the Generic Congressional Ballot, and forecasts from the likes of Nate Silver and Sam Wang continue to show the probability of the GOP Senate takeover as being high enough that if it didn’t happen it would call their models, and the polls they are at least partly based on, into question. President Obama’s job approval remains low, especially in the states where embattled Red State Democrats are trying to defend their seats. The classic right track/wrong track poll question shows that more than two-thirds of respondents believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, a number that is usually bad news for members of the President’s party in a midterm election. And, finally, polling has consistently shown that voters as a whole are largely disinterested in the midterms and don’t care very much who wins control of the Senate, but that Republicans are more motivated to get out to vote than Democrats, something that could boost the GOP’s traditional turnout advantage in these types of elections. Add it all up and things are looking very good for Republicans in these last 72 hours or so of campaigning.

All that being said, things could go differently. Many of the key Senate races that the GOP needs to win are polling within the margin of error, for example, and pollsters still have not found a way to adequately measure the impact of early voting on their polling models, something that could have an impact in states like Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, and North Caroline. Given all of that, there is a possibility, albeit a small one when you look at the odds, that Democrats could survive by the skin of their teeth and hold on to the Senate, even if that means a 50-50 Senate where Joe Biden ends up spending the next two years breaking a lot of tie votes. If that happens, then the GOP will have been denied the chance to regain control of the Senate, which they lost in 2006 and lost even more ground in after the 2008 elections for the third time in four years. That would be significant in many respect, not the least being the fact that it seems unlikely that Republicans would be able to pick up ground in the Senate in either 2016 or 2018, when they will have far more potentially vulnerable seats to defend than they have this year. Given that, failure to take the Senate this year would be a big psychological blow to the party and, as National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru write sat Bloomberg, would likely set off something of a civil war inside the GOP that would reverberate into 2016:

Republicans would be shell-shocked, having done worse than expected in two elections in a row. Defeat would mean the party’s problems run deeper than they thought. And fixing them would be complicated by renewed factional quarreling.

Many conservatives, for instance, would argue that the party establishment had led them to ruin. The establishment largely got its way in the 2012 presidential primaries, and then got its way again in running an agenda-less general-election campaign. This time, Exhibit A for these conservatives would be the North Carolina Senate race, where the establishment candidate — Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House — has persistently run a little behind his Democratic opponent. (Actually, that might be Exhibit B if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell manages to lose in Kentucky.)

Conversely, a lot of Republican officeholders might conclude that the Democratic attacks on them as uninterested in compromise and hostile to women had succeeded, and that they should accordingly move leftward.

All this would make for an exceptionally raucous set of presidential primaries in 2016. Already, Republican grandees are very unsure of who their candidate should be, and suddenly they’d be dealing with a primary electorate more distrustful of their favorites.

It would certainly set up an interesting battle inside the Republican Party. Going into 2014, the running theme was the battle between the Tea Party wing of the party and the more “establishment” mainstream wing of the party represented by groups the Chamber of Commerce and others who had essentially sat back in 2010 and 2012 and watched as Tea Party groups used party primaries to put forward candidates that ended up hurting the party as a whole on a national level. That battle was really joined, of course, in the wake of  last year’s government shutdown which was largely manipulated by Senator Ted Cruz and groups like FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund. By and large, the establishment backed candidates, as well as incumbents like Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran, and Ted Stevens, managed to beat back their Tea Party challengers, although its worth noting that the Tea Party may have lost the election battles, but it has largely won the ideological war inside the GOP.

