The Five Most Endangered Senate Republicans
Policy + Politics

The Five Most Endangered Senate Republicans

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

With Donald Trump continuing to dominate the Republican presidential primary field, many of the GOP’s senior leaders are beginning to contemplate the down-ballot consequences of having the controversial outsider atop the ticket.

Typically, control of the Senate and House are heavily influenced by the outcome of the presidential contest, and a bruising general election contest between Trump and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton almost certainly would affect the outcome of some of the congressional races.

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House Republicans hold such a large majority, with 246 of 435 seats, that it would take a seismic political upheaval to enable Democrats to regain control. However, that’s not the case in the Senate where the Republicans hold a slender 54 to 46--seat majority, and the Democrats conceivably could forge a slender majority by winning back a small handful of seats currently held by the GOP.

“Most analysts acknowledge that Democrats have a plausible but narrow path to a minimal Senate majority, requiring a net gain of four seats if a Democratic vice president is elected, or five seats if the GOP wins the White House,” University of Virginia political analyst Larry J. Sabato and his associates wrote recently. “But this will be a heavy lift because Democrats need to capture the lion’s share of the small number of truly competitive Republican seats.”

Democrats have one built-in advantage of only having to defend 10 incumbent seats, compared with 24 for Republicans. Having a controversial figure like Trump as the party’s standard-bearer could decide who enjoys the majority in 2017.

A recently leaked National Republican Senatorial Committee staff memo showed the high-wire act party operatives have ahead of them should the billionaire become their nominee, such as not responding to every outlandish Trump claim or pronouncement while also tapping into the anti-Washington sentiment that has made him the frontrunner. While there is no way of knowing at this point the ripple effects of a Trump v. Clinton general election matchup, for now at least it looks as if Clinton would provide a longer coattail for Democrats than Trump would provide for Republicans running for Congress.

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According to a Dec. 2 Quinnipiac University poll, for example, Clinton would top Trump in a general election matchup, 47 percent to 41 percent. That’s an improvement for Clinton over her 46 percent to 43 percent showing against Trump in early November. Clinton was also ahead of Trump by eight points among registered voters, 50 percent to 42 percent, in a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll.

But there will be scores of other more parochial issues that will affect the outcome of the Senate races besides who is heading the Republican and Democratic tickets. Here are the five most endangered GOP lawmakers, based on recent reports and analysis:

Mark Kirk (IL). By all measures, Kirk is the most vulnerable Senate Republican seeking election next year, A freshman who was elected as part of the GOP wave in 2010, Kirk will struggle to retain his seat in a Democratic-leaning state against Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a highly decorated former U.S. Army helicopter pilot who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War,

Kirk, a lawyer, had a medical crisis of his own when he suffered a stroke in January 2012 that kept him away from his Senate duties for a full year. While he is under attack by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, EMILY’s List and other Democrats eager to reclaim his seat, Kirk is also feeling heat from conservatives in his own party. Many view him as a turncoat after he backed Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois for reelection in 2014 and later was the only Republican senator to vote to keep Planned Parenthood funded.

Related: How Trump Could Bring Down Senate Republicans in 2016

Ron Johnson (WI). If Kirk is the No.1 target for Dems, Johnson is a close second. He’s running in a state that Democrats have won in seven consecutive presidential elections and has a marquee challenger in Russ Feingold, whom Johnson unseated in 2010, and who enjoys a loyal liberal base.

While Election Day is still roughly a year away, public opinion polls have consistently shown Feingold with an eight to ten point lead over Johnson. Anxiety is clearly building; last week a former Johnson strategist formed a super PAC to help the incumbent win re-election next year, according to Politico. And despite being in the bag for Johnson, the group, called Let American Work, released a poll that showed him essentially tied with Feingold, 45 percent to 44 percent.

Pat Toomey (PA). Toomey, a former House member and head of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, is another freshman who was swept into power in 2010. Since then, he has worked diligently to moderate his image to appeal to voters in blue-leaning Pennsylvania. While an articulate spokesperson for conservative views, Toomey has shunned the spotlight, unlike more ambitious freshman like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

He also has occasionally asserted his independence from his party on hot-button issues – most notably gun control. He and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to draft a measure expanding background checks to people seeking to purchase firearms at gun shows and on the Internet, despite intense opposition from conservative Republicans and the National Rifle Association.  

Winning a second term in the Keystone State in a hotly contested presidential year will be a herculean task for Toomey. However, he may be helped by a relatively weak Democratic field of challengers, including former Rep. Joe Sestak, who Toomey beat last time.

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Kelly Ayotte (NH). Elected in 2010, Ayotte has established herself as one of the upper chamber’s top defense hawks, constantly appearing alongside 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain (AZ) and current 2016 contender Lindsey Graham (SC).

In October, Ayotte learned she would face a top Democratic challenger in Gov. Maggie Hassan, a popular figure. The Granite State has gone for the Democrats in five out of the last six presidential cycles.

Ayotte, a former state attorney general, has begun carefully selecting fights with her fellow GOPers to show her independent streak, including calling out Ted Cruz, another White House hopeful, for his battle to close the government over funding for Planned Parenthood, and endorsing President Obama’s Clean Power plan to reduce carbon emissions.

New Hampshire’s prominence in the presidential contest ensures that outside interest groups on both sides of the political spectrum will pour money into the state to turn the election one way or another.

Rob Portman (OH). Few on Capitol Hill are more highly regarded than Portman, a former House member, U.S. trade representative and director of the White House Budget Office. Portman is an expert on fiscal matters, was one of just four Senate Republicans to support gay marriage, and ended up on the short list of candidates to become Republican Mitt Romney’s running mate in the 2012 presidential campaign.

By all rights, the quiet-spoken Portman should be in relatively good shape to win a second term. But he has the misfortune of being challenged by a highly popular and well-known Democrat, former governor Ted Strickland. Recent polling shows Portman lagging behind Strickland by at least six percentage points. And according to the National Journal, state GOP officials fear that those lackluster numbers reflect his frequent absence from Ohio while traversing the country raising money for the NRSC.