While much of the attention and coverage of the 2016 elections has thus far been focused on the presidential elections, particularly with the commencement of the party primaries, the Senate will be a critical ground for both parties in 2016.

Due to the present districting of the House of Representatives, there is almost no chance of Democrats being able to pick up enough seats to become the majority in the House. However, in the Senate there is far less certainty. The outcome of a handful of Senate races will determine whether the Republicans will continue to control both chambers of Congress, or whether we will return to a time where control of the chambers is split. To add some further excitement, there is also the potential that the Senate will be spit 50-50 and control will come down to the party of the vice president, who is tasked with being the tie-breaker in the event of a split Senate.

While there are a number of contingencies and developments yet to come, including, in some cases, the selection of candidates, it is already becoming clear which will be the Senate races to watch. Just as the breakdown of which Senate seats were up for election in 2012 favored the Republicans, this year the breakdown favors the Democrats.

Here’s the summary of what the 2016 Senate elections look like at this time:

  • There are currently 54 Republicans in the Senate, 44 Democrats and two Independents, both of whom caucus with the Democrats.  The Democrats therefore need to pick up five seats if they want to have a definitive majority in the Senate.  If the Democrats are able to pick up four seats and the Democratic presidential candidate wins, the Democrats will also take control of the Senate based on the tie-breaking vote of the vice president.
  • There are 34 Senate seats up for election in 2016. Ten of these seats are currently held by Democrats and 24 are currently held by Republicans.
  • Six of the 34 seats up for election are open while the remaining 28 presently have incumbent candidates. Of the six open seats, three are presently held by Democrats (California, Nevada and Maryland) and three are held by Republicans (Louisiana, Florida and Indiana).
  • Of the 10 Democratic seats up for election in 2016, eight of them are (at this time) considered safe seats for the Democrats (California, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington).
  • Of the 24 Republican seats up for election in 2016, 16 of them are (at this time) considered safe seats for the Republicans (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah).
  • There is a chance that the Democrats will have a fight on their hands in defending Sen. Michael Bennet’s seat in Colorado, a traditional swing state. However, no well-known or notably viable Republicans have announced their candidacies for the seat, so the competitiveness of the race remains difficult to gauge.
  • On the Republican side, in Arizona there is the chance that Sen. John McCain will face inter-party challenges to his re-election which could bruise or even take him out of the race. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has already declared and is the consensus candidate on the Democratic side. Thus, the competitiveness of this seat remains to be seen and will hinge largely on what happens during the Republican primary contest.

As a bottom line—there are seven seats that are expected to be very competitive and on which the control of the Senate will most likely hinge.

The only one of these seven most competitive seats currently held by Democrats is the seat in Nevada being vacated by retiring Minority Leader Harry Reid. At this time, the leading Democrat running for the seat is former Attorney General Catherine Masto, and the leading Republican running for the seat is Rep. Joe Heck.

Of the six Republican seats expected to be highly competitive, all will have incumbents except for Florida. At this time, it is unclear who the candidates on either side will be to fill the seat presently held by Sen. Marco Rubio, who declared last spring that he will not be seeking re-election.

The five incumbent Republicans who are presently expected to have serious races on their hands are as follows:

  • In Illinois, Sen. Mark Kirk, who won President Obama’s former Senate seat in 2010, is expected to face a tough race. In 2010, a year that was very favorable overall for Republican candidates, Kirk only beat his Democratic opponent by a close vote of 48 percent to 46.4 percent. Kirk is expected to face Democratic Representative and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth in the general elections this fall.
  • In New Hampshire, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was also elected during the 2010 Republican wave, is expected to face Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan in her bid for re-election. In 2010, Ayotte won the seat previously held by Republican Senator Judd Gregg by a solid margin of 60.1 percent to 36.8 percent. Hassan was first elected in 2012 and won re-election in 2014 by a vote of 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent.
  • In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman, also a product of the 2010 elections, is expected to face Democrat and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. In 2010, Portman defeated his Democratic opponent by a solid margin of 56.9 percent to 39.4 percent. Prior to Portman’s election, this seat was held by Republican Senator George Voinovich.
  • In the well-known swing state of Pennsylvania, Sen. Pat Toomey is expected to face a challenge to the seat he won in 2010, though it is yet unclear who the Democratic candidate will be. In 2010, Toomey defeated his Democratic opponent by a vote of 51 percent to 49 percent. Toomey’s seat was previously held by Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from Republican to Democrat in 2009 while in office.
  • In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson is expected to face former Senator Russ Feingold, whose seat Johnson won in 2010 by a vote of 52 percent to 47 percent. With 2010 having been a close race and, again, a good year for Republicans, this will certainly be an interesting rematch to watch.

As can be ascertained from the above, the biggest races will be faced largely by first-term Republican incumbents in traditionally swing states. In a presidential election year, these types of races are often impacted by the top of the ticket.

We will continue to monitor and report on the upcoming elections as the landscape continues to develop.

Produced by the Small Business Legislative Council, of which PPAI is a member and PPAI president and CEO Paul Bellantone, CAE, serves as a board director, the SBLC Report offers a quick and candid review of what’s going on in Washington. The mission of the SBLC is twofold: to make improvements in public policy for small business and to help member associations in their communications with business members. Please note that this weekly is for the sole personal, informational use of PPAI members and should not be posted to any website.