clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Democrats increasingly think Donald Trump can deliver them a Senate landslide

Chuck Schumer, who will be Democrats' Senate leader in 2017.
John Lamparski/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Now that Donald Trump will be the GOP presidential nominee, Democrats are daring to hope that an anti-Trump landslide could lead to an anti-Republican landslide down ballot as well.

And in Senate races across the country, the party appears really well-positioned to take advantage of this prospect.

In addition to competing in a set of Senate contests that have long been expected to be in play, Democrats have managed to recruit well-credentialed and potentially formidable challengers in many "reach" Senate races where the party wouldn't ordinarily expect a win.

These contenders are running mostly in red states, and most of them would likely lose in a "normal" presidential election year. But a backlash against Trump could potentially put these seats into play, so long as credible challengers were ready and waiting to take advantage of the situation.

"We wanted to have as many surfers on the water as we could, because we didn’t know how big the wave would be," a Democratic strategist involved in Senate races recently told me.

Indeed, the surprise dynamics of the presidential race and the apparent strength of these contenders make the upper bound for Democratic gains very high indeed — north of 10 seats. With a strong performance across the board, Democrats could end up with 56 seats or even more overall, which is a very solid majority.

The Senate lay of the land

After Republicans won control of the chamber in the 2014 midterms, it's always been clear that it would be quite difficult for them to keep it in 2016 — mainly because the GOP simply has many more seats on the ballot this year, with 24 at stake compared with Democrats' 10.

This discrepancy is largely because this batch of senators was last up during the 2010 Republican wave, in which many Democratic-held seats changed hands, while the GOP managed to hold on to all of its own seats. The upshot, of course, is that Democrats get to pick and choose which Republican-held seats to gun for, while playing defense in very few races.

  • The top-tier GOP-held battlegrounds: These are six Republican-held seats that have long looked vulnerable — Obama managed to win all these states twice. In five of these, senators who first won their seats in 2010 will face a presidential-year electorate for the first time, while the other seat is open.
  • The "reach" GOP-held targets: Then there are another six GOP-held seats, mostly in redder states, that would likely be out of reach in a typical year. But Democrats think they've recruited strong challengers in all six who could be competitive in the Year of Trump.
  • The few Democratic defenses: Finally, there are a mere two Democratic-held seats that are being seriously contested by the GOP. And both are in states with growing Hispanic populations, so Democrats are hoping Trump's rise will hurt Republicans badly here.

Overall, even with a narrow Clinton victory, Democrats are very well-positioned to net the four seats it needs to take the Senate. And if there's a more widespread wave, and Democrats run the table in competitive races like they did in 2008, even bigger gains could make it much easier for a Democratic president to confirm more liberal nominees to the Supreme Court and other major federal offices, while bolstering the prospects for new liberal legislation.

So here's a rundown of how Democrats could pull it off, starting with those lower-profile "reach" contests.

The reaches

Sen. John McCain.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty

These six races are mostly in red states, and none of these seats will be easy for Democrats to pry away from Republican hands. Still, Democrats are optimistic that they've recruited candidates who have the chance to pull off some surprises here — particularly if they're helped out by a national anti-Trump wave.

1) North Carolina: Sen. Richard Burr (R) vs. former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D): Burr, who joined the Senate in 2005, has long had tepid approval ratings. His challenger Ross isn't particularly well-known in the state, but she put in a strong fundraising performance in the first quarter, and Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the controversy over the state's new transgender bathroom law, which has been criticized as both discriminatory and bad for business.

2) Missouri: Sen. Roy Blunt (R) vs. Secretary of State Jason Kander (D): Democrats were thrilled that Kander — who's young, a veteran, and a formidable fundraiser — entered the race against Blunt, a longtime mainstay in Congress whom they hope to portray as a "Washington insider."

3) Arizona: Sen. John McCain (R) vs. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D): McCain has been in the Senate for nearly 30 years, but Politico recently obtained a recording of him saying that with Trump at the top of the ticket, "this may be the race of my life," because "the Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I've never seen in 30 years." McCain still has to get through his primary, but Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick will be waiting and well-funded to face him in the general.

4) Indiana: Rep. Todd Young (R) vs. former Rep. Baron Hill (D): This is an open seat vacated by the retiring Sen. Dan Coats, and Republicans did manage to hold off a Tea Party challenge in the primary to get their preferred nominee. Still, Obama managed to win Indiana back in 2008, so Democrats are hoping they can return Hill — who lost his congressional seat in the 2010 wave — to DC.

5) Iowa: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) vs. former Lieutenant Gov. Patty Judge (D): Grassley, who's practically a Senate institution, hasn't faced a serious challenge for reelection since he won his seat in 1980. But as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley has been closely tied to the GOP's strategy to block Garland's Supreme Court confirmation — which may have helped convince Judge, a potentially strong challenger, to enter the race against him.

