Senate Moderates at Risk in 2016

If GOP loses seats, caucus would be more conservative

The Washington carnival of speculation over which political party will control the Senate in 2016 launched into a full frenzy following the announcement this week by New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassen that she will challenge Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

But many Republicans are unlikely to shed tears over the potential loss of Ayotte or some of the other endangered GOP senators.

A Sept. 29 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found a prodigious 72 percent of GOP voters were dissatisfied with Republicans leaders’ record of capitulation to President Obama on a host of conservatives priorities, and their tenacious drive to pass the priorities of the well-connected, including a massive Trans-Pacific trade deal.

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Those Republicans may be heartened to learn that of the seven GOP seats considered endangered in 2016 — labeled tossup or “lean-Republican” by the respected Cook Political Report — five are held by Republican senators ranked poorly by conservative policy organizations.

The average score for a Republican senator is 61 percent. The conservative scores of those five seats rank in the bottom tier of Republican senators, according to Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

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Heritage assigns Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin a 45-percent conservative voting record; Ayotte just 27 percent; and Mark Kirk of Illinois a paltry 16 percent. Those three are the most vulnerable.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could start a new Congress with three fewer moderates in his caucus.

If this trio loses and the majority holds, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could start a new Congress with three fewer moderates in his caucus, a change unlikely to significantly affect his re-election as leader or his policymaking. But it could inch the caucus slightly to the right and bolster the influence of the 19 senators given a more than 70 percent conservative score by Heritage.

The threat of a shift in the caucus may be just enough for McConnell — and some of the roughly half-dozen additional moderate GOP senators who could face potential primary challenges in 2018 — to stiffen their spine a little on conservative priorities and expend more energy in fighting the president.

Kirk was one of only four Republicans to support a 2013 bill extending mandatory background checks to private gun purchases and gun shows. Despite Kirk’s support of the gun control measure, the bill failed under a Republican-led filibuster.

Earlier this year, all three of the most vulnerable GOP senators chose to band with surrender-happy GOP leaders and Democrats.

Earlier this year, all three of the most vulnerable GOP senators chose to band with surrender-happy GOP leaders and Democrats to advance a bill fully funding Obama’s executive amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“Republicans will have to come to realize that it falls on their shoulders to give voice to the just demands of the American people for a lawful system of immigration,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said following the Senate’s passage of the bill. Sessions was joined by a majority of GOP senators in voting against the measure.

The recent decision to get in the race by Hassen, the top Democrat New Hampshire recruit, has bolstered Democrat hopes for retaking the Senate from Republicans in 2016. But Republicans remain the favorites to retain the chamber by a slim margin.

Even if Democrats defeat all three of the endangered incumbent Republicans, they will still be denied the majority.

In order to reclaim the upper chamber of Congress, Democrats need to also win the only tossup seat currently held by a senator with a top-notch Heritage ranking — the seat of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is exiting to run for president.

Rubio, though far from perfect on conservative priorities in the past (Note: He was a member of the Gang of Eight on immigration), notches a 92 percent Heritage score for this Congress.

The Florida seat is among the most competitive of the 2016 field, with four Democrats declared and five Republicans in the race, including Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is as conservative as Rubio.

Should Democrats manage to retain the Nevada seat of retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid, Republicans need only win in the true presidential swing state of Florida to keep a majority in the Senate.

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