Democrats were once feisty and upbeat about their prospects of taking back control of the Senate.
That was especially true after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton seemingly surmounted the worst of her email and Benghazi problems last summer and Republican Donald Trump became mired in controversy over his 11-year old “Access Hollywood” comments boasting of groping and kissing attractive women.
FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell letter to Congress in late October signaling that he had renewed the investigation of Clinton’s mishandling of sensitive government email after formally closing it in July jarred Clinton and the Democrats and gave Trump and downcast Republicans renewed hope of capturing the White House and preserving their slim majority in the Senate.
But now, on the eve of the election, the Democrats’ prospects look better again, thanks in part to Comey’s surprise announcement on Sunday that he had once again closed the book on the Clinton email server investigation and would not seek criminal charges against her.
Comey’s latest missive can’t undo the political damage he already has inflicted on Clinton and Senate Democrats who saw the air go out of their balloon 11 days ago with the release of the first letter to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. But their prospects for regaining the Senate and cutting into the huge GOP majority in the House now look quite strong.
“There’s no question about the fact that it looked more hopeful for the Democrats earlier on,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker in an interview Monday. “I mean, just the Democratic elation that greeted Trump’s apparent nomination dating back to the New Hampshire primary – they were celebrating in the streets practically.”
“The feeling was that he was going to be the great sinking ship that pulls down the lifeboats with it,” Baker added. “And it apparently hasn’t happened that way.”
Brave talk of reversing the Republicans’ current 54 to 46 vote majority in a wave election has given way to far more modest hopes of a one or two vote edge that would enable the Democrats to claim control of the Senate and elect Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York as the new majority leader.
Republicans are defending 24 seats on Tuesday while Democrats must protect only 10. Assuming Clinton beats Trump for the presidency and her vice president, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia becomes the presiding officer of the Senate and can break any ties, the Democrats need a net pickup of four Republican seats to claim the majority. If Trump somehow manages to pull out a victory, then the Democrats would need a five-seat pickup to regain the majority.
Baker, an expert on congressional politics, is more bullish on a Democratic takeover than other analysts. He is predicting a six-seat net pickup that would give the Democrats a 52 to 48 seat advantage. The Cook Political Report also sees a strong Democratic showing, forecasting a five or six seat pickup that would give the Democrats either a 51 to 49 or 52 to 48 seat majority.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” political blog post is highly cautious and is predicting that the Senate will end up split 50-50, leaving it up to Clinton’s or Trump’s running mates to break the tie in favor of their party.
“Overall, we’re picking a net gain of four for Democrats in the Senate, which results in a 50-50 tie in Congress’ upper chamber,” Sabato and his colleagues wrote yesterday. “If we’re right about the presidential contest, that means Vice President Tim Kaine (D) will be breaking ties after Inauguration.”
That will also mean that Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) would move quickly to appoint Kaine’s replacement in the Senate, to preserve the deadlock. Veteran Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, an African-American, is considered by some the likeliest choice. Scott would then have to stand in a special election Nov. 7, 2017, to fill out the remainder of Kaine’s current term.
While there is still a considerable element of mystery over whether voters are prepared to dramatically change the makeup of the Senate, analysts appear in general agreement that GOP Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois will lose overwhelmingly to Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, and that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin will go down to former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
There is only one Democratic seat that looks in danger, and that is held by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. There is no guarantee that his hand-picked successor, former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, will prevail on election night. But she has begun to inch ahead of Republican Rep. Joe Heck in the polls. If she wins, the Democrats would have to snag four more seats to secure a majority, regardless of how the presidential contest turns out.
Here are the five other states that will determine the makeup of the Senate next year:
Indiana – After Republican Sen. Dan Coats announced he was retiring at the end of the year, Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator and governor, last summer launched what appeared to be a sure-fire victory in the general election, especially with a $10 million campaign war chest. Republican Rep. Todd Young, a fresh-faced former Marine, was considered no match for Bayh, the scion of a famous Indiana political family. But that all quickly changed.
In a year when voters are rejecting political “insiders” and establishment figures, Bayh has been pummeled by Young for the millions of dollars he earned through Washington connections and appointments to corporate boards and asserting that Bayh has grown out of touch with average Hoosiers. The race has tightened considerably, and experts are calling it a tossup.
Missouri -- Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri is viewed by many voters as too closely allied with his family’s lobbying interests. Indeed, his wife and three of his children are lobbyists, and Blunt lives in a plush DC mansion. His youthful Democratic challenger, Jason Kander, a former Army intelligence officer, is straight out of central casting – handsome and articulate. He dazzled voters with a TV ad in which he explained his support for background checks for gun purchasers while assembling an AR-15 assault rifle -- blindfolded.
Republican groups have rallied to Blunt’s side, funding ads that attempt to closely link Kander to Clinton and President Obama. However, polls have consistently shown this to be a tight race, and Kander has a chance of pulling out a win before the night is out.
New Hampshire – Incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is locked in a see-saw battle with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in a race heavily impacted by the shadow of Donald Trump. Ayotte stumbled badly during a debate by declaring that Trump was a good “role model” for children, but later saying that she “misspoke.” She has bounced back at the same time as the highly popular Hassan has had trouble gaining traction or dominating Ayotte in the polls.
North Carolina – Republican Sen. Richard Burr, a staid, veteran lawmaker, has the same problem as Evan Bayh – he is viewed as a political insider in a year when voters prefer outsiders like Trump. He concedes that he is in the race of his life against Deborah Ross, a former state legislator and head of the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter. While Ross on first blush would appear to be too liberal for the state, she has turned out to be a gifted fundraiser and tough campaigner and has fended off many of Burr’s toughest taunts.
Burr had to apologize late last month after the revelation of a recording that captured him joking to supporters about how gun-rights supporters might be inclined to put a “bull’s eye” on Clinton. Meanwhile, Ross has basked in the attention brought by two campaign visits to the state by President Obama.
Pennsylvania – This race ranks as one of the most expensive in history, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, exceeding $140 million by October. Analysts also are deeming it a bellwether for how the overall contest for Senate control will go. Incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has cagily declined to either endorse or disavow Trump and seemingly hopes to hang onto his seat by appealing to conservatives and suburban moderates—especially just outside of Philadelphia. But Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has a well-financed media campaign and strong backing from national leaders, and she is likely to defeat Toomey if Clinton carries Pennsylvania.