Republicans should not allow a Senate takeover to go to their heads

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Republicans should not allow a Senate takeover to go to their heads

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The Republican Party’s chances of winning control of the US Senate appear quite robust. Races which were tossups a few months ago (such as Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska) now favor Republicans while races which were previously considered safe territory for Democrats (such as Colorado and Iowa) have become very plausible pickup opportunities for Republicans. The overall contest for Senate control remains competitive, but barring some significant improvements in Democrat fortunes, the GOP will likely start 2015 with control of both houses of Congress.

This short-term analysis misses a very troubling long-term problem for Republicans, however; their voter base is shrinking. Since 2004, the Republican Party has relied increasingly upon the support of older, wealthier white voters to win elections – a problematic strategy when one considers that the American electorate is, as a whole, becoming younger and less-white each election cycle. This trend has already turned a number of purple states blue, and a number of red states have become purple. The Republican Party must find a way to expand its appeal to young voters and minority voters or face an increasingly small electoral playing field and an increasingly narrow pathway to victory.

The mere fact that Democrats retain a conceivable chance of holding control of the Senate is a bad sign for Republicans. Midterm electorates tend to be lower-turnout elections, which usually translates into an older, wealthier and whiter electorate. Sixth-year midterms tend to yield significant losses for the incumbent President’s party. Additionally, President Obama’s approval rating has been stuck in the low-40 percent range for over a year. These factors combined should indicate massive gains for Republicans – yet the GOP is still spending millions of dollars to win very close races in very red states (such as Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska) that Mitt Romney won by landslide margins.

Additionally, polls throughout the summer and into the fall have shown Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina maintaining a lead in the Tarheel State. The recent shift in North Carolina’s political DNA has been remarkable; George W. Bush carried the state by 14 percent in 2000 and 2004, yet it went for Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney nearly lost it in 2012. These races were high-turnout presidential races; the fact that Republicans have thus far been unable to pull ahead in North Carolina in a midterm year – with a more GOP-friendly midterm electorate – should be a cause for serious concern for Republicans planning 2016 campaign strategies.

In addition to seriously restricting the GOP’s pathway to controlling the White House, America’s changing electoral demographics threaten the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate. Even if Republicans vastly over-perform most predictions and pick up eight or nine seats this November – gaining a majority with a two- or three-seat safety net – it’s possible that Democrats could reclaim the Senate in 2016. The 2016 Senate map will be a reverse of 2014. Instead of Democrats defending a host of red-state seats, Republicans will be defending a host of blue-state seats. Republican incumbents in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who narrowly won in 2010 – a midterm year which was extremely favorable to the GOP – will likely face very difficult re-election races in a higher-turnout, presidential-year electorate. If Democrats manage to win these three races in reliably blue states, Republicans would probably need to have picked up eight seats in 2014 to be insulated. It’s also possible – depending on the national environment – that Republican-held seats in Florida, Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Missouri could become competitive.

The bottom line is that Republicans should not allow a Senate takeover – even a gain of eight or nine seats – to go to their heads. The party has a serious and growing problem with young and minority voters and should be poised for larger gains than it currently is. Most viable GOP pickup opportunities this year are extremely close races in solidly Republican states. The 2016 electorate will likely be less GOP-friendly than this November’s midterm one, and Republicans will likely go from playing offense to defense. Because of this, a gain of fewer than seven seats this November should probably be a sign of concern for the GOP.

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