6) Kentucky: Sen. Rand Paul (R) vs. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D): Democrats haven't had too much to be happy about in Kentucky lately, but they're hoping that Paul has been wounded by his disappointing presidential bid, and that Gray — who was the CEO of a construction company and is running on a message about creating jobs — is the perfect candidate to take him on.

The battleground Republican-held seats

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Bill Clark / Tom Williams (CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

The top contests Democrats are targeting are six GOP-held seats in states Obama won twice, which party strategists refer to as the "battlegrounds." These feature Republicans who swept into office during the 2010 GOP midterm wave but who haven't yet had to face a presidential year electorate (except for Florida, which is an open seat).

In addition, all of these except for deep blue Illinois are presidential swing states. So Donald Trump is sure to frequently campaign there and dominate headlines, as Democrats attempt to tie their Republican opponents to the unpopular billionaire as closely as possible. (Conversely, GOP strategists are hoping to focus every race on local issues as much as they can.)

Now, some of these GOP incumbents are formidable, so Democrats can't take too many of these races for granted. But even if the list of competitive contests were limited to these seats alone, Democrats would have a solid shot of retaking the Senate. Here are the presumed candidates (though in some states, the primaries haven't yet taken place):

1) Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk (R) vs. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D): Kirk has always been at the top of Democrats' target list, for one simple reason — he's the only Republican up this year in an overwhelmingly blue state. So he starts as a deep underdog, and Democrats landed their preferred candidate in Duckworth, a congresswoman and veteran who lost both her legs in Iraq.

2) Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. former Sen. Russ Feingold (D): The liberal Feingold lost his seat to Johnson, an outsider businessman, in the 2010 GOP landslide. But Johnson has amassed a staunchly conservative record since entering the Senate, and his approval ratings have generally been underwater. So Feingold is gunning for a rematch, and has led every single poll tracked by RealClearPolitics so far. And to Democrats' glee, Johnson has embraced Trump, even coining the phrase "the Ronald and the Donald."

3) Florida: Marco Rubio's open seat: Rubio's decision not to run for reelection has triggered a crowded five-way primary for Republicans, with no particular candidate looking particularly formidable yet. Meanwhile, Democratic Party strategists are desperately trying to ensure Rep. Patrick Murphy — and not the outspokenly liberal and controversial Rep. Alan Grayson — wins their own primary. (Harry Reid recently accused Grayson of corruption to his face and told him, "I want you to lose.")

4) New Hampshire: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) vs. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D): Democrats landed their top-tier recruit when Hassan, the state's well-liked governor, decided to run last year. Yet Ayotte is popular too, having cultivated a pragmatic reputation on issues like drug treatment and immigration. Still, Democrats have hammered her for her opposition to gun control legislation and confirming Merrick Garland. And Ayotte had a Trump-related stumble recently, when she bizarrely said she would support Trump but not endorse him.

5) Pennsylvania: Sen. Pat Toomey (R) vs. Katie McGinty (D): Toomey was once known for his far-right conservatism (his GOP primary challenge to the late Arlen Specter motivated Specter to switch parties), but since joining the Senate he's crossed party lines on certain issues, like gun control. And McGinty, a Democratic staffer who has never held elected office, wasn't exactly the candidate of the party's dreams. Still, the party's strong backing powered her to victory in her primary against the mercurial Joe Sestak.

6) Ohio: Sen. Rob Portman (R) vs. former Gov. Ted Strickland (D): Like Ayotte and Toomey, Portman is viewed as a pragmatist who'd be strongly positioned in an ordinary year. But Strickland, who narrowly lost his governorship to John Kasich in 2010, is well-known in the state and neck and neck with Portman in polls.

The few Democratic defenses

Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic candidate to replace the retiring Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

In a normal Senate year, each party would have to defend a fair amount of its own seats while trying to take some from its rivals. But Democrats' performance in the 2010 midterms — when this batch of Senate seats was last on the ballot — was so disastrously bad that they have practically nothing to defend this year.

Out of 34 Senate seats on the ballot this year, just 10 are held by Democrats. Furthermore, only two of those are seriously being contested by the GOP, since the other eight are in very liberal states. And developments in these two races suggest both Democratic candidates begin as strong favorites.

1) Nevada: Former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) vs. Rep. Joe Heck (R): Trump will loom heavily over this contest to replace the retiring Harry Reid. Cortez Masto — Democrats' top recruit — is seeking to become the first Latina ever to serve in the US Senate. And Heck will face a tough time separating himself from Trump in this increasingly Hispanic state — if he survives his primary against the party's far-right 2010 nominee, Sharron Angle.

2) Colorado: Sen. Michael Bennet (D) vs. ???: By most accounts, Bennet only escaped losing in 2010 because a far-right Tea Partier won the primary. He'll be better positioned with a likely more Democratic presidential year electorate, in another state with a growing Hispanic population likely to turn out big against Trump.

Meanwhile, the Republican side is in chaos. The party had tremendous difficulty recruiting a strong candidate, and while the GOP had high hopes for state representative and Iraq veteran Jon Keyser, he's currently embroiled in controversy over whether his campaign used forged signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Why Donald Trump can't win a general election