The party losing the presidency has made gains in the U.S. Senate nine times over the last century – but never large enough gains to overcome the Democratic Party’s current deficit

senateseal20The race for the presidency is in full swing with nomination battles – particularly for the GOP – dominating the headlines and voting to begin in the Iowa caucuses in seven weeks.

Reports continue to percolate of Republican Party concerns that a Donald Trump nomination win could put victories at risk in key down the ballot races, especially in U.S. Senate contests where Democrats need to net just five seats to win back control of the chamber (or four if they win the presidency and the chamber’s two independents continue to caucus with them).

But what if the GOP establishment’s fears are not realized and another candidate is nominated en route to a GOP White House win? Under that scenario, is there a chance Democrats could still take back the U.S. Senate?

A Smart Politics analysis finds that in nine of 25 election cycles over the last century, the party losing the presidential race was still able to make gains in the U.S. Senate – although never as many as the five seats Democrats need to net in 2016.

Republicans currently enjoy a 54 to 46 advantage in the chamber, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Democrats are hopeful of their chances to pick up seats next November in Illinois (against incumbent Mark Kirk) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), believe they also have at least even odds to win seats in Florida (open) and New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte), and have a fighting chance in North Carolina (Richard Burr), Ohio (Rob Portman), and Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey).

Republicans, meanwhile, do not have as many golden pick-up opportunities in 2016 but hope to find success out West in Colorado (Michael Bennet) and Nevada (open).

While it seems inconceivable that Democrats could run the table in these competitive races without their nominee carrying the presidency at the top of the ticket, electoral history suggests it is not out of the question they could nonetheless make some gains in the chamber.

Since direct voting of U.S. Senators began with the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, there have been 25 presidential elections. In nine of these cycles, or 36 percent of the time, the party losing the presidency was still able to achieve a net gain of seats in the nation’s upper legislative chamber:

  • 1916 (Wilson): Republicans +2 seats
  • 1940 (FDR): Republicans + 4
  • 1944 (FDR): Republicans +1
  • 1960 (JFK): Republicans +1
  • 1972 (Nixon): Democrats +2
  • 1984 (Reagan): Democrats +2
  • 1988 (Bush 41): Democrats +1
  • 1996 (Clinton): Republicans +2
  • 2000 (Bush 43): Democrats +4

However, none of these nine cycles saw a change in partisan control – save for the first 17 days of the 107th Congress in which outgoing Vice President Al Gore had the tie-breaking vote for Democrats in a 50-50 split chamber. [Control returned to the GOP as Dick Cheney was sworn into office as Vice President on January 20, 2001].

Plus, none of these nine cycles saw a net gain of at least five seats – the magic number for Democrats in 2016.

By contrast, the party winning the presidency has netted five or more U.S. Senate seats eight times over the last century:

  • 1920 (Coolidge): Republicans +10 seats
  • 1928 (Hoover): Republicans +8
  • 1932 (FDR): Democrats +12
  • 1936 (FDR): Democrats +5
  • 1948 (Truman): Democrats +9
  • 1968 (Nixon): Republicans +5
  • 1980 (Reagan): Republicans +12
  • 2008 (Obama): Democrats +8

At the very least, one would expect that if Democrats lose the White House in 2016 the party would need their nominee to come close to victory at the top of the ticket in order to net gains approaching five U.S. Senate seats.

But what is particularly interesting is that only three of the aforementioned nine cycles in which such gains were made was there anything close to a competitive presidential race: in 1916 (Hughes vs. Wilson), 1960 (JFK vs. Nixon), and 2000 (Bush vs. Gore).

In the other six cycles, Democrats and Republicans made gains in the U.S. Senate even while their presidential nominee endured a blowout loss averaging 375 Electoral College votes (367 votes in 1940, 333 in 1944, 503 in 1972, 512 in 1984, 315 in 1988, and 220 in 1996).

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  1. Nikoli Orr on December 14, 2015 at 6:47 am

    1. Ds seem to having “fighting chances” in IN, MO, IA, and AZ, depending on the degreee of unity of each state party, and the indentity of each party’s presidential nominee.
    2. If the Rs manage to keep both WI and IL – or the Ds let NV or CO slip – accompanied by a D presidential victory, then that might very well be THE worst case scenario for the Ds, since they then would be confronting the 2018 cycle as the MINORITY playing DEFENCE.

    • Eric Ostermeier on December 14, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      Of those states mentioned in (1) above I think Indiana could provide the most (unexpected) drama. It’s hard to see Grassley in Iowa losing even with a Dem/Clinton landslide even though he has only had to prove himself against a winning DEM PRES candidate in the state once (1992).

  2. Nikoli Orr on December 14, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Aside from IN, MO, and AZ, national Ds would have an outside chance to take the AK seat, if the current two-(full)term Senator loses re-nomination (and does not embark on a write-in bid). In that landmark 2010 campaign, the (official) party nominee, one Joe Miller, garnered a mere 35.5% vote share – trailing his ticketmate, then-un-elected Governor S Parnell by 23.6%!.

  3. Dovie Eisner on December 14, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I believe Democrats picked up five seats in 2000, not four.

    • Eric Ostermeier on December 14, 2015 at 9:13 pm

      Democrats picked up 6, but lost 2, for a net +4 seats.

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