Maneuvers in 2016 Senate Races Necessitate One Ratings Change…in the House

Florida and Indiana Senate contests get shaken up


Early this week, developments in Florida and Indiana caused a stir. First, news broke early Monday morning that Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) will run for the Sunshine State’s Senate seat currently held by Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who is exploring a presidential run. Then, on Tuesday, Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2016, creating an open seat in Indiana. While neither headline caused the Crystal Ball to make a Senate ratings change, Murphy’s decision did necessitate a reappraisal of his House district.

The Sunshine State’s simmering Democrats

In Florida, Rubio has repeatedly said that he will not run for both the presidency and the Senate in 2016, and Murphy’s entry into the Senate race may reflect the conventional wisdom that Rubio appears more likely to launch a presidential run than to seek another term in the Senate.

Backed by many establishment Democrats, Murphy is the first Democrat to declare, but he may not be the last. Moreover, it appears Democrats are not entirely unified behind him. In a radio interview on Sunday just before Murphy’s announcement, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz highlighted a number of Democratic mayors from around the state as good statewide possibilities, raising some eyebrows. In addition, liberal Rep. Alan Grayson (D, FL-9) is considering a run, a prospect that fills traditional Democratic leaders with dread. Grayson will have no hesitation in running a highly negative campaign against Murphy, he is wealthy enough not to have to depend on the usual party donors, and he has a large progressive donor base (though also some familial troubles). Should Grayson run against the more centrist Murphy, it could set the stage for a divisive primary in one of the most competitive and politically expensive states in the country.

Should Rubio solely pursue a presidential run, there are a host of Republicans looking at the possibility of entering the Senate contest, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and a number of House members (the GOP holds a 17-10 advantage in the House delegation). The Republican bench in Florida is as deep as the Democratic one is shallow.

If Rubio bails on his Senate seat, the Florida race becomes a Toss-up, and a more difficult hold for Republicans. Still, there remains the possibility that Rubio will decide to run for reelection, in which case he would be a small favorite. For the time being, the Crystal Ball will stick with its Leans Republican rating in the land of oranges and sunshine while we wait for the smoke to clear.

As for Murphy’s House seat, his Senate candidacy opens up the swingy FL-18 to new blood. Although Murphy cruised to reelection even in the GOP-friendly 2014 cycle, Mitt Romney carried this district 52-48% in 2012 (while Murphy was defeating then-GOP Rep. Allen West). That means Republicans will make this a top takeover priority, especially considering that the GOP’s large majority in the House leaves it with fewer obvious additional targets. Both parties have a fair number of potential candidates looking to run in the competitive seat, and with Murphy seeking a bigger prize, FL-18 moves from Likely Democratic to Toss-up.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ratings changes

Many Republicans are eyeing Indiana’s Senate seat

Given the Hoosier State’s conservative lean, Coats’ retirement creates a rare opportunity for Indiana’s many GOP officeholders. Seven of Indiana’s nine House seats are held by Republicans, and practically all of them are being mentioned as potential candidates in the Senate contest. Prominent is Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R, IN-3), who finished second to Coats in the Republican primary in 2010 while he was a state senator; later that same year, Stutzman won a special caucus to replace Rep. Mark Souder (R) on the ballot when Souder resigned because of a sex scandal. Now a House member, Stutzman is clearly interested in another Senate run. Beyond the GOP House delegation, news broke on Wednesday afternoon that Eric Holcomb, Coats’ chief of staff and a former chair of the state party, will announce his Senate candidacy on Thursday, March 26. Coats apparently encouraged Holcomb to look into running, and Holcomb took a leave of absence from his post to explore his options; now he will be the first declared candidate in the race. As for Hoosier Republicans outside the Beltway, state House Speaker Brian Bosma is getting some attention as a possible candidate. Lastly, showing great regard for due diligence, Politico’s Kyle Cheney confirmed that 82 year-old former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) will not be seeking a return to the Senate.

Immediately following Coats’ retirement announcement, Democrats floated the name of former Gov. and Sen. Evan Bayh (D), and with good reason: He has about $10 million unspent in his federal war chest, almost enough to finance an entire campaign. However, an adviser said Bayh “is not a candidate,” and while Bayh still can’t totally be ruled out because national and state Democrats will come begging, he seems unlikely to run.

There’s a short list of other Democratic possibilities, led by ex-Rep. Baron Hill (D). The former House member has been looking at the concurrent gubernatorial contest, but with Gov. Mike Pence (R) appearing less likely to throw his hat in the presidential ring, Hill’s best option may be a Senate bid.

Democrats showed in 2012 that they could win a Senate race in Indiana, even with a presidential race going on: While Mitt Romney carried the state by 10 points, now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) defeated Richard Mourdock (R) by about six points. However, Donnelly’s victory was mainly due to Mourdock’s foot-in-mouth troubles, and some Republicans considering the 2016 Senate race may wait to try their luck against Donnelly in 2018. In a stunning aberrational result, President Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, and prospective 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton may well try for an upset here — but Democrats acknowledge Indiana will be tough to win again.

Overall, then, Republican chances of holding onto the Indiana seat are good. At the same time, Mourdock’s self-destruction is a warning sign for the GOP, and a divisive 2016 Republican Senate primary could produce another unacceptable, hard-edged candidate. For now, however, mainly because of the state’s partisan tilt and the wealth of competitive GOP officeholders, we are keeping the rating for this race at Likely Republican.

This seat has an interesting history: Coats was originally appointed to it in 1989 after Sen. Dan Quayle (R) became Vice President Quayle. Coats won the special election to serve out the rest of Quayle’s term in 1990 (beating Baron Hill) and then grabbed a full term in 1992. Coats decided against running for reelection in 1998, creating an open seat that was easily won by Bayh. After winning reelection in 2004, Bayh opted to retire during the 2010 cycle, opening the door for a return by Coats to the same seat he had previously held. The revolving door is spinning again, though it is highly questionable whether Bayh can be induced to step in again.