The 2015 U.S. Senate: What to Expect?

Yes, the media is all abuzz about the new Republican-dominated Congress that starts on January 9, 2015. Pundits still talk about Democrats losing 9 seats in the 2014 election results (my previous blog on Senate predictions was way off).

The Blame Obama Option!

For Republicans, blaming Obama seems the answer for everything. However, it should be noted that the only new Democratic Senator in the 2014 cycle, Senator-elect Gary Peters from Michigan, was the only Democratic U.S. Senate candidate to embrace President Obama and invite him to campaign. Peters won in Michigan with 1.7 million votes, beating his Republican opponent by 410,000 votes—this in a state that reelected a Republican governor in 2014. Most Democrats distanced themselves from the President, even though they were elected in the Obama-engineered Democratic wave of 2008.

Blame Obamacare Option!

This GOP attack on “job-killing Obamacare” will be used early and often in 2015, pointing to the will of the American people in voting Democrats out in 2014. Of course, Republicans will fail to mention their loss of 6 Senate seats in 2006 and another 8 seats in 2008. In reality, the Democratic wave of 2008 brought about the Republican wave of 2014. This is part of the Senate cycle as designed in the U.S. Constitution. I should add that Republicans gained 6 seats in their 2010 wave, and many will be vulnerable in 2016.

Blame Low Voter Turnout Option

Democrats expected to lose some Senate seats, but low voter turnout (see graph below) likely hurt Democrats even more. Why the low turnout? Because Democrats were divided, failing to support President Obama and many Democratic policies. Republicans have always portrayed Obama and the Affordable Care Act as unpopular, and many Democrats took the bait by distancing themselves from the President. This confused message from Democratic candidates resulted in low voter turnout.

Comparing Presidential Votes to 2014 Senate Votes by State
Comparing Presidential Votes to the 2014 Senate Votes (by State)

What Can We Expect from the 2015 Senate?

Many Republicans believe they have a voter mandate to confront Obama, even though 2014 saw historically low voter participation. Senator McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, will need to balance cooperation with confrontation. Cooperation with the White House is needed to show that Republicans can govern. However, confrontation will likely be the natural order of things, with Republicans passing legislation that they know will be vetoed by the President.

Senate Control?

The new Senate, with a 54-member Republican majority, will convene on January 9 in what Republicans are calling the “New American Congress.” It should be noted that no party “controls” the Senate unless it has a 60-member majority. Democrats can now reciprocate with tactics used by Senate Republicans since 2009. Undoubtedly, some Democrats gleefully look forward to “holds” or “filibusters” on Republican legislation. Again, this is part of the natural Senate cycle.


The 2014 Kentucky Senate Race: Irony & Political Theater

Political candidates are often compared to actors trying to win over an audience while on stage, using scripts written by others . As in any drama, elections can have surprise endings. On June 10, House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election in one of the biggest political upsets ever. Was this a freak electoral storm, or should other Republican leaders worry, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?

The political stage loves irony, or at least finds it entertaining, and the Senate race in Kentucky could be truly ironic if:

  • Mitch McConnell is defeated, and his loss means that Republicans fail to take control of the Senate.
  • Republicans take control of the Senate, but McConnell is defeated in his reelection effort, and he never becomes Senate Majority Leader.
  • Former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.), who oversaw Republicans’ failure to take back the Senate in 2010 and 2012, becomes Senate Majority Leader in 2014 after McConnell’s election loss.
  • Republican Senate Minority leader McConnell loses his election on the 10th anniversary of Democratic Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle losing his seat in a historic political upset.
Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 1.57.20 PM
Political Theater: Comedy, Tragedy, and Irony in McConnell-Grimes Race

The stage is truly set for an ironic ending, but can McConnell really be defeated? University of Virginia’s political prognosticator, Larry Sabato, could answer such a question. According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball website on June 4, it appears that McConnell will easily win reelection and Republicans will take 4 to 8 seats in the November elections.

Could Sabato Be Wrong? A good geopolitical analyst looks at more than just one source, so I reviewed some current polls, headlines, and election trends.How is Mitch McConnell doing in the polls? Polls at Real Clear Politics look pretty bad for an incumbent. His campaign suffered negative publicity after a tape emerged in April 2013 of plans to attack Ashley Judd’s mental health. He averages only 45% of the vote in polls ending June 5, 2014. The Democratic candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is running very close to McConnell in most polls, and a Courier-Journal poll actually shows Grimes edging ahead.

Healthcare Debate. McConnell hates Obamacare (a Republican mantra), but Kentuckians seem to like their state healthcare exchange, Kynect. Confusingly, McConnell says that repealing Obamacare would have no impact on Kynect; this brought doublespeak charges from the Lexington Herald-Leader and criticism from Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. McConnell could become more unpopular as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) becomes more popular.

Kentucky Elections. Kentucky has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in 2011 Kentuckians elected six Democrats and one Republican to statewide offices, ranging from Governor to State Treasurer. Alison Lundergan Grimes garnered 60.6% of the vote to become Secretary of State in 2011 (see map below). Mitch McConnell won his Senate reelection in 2008 with 53% of the vote.


Geopolitically, Democrats tend to do best in the urban areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Owensboro and in eastern Kentucky. Republicans get most of their votes in central and southern Kentucky. Grimes won her 2011 election by holding Democratic counties and gaining votes in normally Republican regions.

McConnell’s 2008 election (map below) shows Kentucky as a purple state. Many counties show as varying shades of purple–neither firmly Republican nor Democrat. Individual campaigns and debates make a big difference in such areas.

McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.
McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.


2012 Senate Elections. Finally, let’s consider that Republicans forecast they would take the Senate in 2012. How did that work out? Well, Republicans won only 8 of 33 Senate races, with Republicans barely winning in Arizona and Nevada. Republicans ended up losing 3 seats in 2012—in Indiana, Maine, and Massachusetts. The Republican brand looks vulnerable in statewide races.

Toss-up Election? This looks more and more like a toss-up election. Now, I am the first to admit that I am no Larry Sabato (twitter: @larrysabato), nor even Ben Tribbett (twitter: @notlarrysabato). Both are Virginia political institutions. However, I question Sabato judging the Kentucky Senate race as “Likely R” (likely Republican). It seems like a “Toss-up,” or maybe a “Lean R” at this point.