Have Senate Republicans Already Avoided a Worst-Case Scenario?

GOP is confident of wins in Ohio, Florida, and Arizona despite Trump

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman holds a commanding lead over former Gov. Ted Strickland in his re-election race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman holds a commanding lead over former Gov. Ted Strickland in his re-election race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 13, 2016 at 5:00am

Rob Portman’s lead is nearly 20 points (in some polls). Marco Rubio has a huge cash advantage. And of all the Republican senators running for re-election, John McCain’s reputation positions him best to withstand an anti-Republican wave.

Senate Republicans are bracing for an already difficult political climate to worsen in the coming weeks, cognizant that Donald Trump’s sexually inappropriate 2005 comments that were caught on video and a subsequent war of words with some GOP leaders could tank the entire party’s ticket.

But top GOP strategists are also confident that, even if they lose the Senate, they’ve already made sure their party avoids a worst-case scenario. That’s because in two states Democrats once considered top-tier pickup opportunities — Ohio and Florida — Republicans senators are on track to win, barring anything short of an unforeseen electoral catastrophe in October.

In Florida, Rubio holds a comfortable lead over Democratic nominee Rep. Patrick Murphy — but Republicans are even more encouraged by the decisions of Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to withdraw planned ad buys for a candidate who lacks name recognition in a large state.

In Ohio, Portman holds a huge lead in a race even Democrats privately concede they will lose, in part because of the poor performance of their nominee, former Gov. Ted Strickland. Republicans and Democrats alike once thought the Senate race in Ohio, a state President Barack Obama won twice, would be one of the year’s most competitive contests.

“If anyone would have predicted that race would be in the safe category by Labor Day, you would have thought they were from Mars,” said Scott Reed, a senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Republicans are also confident that the Senate race in Arizona, pitting McCain against Democratic nominee Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, has remained off the radar despite the state’s Latino-heavy electorate and the possibility that Hillary Clinton could win it with a late surge in the polls.

Senate Republicans still face the prospect of heavy losses this year. They could lose as many as seven seats, which would reduce them to 46 seats in the Senate and remove them from the majority.

And Democratic strategists say that although the Trump controversies won’t necessarily open new opportunities in previously overlooked battlegrounds, they’re confident they’ll give the party a needed edge in races that are already close.  

Both parties believe the Senate battlefield consists of six states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, and Nevada. (A Republican represents each state except for Nevada.)

In any year, a net loss of seven seats would be considered tantamount to being on the wrong end of a wave election.

Yet Republicans say that with Trump leading the party, the damage could have been worse.  

“Given where the top of the ticket is, it’s shocking we are where we are in the Senate,” said one GOP strategist.