Republican Senate Seats Up for Re-Election in 2016

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) speaks at a news conference July 25, 2013
Senator Kelly Ayotte. Allison Shelley/Getty Images News/Getty Images

 In 2016, Republicans will face an unfortunate problem that Democrats faced in 2014: needing to defend over 20 of their own seats with little chance of picking up any seats from the opposition. In 2014, Republicans had a legitimate shot at more than a dozen Democrat-held seats in red and purple states. The GOP had less than five semi-competitive seats overall, and all of those were in red states. The 2016 slate is a redo of the 2010 tea party wave that saw huge Republican gains in an off-year election. Complicating matters for the GOP is the concurrent 2016 Presidential election where Democrats often turn out in greater numbers than they do in midterm elections. Many of these elections will come down to how good the presidential candidates are on both sides and what kind of coattails they have. In 2008, Barack Obama helped many Democrats win seats they otherwise probably would not have won. Could Hillary Clinton provide a similar benefit?

But it isn't all bad news for Republicans. Though 2010 was a sweep year, some of the pick-up seats were simply an adjustment into reality. Arkansas, Indiana, and North Dakota are Republican-heavy states and voters were no longer bamboozled by the so-called "blue dog Democrats." It's a similar problem faced by Democrats in 2014 as Obamacare-supporting incumbents were facing re-election in states that voted overwhelmingly against President Obama in 2012. This isn't really the case in 2016. Mitt Romney won 17 of the 24 states where Republicans are facing re-election. Of the 7 states Obama won most were low-single-digit victories, and the only blowout was his home state of Illinois. And unlike Democratic incumbents who were retiring because they could face a blowout loss, none of the GOP candidates are really a poor match for their states or have a major flaw. Of course, even really good candidates lose sometimes, and 2016 will likely be no exception. Here is a look at where the races for Republican-held start off in 2016.

Note: The GOP will have an estimated 54 seats heading into 2016. They could suffer a net loss of three seats and maintain control of the US Senate, or lose 4 if they also win the Presidency.

Safe Republican seats

The Republicans are set to defend 24 seats in 2016, compared to just 10 for Democrats. Of the 24 seats, 16 start off as Safe Republican. Most of these candidates have a history of winning by double-digit margins and come from red states. The likely safe seats are Alabama (Jeff Sessions), Alaska (Lisa Murkowski), Arkansas (John Boozman), Georgia (Johnny Isakson) Idaho (Mike Crapo), Indiana (Dan Coats), Iowa (Chuck Grassley), Kansas (Jerry Moran), Kentucky (Rand Paul), Missouri (Roy Blunt), North Carolina (Richard Burr), North Dakota (John Hoeven), Oklahoma (likely James Lankford), South Carolina (Tim Scott), South Dakota (John Thune), and Utah (Mike Lee). This can, of course, all change but for now these start off as safe.

Toss-up/Lean Republican

Arizona - John McCain won re-election easily in 2010 and he is probably safe now that he has chosen to run again. He has earned a primary challenge from the right, but those have been unsuccessful in recent years. In 2012, Republican Jeff Flake won the junior seat from Arizona by just 3 points.

Florida - Marco Rubio  won't run for the US Senate in 2016 and has become a candidate for President instead. Former rival Charlie Crist is running for a US House seat, and the field is open on both sides. 

Louisiana - David Vitter lost his gubernatorial race, but has also stated he will not seek re-election. Outside of the Landrieu family, Democrats are short on big political names. Republicans should retain the seat easily with a solid candidate but it starts only as Lean Republican until a field starts to shape up.

New Hampshire - Kelly Ayotte won by an unexpectedly large 20+ point margin in a state carried twice by Barack Obama. She remains popular in the state and could very easily land into the safe column as we get closer to the election. She will be challenged by Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. 

Ohio - Rob Portman also won by a large margin in 2012, especially by swing-state standards. If he decides to run for President, he has stated he will not seek re-election to the US Senate. If he doesn't run, 2012 nominee Josh Mandel has a decent shot to hold the seat for the GOP but it will be a fight.

Toss-up or Slight Democratic Lean

Illinois - Mark Kirk defeated Barack Obama ally Alexi Giannoulias by less than 2-points in 2010. Though he will have the advantage of incumbency on his side, 2016 could be a much tougher playing field if the Republican nominee for President can't make the state competitive. Tammy Duckworth is his likely opponent. 

Pennsylvania - Pat Toomey won with 51% of the vote in 2010, but this was under the most favorable of conditions. The conditions will be much less favorable and the Democrats will try for a top-tier candidate in one of their few big pick-up opportunities. However, they have so far struggled to coalesce around a solid candidate.

Wisconsin - This is probably the most endangered seat, but that is primarily because Wisconsin is just a hard state to figure out. They've twice voted for both Barack Obama and twice voted for Governor Scott Walker, who may be the most conservative Governor in the country. Russ Feingold is challenging Ron Johnson for his old seat back.

Despite having 24 seats to defend in 2016, things could be a lot worse. A majority of the seats set up favorably for Republicans. Where the races have a natural Democratic tilt, the Republicans are just really good candidates, not lucky winners who just happened to win because of the Obama-rebellion. It's very possible that 2016 wind up very similar to 2012. That year, Republicans saw plenty of possible pick-up opportunities, recruited one "electable" candidate after the next, and they all lost anyway.