This year the fight for power in Washington will come down to a magic number: five. That’s how many seats Democrats need to reclaim a majority in the U.S. Senate, whether or not they keep the White House. Seven Senate seats held by Republicans will be contested in states Obama won in 2012, including his home state of Illinois.
The most competitive race may be in Florida. Marco Rubio has said he won’t run for reelection while he seeks the presidential nomination, leaving an open seat. The state, where Obama had his narrowest margin of victory in 2012, has a Republican governor, a U.S. senator from each party, and a Republican-controlled congressional delegation. “There’s no question that both national parties are going to pour a lot of money into this Senate race,” says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
The Republican primary will test the clout of political groups aligned with Tea Party activists. Representative Ron DeSantis, a Freedom Caucus member from a Republican-leaning district in northeastern Florida, is running against Representative David Jolly, a moderate from a district in the Tampa Bay area. DeSantis’s donors include the libertarian-leaning group FreedomWorks, backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, as well as members of the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative House members whose resistance to compromise drove John Boehner to resign as speaker.
National Democratic groups have lined up behind Patrick Murphy, a 32-year-old South Florida congressman who until a few years ago was a registered Republican. “The U.S. Senate is the backstop for protecting all of this administration’s accomplishments,” he said at a state Democratic conference over the Halloween weekend. Murphy’s facing a challenge from the left from Representative Alan Grayson, who says he’s challenging the party establishment much like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “We’re trying to demonstrate that it’s still possible to be a statewide candidate who is unbought and unbossed,” says Grayson, evoking the campaign slogan used by Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, in her 1968 campaign.
“It’s not necessarily true that as it goes presidentially, it will also go in the Senate, but keep in mind that whatever’s the turnout dynamics, whatever’s going on in each of these states for one, it’s also there on the other,” says Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report. “So we’re looking at a real heck of a race for the Senate.”