Now We Face 2016!

In late October, the true extent of the disaster that awaited the Democrats began to come into sharp focus. Republican Joni Ernst started pulling away from her Democratic opponent in the Iowa Senate race, one the Democrats needed desperately to win. Some other states that had once seemed as if they could be close were increasingly written off. All the statistical experts from Nate Silver on down jacked up their “X percent chance the Republicans will take the Senate” predictions from 63 or so to 65, 70, 73.

Mitch McConnell
Mitch McConnell; drawing by James Ferguson

In the face of all this, Democratic insiders—the kind who are so inside that they’re already thinking about the next election before the current one has even been held—took comfort in the fact that all this damage could be reversed in 2016. In that election, the Republicans—by dint of having had such a banner year in 2010, when they elected senators from states that lean or simply are blue—will have to defend twenty-four Senate seats, and the Democrats just ten. Also, since 2016 is a presidential year, the Democratic base voters who so aggressively stayed home on November 4 will presumably come to the polls, making for a more Democratic-leaning electorate.

So this was the theory. But now, with Republicans headed toward perhaps a fifty-four-seat majority in the Senate, I wonder. The “Senate will flip back” scenario was predicated, I think, in most observers’ minds, on the Republicans possessing, say, fifty-two Senate seats. That would mean the Democrats would need to win only three seats held by Republicans, and three seems possible. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Mark Kirk in Illinois, and perhaps Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire—all first-termers—seem vulnerable if, say, Hillary Clinton is sweeping those states.

But if the GOP captures fifty-four seats—with the expected defeat of Mary Landrieu in Louisiana in December’s runoff1—then the Democrats would need a net gain of five seats next time. That’s a bigger hill to climb. Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is, like the three aforementioned, in his first term. Iowa and Florida might present openings. But winning five of those six seems to me a long shot for the Democrats—it would require the kind of “wave election” we don’t usually have these days in presidential years. (By the way, we can be sure that Hillary Clinton has thought of all this, and we can wonder whether it has made the prospect of a White House run any less attractive to her.)

So it may well be the case that the Republicans have built themselves an impregnable Senate majority for the time being. And in the House of Representatives, the GOP majority appears to be solid at least until the next redistricting, which is far off in 2022.

At the same time, nothing that happened in this election would seem to threaten what has become a built-in Democratic advantage at the presidential level. Adding up the states that…

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