Notwithstanding those particular victories, though, failure to win the Senate in 2014 is likely to provide fodder for both sides of the divide inside the GOP as we head into 2016. Establishment party insiders are likely to fall back on arguments that the party needs to reconsider its policies on issues like immigration and gay rights, and to reach out to groups that the party has largely lost in recent years such as Latino and younger voters, if it is going to have a chance of maintaining its status as a national party moving forward. Tea Party and other hard core conservatives, meanwhile, will argue that the reason the party lost is that it didn’t pursue a sufficiently conservative agenda. This isn’t much different, of course, from the arguments that are going to be made going forward in 2016, of course, but if they are being made in the context of a third straight failure to retake the Senate, then the arguments are likely to become far more heated and far more contentious. In addition to that, we’d likely see the same kind of battles play out in the House, which the GOP will most assuredly hold, with the Leadership and more moderate conservatives attempting to push the agenda in a direction likely to try to help the party in 2016 by broadening the coalition while the Tea Party side tries to push the same kind of hard right agenda they have been pursuing since the 2010 elections. On the Senate side, and depending on what happens to Mitch McConnell on Tuesday, there may be a battle for control of what would still be the minority caucus that would make the job of whomever the GOP Senate Leader might be even more difficult than McConnell’s has been over the past two years.

The odds, of course, are that the GOP will squeak by with some sort of majority in the Senate, but if that doesn’t happen I think Ponnuru is largely correct that we can expect the knives to come out, which would make 2016 difficult for a party that is already deeply divided to begin with.

FILED UNDER: 2014 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. Neil Hudelson says:

    If? According to supa-doop, we are already in a one party state. At this point it is most assured the Republicans will lose. After all, they are irrelevant.


  2. gVOR08 says:

    Conversely, a lot of Republican officeholders might conclude that the Democratic attacks on them as uninterested in compromise and hostile to women had succeeded, and that they should accordingly move leftward.

    There are days Ponnuru just cracks me up. As I’ve noted before, he might be interesting if he wrote about the Republican Party we have, not the one in his head.

    The fight is between the Tea Party led by the Koch Bros faction (hey, they volunteered to be the public face of this) and the establishment. Not over vague generalities about compromise and women.

  3. JohnMcC says:

    @gVOR08: Well played, sir. Ideology is often enough merely a face painted onto interest. We should suspect that to be so until proven otherwise, I’ve learned.

  4. al-Ameda says:

    National Review Senior Editor Ramesh Ponnuru write sat Bloomberg, would likely set off something of a civil war inside the GOP that would reverberate into 2016:

    I hope he’s right. That scenario might distract them from their goals of government shut downs and forcing defaults to destroying themselves.

    We can only hope that Ponnuro is right (as in correct).

  5. C. Clavin says:

    I think the Republicans take control by a seat, maybe two…and there is still a civil war.
    The Senate is going to look just like the House…where Boehner cannot control his caucus.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Well, the odds are 2 to 1 against this, but…

    What will happen? Not much. There might be a lot of sound & fury, but I don’t see much changing. Why would it?

    Even if the GOP fails to take a majority, they will pick up seats. The status quo – where they can basically block anything they want – will remain. It’s true they won’t be able to enact their preferred agenda, but that would also be mostly true if they do take the Senate (they would have more leverage in budget/debt ceiling negotiations, so they do have a path to getting more of what they want if they have the Senate).

    Things that might result in some changes: 1) GOP control of the WH and both Houses of Congress (the “they must now govern” scenario) or 2) massive, humiliating defeat in an election or three (though I’m not holding my breath, as neither the massive defeats nor the hypothetical change as a result seem to be on the horizon).

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Rob in CT: I don’t place much stock in this common “they must now govern” scenario. From what I see, half the public don’t know who controls the House and Senate now, nor care. And the Republican’s ability to lie about what they’ve done and not done won’t be impacted. If, as an example, the econ recovery continues, they’ll take credit, despite having done nothing. If Europe drags us down it’ll be completely Obama’s fault.

  8. Rob in CT says:


    I’m talking about something that is only potentially possible in the 2016 election.

    The last time they actually had control of all three branches, they did govern. Badly, but they did things.

    I’m not saying that “they must govern now” would result in good things! I’m saying it might result in things actually happening. Like, say, a new round of upper-end tax cuts. Deficit fearmongering would likely suddenly disappear (to reappear the next time Democrats win an election).

    Divided government results in very little happening now that we have ideologically sorted parties who basically hate each other. Though I think a GOP Senate takeover would be a bad thing, it’s a very different thing from them having the WH too. Similarly, there’s a huge, huge difference between January 2009-January 2011 and January 2011-now.

