Senate Democrats have long awaited the 2010 tea party wave to splash back on Republicans during the 2016 election cycle.
That moment is almost here.
After two years of obsessive focus on the teetering reelection prospects of red-state Democrats, the attention is about to shift in a major way to blue-state Republicans. Six of them who rode anti-Obama sentiment to office in 2010 are up in two years, and they’ll face the dual challenge of a more diverse electorate and potentially Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic ticket.
The leftward-tilting map means a GOP-controlled Senate could be short-lived if the party prevails on Tuesday. Even in the best-case scenario for the party, a Republican majority is certain to be slim.
A half-dozen first-term Republicans are up for reelection in states President Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012: Mark Kirk of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida. Obama also twice carried Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Iowa, but the longtime incumbent would be much tougher to dislodge.
Add it all up and it’s basically the mirror image of 2014.
“We shift the ground from where it was this time — seven Democrats were running in states that Obama didn’t carry — to an environment where seven Republicans are running in states that Obama did carry,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership up for reelection in 2016.
Republicans are trying to look at the bright side of the intimidating terrain. If the GOP proves itself a responsible steward of Congress over the next two years, Republicans believe voters will be less inclined to oust vulnerable GOP incumbents.
“If there’s an advantage to Republicans in the 2016 campaign … it’s the chance that you had to finally make the case,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the current National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman.
Democrats are also eyeing incumbents in states that Obama won in 2008 but lost four years later: Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, both of whom have under $800,000 on hand. Meanwhile, potential primary challenges could loom for Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — plus Blunt, Moran and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a GOP leader, depending on the mood of conservative insurgents.
With House Republicans expected to pad their majority this November and possibly put the chamber out of reach in 2016, the battle for the Senate is expected to be the main undercard to the presidential election. And Senate Democratic insiders couldn’t be more excited for it, unable to recall a more favorable climate.
“They start from a defensive crouch,” said one Senate Democratic aide of the Republicans. “It’s very unlikely that if they get a majority it will last longer than two years.”
There are select pick-up opportunities for Republicans, too. The biggest potential trophy is Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is up for reelection in Nevada. Oneformidable potential challenger is Gov. Brian Sandoval, a popular moderate governor. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is the other obvious target for the GOP.
But for now, those are minor worries for Democrats.
Both parties separate the blue-state GOP pack into two tiers of vulnerability. At the top of Democrats’ hit list and Republicans’ fears are the conservative Toomey and Johnson and the moderate Kirk. Their home states haven’t gone for Republican presidential candidates since the ’80s.
“You have to say that Toomey and Ron Johnson will have very competitive races,” said Charlie Black, an informal adviser to McCain. “Mark Kirk … won in that state before. He can again, [but] he’ll be the underdog.”
Names of several potential challengers are already being floated, according to party insiders. Democratic state Attorney General Lisa Madigan has been mentioned as a candidate in Illinois. Former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) could opt for a rematch against Johnson. And two names have surfaced in Pennsylvania: Attorney General Kathleen Kane and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D), who’s raising money for a rematch of his 2010 loss.
Toomey’s war chest sits at $5.4 million in cash at the end of September, Kirk has $1.5 million and Johnson has $669,000. Each spent more than $14 million in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.
“They’re not going to be caught by surprise,” said Kevin Madden, a former top campaign hand for Mitt Romney. “Those are folks that were counted as underdogs when they won.”