With all of the constant buzz about the 2016 presidential election, it is often forgotten that 34 Senate seats will be up for election next year, too. When the Republicans took back the Senate last year, they were riding a wave generated both by the usual antipathy to the ruling party in “off” year elections traditional in American politics, and by genuine revulsion and rejection of Democratic policies. The wave resulted in Republicans sweeping state elections such that 30 states now have Republican governors, and most of those states also have Republicans controlling both houses of the state legislature.
On the national level, Republicans finished with 54 seats in the Senate. But 2014 had been a “target-rich” environment for the GOP; numerous vulnerable Democrats came up for re-election and nine of them fell, while the Republicans lost none. A similar wave fell just short of wresting Senate control from the Democrats in 2010, when six new Republicans joined the body.
Of the 34 seats up in 2016, only nine are held by Democrat incumbents, of which two — California and Nevada — have Democratic incumbents retiring. All of the rest are Republican seats (two of these are retiring; one, Marco Rubio, is running for president).
The richness of the target environment is therefore in favor of the Democrats.
The good news for the Republicans is that most of the current GOP seats are relatively “safe”; they are in states likely to re-elect Republicans. Only five seats — New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin — are considered to be in play.
Of those, Wisconsin’s Senator Ron Johnson is considered the most vulnerable.
And Johnson’s opponent in 2010, the long-time Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold, has just announced that he is ready for a rematch in 2016.
Feingold made the announcement in a video which you can see here. He offered typical Leftist bromides: the government is controlled by “millionaires and billionaires”; government is “broken”; and apparently the solution is more leftism.
Yet if the election were to be held today, Feingold would probably win.
According to a poll released by Marquette University Law School last month (which can be seen here), Feingold would soundly defeat Johnson 54% to 38% in a head-to-head match-up. In 2010, Johnson took the seat from Feingold with 52% to his 47%.
Money in politics, which Feingold returned to in the video announcing his candidacy, was always one of his favorite themes. He was of course the co-sponsor of the disastrous McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform enacted in 2002. Some of the bill’s worst features were subsequently mitigated as a result of a lawsuit filed by Mitch McConnell.
Feingold will probably not have to worry much about money in next year’s election. With so few Democratic seats to defend and only a handful of Republican seats truly in contention, the money from labor unions, environmentalists like California’s Tom Steyer, and the “millionaires and billionaires” to whom Feingold does not object will be pouring money into his race.
Joe Fadness, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, issued this statement the day of Feingold’s announcement:
Washington Insider Russ Feingold has a long record of pushing a radical agenda that does not play well on Main Street, Wisconsin. Feingold’s tax-and-spend ideology has driven America deeper into debt and made it more difficult to achieve the American dream. We’ve rejected Feingold once for good reason, and we can’t afford him in the U.S. Senate.
All true, but the Marquette University poll gives Feingold a 47% approval rating with only 26% disapproval. Johnson earns only 32% approval and 29% disapproval. Perhaps absence (and distance from one’s actual voting record) makes the heart grow fonder, while incumbency during a long period of economic malaise — which has seen the president demonizing Congress for the effects of the policies he has championed — may be a tough hurdle for Johnson.
One thing is certain, though, or as certain as anything can be in politics this far out from the actual election: Neither candidate is likely to outperform the person at the top of the ticket in a presidential year. Johnson needs the best possible GOP candidate to win the nomination: the most conservative candidate, as the late William F. Buckley said, who can win.