Let’s not beat around the bush: Democrats have a favorable path to regaining the Senate majority. 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 are likely to benefit from higher turnout.
But let’s also not pretend that Democrats have a road to the majority paved with gold. Here are four reasons why Republicans could pull off an upset come Election Day:
- History is working against Democrats at the top of the ticket. Voters tend to dislike political dynasties. So much so that no non-incumbent since Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 has lost less than 3 points off of the prior re-elected incumbent’s showing, a margin that would swing the White House race to Republicans. More to the point, 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, more than double what Republicans need.
- Democrats are playing defense on voters’ top issues. The economy grew at a meager 1.1 percent annualized rate in the second quarter of the year and less than 1 percent for the first half of the year, bolstering the narrative that this is the worst recovery since the Great Depression. And, on one of the spotlight issues of the fall races, Politico just reported that in “nine of 11 states with competitive Senate races, at least one insurer seeks to hike rates for Obamacare customers by at least 30 percent next year…”
- The electoral map isn’t quite as favorable to Democrats as it appears at first blush. 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).
- Democrats seem content to shoot themselves in the foot by recruiting poor candidates. Jennifer Steinhauer writes for the New York Times:
But just as Senate Republicans blew their chances in 2010 and 2012 before finally taking control in 2014, Democrats find themselves hobbled by less-than-stellar candidates in races that could make the difference in winning a majority. …
The Democrats’ problem stems from a depletion of their ranks in state legislatures and governors’ mansions over recent years and a lack of institutional support for grass-roots-level politicians who represent a changing base.
“Democrats cannibalize each other when they lose those seats and don’t have new talent to fill them,” said Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “Here and in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and North Carolina are states that should have Democratic state-controlled legislatures, and the fact that they don’t not only marginalizes Democrats, but also makes it increasingly hard to build a farm team.”
None of this is to say that Republicans are content to let Democrats lose the election. The Grand Old Party is actively working to win over voters, particularly among the younger demographic, by investing in new messaging avenues. While Republicans have been betting big on Snapchat as a long-term play, citing statistics showing that 67 percent of millennial users considered themselves likely voters, Democrats aren’t embracing the platform.
“Republicans for so long have lagged behind Democrats on new technologies and new social platforms,” Chasen Campbell, the VP of client strategies at GOP digital firm Harris Media. told Politico. “I think it’s noteworthy that Democrats are the ones calling a new technology dumb.”
It may seem like a small thing, but it’s indicative of a larger problem. Democrats are complacent with the status quo of the political landscape, content to revel in their perceived demographic advantages, while Republicans are actively working to make sure that the Senate remains in GOP control. Those differing mentalities could be the difference in 2016 and beyond.