Democrat’s Expanding Senate Map

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 33
This week:
  • Dems eye North Carolina Senate race as a possible sleeper
  • Portman, Rubio still look strong, but need Trump’s numbers to improve
  • Bayh lead in Indiana remains large despite strong Trump numbers

Senate 2016

Democrats have all the advantages in this year’s Senate races, including the benefit of a second crack at the many GOP senators elected in 2010. But they have to be especially delighted that they’ve added another state to the map of competitive ones. North Carolina may be on its way to special status as a sleeper race in 2016, and its fall to Democrats would signify that the GOP Senate majority is history for certain.

Here’s a look at some of the races that have been polled relatively recently, with an eye on comparisons between how Trump is running versus how the Republican senate candidates are running. Note that however these races go, Republican incumbents are currently trailing in two others, in Wisconsin and Illinois.

Each summary is preceded by the latest polling in the Senate and presidential race. The Republican candidate’s leading margin is indicated (negative if he or she trails), followed by Donald Trump’s lead, along with the firm doing the poll.


Monmouth: Rubio +5, Trump -9

Marco Rubio runs 14 points better than Trump in Florida among the same respondents in this poll — another illustration of the fact that primary performance is completely unrelated to general election performance. Rubio has to wish his popularity in his home state had translated to something better in the state’s winner-take-all primary, and Trump must wish his overwhelming primary victory could somehow translate into better Florida results than he’s getting now.

Florida is an example of a state where Trump simply must do better for the Republican Senate candidate to win. At the moment, Rubio obviously has the advantage, but both of his potential Democratic opponents have recently suffered catastrophic scandals.

Rep. Patrick Murphy was discovered to have inflated his resume (fabricated it, really), and Rep. Alan Grayson was hit by the revelation that his ex-wife repeatedly went to police with accusations of domestic violence over 20 years. The exact story is unclear. None of the incidents resulted in charges, and Grayson’s ex-wife is not necessarily credible, not having actually divorced her first husband when he married her. But it’s all messy and ugly enough to harm him politically, whatever the truth.

Still, these scandals — especially Murphy’s, if he becomes the nominee — do not make this race a gimmee for Rubio. He is in serious danger of defeat if Trump is winning only the 39 percent of the vote that the Monmouth poll suggests.

In next week’s primary against Carlos Beruff, on the other hand, Rubio should win easily.


Monmouth: Young -7, Trump +11

This was supposed to be an easy Senate hold for the GOP, until former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., decided to jump in. A few things working against Bayh: The fact that he hasn’t lived in the state for years, and Trump’s surprisingly large margin, considering that Obama carried this state in 2008.

Indiana is a state that benefits a lot from foreign trade today (Japanese automakers employ thousands of Hoosiers), but it is also a state filled with laid-off former factory workers near or past retirement age.

The Bayh name, however, remains good in Indiana, and it’s going to take something beyond a strong Trump performance to put Rep. Todd Young, R, over the top.


CBS/YouGov: Grassley +7, Trump +0

Quinnipiac: Grassley +9, Trump -2

Many polls have been taken in Iowa, and they all suggest that Trump has a strong pull there. In fact, considering his appeal in Iowa, it is actually a bit odd that he isn’t doing better nationally.

As an agricultural state that depends on exports, it isn’t a state where an anti-trade message should sell well in theory. The simplest explanation might be that it’s one of the whitest states and therefore heavy on Trump’s base. But there might also be something else at work. One possible alternative is Trump’s pro-ethanol stance, which might not have helped him much in the Republican caucuses but remains an asset in any general election in Iowa.

Grassley is well-known and liked and hasn’t had a genuinely tough race in quite some time. So his margin appears to be smaller than one might expect against Patty Judge, a former state agricultural secretary and lieutenant governor to an unpopular governor who lost re-election in 2010. For the moment, he seems okay, especially if Trump can remain competitive in the state until November.


Suffolk: Heck +0, Trump -2

As in Iowa, Trump runs unusually well in Nevada compared to most other states, especially considering how badly Republicans have done there in recent election cycles. This should be helpful to Republicans, who hope to gain Harry Reid’s Senate seat, hold on to an open House seat, and cling to as much of their legislative gains from 2014 as possible.

Rep. Joe Heck, R, who represents the Las Vegas suburbs, is a very strong candidate for Senate. He had no trouble wrapping up the primary, defeating Sharron Angle by 42 points. But his state party is arguably the worst basketcase state party in America, aside from the Florida Democratic party. Harry Reid’s machine has been quite effective in most recent elections, except for 2014, in which Democrats essentially forfeited the top-ticket governor’s race and were massacred down-ballot.

Heck faces a strong Democratic opponent in former Attorney General Catherine Cortez-Masto, and desperately needs Trump to stay within a few points.

New Hampshire:

CBS/YouGov: Ayotte -1, Trump -9

The Senate race between the two strongest female politicians in the Granite State continues to be the horse race that everyone expected, but Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s chances of hanging on probably depend on Trump improving his numbers. Gov. Maggie Hassan, D, remains popular and was the Democrats’ absolute top-shelf pick to run against Ayotte.

Ayotte has taken a strange “support but not endorse” position toward Trump, but it really hasn’t put much distance between them. If Trump loses the state by only five points, it’s a lot better for Ayotte than if he loses it by ten.

North Carolina:

NBC/WSJ/Marist: Burr -2, Trump -9

Here’s a state Republicans had hoped would be beyond reach — and it really seemed it would be at one point. Democrats had all but written off their chances of defeating Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., settling on a bottom-tier nominee in Deborah Ross. But Trump’s performance in what was once a Republican state is poor enough that it’s a real race.

It’s all the more puzzling because the state is a natural one for Trump — a place where the loss of an entire industry is widely blamed on international trade. It is possible this most recent poll is an outlier, but Burr should be worried even if it’s close at all.

That Trump should trail by nine points — whether or not third-party candidates are included — is a real shock. Mitt Romney carried this state. And that Burr should trail at all is a symptom of serious problems for the state party, which has to defend not only Burr but also Gov. Patrick McCrory.


CBS/YouGov: Portman +7, Trump -6

You’d be really hard presed to find two candidates in the same party who are as different as Rob Portman is from Donald Trump. The current senator, who served as U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush, is a soft-spoken establishment Republican whose level of personal braggadocio is near-zero. He has avoided taking any strong stance on Trump other than to offer a tepid endorsement.

For the moment, at least, Ohio voters don’t seem to be putting him and Trump in the same category. Gov. John Kasich, who has refused to back Trump and even avoided his convention in his own home state, is strongly backing Portman, and that seems to be helping.

Portman’s opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland, was unseated by Kasich in the 2010 election.


NBC/WSJ/Marist: Toomey -3, Trump -9

This Senate race was always going to be close, but Pat Toomey probably can’t win if Trump doesn’t find more support than he has now in a state he basically can’t win the presidency without. He avoided drawing the strongest possible challengers (one of them was just convicted of perjury), but this was always going to be a tough race.

Toomey’s attempts at a compromise on gun rights after Sandy Hook will likely help him in the Philadelphia suburbs — some Democratic fundraisers are even helping him, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg even endorsed him. But the Philly metro area is one part of the state where Trump will do poorly enough that he could become a drag on the rest of the ticket. Trump hopes to win by doing so well in the rest of the state that he can make up for Philly, but the polls don’t seem to indicate that’s happening yet.