Ron Faucheux guest column: Don’t forget about the U.S. Senate race _lowres

Ron Faucheux

As the nation focuses on the demolition derby known as the 2016 presidential race, there’s little attention being given to U.S. Senate elections. That needs to change.

Regardless of who wins the White House, the Senate will be ground zero to advance or scuttle the next president’s agenda. In addition to lawmaking, the body approves treaties and confirms cabinet members, federal judges, U.S. Supreme Court justices and ambassadors. Because of its filibuster rule, and the steep 60-vote majority required to get around it, every vote counts.

Republicans now have the Senate majority, holding 54 of its 100 seats. To win control, Democrats must add four seats to their current total of 46, assuming the next vice president is a Democrat, who, as Senate president, could break a 50-50 tie. But if the next vice president were a Republican, they’d need to gain five seats.

While both parties aim to win as many seats as possible, each party sweats elections when they have the most at stake –– which increases exposure for loss. This year, Republicans have 24 seats to protect while Democrats only have 10. This imbalance allows Democrats to play offense, while Republicans are forced to play mostly defense.

There are 10 elections around the nation that will decide Senate control. Each is worth watching.

Five potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents are running in states that Democrat Barack Obama carried in 2012: Mark Kirk in Illinois, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Rob Portman in Ohio and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. Democrats will make all-out efforts to knock them off. Polls show Kirk, Johnson and Portman are running slightly behind. Ayotte and Toomey have early leads, but they’re hardly insurmountable.

Additionally, there are two insecure GOP incumbents running in states that Mitt Romney carried in 2012: John McCain in Arizona and Richard Burr in North Carolina. While these states lean Republican, Democrats smell opportunity. Moreover, North Carolina has become a swing state –– Romney won it by only 2 points. In Arizona, McCain fatigue among voters, right and left, gives Democrats a chance.

Republicans also have to defend the Florida seat now held by GOP U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who skipped a re-election bid to seek the presidency. Polls indicate a tight race.

Democrats hold far fewer vulnerable seats. One is in Nevada, now held by retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, and the other is in Colorado, where Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet may have a fight on his hands.

Of course, partisan bile from the presidential election will splatter all over Senate candidates. That’s why the rowdy battle for the GOP presidential nomination is so worrisome for Republican senators facing tough re-elections. They know a divided party with a battered standard bearer is bad news.

Louisiana also will have a hot Senate battle for the seat of retiring GOP U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Republicans start with a big advantage, given the state’s conservative inclination in federal elections. But after an unexpected win in the 2015 gubernatorial contest, Democrats want to give it a shot, hoping lightning strikes twice.

Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy tops early polls. Likely to be well funded, he’s an experienced statewide candidate, having won his current office five times. He’s also lost two previous U.S. Senate bids in 2004 and 2008. Charles Boustany, who represents Louisiana’s southwestern district in Congress, and John Fleming, who represents the northwestern district, both have potential to rise in the polls as they get better known. Each has a regional base, substantial fundraising capacity and congressional experience.

Other GOP candidates are tea party favorite Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, and Joseph Cao, a former member of Congress from New Orleans who was defeated for re-election after one term. New Orleans area Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta also is planning a campaign. Independent Troy Hebert says he’s running, too.

Declared Democrats include Denham Springs lawyer Caroline Fayard, who proved to be an effective campaigner in her unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2011, and Foster Campbell, a three-term public service commissioner from north Louisiana who lost three U.S. House races between 1980 and 1990 as well as a 2007 bid for governor. Oil and gas executive Josh Pellerin also has announced. Handicappers view these Democrats as long shots –– unless, of course, one makes the runoff against an especially weak Republican.

America will continue to fixate on the unfolding presidential drama, but just remember that the outcome of these Senate elections will play a large part in determining the country’s future.

An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has done polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV. A former state legislator from New Orleans, he also publishes, a daily newsletter on polls.