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Meanwhile, the race for congress intensifies

24 March 2016

Although attention is focused on the nail-biting presidential primaries, other elections are looming in November. Lesley Russell surveys the emerging field


Republican senator Mark Kirk faces a difficult fight in Illinois against Democratic representative and war veteran Tammy Duckworth, shown here at Cafe Moxo in Springfield the day after she won the state primary. Seth Perlman/AP Photo

Republican senator Mark Kirk faces a difficult fight in Illinois against Democratic representative and war veteran Tammy Duckworth, shown here at Cafe Moxo in Springfield the day after she won the state primary. Seth Perlman/AP Photo

The obsessive media coverage of this year’s US presidential primaries is obscuring the congressional races that will determine the makeup of the Senate and the House of Representatives over the next two years and beyond, and have a major impact on the new president’s capacity to implement his or her policy agenda.

Presidential elections often have coat-tails that sweep the other members of a popular candidate’s party into office. The effect reflects higher voter turnout and a greater proclivity to vote a straight party ticket. A poor candidate and a damaged party brand, on the other hand, can stop many disillusioned people from voting. While the extent of the impact on down-ticket races (both congressional and for state governors) is open for discussion, it was clearly illustrated when Barack Obama’s presidential runs in 2008 and 2012 led to Democrat gains in the House, while the midterms delivered extra seats to Republicans.

Regardless of the accuracy of these political theories, the level of alarm among establishment Republicans about the dominance of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is reaching new heights. They fear that Trump and Cruz are inflicting far-reaching and lasting damage on the party’s brand, damage that will imperil Republicans in races for the House and Senate, especially those in states and districts that are more moderate and have high numbers of Hispanic and African-American voters.

Disaffected white southern voters have been the galvanising force of the 2016 GOP presidential primary season. But the demographics are shifting inexorably against the Republican Party nationally, and without a shift in rhetoric and policies from the likely candidates and from the party leadership, growing numbers of Hispanic and millennial voters will join black voters in stopping the GOP capturing the White House in 2016. A former chief of staff to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged this when he said that with either Trump or Cruz as the GOP nominee “we’d be hard-pressed to elect a Republican dogcatcher north of the Mason-Dixon or west of the Mississippi.”

Republican concerns are particularly acute when it comes to the Senate, where they currently have a slim four-seat majority. To control the chamber, Democrats need either a net gain of four seats if they retain the White House (with the vice-president holding the deciding vote) or five seats to get to fifty-one and a majority (although, as the past four years have shown, the effective majority has become sixty – the number of votes needed to break a filibuster). Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election in 2016; of those, twenty-four are held by Republicans and only ten by Democrats.

The key races are likely to be in seven states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada. But this is a moveable feast, and some pundits would also include Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado.

In Illinois, Republican senator Mark Kirk is facing Democrat representative Tammy Duckworth. Kirk is predicted to have a difficult race in his first re-election. He has branded himself as a moderate – so much so, according to Politico, that “it’s hard to tell sometimes” that he is running as a Republican. (“In a span of two days on the campaign trail last week, the first-term senator name-checked Bernie Sanders as an ally, pitched himself as a champion of the environment and pledged that the federal government wouldn’t shut down over Planned Parenthood.”) But analysts say he is vulnerable to Illinois’s tendency to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats during presidential elections. As one of the last of the moderate Republicans, he has effectively been abandoned by party operatives. Duckworth, meanwhile, a military veteran who lost both her legs in Iraq, has great name recognition and a substantial campaign chest. National Democrats are expected to target Illinois as an essential seat needed to regain a majority in the senate.

Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson faces a repeat challenge from Democrat Russ Feingold, who lost this Senate seat in 2010. Democrats have placed a lot of faith in Feingold, a liberal with a fierce streak of independence who has crusaded against the influence of money in politics. He will appeal to Sanders’s supporters but will need to run a much better campaign than he did six years ago. The rematch is expected to be nasty and outside groups are already spending millions of dollars on the campaign. Early polls show Feingold with a healthy lead.

When Marco Rubio made the decision to run for president, he decided not to run for another term in the Senate; now he will find himself unemployed after the election. A raft of candidates from both parties is vying for this open seat and the primaries will not be held until 30 August. Liberal congressman Alan Grayson, perhaps buoyed by Sanders’s success, continues to talk a big game about challenging representative Patrick Murphy in the Democratic primary. Republicans have their own primary fight shaping up between Representative Ron DeSantis, backed by the Tea Party, and establishment choice Carlos López-Cantera, the lieutenant-governor.

The key to the Democrats’ chances at taking back the Senate lies in landing top-tier recruits such as governor Maggie Hassan to run against senator Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire. The hawkish Ayotte has been loath to criticise Trump or Cruz and this, together with her links to big business, may make the race difficult for her. She has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of outside money and conservative groups have already begun spending heavily on the race; more than a million dollars was spent against Hassan before she even declared she would run. The Cook Political Report currently has this race as a toss-up.

The Senate race in Pennsylvania is also likely to be a rerun of 2010, when Pat Toomey, a scrappy conservative turned centrist, beat his Democrat opponent, former congressman Joe Sestak, by only two percentage points. Sestak had defeated incumbant senator Arlen Specter in the primary, putting himself at odds with party elders, and that might explain why he faces some stiff competition in the 26 April primary from three other candidates, the most high-profile of whom is Katie McGinty, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a 2014 candidate for Pennsylvania governor. This race is seen as a must-win for the Democrats.

