What Can You Do About the Senate?

who to support if you want Democratic control

The current shenanigans with federal judges (which I discussed in more detail in the previous post) underlines the importance of controlling the Senate. Conservative judges, in turn, are responsible for making campaign finance an even bigger mess than it already was, and for opening the door to the voter suppression we’ve seen in recent primaries. So if you want to fix the government, fixing the Senate has to rank high on your list.

Currently Republicans have a 54-46 Senate majority (as long as independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont continue caucusing with the Democrats). That what gives them the power to monkey-wrench the Obama administration and the country as a whole.

Fortunately for the Democrats, though, this fall all the Republican senators from the Tea Party wave election of 2010 are up for re-election, including some who won in reliably blue states (like Illinois’ Mark Kirk). Conversely, the Democratic incumbents are the ones who were strong enough to win when the wave was crashing against them.

So Republicans have to defend 24 seats and the Democrats only 10. That improves Democrats’ prospects of gaining the five seats (or four plus the presidential election, since the vice president breaks ties) necessary to gain control.

Predictions. My usual prediction guru is Nate Silver, but other than a couple of articles about specific races his 538 blog hasn’t weighed in yet on the Senate. Three other election-predicting web sites (Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Cook’s Political Report, and Predictwise) tell similar stories: Democrats are likely to gain Republican seats in Illinois and Wisconsin, and they have an even shot to flip four others: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida. The only Democratic seat that looks iffy is the one Harry Reid is retiring from in Nevada.

Sabato thinks three other Republican seats — Arizona, Missouri, and North Carolina — could flip if a serious Democratic wave develops. Cook and Predictwise are pessimistic about Arizona and Missouri, but agree on North Carolina. Predictwise sees possible trouble for Republicans in Indiana and Louisiana, but Cook and Sabato disagree.

The three have a minor disagreement about how secure Democratic Senator Michael Bennett is in Colorado (partly because there’s a chaotic Republican primary still to come), but nobody rates that race as a toss-up.

In the PredictIt prediction market, a share that will pay $1 if the Democrats control the Senate is going for 64 cents, compared to 36 cents for Republican control.

This far out, I don’t think anybody’s predictions are all that reliable, but they do give you a sense of where the battle lines are. If the Democrats are going to gain four seats, they need to win in Wisconsin and Illinois, and then take three of the five toss-up states: Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (That turns a 1-6 disadvantage into a 5-2 advantage, gaining four.) If a Democrat doesn’t win the presidency, Democrats need to take four of the five toss-ups.

The seven key races. In Wisconsin, former Senator Russ Feingold is trying to get his old seat back from the guy who beat him in 2010, Ron Johnson.

In Illinois, two-term Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is trying to unseat Mark Kirk.

In New Hampshire, Governor Maggie Hassan is running against Senator Kelly Ayotte. New Hampshire Republicans always try to project the Warren Rudman image of an independent-minded person with broadly conservative values, but when push comes to shove, Ayotte does what the Mitch McConnell tells her. So while she’s agreed to meet with Garland for appearance’s sake, she’s holding firmly to the party line of refusing hearings and or a vote.

In Ohio, ex-Governor Ted Strickland faces Senator Rob Portman, who suddenly discovered that same-sex couples deserve a shot at marriage after his son came out of the closet. You can give him credit for having the courage to say so, or you can see it as one more example of a Republican whose compassion ends at the boundaries of his own family.

In Pennsylvania, Senator Pat Toomey is defending his seat against an undetermined Democrat. Joe Sestak, who lost to Toomey by only two percentage points in 2010, is fighting a primary battle with Katie McGinty, the governor’s former chief of staff, who is less well known, but is backed by most of the party establishment.

In Nevada, former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto is expected to be the Democratic candidate. In recent polls, she’s been running slightly behind Republican Joe Heck and significantly ahead of 2010 Senate candidate Sharron Angle, famous for her call for “Second Amendment remedies” if Democrats couldn’t be stopped at the ballot box.

The unexpected toss-up is Florida. This is Marco Rubio’s seat, which he decided not to defend to emphasize how committed he was to his presidential campaign. Neither party has picked a candidate yet; the primary is August 30. Polling on both sides has Undecided far ahead of any candidate.

What you can do. Citizens influence elections in three ways: by voting (if there’s a race in your state), giving money (if you have it), and working. Working for a candidate is a lot easier if you live nearby, but in this era of inexpensive long-distance calls, just about anybody can phone-bank for a candidate, and you can always write letters to newspapers in a candidate’s state. If nothing else, you can go to a candidate’s web site, click whatever link asks you to volunteer, and see what they say.

Who to support. The voting part is a no-brainer: If there’s an election in your state, you should vote. Unless you’re rich, though, you’re not going to give significant amounts of money to more than one or two candidates, and even one candidate can absorb all the volunteer time you have. So once you get past voting, you need to be selective: Which candidates deserve your support most?

Well, that depends on what you want.

