Issues & Advocacy

2016 Election Report: U.S. Senate


Republicans Retain Control of the United States Senate

November 10, 2016 -- After a bruising battle for control of the United States Senate, Democrats failed to secure the Senate majority November 8. Senator Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will return as Majority Leader, albeit with a slightly narrower majority.

Republicans held a four-seat majority coming into the election, with 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with Democrats. The new Senate split is 51 Republicans, 46 Democrats (including Independents who caucus with them) and one seat still outstanding: Louisiana, where the top two vote-getters head to a run-off election on December 10.

The new Senate make-up:

How Republicans retained control

Of the 34 Senate seats up for reelection in 2016, Republicans had to defend 24, 7 of which were in states that voted for President Obama in 2012. Democrats, on the other hand, had 10 seats in play, 8 of which were considered safe from the outset. In short, Democrats had the advantage. With just a little over a week to go before Election Day, sites like FiveThirtyEight were giving Democrats a nearly 70 percent chance of taking the Senate from Republicans. Election Day’s outcome was a deeply embarrassing defeat for Senate Democrats.

Roll Call’sWeek Ahead” podcast laid out the seven seats it considered most in play: Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. With the exception of Nevada (where Senator Harry Reid is retiring), each of these seats were in Republican hands. Democrats picked up one of these (Nevada), plus Illinois, a seat they were widely expected to win. The New Hampshire race is likely to be decided shortly.

Ironically, in a year when many observers focused on how Republican Senators could or should distance themselves from Donald Trump, Trump in the end helped carry several of them over the finish line. His strong performance in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin helped Senators like Richard Burr (N.C.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) win their reelection bids in those states.

Snapshot: Key races that helped determine the Senate majority  






Mark Kirk*

Tammy Duckworth

Tammy Duckworth


Todd Young

Evan Bayh

Todd Young


Roy Blunt*

Jason Kander

Roy Blunt


Joe Heck

Catherine Cortez Masto

Catherine Cortez Masto

New Hampshire

Kelly Ayotte*

Maggie Hassan

Maggie Hassan

North Carolina

Richard Burr*

Deborah Ross

Richard Burr


Pat Toomey*

Katie McGinty

Pat Toomey


Ron Johnson*

 Russ Feingold

Ron Johnson


* = Incumbent

Illinois – GOP Senator Kirk faced an uphill battle at the outset of this election cycle, running for reelection during a Presidential year in a state that President Obama carried by more than 16 percent in 2012. He lost to Tammy Duckworth, a U.S. House member who, as a combat helicopter pilot, lost both of her legs while on a mission in Iraq.

Indiana – Former Senator Evan Bayh jumped into the race late against Republican U.S. Representative Todd Young. Both candidates faced criticism (Young faced an early issue about qualifying for the ballot), but Evan Bayh turned out to be an opposition researcher’s dream job, with numerous issues ultimately leading to his defeat.   

Missouri – Senator Roy Blunt, a fixture of Missouri politics, faced a wave of voter anger against Washington insiders. Though Missouri is a deeply red state, Blunt’s opponent – Secretary of State Jason Kander – worked to define Blunt as the definition of “insider,” and out of touch with Missouri voters.  Kander, a conservative-leaning Democrat, was an Army intelligence officer who was widely cited as having one of the most striking campaign ads of the cycle. Trump’s performance in Missouri helped Blunt garner the votes needed to return to the Senate.     

Nevada – Nevada’s Senate seat opened when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced his impending retirement. Republicans recruited a strong candidate in Representative Joe Heck, a trauma surgeon who is also a Brigadier General in the Army Reserves. But in the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape revelations, Heck faced problems distancing himself from Trump while trying not to alienate Trump’s supporters. Reid worked tirelessly to help ensure that his hand-picked successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, retained the seat for Democrats. Harry Reid had his political machine on full display in this election and he was instrumental in paving the way for Masto’s win.

New Hampshire – Senator Kelly Ayotte (R) faced Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan in this tightly contested race featuring two of the state’s political titans. The race provided a perfect example of the difficulties many Republican incumbents faced when it came to how to address Donald Trump. Fail to criticize him, and risk losing votes, but criticize him too much and risk alienating those who supported him. Polls in the race went back and forth, with a University of New Hampshire poll released the day before the election giving Hassan a roughly 4 percent advantage over Ayotte, who ended up losing the race.

North Carolina – Incumbent Republican Senator Richard Burr faced off against State Representative (and former North Carolina ACLU state director) Deborah Ross. Her history with the ACLU provided a treasure trove of opposition research for Burr to highlight throughout the state. 

Pennsylvania – GOP Senator Pat Toomey, a former restaurant operator, ran what many considered to be a top-tier campaign against Katie McGinty, a former state and federal environmental policy official.  Trump’s performance in Pennsylvania helped Toomey’s ultimate success.

Wisconsin – Former Senator Russ Feingold (D) challenged Republican incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, who defeated Feingold six years ago. Earlier this year, it looked like a surefire lock for Feingold, but the race tightened over the next several months, and became a focal point for outside money and resources on both sides of the aisle. This was another example where Trump’s strong showing in a state helped pave Johnson’s way to victory.

Impact for restaurants

Senate Republicans will maintain control of committee and floor agendas, and are likely to declare the 2016 election results a decisive mandate, having held the Senate against long odds. On the policy side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will likely focus on spurring economic growth through tax and regulatory reform, and reducing barriers to entrepreneurship. Simultaneously, he will seek solutions for reducing the deficit and getting our nation’s fiscal matters in order.

Democrats will continue to retain significant leverage in the Senate. The GOP has a slim majority and Senate rules require 60 votes for most measures to pass. There is reason for optimism that Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who will succeed Harry Reid as Minority Leader, may be better able to work with Republicans than Senator Reid. This could open the door for bipartisan compromises. As examples: Senator Schumer worked with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) as part of the “Gang of Eight” that shepherded a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate several years ago. He also has worked closely with the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), on legislation to crack down on abusive “patent trolls.”

By the time you read this, the 33 Senators up for reelection in 2018 will be gearing up for their next campaigns. In short: Wednesday, November 9, 2016, is the first day of the 2018 election cycle. 2018 is the mirror opposite of 2016: 25 Democrats are up for reelection, compared to eight Republicans. Given the outcome of this election, they will be even more inclined to strengthen their bipartisan bona fides, particularly those Senators from states where Trump won.