The announcement of Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer
that she will retire from the senate in 2016 marks the
beginning of the contest for control of that congressional
body in the next cycle.
Although there will almost certainly be a heated contest
for her Democratic nomination this year and next, the seat
will likely remain on the liberal side of the aisle unless state
Republicans can come up with an exceptional candidate.
In 2016, 24 Republican-held seats will be up for re-election,
and only 10 Democratic-held seats. It was this kind of
advantage in reverse which enabled conservatives to gain
9 senate seats in 2014, and take control 54-46.
The conventional wisdom is understandably that the GOP
will be hard-pressed to keep control of the senate in January,
2017. A closer look, however, indicates that conventional
wisdom might be wrong (as it often is).
The first matter to consider is potential retirements by the
most senior members. Three of the ten Democrats running
in 2016 could retire, including Harry Reid of Nevada,
Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
Like Boxer’s seat in California, the seats in Maryland and
Vermont are not likely to change parties if the seats
become open. Only in Nevada is the Democratic incumbent
in serious trouble. Even if he runs in 2016, Harry Reid would
likely lose his re-election, especially if his opponent in
current GOP governor Brian Sandoval. Also complicating
potential liberal gains is current Democratic Senator Joe
Manchin of West Virginia who is reportedly unhappy in the
senate, and considering running again for governor. A
Manchin vacancy almost certainly would be filled with a
On the GOP side, three incumbents seem potential retirees,
including John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Grassley of Iowa,
and Dan Coats of Indiana. David Vitter of Lousiana would
have to retire if he is elected governor in 2015, but he would
then appoint his successor. If McCain, Grassley or Coats
retired, their seats would more likely than not be replaced
So, of those running, who are vulnerable?
On the Democratic side, the aforementioned Reid and
Michael Bennett of Colorado.
On the Republican side, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin,
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Senator Mark Kirk of
Illinois, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Senator Roy
Blunt of Missouri, and the aforementioned Senator Coats.
Mathematically then, Democrats could pick up 6-7 seats if
they beat all vulnerable GOP senators plus win at least one
seat from a retiree. But that is complicated by the fact that
they could easily lose two seats (Nevada and Colorado), and
would likely lose a third if Manchin in West Virginia retires
prematurely to run for governor. Further complicating
Democratic ambitions is that, while vulnerable, Johnson,
Toomey, Kirk, Murkowski and Blunt are currently only
marginably vulnerable, and could yet win in 2016.
Complicating our picture of the 2016 races are not only
the decisions about retirement by incumbent senators of
both parties, but also for-now unknowable changes in the
status of other incumbent senators not running in 2016.
Furthermore, as we seem to learn in every cycle, some
senators considered now to be headed for “safe” re-election
become vulnerable as election day approaches. Intraparty
challengers could also diminish safe incumbents’ prospects,
as could slightly the impact of the 2016 presidential election,
especially in voter turnout.
The advantage enjoyed by senate Republicans in 2014 was
fully taken. A similar advantage for Democrats in 2016
might thus not produce the same results, primarily because
there were more vulnerable Democrats in the 2014 cycle than
seem likely among Republicans in the 2016 cycle. Those 2014
results also provided the conservatives a larger margin than
expected, and this allows them to take more net losses in the
senate, and still keep control.
In fact, barring dramatic new political developments, the
kind of huge “wave” which enabled massive GOP gains
across the board in 2014 does not appear very imminent in
2016. Republicans almost certainly will maintain control
of the U.S. house in the next cycle, and Democrats will have
a problematic challenge to hold the presidency.
One of the singular realities of the senate races in 2014
were the outstanding candidates the GOP recruited in
virtually every contest against Democratic incumbents.
This will be the great challenge for Democratic senate
strategists in 2016. Relying on the increased liberal voter
turnout in a presidential year will not likely make much
difference in these races. But recruitment will.
Our attention will focus on these efforts in the next
several months, even as the new Republican majorities in
Congress, won in 2014, attempt to set their own stage for 2016.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.