After sustaining crushing losses in 2014, Democrats are projecting confidence about recapturing the Senate in 2016. Unlike midterms, according to the party’s Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, Justin Barasky, a presidential election “can only help Democrats.” Count me skeptical.
To get a majority, Democrats must defeat five of seven Republican senators in states President Obama won twice—Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (Or five of eight Republicans if you add North Carolina, which Mr. Obama won in 2008 but lost in 2012.)
The GOP took the Senate in 2014 by winning seven seats held by Democrats in states Mitt Romney carried in 2012—Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia—along with seats in two states Mr. Obama carried, Colorado and Iowa. So Democrats argue that if GOP Senate candidates can carry states that go Republican for the White House, then Democratic Senate candidates are likely to carry states Democrats have won in presidential elections.
Although it is true that the Senate landscape in 2016 will be better for Democrats than last year, there are flaws in their narrative.
First, the states Republicans won in 2014 tilted far more Republican than the states with GOP incumbents up next year tilt Democrat. For example, Republicans defeated incumbent Democrats in states Mitt Romney carried by 23.7% (Arkansas), 17.2% (Louisiana), 14% (Alaska) and 2% (North Carolina).
By comparison, Republican incumbents are up next year in states Mr. Obama generally carried by smaller margins, namely 0.9% (Florida), 3% (Ohio), 5.4% (Pennsylvania), 5.6% (New Hampshire), 5.8% (Iowa) and 6.9% (Wisconsin). Only one GOP incumbent senator is in a state Mr. Obama carried by double digits: Illinois, which he carried by 16.9%.
Second, it is hard to beat an incumbent. In the last eight presidential elections, Democrats have defeated four or more Republican incumbent senators twice, picking off five in 2000 and in 2008. It took extraordinary circumstances to pull this off. In 2000 President Clinton was unusually popular for a two-term incumbent—and 2008 was a flat-out bad year for Republicans.
No one believes Mr. Obama’s Gallup job-approval ratings will be close to the 57% Mr. Clinton enjoyed on Oct. 28, 2000, right before that year’s presidential election. Mr. Obama last reached that level in December 2012, right after his re-election. Given the world’s trajectory, his approval ratings next year are more likely to be lower than the 45% he received in this week’s Gallup poll.
Moreover, seven of eight Republican senators in states Mr. Obama carried at least once are running for re-election. If the eighth—Florida’s Marco Rubio—is in the hunt for the presidential nomination at the May 2016 filing deadline, the GOP has two statewide elected officials, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, in the wings.
Third, Democrats are struggling to recruit Senate candidates. The only declared Democrat in Pennsylvania, former congressman Joe Sestak, announced without notifying national Democrats and is viewed skeptically by party leaders. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tried to clear the field in Ohio by endorsing defeated former Gov. Ted Strickland, age 73, but failed.
The favored prospects in North Carolina and Wisconsin, former Sens. Kay Hagan and Russ Feingold, are spending this year teaching in Massachusetts and California, respectively. New Hampshire Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan is mum about running for the Senate, but the legislature is shredding her budget and her idea to hire a chief operating officer for the state is being widely ridiculed. Several Democratic congressmen are considering running in Florida and Illinois, raising the likelihood of expensive, debilitating primaries.
Conversely, not a single Republican seat in a red state looks at risk today. The only chance Democrats have to win these is if Republican incumbents draw serious primary challengers that divide the GOP.
The fourth problem for Democrats is they will be playing defense in at least two purple states: Nevada, where Sen. Harry Reid had a 41% unfavorability rating in a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll late last year; and Colorado, where a recent Quinnipiac poll found only 32% say Sen. Michael Bennet should be re-elected.
Finally, each incumbent Republican senator is busy raising money, building serious organizations and compiling a governing record that appeals to independents and Democrats so they run ahead of the GOP presidential candidate in their states.
The Democratic Senate campaign chairman, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, says, “I will not be successful in this job unless we take the majority back.” Twenty-one months before the election, Republicans are working hard to make Mr. Tester’s tenure unsuccessful.
A version of this article appeared March 12, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Democrats Are Bullish On Retaking The Senate and online at WSJ.com.