Jim Dey: Illinois could help Dems win Senate

Jim Dey: Illinois could help Dems win Senate

The eyes of those who still can stand to watch are locked on a distasteful 2016 presidential race that looks more like a mud wrestling contest than an epic exercise in the world's greatest democracy.

But it's not the only show under the big top.

There's another battle royale underway for control of the U.S. Senate, the result of which could give Democratic presidential favorite Hillary Clinton considerable leverage in advancing her ambitious domestic policy agenda.

Illinois will play a key role in determining whether Democrats capture a Senate majority. Right now, it's looking as if Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth has a strong chance to take the Senate seat held by incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk.

If that assessments stands, Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with Washington-based Cook's Political Report, said she won't be surprised if Democrats win back the Senate majority they lost in 2014.

"Right now, I think they have a 60 percent chance to get the majority," said Duffy, a veteran follower of Senate campaigns.

Senate Republicans entered this election year at a disadvantage. With a 54-46 majority in the 100-member Senate, the GOP holds 24 of the 34 seats up for election. In other words, they have much more to lose than the Democrats.

At the same time, they're now bearing the double burden of running on the ticket headed by all-time political wild card Donald Trump, the party's presidential nominee.

With some Republican Senate candidates running from him (Kirk), other candidates repudiating a previous endorsement (Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain) and still others repudiating a previous repudiation of Trump (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio), all bets are off.

"(The Senate) has been up for grabs since Day One. The question is whether Trump is dragging Republicans down," Cook said.

More than half of the seats up for election are safe for either the Democrats or the GOP.

The rest remain competitive. Among them are two states that border Illinois — Wisconsin and Missouri.

Duffy has two states leaning Democrat — Illinois and Wisconsin. Both states are currently represented by Republicans, Kirk in Illinois and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

She has two others leaning Republican — Arizona, where Sen. McCain is running again, and Ohio, where U.S. Sen. Rob Portman appears to be in control. Both are Republicans.

Duffy rates Senate races in seven states as toss-ups. Just one of those seats is current held by a Democrat, Nevada where U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is retiring.

The other six states are Florida (Rubio), Indiana (GOP incumbent retiring), Missouri (U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt), New Hampshire (U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte) and North Carolina (U.S. Sen. Richard Burr).

Here's one more wild card. If control of the Senate remains unclear after the Nov. 8 election, it will come down to who wins the Senate seat in Louisiana, where incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter is retiring.

There are 24 candidates running in the primary election, which will be held Nov. 8. If no one wins 50.1 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will run in a Dec. 10 general election.

Duffy cited the Senate races in Indiana and Missouri as among the closest and most surprising.

Indiana initially looked solid for the Republicans even though GOP Sen. Dan Coats is retiring. Then it looked solid for the Democrats.

Democratic trickery threw the GOP for a loop in July. That's when they replaced their first candidate, the lackluster Baron Hill, who was behind in the poll, with former Democratic U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh Jr.

Given Bayh's prominence, Democrats thought they had the race locked up, particularly since the GOP's candidate, U.S. Rep. Todd Young, hadn't done much fundraising in anticipation of an easy race against Hill.

But a funny happened on the way to Democratic victory — Bayh, the son of former longtime U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, no longer looks like the golden boy he once was. Now a millionaire Washington lobbyist returning to claim his nobility, Bayh isn't going down as well as he once did.

Bayh didn't help himself when he couldn't remember just where it is that he now lives in Indiana. Plus, there was that vote for Obamacare before he stepped down.

Republicans think they can win that seat, and so does Duffy.

"I actually think (Young) is going to win," said Duffy, while still citing the Trump factor.

It's a different story in Missouri, where Republican incumbent Blunt is running against a young Democratic secretary of state, Jason Kander.

The Democrat is pushing for generation change, and Duffy said the optics (a 35-year-old running against a veteran pol) are effective.

"The visuals are there," said Duffy.

A military veteran, Kander has a snappy TV ad that appeals to conservative Missourians.

Duffy said it shows him "assembling an AR-15 rifle blindfolded" and challenging Blunt to do the same.

Although categorized as leaning Democrat, Duffy said, the Wisconsin race featuring former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold against Republican Johnson also is interesting.

Johnson defeated Feingold six years ago. If Feingold comes back and wins this year, she said, it will be the first time since 1934 that a former U.S. senator avenged his defeat. (The 1934 contest was in Rhode Island, where resurrected Democrat Peter G. Gerry served in the U.S. Senate from 1917-29 and 1935-47).

But it's not final yet, she said, because Johnson is closing the gap on the ultra-liberal Feingold. But Duffy said the Trump factor could be too much for Johnson to overcome in a state like Wisconsin.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
Tags (1):2016 election
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