Republicans fighting to hang onto Senate - in 2016

2014-12-21 21:18
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Washington - Ascendant Republicans are set to challenge President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress come January when they take control of the Senate. But a much tougher Senate election map two years from now could force the Republicans right back into the minority.

In November 2016, Republicans will defend 24 seats, Democrats 10. Seven of the Republican seats are in states that President Barack Obama won with 50% or more of the vote in 2012.

It's a stark reversal from this past November, when Democrats were the ones contending with a brutal map, including candidates running in seven states Obama had lost. Democrats were crushed on Election Day, losing nine seats and their Senate majority.

It will be a tough climb for Democrats to make up those losses, and there's no guarantee they will. But coming off November's trouncing, Democrats sound eager about their chances in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, while Republicans are preparing more to defend past victories than try to score new ones.

"There's no doubt about it, it's going to be a bigger challenge than 2014," said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, among the Republicans at the top of the Democrats' pickoff list. "But I think we have a really good opportunity here in the next couple years. We will reach out to the other side. I think Americans, Wisconsinites, will find out that we're not the party of 'no'."

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, one of the Democrats likely to be safely re-elected in 2016, said his party already is eyeing a path to retake control of the Senate. Democrats would have to gain a net of four seats if there's a Democrat in the White House - because the vice president can cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate - or five if a Republican wins the presidency.

"Picking up four or five seats is no small task, but we are certainly in a position to do so," Schatz said. "The electorate is going to be different and I think Democratic elected officials and candidates and most importantly voters are going to be excited for a presidential race, and we're excited to play offence."

Democrats faced strong headwinds on numerous fronts in November: Obama's low approval ratings, a scandal involving department of veterans affairs' hospitals, the Ebola outbreak, the rise of Islamic State extremists. Compounding everything was the painfully slow economic recovery.


It's too soon to say what new issues may arise in the next two years or how strong the economy will be. But presidential elections can favour Democratic congressional candidates by increasing turnout of young and minority voters, and Democrats will not have to spend time distancing themselves from an unpopular incumbent.

Operatives in both parties are looking at many of the states Obama won in 2012, plus a few others, as the most contested places in 2016 where Democrats could try to defeat Republicans. In addition to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Illinois, the list includes New Hampshire, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida.

Democrats are concerned mainly about defending seats in Colorado and Nevada, where Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid faces what could be a bruising re-election fight if he seeks a sixth term.

Some analysts and Republican strategists say that as tough as the map looks for Republicans, there are some factors in the party's favour. Republicans have strong incumbents in Democrat-friendly states, such as Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Rob Portman in Ohio, and Marco Rubio in Florida, if he runs for re-election rather than the presidency.

The Republicans' strong showing in November gave them breathing room with a 54-seat majority, making it that much harder for Democrats to make up the difference. States such as New Hampshire or Illinois may be easier for Republicans to defend than strongly Republican-leaning Arkansas, Louisiana and others were for the Democrats this year.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who will lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee through 2016, acknowledged a "difficult map". But, he added, "You take them one by one and I feel very, very good about it."

Republicans' fortunes may depend in part on how the new Republican-controlled Senate functions and whether incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky can advance legislation or gets hamstrung by the ultraconservative tea party faction in his caucus led by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another potential White House candidate.

Read more on:    us  |  us elections 2016

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