  9. Pinky says:

    Doug, this is an interesting article, and I generally like your writing style. But you use the phrase “of course” too often. As a rule, readers don’t like to be told that what they’re reading is obvious. I bring it up here only because you used it twice in one sentence above. Just something to keep in the back of your mind.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    If the Republicans do not win, then it is a continuation of the status quo until sometime after 2020. Politics is not going to change until the Democrats win control of the House. When that happens, the U.S. will officially be a one party state and the way everyone in the U.S. views politics will have to chance.

    Once again, instead of thinking about how the collapse of the Republican Party affects Republicans, the real question is how does it affect Democrats. Since virtually everyone refuses to think about the growing dominance of the Democratic party, the end point will be shocking to most people.

  11. Modulo Myself says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Deficit fear being replaced by a covert increase in government spending and jobs might happen. The GOP dream is to have another Reagan, someone who hated government and speaks in conservative tongues, meanwhile firing up the economy as government spending skyrockets.

    Yet I don’t think this will. There’s no Reagan or future in the GOP. I think reality will be too much–from the endless laws supporting Voter ID to Obamacare’s survival and successes to the bare fact that nobody outside of places that converge upon Mississippi wants conservatives in their lives. I think reality is going to crush the GOP into an even smaller hunk of nothing than it currently is. It’s going to turn this Congress into a crazed firesale bunko scam of dumb projects and low-rent sleaze, where enemies of the Republicans are everywhere, and every bit of truth has to be nullified.

    For example, in one week, unless the Voter ID laws do not work as well as the creators hoped, there’s going to be hard concrete evidence that legitimate voters were turned away by laws ‘designed’ to correct a problem that did not exist. And what will the GOP do with this evidence? I’m guessing that they will simply act more victimized, because all other responses, including honesty, are not available to them.

  12. Mr. Prosser says:

    “…we can expect the knives to come out, which would make 2016 difficult for a party that is already deeply divided to begin with.” The knives will be out whether the Republicans take the senate or not. If McConnell is back he has said he will pass bills which the president will be forced to veto but I don’t think even that will satisfy Cruz, Paul and the true believers of the house.

  13. Moosebreath says:

    I’m with Jon Chait — the only area who controls the Senate for the next 2 years matters is in appointments (and maybe treaties):

    “The legislative dynamics in Washington are very simple. Gridlock exists because Obama and House Republicans cannot agree on legislation. If Obama and the House could agree on legislation, their deal would be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate or by a Republican-controlled Senate. There are no plausible circumstances in which the Senate would block a deal struck between the House and Obama, because, whichever party controls the Senate, its ideological center will sit comfortably inside in the enormous space between Obama and the House Republicans. Ergo, the party that controls the Senate has no impact on legislative outcomes.”

    The only way this will change is if Congress blows up the government by refusing to pass legislation for the budget unless Obama agrees to concessions. In other words, repeating the 2013 shutdown, this time as farce.

  14. Grewgills says:

    Nate Silver and Sam Wang continue to show the probability of the GOP Senate takeover as being high enough that if it didn’t happen it would call their models, and the polls they are at least partly based on, into question.

    Silver has a Republican take over (51+ seats) at ~68% and Wang a bit less than that. Considering all of the races that are within the margin of error and all of their caveats any close result will not cast serious doubt on their models, at least not by people that understand statistics.

  15. superdestroyer says:


    When was the last time that the Senate approved a major treaty? However, everyone is correct on appointment but I suspect that President Obama would get who he wants for the Supreme Court and all of the other appointments are irrelevant since they will be for less than 2 years.

  16. humanoid.panda says:


    Silver has a Republican take over (51+ seats) at ~68% and Wang a bit less than that. Considering all of the races that are within the margin of error and all of their caveats any close result will not cast serious doubt on their models, at least not by people that understand statistics.

