Thanks to a perfect storm of electoral circumstances, the Democratic Party is highly favored to pick up seats in the U.S. Senate this November and might even wrest control of the legislative body from Republicans altogether.
The Democrats enjoy a number of structural advantages this year in their battle for the Senate. First, Republicans control an overwhelming majority of the seats in play this November, leaving them on the defensive. Of the 34 seats which will appear on voters’ ballots this year, the Republicans hold 24, while the Democrats hold only 10. And of the most competitive races this year, only one of them—the battle for the seat of retiring Nevada senator and Democrat Harry Reid—is an opportunity for a G.O.P. pickup.
But even capturing Nevada may not save the G.O.P. from a drubbing in November. In blue-leaning Illinois, incumbent Republican Mark Kirk is slipping behind his Democratic challenger, with one survey showing him down nearly seven points. New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, another Republican who was elected on a wave of anti-Obama sentiment in 2010, has been locked in a dead heat with Democrat Maggie Hassan for months. In Indiana, a state which is usually reliably red, a little-known Republican will face off against Evan Bayh, a career politician with strong name identification and crossover appeal. Early polls have given Mr. Bayh a comfortable early lead. Pennsylvania’s Republican senator Pat Toomey is slipping behind his Democratic opponent Katie McGinty, though in most polls, his deficit rests within the margin of error.
Other G.O.P.-held seats look a bit safer, but could still be lost. Richard Burr of North Carolina is the most vulnerable, though his slight edge over Democrat Deborah Ross comes in spite of the fact that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has consistently trailed in polls in the state. Mr. Burr is a well-known political figure in his state, but he will have a real fight on his hands this year. The Upshot at The New York Times gives him about an 80 percent chance of retaining his seat.
Florida, Missouri, and Ohio are also potential Democratic pickups, but these states look a good deal safer than the others. Marco Rubio brings a national fundraising apparatus, near-universal name recognition, and a fat campaign war chest to his Florida senate race against a gaffe-prone and underfunded Democratic opponent. Missouri is a state with a heavy Republican lean, and the G.O.P.’s candidate there has maintained a decent lead over his Democratic opponent for months now. And buoyed by Donald Trump’s relatively strong performance in Ohio, where he slightly trails Hillary Clinton, Republican Senator Rob Portman has a decisive advantage thus far in his bid for reelection.
At present, the Republican Party holds 54 seats in the 100-member Senate. In order to maintain its majority, the G.O.P. will need to win at least six of the nine most competitive races this year. But even locking down Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Missouri—the tight races in which Republicans are currently favored—would still leave the G.O.P. two seats short of an outright Senate majority. From here, however, Democrats take charge. With the exception of Indiana, where Evan Bayh’s outsize political persona gives him an excellent chance of capturing the state’s Senate seat, the rest of the competitive contests take place on the Democrats’ home turf, in left-leaning states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Even if Republicans can manage to snatch Nevada from Democratic hands, they are still left to find one other state on a challenging electoral map where they can earn a victory and maintain their Senate majority.
The G.O.P.’s woes this year are in part a result of Donald Trump’s weakness in the states where Republican senators are facing daunting challenges. If Mr. Trump manages to take a slight lead in Pennsylvania, Nevada, and New Hampshire, he will pull the embattled incumbents in those states with him, helping to clear the water mark which the G.O.P. must meet in order to keep its majority in the U.S. Senate.
Even so, with or without the Trump effect, this year presents a unique difficulty for Republicans. The Tea Party wave of 2010 swept Republicans into office in states where they would have struggled otherwise. Now, six years later, the party of Reagan will have to find a way to capture these seats without the benefit of the groundswell political movement which laid the foundation of its 2014 takeover of the U.S. Senate.