The Race for Control of the Senate

Tufts political scientist Jeffrey Berry handicaps the upcoming mid-term elections

The mid-term elections on Nov. 4 will determine which party will control Congress. Pundits have been forecasting that Republicans will retain control of the House, but predictions about whether the Senate retains a Democratic majority are as fluid as the waters of the Potomac. The Republicans need to gain six Senate seats to grab the majority; some of those races are too close to call. Jeffrey Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science, is a sought-after commentator on politics and elections for television, radio and newspapers. He offered some thoughts to Tufts Now about the election and beyond.

Tufts Now: It seems certain the Republicans will retain control of the House. Who will win the Senate?

Jeffrey Berry: People who do the computer modeling say the odds are that the Republicans are going to carry enough seats to control the Senate in the next session. A major vulnerability for the Democrats is that they hold three contested seats in the South, a region that has become increasingly Republican over the years. Right now the Democrats have Kay Hagen, the incumbent, who has a slight lead in North Carolina; Mark Pryor in Arkansas, who is behind; and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, where the race looks very close.

Why has the South shifted?

The trend toward the Republicans began in the 1960s, with the backlash against the civil rights movement and the Democratic embrace of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, the Voting Rights Act made it easier for African Americans to vote, and that pulled the Democratic Party more to the left, making it less attractive to white conservative southerners.

If the Republicans control both houses, would Congress get much done in the next two years?

Not much was done in the past two years, when the Democrats controlled the Senate. The Democrats would use the filibuster to prevent legislation from passing that is designed to embarrass President Obama or simply to gratify Republican constituencies. There would be a lot of symbolism, a lot of fulmination, but the country would not move forward. We would see Obama using executive actions more and more to force policy change.

Is the inability of Congress to get much done unusual?

It does seem worse than ever. There’s always partisanship; we shouldn’t romanticize things and say the two parties always worked together. Partisanship is part of democracy, and parties should fight for their principles, so that’s not unusual. But the inability of the two parties to work together on most everything is really discouraging.

What else would result from both houses becoming Republican?

On the Republican side, we would have legislators trying to use the Senate as a fulcrum for their presidential campaigns. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul would be very visible. You could count on Cruz to try to shut down the government again if it worked to his advantage.

Talk about some of the most intriguing Senate races.

Kentucky is an interesting case, because the most Republican area of the state is where the people are poorest and receive more government aid than any other area of the country. These are white, very low-income voters, and they hate the Democrats and they hate Barack Obama emphatically. So even though Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is not all that popular in Kentucky, it looks like he’s going to win by a modest margin. The Democrats have a good candidate in Alison Grimes; it’s just that she’s a Democrat. If the Republicans gain the majority in the Senate and McConnell wins, he will become Senate majority leader, taking over from Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

The further irony is that Obamacare has worked better in Kentucky than probably any place else in the country. A lot of poor, white Kentuckians now have health care and will go to the polls to vote for McConnell, who promises to do away with Obamacare.

What other states have interesting races?

In Kansas, Democratic candidate Chad Taylor was going to lose and lose badly and was pressured by the Democratic Party to drop out, because there’s an independent candidate who may in fact win. Pat Roberts, the Republican, is a fixture in Kansas politics, but he shows his age and has made himself vulnerable because he doesn’t have a permanent home in Kansas. It’s easy to portray him as someone who is really a Washingtonian and not a Kansan.

The independent candidate, Greg Orman, has not yet said if he will caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans, but the Democrats didn’t risk anything by getting their candidate to drop out, because he was going to lose.

Any other close races?

Both Louisiana and Georgia have requirements that the winner have a majority rather than a plurality. Because there are third-party candidates in both states, and both races are reasonably close, there could be a run-off election, which would be between the top two finishers. In both cases that would probably favor the Republicans, because they have more reliable voters than the Democrats. The propensity to vote correlates with [a higher] social class, and Democrats have a higher concentration of low-income voters. If that happens and those seats determine the control of the Senate, you can expect a titanic struggle. Small fortunes will be invested, super PACS [political action committees] will be involved, and national parties will be involved.

Is there more outside spending going on?

Yes, there is more behind-the-scenes money because of the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. There are a lot of super PACS, and they’re hidden behind their tax status, which doesn’t require donors to be revealed. There is a lot of money on both sides, with liberals and conservatives writing very large checks. A lot is wasted on TV commercials that no one pays attention to.

What’s wrong with spending money on TV ads?

People consume TV in different ways now. People are recording TV and skipping commercials, watching TV on their laptops, on Roku, on Netflix, on premium cable where there are no commercials.

So what’s a better way of using campaign money?

They should spend it on building a ground organization. The most effective thing is going door to door and talking to people, eyeball to eyeball.

Who do you think will be running for president?

Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Chris Christie. I don’t think Mitt Romney will run again. Polls that have shown Romney to be ahead are largely based on name recognition.

What about the Democratic side?

Obviously, Hillary Clinton. Whether she has competition remains to be seen. Maybe Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, and Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland. They would have to prove they can raise money, but that can be really tough. Joe Biden would love to run, and he probably will run if Hillary for some reason doesn’t, but as of now, he effectively has acknowledged that Hillary could beat him.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

Back to Top