    Beyond that point, there is a major difference between a senate and presidential prediction. A presidential election is, basically, the same event that is going on in 50 different local contexts- if there is some kind of systematic polling bias/error, it is very likely to be correlated. Senatorial elections are separate events that are happening in a somewhat similar context, so it is completely plausible that there is something in Colorado polling that makes it less reliable than say, Kentucky polling. For this reason I think that senatorial predictions are inherently weaker.

  17. TheoNott says:


    Uh, no. In a democracy with first-past-the-post voting, and winner-take-all seats, it’s pretty much an iron law of political science that the system tends toward two parties, each representing roughly equal halves of the electorate. While I agree that, in it’s present configuration, the Republican Party cannot and will not win a Presidential election, this will not continue indefinitely. What will happen over the next 10-20 years is that both parties will drift toward the left, as the Republicans are pulled leftward out of a desire to become competitive again, and the Democrats by a base that can argue that since they have a clear majority of a country on their side already they don’t need to moderate their agenda as much as they are. This will continue until rough parity is achieved again. As both parties become more leftwing, the relatively conservative Hispanics/Asians (and blacks) will migrate from the Dems to the GOP. Hispanics are not mindless Democratic partisans, a majority currently back Democratic candidates because they are relatively liberal and feel better represented by Democrats. You know super, you occasionally write really insightful stuff, but I think you’re wrong about this “one-party state” prediction you keep echoing here.

  18. MikeSJ says:


    I hope you are correct and the Republican party ends up in the dustbins of history…but….they now control the Congress and will soon pick up additional seats and per Nate Silver have a 68% chance of taking control of the Senate.

    The above doesn’t strike me as a good sign that their destruction is imminent.

    P.S. Hillary Clinton, who I will vote for, is a terrible politician and could very easily lose to someone with charisma. I wouldn’t assume that the Republicans will be shut out of the White House any time soon.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Gridlock exists because Obama and a minority of House Republicans cannot agree on legislation.

    FTFY Mr Chait. You will get my bill in the mail.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @TheoNott: Nicely done. Thank you.

  21. charon says:


    Many people do not understand what “margin of error” actually means. All MOE says is that if the poll were repeated with the same methodology on a similarly selected sample, the likelihood is 95% of the repeat poll falling within the MOE.

    My guess is that most of the polls showing Dewey beating Truman were within the MOE. They failed, not because of some “black swan,” they failed because the methodology was bogus.

    These percentages Wang, Silver etc. are providing assume perfect polling methodolgy (maybe) or at least something close to it. Whether this is correct, we find out next Tuesday.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Doug–totally OT, but I’d love to get your take on this one.

    (My suspicion is that the silly idiot didn’t realize something on her desk was pressing down on the delete key.)

  23. charon says:


    Extending that thought, what would come into question would not be Silver’s methodology or Wang’s methodology – it would be the methodology of the underlying polls that should be questioned.

  24. gVOR08 says:

    @grumpy realist: That was be hilarious. Or it would be if there weren’t so many people, some in these threads, that will take it seriously. Sheryl Attkisson seems to have some axes to grind.

    On March 10, 2014, Attkisson resigned from CBS News, reportedly due to frustration over what she perceived to be the network’s liberal bias

    She also has a book to sell, so I don’t think there was anything sitting on her keyboard. That tapping sound in the background is probably her on the DEL key. If not, I think her bitch is with Microsoft, not the NSA.

  25. Grewgills says:

    Many confuse MOE or confidence interval with alpha level. The alpha level is usually set at 0.05 or 95% chance of not having a type 1 error. The MOE indicates a range of values subject to that alpha, for instance 95% chance of being between 48 and 52%. This is further complicated in much of the polling that has a substantial number of ‘undecideds’.

  26. Anonne says:

    Liberal bias, meaning that they don’t report the latest anti-government tinfoil hat bs from Newsmax?

  27. Grewgills says:


    My guess is that most of the polls showing Dewey beating Truman were within the MOE. They failed, not because of some “black swan,” they failed because the methodology was bogus.

