Following Donald Trump’s decisive victory in Indiana and the capitulation of his last two remaining rivals, America finally came to terms this week with the fact that the real estate mogul will almost certainly be the Republican nominee for president.
During a lightning-fast visit to Washington on May 12, Trump sought to mend fences with the establishment elites — aka leaders of Congress — whom he has spent months disparaging on the stump. While staying true to his populist message, Trump is already pivoting to the general election and courting influential Republicans whose endorsements he’ll need in order to win in November.
Trump scored another major victory May 13 by winning over Jewish-American billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who sank at least $93 million into the 2012 presidential campaign. Adelson owns Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, the free daily tabloid Israel Hayom, so expect plenty of coverage about how Trump is the best candidate for Israel.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, pressure is mounting on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to abandon his left-wing challenge to Hillary Clinton now that she’s bagged more than 90% of the delegates she needs to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton leads Trump 47.3% to 41.6% in the latest RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average, but Democrats are worried that her lead will erode the longer their primary fight drags out.
While the US media focuses almost exclusively on the presidential election, it’s also worth paying close attention to US House and Senate races in this year’s election cycle. Can the Democrats retake control of the Senate after Republicans have held the majority for only two short years?
While Democrats certainly have a shot, history shows us that many variables are at play — including who wins the presidency. One advantage the Democrats do have is they’re only defending 10 seats this cycle (three of which are open, i.e., without an incumbent) versus 24 seats (also three open) for Republicans.
Democrats need to pick up five more seats to take control of the Senate — or four if they win the presidency, since the vice president breaks 50-50 ties per the constitution. According to RCP polling, of the 10 most vulnerable seats up for grabs, Republicans hold an advantage in most of them.
Key races to keep an eye on include Wisconsin, where former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, holds a 5.7-point lead over Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson. In recent history, when a Republican presidential candidate loses Wisconsin by 4½ points or more, then Republicans will lose that Senate seat as well (RCP polling shows Trump down by nearly 10 points in Wisconsin).
In Illinois, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth holds a six-point lead over Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk. Duckworth is the first Asian-American congresswoman for Illinois and the first disabled female veteran to take a seat in the US House of Representatives. Next door in Ohio, former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman are essentially tied, according to RCP.
In the swing state of Florida, it’s open season for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat after the Cuban-American Republican dropped out of the presidential race in March. Five people are running in the Republican primary, with Rep. David Jolly holding a slight lead over his competitors. On the Democratic side, Rep. Patrick Murphy has a double-digit lead over Rep. Alan Grayson for the nomination. Florida holds its primary Aug. 30.
In North Carolina, the Republican candidate is slightly ahead, according to RCP polling, with Democratic state legislator Deborah Ross 4.3 points behind Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr. And Pennsylvania’s Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey ahead in his race against Democratic challenger Katie McGinty, a former state and federal environmental policy official.
Another highly contested race is the open seat in Nevada, where retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid will be replaced. Four Democratic candidates have filed to run for the office, while eight Republican candidates are in the race. The primary is June 14.
The last Senate race I will mention takes place in New Hampshire. It will be a showdown between incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who are also neck and neck, according to RCP.
In presidential election years, the winning party has picked up five or more Senate seats only three times since 1968. When Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968, Republicans picked up six net Senate seats. They fared even better with Ronald Reagan in 1980, adding 12 seats to their column. And when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Democrats picked up eight net Senate seats. However, some observers believe that after eight years of a Democratic president, Democrats face an uphill battle to pick up four or five net seats in the Senate.
In the House, where every seat is up for grabs every two years, Republicans hold 246 seats to the Democrats’ 188. That means Democrats need to pick up 30 net seats to take control of the House — an unlikely outcome, even if they do have a chance of picking up a few more seats.
According to RCP, Republicans can count on 202 so-called solid seats firmly in their corner, while Democrats have 175. With basically only 36 “competitive races” around the country, the presidential nominee for the Democrats would most definitely have to win the general election in order for them to take over the House.
During presidential-election years, only four times since 1932 has a party picked up 30 or more seats in the House. That year, Franklin Roosevelt’s election handed Democrats a whopping 90 congressional seats — a historical feat at that has yet to be broken by either party. When Harry Truman was elected in 1948, Democrats picked up 75 seats. With Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 election, they won 37. And with Reagan in 1980, Republicans picked up 34 seats. Even with the high turnout expected in November, Democrats will have a hard time meeting that threshold.
This is the first in a weekly series covering the runup to the November elections.