Ohio is a presidential battleground state where Republican senator Rob Portman faces a perilous path to re-election in a battle against former Democratic governor Ted Strickland. Free trade and its links to the loss of Ohio factory jobs looms as a key issue. On this, the voting records of Portman (who served as US trade representative under president George W. Bush) and Strickland are polar opposites. Not surprisingly, big money is pouring in: Open Secrets reports that by the end of February Portman had spent $5.7 million and had $12.7 million on hand, while Strickland had done less well, spending $2.2 million and with $2 million on hand. Many millions more have been spent by outside interests, mostly against Strickland. Ohio is also John Kasich’s home state; as an enthusiastic supporter, Portman must be hoping Kasich has some coat-tails he can ride.

The retirement of Senate minority leader Harry Reid leaves his Nevada seat up for grabs in an open election. Reid has served in the Senate since 1987 and he will have a big influence on this race from the sidelines. Four Democrat candidates have filed to run for the office, and former attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, endorsed by Reid, appears to be the favourite. Congressman Joe Heck is among nine hopefuls for the Republican candidature, and the primary elections will take place on 14 June. Although Clinton’s coat-tails in Nevada will significantly benefit Cortez Masto, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has this race as a toss-up.

Of the other races that might fall into the “at risk” category, perhaps the most surprising is that of senator John McCain, who faces what may be his toughest re-election. Polls show that McCain, with a high disapproval rating, is in a tight race with his Democratic challenger, representative Ann Kirkpatrick. His path to victory is complicated by the possibility that the GOP ticket will be headed by Trump, who has galvanised Arizona voters disillusioned with Washington insiders like McCain and has gained an overwhelmingly negative rating among Hispanic voters, a powerful and growing electoral bloc in Arizona. The Senate primary is not until August, which means McCain will have to take on his Republican challengers and Kirkpatrick simultaneously until then.

New Public Policy Polling surveys in Arizona, Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina find that voter anger over their Republican senators’ unwillingness to consider a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court could help make those seats competitive for Democrats this fall. Strong majorities of voters in each of these states want the Supreme Court vacancy to be filled this year. Earlier Public Policy Polling surveys found that voter anger over the Supreme Court issue in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin might punish Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson.

Party strategists are also looking ahead at the impact of this year’s Senate races in 2018, when twenty-five Democrat-held seats will be in play and just eight held by Republicans. If Republicans can keep their 2016 losses to a minimum then they will have an opportunity to take the Senate back again, and even to get a super-majority of sixty seats – particularly with a Democrat in the White House.

The House of Representatives, where Republicans have a substantial thirty-seat majority, is more secure. But in this atypical election year, there are also reasons for them to worry: they must defend seats in moderate states like California, New York and Florida at a time when Trump and Cruz are putting them in jeopardy. The chaotic and divisive Republican presidential race will help Democrats: they will almost certainly increase their House numbers, but gaining enough seats for a majority is an almost impossible task. Still, Democrats are hoping for a repeat of the 1964 election, when Republicans nominated Arizona senator Barry Goldwater for president and Democrats gained thirty-seven House seats.

Several other factors also come into play. Despite the fact that every one of the 435 House seats is up for re-election, only a handful of races are competitive. The Cook Political Report estimates that only twenty-two races are fully competitive (of which eighteen are currently held by Republicans); Larry Sabato has the figure at thirty-one. The numbers reflect the advantages of incumbency (name recognition, pork-barrelling, fundraising) and the increasing manipulation of election borders.

Gerrymandering is not new, but in recent years Republican governors have successfully used changes in electoral boundaries to help ensure Republican control of the House of Representatives. Fifty-five per cent of the nation’s congressional districts have been redrawn to favour Republicans and only 10 per cent to favour Democrats. In some cases (in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina), these efforts have been so extreme that the courts have intervened to ensure fairness.

The toughest task Republican congressional candidates now face is that they are being forced to respond to rhetoric from Trump and Cruz, who have the media megaphones, rather than taking on Clinton or their own opponents. Both House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have criticised Trump as not representing conservative values, and both men have suggested that their colleagues dissociate themselves from his statements. Many Republicans with tough races are debating whether they would support Trump – and presumably also Cruz – as the party’s nominee.  

After the Republican convention, the successful nominee will face a monumental task in uniting the party for the election campaign. The party’s two leading presidential candidates have managed to alienate large segments of the population – women, Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, the disabled – that must be wooed back if Republicans are to win a plurality of votes in November. That will eat up an enormous amount of media attention, resources and time.

Perhaps the biggest unknowns in the political equation are whether people will turn out to vote on 8 November, whether and how they will split their votes (Reagan’s coat-tails in 1980 and 1984 were sufficient to deliver a Republican Senate but the House remained in the control of the Democrats), and the extent to which state and electoral officials impose restrictions, such as identification rules and limited access to voting facilities, that discriminate against poorer voters. The nominating conventions are still four months away and election day is not for eight months: there’s a long, tortuous, verbose and interesting time ahead. •

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