    Your guess on that would be wrong. Most polls in the Dewey Truman race had Dewey up by 5-15 points. Truman beat Dewey by ~4.5%. Unless the polling had a very large (+/- 10-25%) MOE, then the polling was not within the MOE. You are correct that their methodology was fatally flawed though.

  28. superdestroyer says:


    And who is that charismatic Republican. There is no Republican today who has the skill set to get elected president. I doubt if there is possible Republican candidate who is capable of withstanding the negative publicity onslaught that will occur when they run for office. All the Republicans seem to have as candidate these days are visionless self-promoters. Do you really think that is going to change as the number of automatic Democratic Party grows? The Democrats could nominate a child abusing felon and that candidate would still get 242 electoral votes without spending a dollar. There are that many automatic Democratic Party voters in the U.S. today.

    I wonder who will be the first historian to conclude that GW Bush was the last Republican president.

  29. Gustopher says:

    Slightly fewer BENGHAZI!!!! hearings.

    Also, And this is real and will happen either way, Michael Bay is set to direct a film on BENGHAZI!!!! — so now the BENGHAZI!!!! enthusiasts will understand what the Transformers fans have been going through.

    I eagerly await the introduction of the Ambassador’s embarrassing parents in the film, and the efforts to include them in the House and Senate hearings.

  30. charon says:


    You are right, I kind of mis-stated my thought.

    What I should have said was that if you did an exit poll type repeat after the vote and before the results were in using the same sample and methodology, you would again come up with Dewey beats Truman.

  31. superdestroyer says:


    The idea that first-past-the-post elections create the conditions for a two party systems has been shown to not be true in many municipal elections iin the last 70 years. Chicago has been a one party state since the 1930’s with the same voting rules as everywhere else in the U.S. The same can be said for places like the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Detroit. The idea that a two party system is the natural state is laughable. The natural state is than when politics is through clouts, power brokers, and back room deals, then one party is more than enough.

    Instead of people working hard in the future to move the out-of-power party back to being relevant (as has happened in the past when the voting public was close to 90% white), everyone with political ambitions will just be a Democrat in the future. Since the Democrats to not have to have a consistent government philosophy (as written about by many pundits and wonks) but just need to keep its many power blocks inside the party happy, there will be no move to the left. All the Democrats need is enough tax dollars to pay off their power blocks.

    The idea that a significant number of blacks or Latinos will ever be in the more conservative party is also laughable. Any black or Latino 20-something who wants to be involved in politics is a Democrat already just like 90% of the Ivy Leaguers are Democrats. As Vox.com has pointed out, when 95% of blacks vote for one party, the other party is automatically viewed as racist. That means that no one can who is interested in a long term career, succeed at the highest levels of their field, or be part of the elite can be part of the political party that is seen as racist The more likely scenario is what has already happened with the children of Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and now Bush: They all become Democrats and have no use for conservative politics.

    If you want to see a good model of the future, look at the District of Columbia. The real election is the Democratic Party Primary and the issues that the power blocks fight over are who controls the purse strings in government and who receives the benefits of government spending. If entitlements, who pays for them, and who gets them are the future of politics, then one party is more than enough.

  32. TheoNott says:


    But Chicago, DC, etc. are not “one-party states” anymore than say, Fife in Scotland is. What these locations have in common is that they are subdivisions of larger democratic polities. As a result, they are stuck with the political parties of the entire country, because in a democracy like the United States, there is a tendency for the unit as a whole to have only two parties. The two United States parties seek to encapsulate the political spectrum of the country as a whole, not of Chicago, which happens to be well to the left of the country as a whole, so the more left-wing party dominates Chicago. But if Chicago were somehow to become an independent country, we should have no doubt at all that it would evolve a two-party system. Your argument against Duverger’s law doesn’t really work.

  33. Moosebreath says:


    And it’s curious that the places superdestroyer cites as evidence of a 1 party state are always places where the Democrat always wins, and never places the Republican always win, even though there are far more (though generally less populated) places Republicans always win. For example, Utah is every bit as much of a one-party state as Maryland, though a Republican has been Governor of Maryland far more recently than a Democrat has been Governor of Utah.

