September 18th, 2018


The Fate of the Senate: Coattails will be everything in 2016

Fred Barnes

By Fred Barnes

Published July 27, 2015

Senate candidates aren't as important as they used to be. Republican and Democratic presidential nominees have intruded. The outcome of Senate races in 2016 will be heavily affected, if not determined, by which party's presidential candidate wins a state. This is especially true in tossup states.

There's a "new rule of politics in a polarized, partisan era," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "The party winning the presidency in a state carries the Senate seat that's up in that state about 80 percent of the time. Could possibly be even higher in 2016."

This means the Democratic nominee must win the White House for Democrats to have a credible chance of taking control of the Senate. If a Republican wins the presidency, "the top of the ticket is going to help keep [Republican] Mitch McConnell the majority leader," says Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief political adviser. Republicans now have a 54-46 advantage in the Senate.

What Sabato calls a rule isn't an iron rule. And it's not new that presidential contests have an impact on state races. They always have, thus the phenomenon known as presidential coattails. When Ronald Reagan won in 1980, he pulled in a dozen new senators, giving Republicans control, 53-46. When Barack Obama won in 2008, Democrats netted 8 seats and their control of the Senate grew to 59-41. Democrats gained 2 seats with Obama's reelection in 2012.

What is new, however, is that the outcome of the presidential race has greater sway than ever. As the two parties have gradually become more ideologically divided, there is less split-ticket voting. Instead, as a state's vote for president goes, so goes the vote in down-ticket races. Voters today are more inclined to stick with one party. That was Sabato's point.

For Republicans, this means two senators are in serious jeopardy: Mark Kirk in Illinois and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, both elected in 2010, a non-presidential year. Republicans haven't won a presidential race in Wisconsin since 1984 and in Illinois since 1988. Johnson would be helped if Wisconsin governor Scott Walker were the GOP presidential nominee and won the state.

It's not that Senate candidates don't matter at all. But they matter less in presidential years than in midterm elections. That's when they have less control of their fate. And long-shot Senate candidates are sometimes elected, as a little known Republican, Al d'Amato, was in New York in 1980 when Reagan won the state.

The enhanced role of presidential nominees puts a premium on their ability to win swing states, where their influence on Senate races is the greatest. In 2016, five states top the list: Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and North Carolina. In 2012, Obama won four and lost narrowly in North Carolina. So the GOP candidate for president needs to stage a major turnaround to help in Senate elections.

Let's start with Ohio. It would be advantageous if Governor John Kasich were on the Republican ticket, as either the presidential or vice presidential nominee. He won reelection for governor overwhelmingly in 2014. His presence—and his popularity—would improve Republican chances in Ohio in 2016, including those of Senator Rob Portman, whose reelection would be jeopardized if a Democrat, presumably Hillary Clinton, captured Ohio. In a nonpresidential election year, Portman would likely be a strong favorite.

With Marco Rubio's decision to run for president, Florida has an open Senate seat. If either Rubio or former Florida governor Jeb Bush emerges as the Republican nominee, that will give Republicans a good shot at winning the state—and holding the Senate seat. If not the nominee, Rubio might be chosen as running mate. Veep choices are usually dismissed as having no political effect, but I think Rubio would be an exception. He would aid Republicans in winning Florida in the presidential and Senate races.

One could argue a Republican ticket with Kasich and Bush or Rubio on board would be formidable in both Ohio and Florida. And by winning both states, Republicans would surely win the presidency. By the way, Bush and Rubio probably won't be on the ticket together. The Constitution bars electors from choosing both a president and vice president from their home state.

In Colorado, Democratic senator Michael Bennet will be difficult to beat unless the GOP presidential candidate wins the state. Bennet's is one of two Democratic seats regarded as vulnerable in 2016. But Republicans have had trouble finding a Senate candidate seen as competitive with Bennet. Still, a strong Republican at the top of the ticket could lift the prospects of a less than stellar Senate candidate. Obama won Colorado twice.

Nevada was a Republican state until a surge of Hispanic voters, mostly Democrats, changed the political equation. Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, would be favored to win the Senate seat being vacated next year by Harry Reid with or without the benefit of presidential coattails. He was reelected in 2014 with 70 percent of the vote. But Sandoval has declined to run for the Senate. Now Representative Joe Heck has stepped in, a credible candidate but without Sandoval's broad appeal.

North Carolina's governor, legislature, and both senators are Republican. Still, the state is closely divided politically. Senator Richard Burr is running for a third term. Democrats failed to persuade Kay Hagan to challenge Burr. After one term, she lost her Senate seat to Republican Thom Tillis in 2014. Burr, a strong finisher in his two elections, is favored. It would take a victory by the Democratic presidential candidate for him to be defeated. Obama won North Carolina in 2008 but lost the state in 2012.

In 2016, Republicans are in the unenviable position of defending 24 Senate seats while only 10 Democratic seats are at stake. It's almost inevitable Republicans will lose several seats. If their losses are limited to Illinois and Wisconsin, and they win the open Nevada seat, Republicans should consider themselves fortunate. But accomplishing even this modest feat probably requires a Republican presidential victory.

Nothing less will do.

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Fred Barnes is Executive Editor at the Weekly Standard.