Is Seat Flipping in the Senate a Big Deal?

A lot is being said about the historic nature of Republicans flipping 8-9 Senate seats and beating four incumbent Democrats (and possibly as many as five by December) during the election of 2014.  However, that’s not terribly unusual in the Senate.  Of the current Members of the Senate, 48 won their seats either by beating an incumbent (22) or by taking a seat from a retiring member of the other party (26).  Sen. Angus King (ME-I) caucuses with the Democrats and the seat was previously held by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), so I count this seat as a takeover, whereas I don’t count Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) because both he and his predecessor, Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT), caucus with the Democrats (Jeffords for only the a little while).

One might think this is a new phenomenon.  With more than half the Senate elected in the last six years and control bouncing back and forth you’d expect a bunch of seat switching.  But it has been around for 40 years (or more).  Only nine Senators who will be sworn into the 114th Congress were elected before I started working on the Hill in 1989. The seven longest serving current Senators ALL either beat incumbents or flipped the seat.  The longest serving one whose predecessor was from the same party is Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) who accomplished the feat in 1984.  Interestingly, he is retiring and HIS seat flipped when it was won by Sen.-elect Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).  The next most senior Senator on the list: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who won the seat of retiring Senator Barry Goldwater (R) in 1986.

The group of Senators up for reelection in 2016 boasts 19 seat “flippers”, the most of any class, and includes four that toppled incumbents.  Those numbers may increase as a number of those standing for reelection hail from states that have had close Senate elections in the last two cycles, including Sen. Murkowski (R) in Alaska, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in Colorado, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) in Missouri, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire.

When one in five Senators owe their position to beating an incumbent, it is no wonder that many really do want to look bipartisan.  That said, prominent partisans tend to come from safer places, people like Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all had predecessors from their party (although Sanders took his from a converted Republican) and don’t have a fear from the other party as much.  In the Democratic leadership, only Sen. Dick Durbin had a predecessor of the same party.  On the Republican side it is much different where only Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. John Thune had to wrest control of their seat from the other party.

It will be interesting to see whether coming from a place of security versus having to fight every six years will affect how the Republicans run the Senate Chamber.



Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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