Will Republicans lose the Senate majority?

Republicans' two-year hold on the Senate is at serious risk, say observers, and Democrats hope to cut into the party's 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives as well.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Illinois Democratic US Senate candidate, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, appears in Springfield, Ill. Illinois was once billed as one of November's most competitive US Senate races. Democrats are now counting on her to defeat Illinois Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk as the party looks to reclaim the majority in the chamber.

Having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is dragging the rest of the ballot down, Republican aides say.

Less than two weeks before November’s election, aides are concerned that Mr. Trump’s slumping numbers will have a negative effect on down-ballot candidates. At stake: control of the Senate in the next Congress. 

The winning candidate often has a "coattails" effect: they’re so popular that they win support for their party all the way down the ballot. Trump appears to be having the opposite effect for Republicans. 

"The reason we don’t hold the Senate, if we don’t, is because of Donald Trump," one aide told Reuters.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 41 percent of Republicans now expect a Hillary Clinton victory in November, compared to 40 percent who think Trump will win. That’s a sharp drop in Trump’s numbers over the past month: in September, 58 percent of Republicans expected a Trump presidency, and just 23 percent saw Mrs. Clinton winning the White House.

That could be influencing poll numbers for Senate candidates. The same aide said that in Pennsylvania, a swing state with a vulnerable Senate seat, incumbent Republican Pat Toomey has to "fight off dead weight at the top of the ticket." And studies show that Senate wins have been correlated with White House victories over the past few decades.

In states such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, Republicans’ struggles are compounded by what University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala calls a "one-two punch" of independents who may not support Trump and an electorate that tends to lean Democratic in presidential election years. 

For now, Real Clear Politics still has several Republican incumbents leading their Democratic challengers. Pennsylvania’s Mr. Toomey, Roy Blunt in Missouri, and Richard Burr of North Carolina are all up one percentage point or more in the polls.

Races are tight across the country, but Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats to Democrats’ 10, as the seats they picked up in 2010 – when the Tea Party movement was in full swing – come up for reelection.

According to a senior Senate Democratic aide, that means, “We have a lot more paths to a majority than they do.”

If Clinton wins, Republicans could hand Democrats a majority by losing just four seats. Her vice president, Tim Kaine, would cast the tie-breaking vote for Democrats when necessary. The last time this happened was in 2000, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking any ties.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicted on Tuesday that Democrats would ultimately gain between five and seven seats. Another Republican aide pointed to opinion polling in six battleground states, telling Reuters that “the Senate is gone” with the expected losses in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Missouri.

Democrats also hope to pick up seats in the House, where the GOP holds a sizable majority, with 247 seats to Democrats’ 188. Seats in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, and Florida are all possibilities for Democrats, though they may lose a Republican-leaning Nebraska district they currently hold.

In the end, the Senate may not be decided until December, when a runoff election is expected to pick a new senator from Louisiana, where Republican Sen. David Vitter opted not to defend his seat after losing his bid for governor.

Material from Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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