August 17, 2016
OZY: The Most Exciting Senate Races in a Generation
by Carlos Watson
All eyes are on the presidential race, but a dramatic set of Senate races has also begun to emerge. Indeed, this year may be the most interesting and unpredictable one in a long time — perhaps since 1986, when newbie Republican senators needed to defend their seats for the first time following Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in ’80. There’s a ton to watch: 34 seats are up and a full 24 are held by Republicans. To win control of the Senate, the left will have to pick up a handful of seats and reverse the 2014 Republican wave.
Who will prevail?
Having traveled across the country, both on and off the campaign trail, I am expecting a bunch of upsets, near misses and the emergence of some new stars.
THE ENCORE POLITICOS
This year’s Senate races feature the daring return of not just one, but three former (or almost former) senators. Former governor and senator of Indiana — and a one-time presidential dreamboat who made early motions to campaign for an ’08 run — 60-year-old Evan Bayh is one to watch. Bayh surprised everyone in the Hoosier State last month when he said the heck with private life and jumped back into the arena to compete for his state’s open seat. Yet, like some other candidates, he’s getting hit by opponents accusing him of being in the pocket of special interest groups. (“Bayh is bought,” they’ve said.)
Meantime, former Rhodes scholar and fellow presidential wannabe Russell Feingold swapped sunshine for cheese when he returned to the Dairy State after living in California. But the man he’s challenging — Ron Johnson — beat him six years ago, and that race is going to be a humdinger. Either side could win in Wisconsin, though Feingold leads. Down in Florida, Miamian Marco Rubio looked like he wouldn’t be running for a while, but returned to the race after being trumped in the GOP presidential primary. Like Bayh, Rubio seems a good bet at the moment to win re-election. Could we see a trio of comebacks? Why not.
THE NAIL-BITER RACES
In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, a rising GOP star and junior senator, is being challenged by her state’s governor, Maggie Hassan. She has a real shot, though Hillary Clinton’s polling bests Donald Trump in this state, which could give a boost to Hassan. Plus, Ayotte — and Rubio, for that matter — has also taken jabs for what some call truancy, and she’s been accused by Hassan of siding “with her party leadership in obstructing the Supreme Court confirmation process.”
Meanwhile, some incumbents are facing a difficult fall. In Ohio, Republican Rob Portman was getting — and may still get — a real challenge from former Gov. Ted Strickland. And, in Illinois, first-term Republican senator Mark Kirk seems to be in the toughest race of them all. His state looks solidly blue, and Tammy Duckworth is a strong Democratic competitor who’s out-fundraising Kirk right now.
We might even see the stalwart Sen. John McCain lose his seat in the process of a changing of the guard — to the tune of four or five seats swinging in favor of the Dems. In each of these cases, the GOP senators are struggling with how to deal with Trump. (Kirk was the first Republican to rescind his endorsement of Trump after the billionaire criticized a judge for his Mexican heritage.) For now, the strategy seems to be: Keep your distance. But that doesn’t mean Trump is keeping his; he recently endorsed Ayotte.
STARS IN THE MAKING
Like Barack Obama when he entered the Senate in 2005, and JFK when he took office there in ’53, this year’s election has its own fair share of up-and-coming contenders. A couple of Republican senators who won special elections in 2014 could have breakout terms if they win their first true race: Tim Scott, from South Carolina, and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Their races look secure, barring any surprises, and they’ve even teamed up to begin a national conversation on race.
On the Democratic side, Kamala Harris, California’s Oakland-born attorney general, is drumming up big support in her left-leaning state. The 51-year-old might just be a future VP candidate (Cory Booker–Harris, perhaps), or even a presidential candidate. In Illinois, Rep. Duckworth looks poised to take office as well. Like Hawaii’s Tulsi Gabbard, she’s another woman with a history in the military and could be an important voice on homeland security.
But one Dem could make a historic run: Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s former attorney general, who seems to be getting some serious love from Emily’s List, the political action committee that supports pro-choice women for office. If she were to pull off a victory for Harry Reid’s seat, she’d become the first Latina senator in history. Joe Heck, Cortez Masto’s competition for Reid’s seat, is a possible spark plug. The physician, who’s also a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, is running on his record for public service and moderation, and he’s in a close race against Cortez Masto.
THE ELECTION EFFECT
Some states are in play this year that haven’t been in recent history. A big turnout for Hillary could spell trouble down the ballot for the GOP. To counter this, in states like Pennsylvania, we’re seeing money from the Koch brothers being sent to the GOP Senate campaigns, rather than to the Big One. And we could see this presidential race tip the scales in Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona. So be prepared for some major game changers later this year.
But not so fast. Even if the Dems can pull off a majority in the Senate this election, there’ll be an uphill battle to retain that lead. By 2018, key factors will shift: 33 seats will be up, and 23 will be coming from the Democrats. Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez are just a couple of those who are vulnerable to being on the chopping block. A special election for Tim Kaine’s seat in Virginia, should he become VP, might add another Republican to the list even sooner than that.