How people elect parliaments
34 of the 100 United States Senate places are up for election next month, with around a dozen races seen as close contests.
The senators serve 6-year terms, with one third of seats facing election every two years. (The 2016 elections happen to be the phase in the cycle where 34 seats are elected; in the other two election phases 33 seats are contested.)
Together with some ‘open’ seats, the senators elected in 2010 (or appointed subsequently to vacancies) are facing re-election. They include many Republicans who won election in 2010’s generally favourable conditions for Republican candidates.
The 12 closest contests include 10 for seats currently held by Republicans, and just 2 for seats currently in Democratic hands.
Taking into account the 67 senators not facing re-election this year and another 21 who are facing re-election but regarded as safe for the party holding the seat, the two parties are safely holding 44 seats each (including Maine independent Angus King, who caucuses with the Democratic party).
So the contest for control of the Senate is evenly balanced. If each party wins 6 of the remaining 12 close contests, the Senate will be tied 50 seats all.
Votes in a tied US Senate are broken by the extra vote of the US Vice-President. With current expectations favouring the Democratic party to win the White House, a tied scenario therefore sees the Democrats control the Senate.
In recent years the debating practice of threatening filibusters had seriously undermined the voting procedures of the Senate, resulting in 60 of the 100 votes being needed to advance voting on almost any controversial issue.
But majority status at least gives the leading party control of the Senate leadership offices, and of the agenda of the chamber and the powerful Senate committees.
A dozen state elections for US senator – those shown in bright colours – are seen as close contests in 2016. Ten of them are being defended by Republicans (red)
The 12 close contests in 2016 are as follows:
Nevada: Democratic-held, but incumbent Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, and former state Attorney-General and Democratic nominee Catherine Cortez Masto will defend the seat against Republican Congressman Joe Heck. The race is one of the closest, although poll aggregates show that Masto may be slightly ahead. Heck’s management of the awkward Republican problem of whether to disavow Donald Trump has ended with him doing so partially and clumsily, resulting in indications that some Trump-supporting voters may abandon him.
Arizona: Republican-held; 80-year old and 30-year Senate incumbent John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for president and one of the Senate’s most established figures, is facing perhaps the toughest challenge of his career. The state’s shifting underlying demographics, together with McCain’s drawn-out indecision on the Trump-disavowal problem, are giving Democratic challenger Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick a real chance.
One to watch: a defeat for incumbent John McCain by Democratic challenger Ann Kirkpatrick (right) would indicate that Arizona is joining a significant demographic shift away from the Republican party (image: Patrick Breen/the Arizona Republic)
Colorado: Democratic-held; incumbent Michael Bennett is polling ahead and is expected to retain his seat against Republican challenger Darryl Glenn. Regarded earlier in the year as a key target for the Republicans to attack a Democrat-held seat, Colorado has steadily shifted towards the incumbent and may now be safe for the Democrats.
Missouri: Republican-held; incumbent Roy Blunt is facing Democratic challenger and state Secretary of State, 35-year old Jason Kander. The Republican has held a polling lead throughout the election period, but Democratic candidate Kander has moved back into contention after a much-discussed TV advertisement in which the former Navy Seal assembled an assault rifle whilst blindfolded, highlighting to Missouri voters his suitability for office.
Wisconsin: Republican-held; former prominent Democratic senator Russ Feingold, who was defeated in the 2010 elections, looks likely to return to the Senate at the expense of incumbent Ron Johnson. Feingold, a highly regarded progressive and reformer, served three full terms as a senator from 1993 to 2011, and would become one of the most senior senators in a possible narrow Democratic majority.
Illinois: Republican-held; incumbent Mark Kirk has a very hard task holding his seat in this normally very pro-Democratic state, having won it unexpectedly at the 2010 election. Kirk was among the first Republicans to disavow Donald Trump, and is one of the few Republican senators to have called for President Obama’s blocked Supreme Court nominee – Judge Merrick Garland – to be at least given a conformation hearing. Expectations are very strong that Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth will recover this seat for the Democratic party.
Indiana: Republican-held; normally a safe Republican state with the seat held by retiring incumbent Dan Coats, the party will this year be represented by Congressman Todd Young. However the Democratic party has been boosted by the late nomination of a formidable candidate in former state Governor (1989-97) and senator (1999-2011) Evan Bayh, who is broadly ahead in the polls to retake the seat from which he retired six years ago.
Ohio: Republican-held; incumbent Rob Portman is facing former state Governor and Democratic challenger Ted Strickland. Initially considered an obvious close contest, the Democratic campaign has been poor here. Democratic national party strategists have partially downgraded their prospects in Ohio to the extent of directing national spending to other states.
Pennsylvania: Republican-held; incumbent Pat Toomey is facing Democratic challenger former state Secretary for Environmental Protection Kathleen (Katie) McGinty. Another very close contest, with the Democratic candidate McGinty having a wafer-thin advantage in poll aggregates to date.
New Hampshire: Republican-held; incumbent Kelly Ayotte is facing a strong challenge from the current state Governor Maggie Hassan. The all-female race has made the candidates’ responses to Donald Trump’s personality and past actions a significant issue. Hassan has slowly eked out a slight, and slowly growing, lead over Ayotte, but this remains one of the closer races.
North Carolina: Republican-held; incumbent Richard Burr is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Deborah Ross. Burr has been criticised by his own party for lacklustre preparation for the contest. North Carolina is also witnessing a close contest for both the state governorship and for the state’s presidential electors, making it one of the most vigorously contested of all states in 2016.
Florida: Republican-held; incumbent Marco Rubio – a leading contender for his party’s nomination for president earlier in the year – is polling ahead and is now expected to be able to fend of Democratic challenger Congressman Patrick Murphy. Rubio’s tense history with Donald Trump seems not to have affected his popular state support. Florida is one of the few close states where a Republican candidate is noticeably ahead in polling, and national Democratic strategists have reduced spending in this advertising-expensive state, judging that a win here his unlikely and resources are better directed elsewhere.
Overall, of these 12 close contests Democrats are polling noticeably ahead in four states (Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) with Republicans somewhat less ahead in three (Arizona, Ohio and Florida). The remaining five races are polling in the balance.
The Democratic party needs to win two more seats to take control of the Senate (or three if the Republican party were to win the presidential election), while the Republicans need to win three (but with a Clinton presidency, four) of the closest five races to retain their majority.