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Script Will Be Flipped in 2016 Senate Majority Battle

Johnson is one of several Republicans running in competitive states in 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

After securing control of the Senate Tuesday, Republicans are already staring down a daunting map for 2016.  

The majority of the Senate battleground in the next election cycle will be fought on Republican turf, with the GOP defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10. There is more trouble for the party beneath those raw numbers; only two Democratic seats are in competitive states, while more than half a dozen Republican incumbents face re-election in states President Barack Obama carried at least once.  

Republicans appear to have put themselves in as strong a position as possible, coming out of the midterms with potentially a 54-seat majority. But the next electoral fight for the Senate fundamentally looks nothing like 2014: Democrats are on offense, the playing field is packed with pricey media markets and every race is positioned down-ballot from a presidential contest.  

"I think attention will turn to it as soon as the dust settles from this cycle," Republican pollster Dan Judy said of 2016. "The environment will certainly be tougher for us with a lot of competitive seats to defend in swing states, but I'm hopeful that a Republican majority for two years will allow us to advance a constructive agenda that our incumbents can run on in 2016."  

The makeup of the new landscape is a direct result of Republicans’ dominant performance in 2010, picking up six Senate seats in a wave election. But that GOP class now faces re-election and constitutes the most endangered seats — thanks at this point, without challengers yet, to each states’ current partisan leanings.  

That includes first-term Sens. Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.  

“There is an increasing correlation between presidential and Senate voting,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, with recent examples in Arkansas, West Virginia and other states where Democrats lost seats Tuesday by wide margins. “That made the map Democrats’ biggest enemy in 2014, but the same fact will make the map our best friend in 2016.”  

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who is up for a third term, could face a stiff challenge in a state Obama carried in 2008. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was defeated there Tuesday.  

“The primary factor in determining many of those races is going to be what happens at the presidential level,” Judy said. “Both parties are going to be defined in large part by their nominee, and the presidential winner in the competitive Senate states — many of which are swing presidential states as well — will have the potential to help his or her party's Senate candidates across the finish line.”  

There is already one rematch from 2010 lining up, though more are possible. Former Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., announced in May 2013 the formation of an exploratory committee to challenge Toomey. The incumbent has been reinforcing his war chest and ended September with $5.4 million on hand to Sestak’s $1.3 million.  

Other incumbents, such as outgoing National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas, could face competitive primary challenges. Of course, Moran will no doubt be better prepared than fellow Kansan Pat Roberts was this year.  

Forthcoming retirements will undoubtedly alter any early rankings of competitive seats, and they aren’t always predictable.  

Democrats lost four open seats Tuesday, but the party is unlikely to see anything close to that in 2016. The most likely Democratic retirement at this point is California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who turns 74 this month and would leave behind a deep bench in a solidly Democratic state.  

Republican retirement possibilities increase with the potential presidential candidacies of Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rubio and Portman, while Louisiana Sen. David Vitter is running for governor in 2015.  

Arizona could host its second competitive open-seat Senate race in four years if Sen. John McCain, who will turn 80 two months before the general election, opts to step down.  

The most vulnerable Democrats will almost certainly be Reid in Nevada and outgoing Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet in Colorado. Both previously survived challenges in one of the worst years for the party, and this time they’ll be advantaged by presidential turnout.  

Overall, Democrats, besieged this year by an unpopular president and a map tilted heavily in Republicans’ favor, believe the ship will be righted in 2016. Republicans will be running in competitive states, and Hillary Rodham Clinton may be topping the ticket for Democrats and bolstering presidential-level turnout.  

“The GOP will be running a herd of out of step and unpopular Senate incumbents like Johnson, Toomey and Burr,” said J.B. Poersch, a consultant for the Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC. “They will be hard pressed to prevent losses.”  

Still, after a big night Tuesday, the GOP can afford a few.  

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