Democrats Face Uphill Battle to Recapture a Senate Majority

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain once wrote, “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Nothing truer could ever be written about attempts to describe the 2016 Senate map. Democrats’ top campaign strategist, Tom Lopach, has already predicted a “very Democratic Senate,” citing a very favorable map that has Republicans playing defense on unfriendly fronts.

Lopach would have no trouble finding statistics to back him up. For instance, Democrats are defending just 10 total seats (only two of which are competitive: Nevada and Colorado) and will be playing offense in 24 GOP-held Senate seats (seven of which Obama previously won). Perhaps most tellingly, Democrats could reclaim the majority by solely winning states that Barack Obama won twice. It’s also a presidential election year, and Democrats tend to benefit the most from the higher turnout.

Then again, a closer look at the map reveals that the Democrats’ path to the majority may not be the cakewalk they’re currently imagining. Sure, the complexion of the races certainly look like the inverse of 2014, when Republicans took advantage of a favorable map to net nine seats and a 54-46 edge in the Senate, the political situations of the relevant states is actually much different. For instance, in 2014 Democrats were defending seven seats that Romney won by an average of 57 percent (about 10 points better than his national average). By comparison, in 2016, Republicans are defending seven seats that Obama won, but with only an average performance of 52.4 percent (just 1.5 percent better than his national average).

History is also working against Democrats as well. Traditionally, the top-of-the-ticket race, which in this case is the presidency, has a downstream impact on lower level races. Whoever carries the top race delivers voters to the candidates at the bottom. Normally, that would help Democrats who enjoy a turnout advantage, but that effect may be trumped (pun not intended) by the swings in incumbency.

The long-and-short of it is that voters don’t like political dynasties. They vote for a president’s party until they become frustrated by current events, and then they vote for the other party until they become exasperated all over again. Sometimes those swings aren’t large enough to impact the outcome, but as Dan McLaughlin writes for The Federalist, Democrats don’t have much margin to operate with.

“Given the narrow margin for error enjoyed by President Obama in 2012, a swing of a little less than 3 points in the two-party vote would hand the White House to the Republicans—and swings of that size are far more the rule than the exception,” writes McLaughlin. “In fact, looking at the two-party vote, no non-incumbent since Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 has lost less than 3 points off of the prior re-elected incumbent’s showing.”

Moreover, the average loss in the incumbent party’s share of the two party vote in elections like this one (where there was no incumbent on the ballot and an incumbent had been reelected in the prior election) is a whopping 6.9 points. If this election follows that trend, Republicans are not only very likely to capture the White House, but the coattail effect will likely keep the Senate in Republican hands.

So what does it all mean? At this point everything is conjecture, but it looks like Democrats’ currently have the inside track to unseat Ron Johnson in Wisconsin (though Democrat challenger Russ Feingold has a lot of skeletons in his closet) and Mark Kirk in Illinois (though his smart voting record and inspiring recovery from a stroke are easy to underestimate).

Even if neither of those races break the Republicans’ way, Democrats will still need to add two of the four remaining competitive seats. That means winning the open seat in Florida left by Marco Rubio’s absence (where firebreathing blowhard Alan Grayson is disrupting the Democrats’ chances), beating popular senator Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire (granted, Democrats do have a top-flight challenger in two-term governor Maggie Hassan), unseating Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania (a feat that becomes more unlikely by the day given the contentious Democrat primary that features also-ran Joe Sestak), and toppling Rob Portman in Ohio (using Ted Strickland, who lost the governor’s race in 2010).

That’s a lot of big “ifs” on both sides. Which means that regardless of the statistics being thrown around about the 2016 map, Republicans will have to work hard to maintain their hardworking majority.