Republicans Can Win Back the Senate, but Will They?

Though the GOP will pick up seats this fall, winning six seats from Democrats is an iffy proposition.

Will Republicans win control of the Senate in this fall’s elections?

It’s a risky bet, even in what is shaping up to be a solid year for Republicans that will see them staying in control of the House.

They’ll gain three or four seats in the Senate, perhaps five, as they capitalize on President Obama’s sinking ratings, an economy that’s recovering in fits and starts, and a sense that U.S. foreign policy is bogged down.

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To take control, though, the GOP needs a net gain of six seats. It’s not an impossible task, but it’s a tough one.

Either way, the margin will be slender: 51-49 or even 50-50, with Vice President Joe Biden being called on to cast tie-breaking votes.

Six months out, it appears races in eight states -- Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia -- will decide who controls a majority in the upper chamber. All but Georgia are now Democratic seats.

The GOP seems poised to flip seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. In the last two, long-time incumbents are retiring. In Montana, Max Baucus has already departed to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

Democratic incumbents in Alaska and North Carolina appear to be in danger as well. Republicans would be assured of a tie if they win all five of these seats and don’t lose any that they hold now. If it ends up 50-50, Sen. Angus King (I-N.H.) may be the most important man in Washington for a while. He caucuses with Democrats now and would be pressed to stay with them. But Republicans, too, will court him, offering key committee posts and other sweeteners to cross the aisle.

At the moment, once-vulnerable Democratic incumbents seem to be bouncing back in Arkansas and Louisiana. One reason: Their support for Obamacare isn’t scaring away many voters, thus stripping Republicans of a key issue they were hoping to use successfully in those two states and others. Republican efforts to tie the Democrats to Obama aren’t getting much traction, either. The president’s delay of the Keystone XL Pipeline gives Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, both pipeline supporters, room to criticize him and score points at home.

If Republican chances in Arkansas and Louisiana don’t improve, look for the GOP to try to put Colorado, Iowa and Michigan in play. Democrats are narrow favorites to hold onto those seats now, so they’re not on our list. Republicans can’t openly root for what would help them the most: an economic reversal, a war or an act of terrorism. But they’ll be set to pounce, saying Democrats have hurt the economy. (That’s an iffy argument in some areas, where Democrats will argue that the economy is finally improving after the recession.)

But Republicans have to worry about at least one seat of their own, too -- in Georgia. Much depends on the outcome of the crowded May 20 GOP primary and a possible runoff. If Democrats win there, the Republican gains elsewhere will have been for naught.

But even if Republicans win the Senate, gridlock in Washington will likely worsen. Sure, the Republican agenda will get more attention if the party commands both chambers. However, with 60 votes needed to pass contested bills in the Senate, a closely divided chamber complicates the math.

Democrats need five Republicans to get to 60 votes with their existing 55-45 edge. If the next majority is 51, say, the party in power will need nine other votes. That’s a boatload in the current poisonously partisan environment.

So a budget deal that includes a major overhaul of the U.S. tax code is unlikely. The same is true for reforms of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, immigration and other mega-issues.

The best chance for one or more big legislative breakthroughs will have to wait until 2017 at the earliest, when someone else has replaced Obama in the White House and another congressional election cycle has played out.

David Morris
Deputy Managing Editor, The Kiplinger Letter
Morris has covered every presidential election since 1984 and has been based in Washington since 1994. Before joining Kiplinger in 2010, he directed exit polling operations for The Associated Press, was chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and was managing editor and executive editor of National Journal's CongressDaily. He was also assistant director of the polling unit for ABC News, worked for three Pennsylvania newspapers and directed AP's bureau in Sacramento, Cal.