If you’re sick of watching your candidates lose and you just want to win one you can feel good about, both Feingold or Duckworth are favored, and either can give you a sense of vicarious pride. In 2001, in the mad panic that followed the 9-11 attacks, the Senate voted 98-1 for the Patriot Act. Feingold was the 1. Duckworth flew helicopters in Iraq, where she lost both her legs in a rocket attack. Now she says, “When my colleagues start beating the drums of war, I want to remind them what the true costs of war are.” She also would increase the woeful number of women in the Senate (currently 20 out of 100).

If you want to make the biggest difference, the most toss-uppy toss-up is either New Hampshire, where PredictIt is giving 53-47 odds in favor of Hassan, or Pennsylvania, where Predictwise makes the (still unchosen) Democratic candidate a 48-52 underdog. (The polls in Pennsylvania are dismal for the Democrats, but that’s not unusual when an incumbent is matched against someone who hasn’t nailed down the nomination yet.) I’d pick Hassan here, because all Senate seats have the same power, while New Hampshire is a small state. So one contribution or one campaign worker is likely to have a bigger impact in New Hampshire than in Pennsylvania.

If you want to dream the big dream, I’d try to unseat John McCain in Arizona. It’s remotely possible, and it would make an enormous splash.

If you want to send a message, the senator most responsible for stalling the Garland nomination (other than maybe McConnell, who isn’t up for election this year) is Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Judiciary Committee. Grassley was once thought to be untouchable, and still is seen as a likely winner, but the Garland issue is making him vulnerable. As a result, some high-profile Democrats have been drawn into the race who might otherwise have decided it’s a waste of effort, like former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge.

Or just roll some dice and pick a race. Whatever you decide to do, you’ll feel better about it than if you do nothing.

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  • Bill Camarda  On April 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

    I’d add that this is doubly important because of how badly the decks are stacked against the Democrats in 2018, when they’ll have to defend 25 of the 33 seats up for election.

    Prior to the 2014 elections, the debate was over whether Republicans could get to 50 or 51; the remaining 4 seats (e.g., Hagen in NC) were close races that flipped fairly late. That’s why the GOP even has a chance of surviving as a majority now. If we could get to 52 or 53 we’d be in a bit better shape for the next very rough set of midterms.

  • SCL  On April 11, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    I would love to never see John McCain again. Thanks, Sift. I had no idea there was a chance to get rid of him, now I have Ann Kirkpatrick’s site open in a new tab. Always glad to read your posts.

  • John G.  On April 11, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    Doug, I didn’t see a link to the Princeton Election Consortium website run by Professor Sam Wang. See http://election.princeton.edu/. I have found it very useful and a good companion site to the other election prediction websites you mentioned. You may already be (probably are) aware of this website but I thought I would leave a message here just in case you were not.
    Thanks for all your good work. I look forward to your emails every week.
    John G

  • Anonymous  On April 11, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Doing voter registration in predominately Democratic areas of any of those states also seems like it could be a good idea. The more democratic leaning voters there are, the more of them are likely to make it to the polls.

  • Tony in PA  On April 11, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    I very much want to defeat Toomey in my state (PA). But the state and national Party establishments are making that very difficult. The DSCC (Dem Senate Campaign Committee) has gotten involved in the primary, first in finding a candidate to run against Joe Sestak, and now is using substantial general funds from Democratic contributors to support the establishment candidate, Kate McGinty. Sestak leads in the polls released so far.

    This use of DSCC funds to take sides in this election has left a very bitter taste in my mouth, since Sestak is an attractive, experienced candidate and McGinty is not. In any case, even if Sestak wins, he will now have a substantial financial disadvantage.

    It is here in the down-ballot races that Bernie Sanders’ critique of the Democratic Party has most resonance: the Party is corrupt, and I would say suffers from a terminal case of stupidity. Democrats are in a position such that if they lose the Presidency, then they lose all three branches of government. I think that Sanders himself has been divisive and most unwise. But he has a real point about the corrupting power of money. I think it may very well cost us the Senate.

    • JJ  On April 12, 2016 at 10:50 am

      ” But he has a real point about the corrupting power of money.”

      There are many of us who consider money in politics the most pressing issue today. It distorts the entire process of government, and gets in the way of dealing appropriately with pretty much all of our other major issues. Organizations working on it include MAYDAY (www.mayday.us) and (www.issueone.org). Or check the #moneyinpolitics hashtag on Twitter.

      • JJ  On April 12, 2016 at 10:52 am

        Organizations working on it include MAYDAY (www.mayday.us) and Issue One (www.issueone.org).

    • weeklysift  On April 12, 2016 at 11:17 am

      I wondered about the specific politics of Sestak/McGinty. Any idea how Sestak pissed off the state party establishment?

      • Tony in PA  On April 13, 2016 at 12:06 am

        Yes, I have some idea. Leaving out Sestak’s own challenge to Arlen Specter (Republican Senator turned Democrat) in 2010, Sestak became involved in a Congressional race in 2012. Because state Republicans gerrymandered a district after 2010, they crammed a lot of Democratic cities into a single district. The incumbent in the newly drawn district was a Blue Dog Dem, Tim Holden. For example, Holden voted against Obamacare in 2009. Sestak supported a much more progressive challenger in that primary, Matt Cartwright, and Cartwright won. He is still a Representative, and as you might guess, is a supporter of Sestak.


        To get an idea of how pissed at least one Philadelphia area Democrat (Rep. Bob Brady) is, I found this article:


        But it is not only state Dems who want Sestak out, but national Dems as well. I have less specific details about their enmity, but some ideas. I will reply later with another post about this.

  • Tony in PA  On April 13, 2016 at 12:29 am

    Yes, I have some idea. Leaving out for the time being Sestak’s own 2010 challenge to Arlen Specter (Republican Senator turned Democrat), he was involved in a 2012 Congressional race. Republicans in control of the Legislature reapportioned a district such that lots of Democratic cities were lumped together in a highly gerrymandered district. The incumbent from a portion of the new district was a Dem Blue Dog, Tim Holden. For example, Holden voted against Obamacare in 2009. Sestak supported a much more progressive Democrat, Matt Cartwright in the 2012 primary, and Cartwright won.


    To give you an idea of how pissed one Philadelphia establishment Dem Representative was, I found this article:


    A quote from the article: “…..chiding Sestak for supporting primary challengers against incumbent Democratic House members. In particular, he cited Sestak’s support for Rep. Matt Cartwright (D., Pa.), who unseated former Rep. Tim Holden in 2012. “It’s his own free thinking ways of doing things. Well, we’re free thinking too, and we’re free thinking Katie McGinty,” Brady said.”

    But state Dems are only one part of the story. I have less specific information about the enmity of national Dems, but I will try to give you some of my opinions on this in a later post.

  • Tony in PA  On April 13, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Sorry I double-posted above. Last night, when I didn’t see my first post appear, I figured I’d done something wrong and rewrote it. It’s OK with me if you remove one of the two.

    In replying to your question, I learned stuff about Rep. Bob Brady in Philly, Sestak’s most outspoken critic. I don’t live in Philadelphia, so was unaware of Brady’s power there. From his Wikipedia page, he is one of the few in Congress who also heads the state Party. Here is a quote from that page:

    “The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as “the longtime boss of the Democratic City Committee, one of the few old-fashioned big-city political machines left. Running against him could equal career suicide.”

    But now on to the national Dems vs. Sestak. The big-money power in the Senate is now personified by Charles Schumer, who is slated to become Leader of Senate Dems after the retirement of Harry Reid. While he tries to keep his fingerprints off Party decisions, he almost certainly calls the shots within the DSCC. They have relentlessly tried to find a challenger for Sestak, failing at least twice.


    It is clear that Schumer has no use for Sestak, likely because Sestak might not follow Schumer’s marching orders. In particular, remember that Schumer was one of only two Dems in the Senate to vote against Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Sestak supported that deal. I have to wonder if Schumer would actually prefer Toomey, who also voted against Obama, to Sestak on this issue.

    In any case, Schumer, in his safe NY Senate seat and bringer of tons of money to the Democratic Party, has inordinate influence there, and the outcome of the Pennsylvania primary will reveal just how far that influence will extend. Regardless of the outcome, I think Schumer has made a Senate pickup in PA less likely.

    • weeklysift  On April 13, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      One of the things I don’t understand about WordPress is that once in a while it wants my approval before displaying a comment. It happens so rarely that it usually takes me a while to notice something is in the queue. That’s what happened to yours: I approved it as soon as I noticed. What WordPress has against you, I don’t know.

  • JAFD  On April 15, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    In ’06-’10, I lived in Sestak’s district, was a volunteer for his campaign, and met him a few times. He is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met – highest-ranking US armed forces officer ever voted into congress – and were I a sailor heading into storm or battle, I would feel better with him on the bridge.

    IMHO, had he beaten Toomey in ’10, he would be on the vice-presidential – or perhaps even the presidential – short lists this year.

  • Tony in PA  On April 17, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    If we want a Democratic Senate, Senator Charles Schumer certainly presents an obstacle. The DSCC’s record in losing off-year elections has resulted in the 60 Senators of 2008 dwindling to 46 now.

    And now in Pennsylvania, we have a concrete example of his incompetence (or worse). Although Sestak did not mention him by name, this is from an email message he sent:

    “They are siphoning off $4 million that should be used to defeat Pat Toomey and Donald Trump, and instead spending those precious dollars to try and destroy the 17 point lead Joe had gained by talking to regular Pennsylvanians along city streets and country roads – and they are doing it by making untrue claims that independent fact checkers have found to be false.


    “Because of the personal whim of one particular Senator who hopes to rule the Senate with absolute control.

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