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Key Senate Races to Watch on Election Night: Keeping Clubs a Priority

FOR MOST CLUB LEADERS, control of the U.S. Senate is an afterthought of the 2016 elections. Indeed, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have provided quite enough entertainment for everyone to be focused solely on them. However, a change in the U.S. Senate’s majority might have a far greater impact on the private club industry than who resides in the White House.

Without pro-club leadership in the Senate, legislation coming from the U.S. House of Representatives that benefits our industry will never see the light of day in the upper chamber of Congress. Currently, Senate Republicans have a 54-46 majority, but they also have 24 senate seats up for re-election this November while the Democrats only have 10.

Five races will likely determine which party controls the Senate. Interestingly, these contests are in states that will also likely determine the winner of the White House. So, the spotlight will be on these states and turnout based on the presidential campaign will likely make or break these senate candidates.

Illinois: Sen. Mark Kirk (R) vs. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D)

Even though Illinois is a traditionally blue (Democratic) state, Sen. Kirk was able to win the election in 2010 based on his bipartisan record during his five terms in the House of Representatives. Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 and returned to the Senate in 2013, after a year of intensive rehabilitation. While he still is a strong advocate for his constituents, his medical condition has not helped him on the campaign trail.

Rep. Duckworth has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for four years. Prior to that, she served as head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs as well as an Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, she served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot where, in 2004, she was shot down in Iraq and lost both legs as well as significant use of one arm. She is the first disabled woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

When Kirk won in 2010, this seat immediately became the number one take over priority for the Democrats in 2016. Unfortunately, that has not changed during the last six years. With President Obama winning his home state by eight points in 2012 and with his (and Hillary Clinton’s) support firmly behind Duckworth, this race could be the first Republican Senate loss in 2016.

Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. former Sen. Russ Feingold (D)

In 2010, Ron Johnson took on a three-term incumbent senator and won with 52 percent of the vote. It was an impressive victory for a businessman who had never held elective office before. Now, his first re-election race is against the same man he beat six years earlier.

Former Sen. Russ Feingold is best known for joining Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Though he was out of office for the last six years, he began running to win back this seat as soon as he lost it. Having spent three terms in the Senate, Feingold has universal name recognition in Wisconsin and a strong campaign apparatus that will serve him well.

In 2012, Obama won Wisconsin by three points. That, coupled with a reinvigorated opponent, makes this a very difficult race for Johnson.

Indiana: Rep. Todd Young (R) vs. former Senator (and Governor) Evan Bayh (D)

Until early July, this race was not much of a concern for Republicans. Though incumbent Sen. Dan Coats (R) decided to retire, the seat still leaned Republican. When Rep. Todd Young, a three-term congressman, former Marine intelligence officer and Naval Academy graduate, won the nomination, it seemed certain he would hold the seat for Republicans. However, as the summer wore on things quickly changed.

In May, former five-term Congressman Baron Hill was selected as the Democratic nominee, but he never gained traction with voters. Believing that Senate control could actually flip, Democratic Party leaders convinced him to drop out of the race in July. In his place, the party nominated former two-term governor and two-term senator, Evan Bayh. What made the choice even easier was the fact that Bayh still had more than $9 million in his old campaign account.

Indiana is a red state (Republican) when it comes to presidential politics—Mitt Romney won Indiana by four points in 2012. However, that may not help Young. With Bayh’s high name recognition and ample campaign funds, this solidly Republican seat might be the third loss for the majority party in 2016.

New Hampshire: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) vs. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)

Senator Kelly Ayotte has been fighting an uphill battle for re-election ever since she won the seat. While she has been a faithful supporter of her constituents, New Hampshire tends to be a bit bluer in presidential election years. In 2012, Obama won the Granite State by two points.

Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan has put a significant amount of pressure on Ayotte. She has a long political history in the state as a former State Senate Majority Leader and now as a two-term governor. With strong approval ratings and abundant cash, Hassan seems poised to make this race competitive to the very end.

The unknown variable seems to be the presidential candidates. Though Hassan has endorsed Clinton, many voters in the state do not find her trustworthy. On the other hand, Ayotte has gone out of her way not to endorse Donald Trump though she says she supports him. With two unpopular people at the top of the tickets, this may be the first Senate race that could hinge on the presidential outcome—and right now that does not bode well for Ayotte.

North Carolina: Sen. Richard Burr (R) vs. former State Rep. Deborah Ross (D)

When Republicans began reviewing the 24 seats up for re-election, few believed that Sen. Burr would have any trouble winning another term. As a sitting senator from a conservative state, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected to a third term.

It seemed North Carolina Democrats believed that, too. Earlier this year, Democratic Party leaders tried to entice former Sen. Kay Hagan and current U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to run against Burr, but both determined the race was unwinnable.

In the end, former five-term State Rep. Deborah Ross won the nomination. Until recently, many felt she had no shot at defeating the incumbent. However, presidential politics have now made her an extremely dangerous opponent for Burr.

Donald Trump has not done well in North Carolina and his campaign has hurt Burr. In 2012, Romney won North Carolina by just one point. As such, it will be a closely contested presidential race that could turn an feasibly re-election race for Burr into another loss for the Republicans.

Other Races and the 2017 Legislative Agenda

These five races represent the best chances for Democrats to take the majority in the Senate. Of course, these are not the only races of note. Republicans in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania all have difficult re-election battles, and they all will be affected by the presidential election. Through our political action committee, ClubPAC, NCA has supported a number of these candidates who have helped our industry, but our support may not be enough. If just four of these races go the Democrats’ way, then the Senate will flip.

If that happens, the ability to alter the Department of Labor’s Overtime Rule, the National Labor Relations Board’s Ambush Election and Persuader Rules, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S. Rule, and to repeal or even modify the Affordable Care Act will be much more difficult. With the number of close races faced by pro-club senators, we must begin preparing for what could be a tough election night for the private club industry’s interests.

Every four years, all eyes are focused on the presidency. While the new president will certainly set the legislative agenda, Congress will control how far that agenda goes—and a change in the Senate majority could have a lasting effect on our industry for years to come.