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The Race to Turn the Senate Blue: The Top Senate Contests in the 2016 Election

Though the presidential race has taken up much of the electoral coverage thus far, there are also many close U.S. Senate seats up for grabs that could tilt the Senate in the Democrats favor. Democrats are even hoping the House of Representatives comes into play if there is backlash against Trump and the Republican Party, though this is viewed as more of a long shot.

In this election, Republicans are fighting to protect their seats from Democrats, marking a vast change from the past few Congressional elections where many hotly contested races were in Republican primaries, causing candidates to battle over who was the most conservative. Here are two key Senate races that could tip the scales and one bitterly contested Democratic Senate primary to keep an eye on:

  1. New Hampshire: Incumbent GOP Senator Kelly Ayotte faces a tough challenger in the form of incumbent Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. In an effort to appeal to moderate voters, she has agreed to meet with Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, though she still holds that he should not receive a vote. She has proven herself relatively moderate during her tenure as well, as she has voted for immigration reform and clean power plants. Another big issue in the campaign is the opioid crisis, which has hurt New Hampshire especially. Both candidates have records to show on this issue. Ayotte helped pass a Senate bill to deal with the crisis, though Democrats attacked the bill for not having more funding than what was already agreed to under the omnibus funding bill that passed last year. As governor, Hassan expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. This week, Hassan has faced attacks about her connection to a sex scandal at Phillips Exeter Academy where her husband resigned as principal last year when a teacher was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a student. The teacher was listed on the steering committee for Hassan’s 2012 campaign. The latest polls show Ayotte having a 4-point lead over Hassan.
  1. Illinois: Incumbent GOP Senator Mark Kirk faces a tough Democratic challenger in Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, after both won their respective primaries. Kirk is another one of only four Republican Senators who has agreed to meet with Garland. He even said that Garland should receive a hearing, going a step farther than Ayotte. He has also taken moderate positions voting with Democrats on immigration reform and an assault weapons ban. Duckworth is a veteran amputee who served as Assistant Secretary in the Veterans Affairs’ Administration under President Obama before being elected to the House in 2012. Kirk himself had a stroke in 2012 and is still in recovery. One interesting endorsement thus far in the campaign was the Human Rights Campaign’s, a leading LGBT rights organization, endorsement of Kirk. Duckworth supporters were upset since she has a 100% positive record from the organization while Kirk only has a 78. Kirk, however, was the first Republican co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which would prohibit LGBT discrimination in public places, housing, education, and employment. The latest polls, released from Kirk’s campaign shows Duckworth leading him by 3 percent, with 17 percent of voters undecided.
  1. Maryland: Maryland features a competitive Democratic primary in the race to replace retiring Democrat Barbara Mikulski. The seat is likely safely Democratic, which is why the real competition is in the primary. Congressman Chris Van Hollen is facing off against Congresswoman Donna Edwards in a primary that is much closer than expected. Van Hollen is the top Democrat on the Budget Committee and has been in Congress since 2003. Before being elected in 2008, Edwards founded the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Edwards has the backing of women’s group EMILY’s List, which has spent more than $2 million on her behalf. In their two debates together, the two candidates sparred over who was a true progressive. Edwards dismissed Van Hollen as an establishment figure who would not bring about real change, citing his Congressional endorsements and his compromising with Republicans on the budget in the past as evidence. She countered that she had the life experience of having been a low-income African American in a state that faced huge protests after the death of Freddie Gray last year. Van Hollen labeled Edwards as ineffective and not paying attention to her constituents’ needs. Among all Democrats likely to vote in the April 26 primary, Edwards leads by 4 percent. However, the racial gap is a lot larger. Edwards leads black voters by 33%, while Van Hollen leads white voters by the same margin.

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