Democratic Senate Takeover Probable, If Cruz or Trump Nominee

by Stuart Rothenberg March 11, 2016 · 9:01 AM EST

With Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz seemingly positioned to fight it out for the Republican presidential nomination, Democrats are now poised to take over the Senate in November.

The two Republicans still in the race who could help their party’s Senate prospects, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, continue to flounder. While a deadlocked GOP convention in Cleveland could, at least in theory, nominate a candidate with broad appeal and low enough negatives to revive the party’s Senate prospects, that development is both a long way in the future and a long shot.

No, there is little hard evidence yet that a huge Democratic electoral wave has started to develop and at this point, Democratic control of the Senate is not yet inevitable. But that should not obscure the fact that a fundamental shift has occurred in the electoral cycle over the past six weeks.

Up to this point, the burden of proof has been on Democrats to demonstrate that they can oust four or five Republican senators and win control of the chamber. But now, with Republicans in disarray and the party flirting with selecting a weak general election nominee, the benefit of the doubt has shifted away from the GOP and to the Democrats.

The burden is on Republican strategists and nominees to prove that they can hold the Senate majority even in light of the party’s civil war.

Some suggest that Republican down-ballot candidates might be able to retain their seats even if the top of the ticket performs poorly, primarily by localizing their races. That conclusion seems more than a bit naïve given what happened in 1964, 1972 and 1980.

It was one thing for Democrat Heidi Heitkamp to eke out a narrow North Dakota Senate victory even when Republican Mitt Romney was carrying the state in 2012. But the situation would be dramatically worse for a Republican running for re-election in a swing state when his or her party is in the middle of a political civil war and with a controversial, radioactive nominee at the top of the ticket.

As the Republican nominee, the uncompromising Cruz would end up defining his party’s positions on key issues, while the controversial Trump would inject himself into every race across the country. Either candidacy would make it very difficult for GOP Senate nominees to run their own races and establish their own brand.

Part of the argument for both Trump and Cruz is that each man would turn out new voters on Election Day – populists for Trump and conservatives for Cruz – who would help down-ballot Republicans.  That might be true. But it is also very likely that both would lose more usually reliable Republican voters, who would vote Democratic or stay away from the polls because they find Cruz too conservative or unlikeable and Trump too crude and authoritarian.

While Hillary Clinton’s personal favorable numbers are poor, sitting generally in the low 40s, Trump’s favorable ratings are usually in the 30s and Cruz’s are even a hair lower.

Even with her obvious weaknesses, Clinton would be a solid favorite over Trump or Cruz to win the White House. That would mean that Democrats would need to net only four Senate seats instead of the five they would need if a Republican were elected president.

When this cycle began, every reputable analyst noted that the GOP faced a difficult challenge in trying to hold the Senate. The combination of presidential year turnout, more straight-ticket voting and the Senate seats up in 2016 conspired to work to the Democrats’ advantage.

Given what has happened inside the Republican Party over the past few months, it is difficult to believe that the party’s Senate prospects are as good as they once were, when most observers assumed the GOP would nominate a mainstream candidate.

At least five incumbent GOP senators from Democratic-leaning or competitive states were facing difficult re-election races this year even under the most favorable circumstances – Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio. A Republican open seat in Florida also looked at great risk.

Add in the deep division within the Republican Party, and the possibility of Trump or Cruz leading the national GOP ticket, and all – or at least almost all – of those races suddenly look much more uphill. In addition, states like North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri and Arizona look more interesting.

The fight for the Senate obviously took on greater importance with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The GOP’s worsening position for November raises new questions of whether the Republican Senate should take up President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, when he makes that nomination, or risk dealing with a new Democratic president and a Democratic Senate majority in 2017.