Barely eight month after taking control of the Senate, Republicans are gearing up for the 2016 election as if their lives depended on it.
While most of the political focus has been on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the rest of the presidential field, Senate Republicans and their allies appear headed for record fundraising and media spending to preserve or slightly improve on their modest 55 to 44 seat majority.
Indeed, as Roll Call reported Wednesday, spending by incumbent Senate Republicans and outside conservative political action committees totals $13.3 million so far -- a seven-fold increase over what was spent at this same point in the previous election cycle.
Spending on Senate races has grown exponentially in recent years and will almost certainly reach new record heights next year with massive spending by outside political action groups. The average winner in a 2012 Senate race spent $10.2 million, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive politics, in contrast to $8.3 million spent in 2010 and $7.5 million two years earlier.
This week, Americans for Prosperity, the super-PAC backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, has begun a $1.4 million television campaign in Ohio against former Democratic governor Ted Strickland, who is challenging Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
With the Republicans forced to defend 24 seats next year to just 10 for the Democrats, the political law of averages suggest that the Democrats will pick up one or two seats, according to some political analysts. Although much can change in the coming months, five Republican-held seats in Colorado, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire and two Democratic-held seats in Colorado and Nevada appear the most vulnerable to challenge by the opposing party.
One other possibility is that the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio could fall into Democratic hands if the Sunshine State’s GOP is divided over a nominee.
The two most vulnerable Democratic-held seats are in Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet faces a tough reelection battle, and Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid plans to retire.
With the House likely to remain solidly in Republican hands next year, the Senate will continue to play the pivotal role in determining the fate of the policies, whether there is a Democrat or Republican in the White House.
Since the Republicans assumed control of the Senate in January, the Democratic minority has been able to thwart GOP efforts to derail Obamacare, block funding for the Department of Homeland Security and push through major increases in defense spending. Moreover, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) signaled in a speech this week that the Democrats likely will be able to sustain a presidential veto if Congress votes this fall to reject the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.
While regional and local issues or campaign snafus often influence the outcome of congressional races, the 2016 presidential contest will have an enormous impact on the Senate contests.
As University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato has noted, there is a strong correlation between vote percentages in Senate races and the presidential contest. This should make Republicans nervous because in 2012 President Obama won in seven states where GOP-held Senate seats are up for reelection next year.
That historical trend may pose the biggest problem for Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is expected to face a tough challenge from Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a decorated veteran who lost both of her legs in Iraq. But it also could be bad news for Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
“Increasingly, the presidential results in competitive states tip Senate seats one way or the other, so I expect more of that in 2016,” Sabato said in an e-mail message today “Until we get a sense of the White House match-up, and the conditions prevailing in fall 2016, it’s hard to do a precise projection.”
“If the GOP presidential nominee wins, there is virtually no realistic chance the Democrats will take the Senate,” he added. “If the Democratic nominee wins very narrowly, my guess is the GOP will still keep the Senate, though with a smaller majority.”