There is no doubt that Republicans have an uphill battle to maintain their current control of the U.S. Senate. They are playing defense in 24 of the 34 seats up for grabs in 2016, eight of the top 10 Senate races deemed “toss ups” are Republican held, seven of those are in stats that voted for Obama in each of the last two presidential elections, and none of the Democratic seats are in states Republicans carried in 2008 or 2012.
The stakes are high for both parties, especially depending on the outcome of the presidential race. Perhaps most importantly, the Senate has the power to confirm, hold or deny Judicial and Executive branch confirmation votes and, now that Sen. Harry Reid has proceeded with the “nuclear option” the power to change the rules governing filibusters.
The conventional wisdom, expounded by countless pundits, is that the Republican at the top of the ticket—which appears likely to be either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz—could make or break the party’s down-ballot chances, owing to voters’ preference for single-ticket voting. But what of the internal struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party that is currently being fought right now between the supporters of Sanders and Clinton? That, as Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg writes, comes with it’s own set of political challenges:
But instead of Democrats responding by positioning themselves in the political center where they could maximize their appeal, many Democrats are embracing their own version of ideological extremism.
Bernie Sanders’ uncompromising anti-business rhetoric and agenda, combined with the energy of “progressive” forces in the Democratic coalition, reflect a significant turn to the left by a party that once stood for pragmatic change, not “revolution.” . . .
Clearly, the Democratic Party has moved left over the past few years. Whether this is out of frustration that President Barack Obama didn’t move far enough or fast enough in a progressive agenda, or because Democrats watched the tea party pull the GOP to the right, many Democrats want a much more “progressive” agenda.
One thing remains clear. Swing voters remain in the middle, so the further left the Democratic Party moves, the more ammunition it gives to the GOP, whether in 2016, 2018 or beyond.
Sanders’ is not going to win, that much has become clear, but his ability to forcefully shift the Democratic Party to the left has damaged their political sustainability. Even if Clinton manages to win the White House and Democrats win the Senate they will have to navigate a political minefield with no clear route to safety. David Frum writes for The Atlantic:
Hillary Clinton, so often described as a weak candidate, may yet pull a handsome slew of wins into Congress behind her.
But those Democrats will know they owe their success not to the head of their ticket, but to the head of the other ticket. They won’t owe Clinton—and they will be keenly aware of the leftward surge of opinion inside their party that made Clinton’s nomination so arduous and protracted. Hillary Clinton has had to veer left on trade, crime, immigration, energy, charter schools, and tax increases to appease her party activist base. Won’t new Democratic senators feel they have to do the same? Won’t many want to?
We could see the election of a Congress defined by and frightened of the Democratic activist left, in tandem with a Democratic president who has already demonstrated that she does not lead her party and will instead be led by it.
Democrats may have a short time to rejoice. Clinton and the Democratic Senate, knowing they only have two years until the 2018 elections, will have to move fast on a liberal agenda that exists further out on the fringes of political risk than the one Barack Obama attempted in 2008-10, i.e. the one that vaulted Republicans to historic wins in the House and Senate, allowing them to capture majorities in both chambers.
Forward-thinking Democrats should recognize they are also hamstrung by the 2018 Senate map, which is nearly a mirror image of the difficulties plaguing Republicans this year. As it stands presently, Democrats will be defending 25 seats and Republicans eight in the 2018 elections. Of those 25 seats, 20 are in states that President Obama won twice, though many of those are historically competitive, especially in midterm years, but four are in states that Obama lost twice. There are also several right-leaning wildcards, such as Indiana, where Republicans lost because of a flawed candidate in Richard Mourdock, and New Jersey, where the current Democratic Senator is currently facing corruption charges.
All told, Democrats may have the upper hand in 2016, but they better be very careful what they wish for. Political fortunes can turn quickly.