Published with permission from AlterNet
The Democratic Party’s hopes for retaking a U.S. Senate majority in the November election face an unexpected setback, several new polls of presidential battleground states and 2016’s tightest Senate races suggest.
The headline news for Democrats is that Hillary Clinton has pulled ahead of Donald Trump in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania since July, according to a new survey with large voter samples in those swing states by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist polls. But when those surveys looked at U.S. Senate races, they found disgust with Trump did not extend to Republicans running for the Senate.
In short, while Clinton’s presidential prospects look good, the odds of Democrats retaking the Senate are dimming. Consider these numbers:
- In Iowa, GOP incumbent Chuck Grassley—the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman who has refused to hold hearings on President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the high court—has held onto a 10-point lead against Democrat Patty Judge.
- In Ohio, the incumbent Republican Rob Portman is ahead of Democratic Ted Strickland, 48 percent to 43 percent; last month they were tied at 44 percent each.
- In Pennsylvania, Democratic challenger Katie McGinty leads incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, 48 percent to 44 percent, which is just one point outside the poll’s margin of error—even though Clinton is beating Trump by 11 points in that state.
What appears to be going on is a boomerang effect among Republican-inclined voters in the handful of states where the next U.S. majority will be decided. They seem to be dumping Trump while embracing Republicans they know, such as Florida incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio.
Other surveys are pointing to the same trend. A Florida poll taken last week found that Clinton was ahead of Trump by 6 points, while Rubio was ahead of his likely Democratic challenger by 13 points. Other polls found slightly smaller spreads in Rubio’s favor, but the bottom line is the same: disgust with Trump could translate into the GOP retaining seats the Senate or keeping its majority.
There are different Senate race forecasts from different pollsters, but they point to the same conclusion: if Democrats retake the Senate majority, it will only be by the slimmest of margins. And it’s possible they will not, because right now the latest polls find their candidates leading by little more than a statistical tie.
Either way, the implications are huge, when it comes to seating Supreme Court justices, other federal judges and enacting the agenda Clinton is campaigning on, which involves significant domestic spending to revive and reshape moribund parts of the U.S. economy.
Even if Clinton wins the White House and Democrats win a slight Senate majority, they will fall far short of the 60 votes needed to end GOP fillibusters, which means that the White House and Senate Democrats will still have to negotiate with the GOP. However, should Republicans retain their current Senate majority, it presents deeper obstacles, including who is seated on the Supreme Court.
The next Supreme Court majority is a gigantic issue that is as important as who wins the presidency. There is not a single national issue that has not been impacted by its rulings in recent years. The right-wing majority John Roberts-led court has been called the most pro-corporate since World War II. Future progress on climate change, political reform, voting rights, safety nets and other key issues hinge on its makeup. That’s why the current GOP-led Senate has blocked Obama’s latest appointment, which would end decades of conservative domination on many issues.
In all likelihood, the next Senate will likely vote on the next president’s high court nominees. But whether it blocks or consents to a Democratic president’s choices is an open question. Should Clinton win the White House and the Senate remain a Republican majority, the Supreme Court’s composition will be almost surely be extremely contentious.
And should the Democrats win the presidency and a slim Senate majority, they still won’t have enough votes to stop senators like Texas’s Ted Cruz from fillibustering.
Trump and the Senate Majority
The 2016 campaign has been filled with one unexpected development after another. Coming back to the present moment, the latest appears to be a widening gulf between swing state voters who are supporting Republican senators and senate candidates while rejecting the GOP presidential nominee.
Last month, Senate races in Florida (Rubio), Pennsylvania (Toomey) and Ohio (Portman) were among eight nationwide that were said to be toss-ups byforecasters like Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Now Rubio and Portman are ahead, polls say, while Toomey is close to a statistical tie—still a toss-up—trailing Democrat McGinty.
Nevada, where ex-Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, New Hampshire (where Kelly Ayotte is the GOP incumbent) and Indiana (where GOP incumbent Dan Coats is retiring) were the other three toss-up races, according to Sabato’s team. In 2016’s two other tight Senate races, they are now predicting that Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth would oust GOP incumbent Mark Kirk and Wisconsin’s Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold would unseat GOP incumbent Ron Johnson. (The Cook Political report also cited the same eight states as key to the Senate majority.)
Overall, early August’s polls show a new set of numbers and tightening contests. If the election were held now, at best the Democrats might only be able to emerge with a one- or two-seat Senate majority.
According to the Washington Post’s summary of the battleground state polls, New Hampshire’s Ayotte is trailing her Democratic challenger, ex-Gov. Maggie Hassan, just as Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh is leading in a state with an open senate seat. Thus, taking Wisconsin and Illinois out of the picture, what emerges is a 47-47 seat tie between Ds and Rs with these six seats in play:
- Pennsylvania, where Democrats are up by 4 percent in the WSJ/NBC/Marist poll;
- New Hampshire, where Democrats are leading;
- Indiana, where Democrats are leading;
- Florida, where Republicans are leading;
- Ohio, where Republicans are leading;
- Nevada, where Republican Joe Heck has 42 percent and Democrat Catherine Cortez Mastro has 41 percent, according to a new KTNV/Rasmussen Reports poll.
In other words, that’s two states where Democrats are ahead, two where Republicans are ahead and two more where each party’s candidate is up by less than the poll’s margin of error or one point .
Digging deeper into these polls, one finds that Clinton’s negatives are substantial and may only have a limited ability to move voters in Senate races. The WSJ/NBC/Marist poll found that 53 percent of Pennsylvanians see her “unfavorably,” compared to 63 percent for Trump. Clinton’s negatives in Nevada are also high, where Rasmussen found she leads Trump by one point, 41 to 40 percent, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has 10 percent.
In Nevada, Democrats hope a surge of newly registered Latino voters will make the difference in the presidential and senate races, making it a key swing state to watch. Similarly, when it comes to control of the Senate, Pennsylvania is the other tight but must-win state for Democrats.
One of the biggest surprises in 2016 is that control of the Senate is very much in play. Indeed, with less than three months to go to Election Day, a new scenario is emerging. Clinton could win the White House, but the Senate (with the House likely following) could stay in Republican hands. With that, the fight over the Supreme Court’s composition would enter uncharted territory and Clinton’s expansive domestic agenda would likely face major congressional hurdles.
Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) arrives to speak to The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road To Majority” conference in Washington, U.S., June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts