Not too long after the New Year's champagne is popped and the parties have ended and it's back to the business of the 2016 elections, candidates and voters will wake up to a slate of issues that have hung over from the year before. Of course, new issues or problems candidates did not expect to deal with always emerge. In 2014, Sen. Kay Hagan wanted to talk about Thom Tillis' record on education while he was speaker of the North Carolina House, but the rise of the Islamic State and fears of Ebola played up by Republicans changed the conversation.
And in 2012, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill was supposed to be in a fight for her life with then-Rep. Todd Akin until he stepped in it in a few months before the November election – dooming his campaign and distracting Republican candidates across the map who had to spend time trying to take his foot out of their mouths.
“The known unknowns are less easy to find, or we wouldn’t be surprised," said Ben Ray, now the communications director at American Bridge who was involved in both Hagan's and McCaskill's races. But, both Republican and Democratic operatives said they expect a few themes that emerged in 2015 to play heavily in 2016 -- and more to come over the next 11 months.
The Establishment Woes
The Republican establishment decried by people like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as the “Washington Cartel” will wake up to 2016 still bruised by the “year of the outsider ,” which elevated anti-establishment candidates such as him, Ben Carson and businessman Donald Trump to the top of the polls.
The Trump effect could trickle down to a number of House and Senate races. If either he or Cruz end up at the top of the ticket, Brian Walsh, a longtime Republican communicator who has worked for numerous Senate candidates, said, "you’ll see Republican senators localize issues” rather than align with their nominee as their Democratic challengers will surely try to do.
Democrats, meanwhile, are experiencing the opposite. In the presidential race, Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent until 2015, has accused the Democratic National Committee of being in the bag for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Despite cries from him and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, in the Democrats' case, the establishment held its ground in 2015.
Down the ballot, the party's establishment is leveraging its strength, too. In Illinois, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is supporting Rep. Tammy Duckworth over Chicago businesswoman Andrea Zopp to challenge Republican Sen. Mark S. Kirk, and in Florida, it endorsed Rep. Patrick Murphy, lending him key institutional support over Rep. Alan Grayson.
National Security In 2015, the economy went out and national security came in at the top of the issue matrix in minds of Americans following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. And in turn, it has already become an issue in 2016's House and Senate contests.
Republicans, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona or Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, have always viewed the issue as one on which they dominate. McCain is a respected veteran who has been involved in military issues for much of his career in Washington, and Blunt has served on committees overseeing intelligence and the military for all but two of his years here.
But their challengers have attempted to flip the script, accusing them of being weak on terror for their opposition to legislation that would disallow people on the terror watch list from purchasing guns, or, in Blunt's case, his support of a measure that would make it easier for people to get travel visas to enter the country.
In other races, Ray said, “there’s definitely going to be wedge uses of guns in primaries and general elections."
The steady release of anti-Planned Parenthood videos by the Center for Medical Progress put some red state Democrats on the defense and made the organization an easy target for Republicans.
But, the issue of reproductive health care is one that Walsh expects Democrats to turn against his party's candidates. That effort to perpetuate the notion that the Grand Old Party is anti-women would be harder to counter with Trump at the top of the ticket, he said.
“I don’t necessarily think the video will be the issue, but I think Democrats will make the case that Republicans are trying to take away access to women’s health care," Walsh said. Pointing to some of the most vulnerable senators on the ballot, he added, “I have a lot of confidence in folks like Rob Portman, Pat Toomey and Kelly Ayotte to rebut that." Adrianne Marsh, a Democratic consultant, said she thinks Republicans have lost ground in the debate around reproductive rights and the videos give them a safe way to talk about the issue. But Marsh said she also thinks that in the end, most voters are more concerned about security and the economy.
“Reproductive rights are a double-edged sword for Republicans. They need to be able to let their base know that they’re still fighting this battle, but not to the point that independent voters think the Republican Party is still trying to take away birth control,” she said. “At the end of the day, both parties will stick to their usual positions on this issue and not a whole lot will likely change."
Trump is right about one thing: Nearly as soon as he descended down his gold escalator to a stage to announce his presidency in June, the issue of immigration rose to the national conversation.
With his comments about Mexican immigrants, a wall he said he will make Mexico pay for and his proposal to prevent Muslims from entering the country, the issue will undoubtedly be at play up and down the ballot.
“I think immigration reform is going to be a very big issue next year, particularly if Cruz or Trump are the nominee,” said Walsh.
Ray said he expected immigration "to be litigated fairly heavily" in the primary and general election campaigns in states like Colorado and Nevada, and like Walsh, even more with the wrong kind of presidential nominee at the top of the ticket. Education Ray said one of the sleeper issues that quietly moved in 2015 is education, particularly – but not exclusively – in some of the most competitive governors races and in Republican primaries over the divide over Common Core and local education policies.
"In states like Florida, state-based policies around federal issues could trickle up into the Senate race and even the presidential. When presidential campaigns swing into a state, it’s issues like education that candidates need to be prepared to talk about because the local nuances can catch them off guard. Education is far from a one-size-fits-all topic and, based on the policies of governors like Rick Scott, this issue could really bubble up," Marsh said.
In federal races, Ray said the issue could rise because of proposals to eliminate the federal Department of Education, where "you’re talking about thousands of teachers and textbooks in each congressional district," along with the number of millennials voting who are dealing with student loans. "There’s going to be a lot of student debt taking out ballots this cycle. So for them, when you talk about student loan reform, you’re talking about a pocketbook issue," he said.