  34. just me says:

    Local races are harder to poll than presidential ones and pollsters tend to focus on the tight races.
    For one thing turnout is key and midterms often have lower turnout and pollsters using a certain model predicting turnout can get more easily burned.

    My guess is it is likely easier to poll in smaller states (I get called quite often by polling companies given I’m in a small state both in size and population). I think it’s probably harder to poll in states with both a large urban and large rural population.

    I think in general polling trends say more than isolated polls-trends seem to indicate a GOP takeover but the polls also show tight races in many states. This is imo going to be a close one and I won’t be at all shocked to see some surprises and a few recounts.

  35. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:


    When was the last time that the Senate approved a major treaty?

    Just a guess, but probably the last time that there WAS a major treaty. What was your point, again?

  36. superdestroyer says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    That is the Republicans are in the majority in the Senate that they will be able to thwart a major treaty that was negotiated by Obama Administration. However, since there appears to be no major treaties on the way, it is not something that a Republican controlled senate will need to exert itself to stop.

  37. superdestroyer says:


    I doubt if Mr.Duverger, being French, could ever have anticipated the ethnic divide in politics in the U.S. Most blacks and probably 50% of Latinos in the U.S. have never voted for a Republican at any level. The public schools in the U.S. are now less than 50% white. Over 40% of children born in the U.S. are born to unwed mothers. Less than 50% of adults in the U.S. pay any next income taxes and about 30% of Americans are totally dependent on the government to survive. Government at all levels consumes about 30% of GDP.

    There is no room in the U.S. for a conservative party. Thus, for Duverger’s law to apply, the U.S. would have to come a country where two parties exist that differ on almost no issues and where politics is about entitlements, who gets them, and who pays for the.

    I use Cook County and Chicago as an example of what the U.S. will look like in the future. Given that in Cook County, Ill, four of the five largest employers are various levels of government, it should be easy to see why only political party is needed. Somehow I doubt if Mr. Duverger would have ever anticipated the developed of clouts, political brokers, and the back room dealers that dominate politics in Chicago. As the demographics of the U.S. in 2050 will resemble in the demographics of Chicago today (30% non-Hispanic white), it makes a lot more sense that the politics of the U.S. in 2050 will resemble the politics of the Chicago of today.

  38. Tony W says:

    @superdestroyer: In Super-D’s world America is being overrun by creepy brown people that hate America and Traditional White-People Values – e.g. the 1950’s when brown-colored people knew their place and everything was just hunkey-dorey.

    If you live in that world, changing demographics are scary. Heck, your boss might end up being one of those brown people! What if she finds out your own true colors!

  39. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    However is progressives world, one must assume that everyone will act like an upper middle class white person. It should be no wonder why progressives are continually disappointed when their policy proposals do not work they way they envision them to work.

    Refusing to think about demographics is a refusal to think about reality.

  40. Eric Florack says:

    That battle has been going on for a long time. Why do you suppose Romney lost for example? The GOP rank and file, and for that matter, thecountry as a who;e is by far more conservative than the GOP leadership. So, they sit on their hands each election… and the number of those not voting continues to grow. See here for a graphic on the point.

    After what the Democrats have been pulling the last 6 years isnt enough to push the whole thing to the GOP, it will be clear to even the most die-hard establishment types that the current tactic of ~Im not a Democrat” is an outright failure… and they will be forced to actually be conservative and run conservatives for office.

  41. Grewgills says:

    @Eric Florack:

    The GOP rank and file, and for that matter, thecountry as a who;e is by far more conservative than the GOP leadership. So, they sit on their hands each election… and the number of those not voting continues to grow.

    Once again you will be confronted with the fact that a greater percentage of the voting age population voted in both 2008 and 2012 than in your supposed high water mark or 1980 or 1984. Here are two separate links that show this. You have been shown these and others before that illustrate this point. Each time you quickly exit the conversation, only two show up later and attempt the same BS argument. It and you are wrong EVERY time. Quite making this dishonest argument here. It will be pointed out every time and you will be made to look the dishonest fool every time.