Can Democrats Really Win the Senate in 2018?

The Democrats begin the 2018 Senate election cycle at a historic disadvantage. They are defending 25 seats (including two seats held by independents that caucus with the Democrats), ten of which represent states Donald Trump won in 2016, and of those ten, five are states Trump won by more than 19 points. However, Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity combined with several other factors have given Democrats a potential path to a majority in 2018. In order to win back the Senate, Democrats must do several things:

  • Hold all 25 Democratic seats up for election, including those considered competitive

  • Win the two Republican seats considered very competitive

  • Win one or more of five Republican seats that are considered at least somewhat competitive

This is a tall order for the Democrats, but it can be done. This article will look at the individual races considered competitive and analyze what must happen for a Democratic majority to be possible.

Author’s note: competitiveness of seats is determined by considering rankings from Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections, as well as the author’s opinion. Ratings from all three sources can be found here.

Democrat-held Seats

There are several tiers of competitiveness among Democrat-held seats. For the purposes of this article, we will split them into categories based on how likely the Democrats are to hold these seats.

Safe Democratic Seats: CA, CT, DE, HI, MA, MD, MN, NM, NY, RI, VT, WA

There isn’t much to be said about these seats: all are in reliably Democratic states and all have strong incumbents running for reelection with an unpopular president of the opposing party. These Senators are all considered safe.

Likely Democratic holds: ME, MI, NJ, PA, VA

This first tier of competitive Democratic seats up for election will be more competitive than the safe seats, but will still most likely be retained by the Democrats. These seats all feature popular, entrenched incumbents with proven fundraising skills and the ability to garner crossover appeal. Sens. Angus King (I-ME, UVA Law alumnus) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are former Governors and have near-universal name recognition, as well as good approval ratings. As of now, Kaine’s only declared opponent is Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, the 2017 gubernatorial candidate and former Trump campaign chair in Virginia whose immigration crackdowns and allegations of racism have made him a controversial figure who should be beatable in what will likely be a blue year. Bob Casey (D-PA) hails from a Pennsylvania political dynasty and has built a strong, bipartisan brand within the state. Normally, New Jersey would be a safe Democratic seat, but Senator Bob Menendez has been on trial for corruption. A mistrial has been declared in the case, but it remains to be seen how much this will affect Menendez’s re-election campaign. His approval ratings were hit hard by this scandal, but the hung jury will most likely lead to those numbers rising again. Given that the Department of Justice seems unlikely to pursue another trial, Menendez seems likely to reclaim his previously overwhelming edge, just not to as great of an extent as in years prior. However, Menendez is not out of the woods yet: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an ethics investigation. Luckily, this will take time, and in the off-chance this case escalates and Menendez is removed from the Senate, it likely will not happen before Republican Governor Chris Christie leaves office on January 16th, 2017. This means that if Menendez is removed, it is likely that Governor-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat, will appoint a successor. Given the tough map and slim Republican majority in the Senate, the Democrats can’t afford to lose any seats, especially one that is normally as safe as New Jersey’s. Democrats have to hope that Menendez does not get into any more trouble. In Michigan, Senator Debbie Stabenow is a popular incumbent and perhaps her most significant potential opponent, musician Kid Rock, stated that he would not be running for this seat. All in all, these seats seem rather likely to remain in Democratic hands. Incumbents simply need to maintain their course and they should be able to win reelection.

Lean Democratic: FL, MT, ND, OH, WI, WV

This second tier of Democratic-held seats are less likely to remain in Democratic hands than the previous group, but the incumbent party still holds the advantage. All of these states were won by Donald Trump by varying degrees. Florida and Wisconsin were two of Trump’s closest states. Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and UVA Law alumnus, has a tough race facing presumptive GOP nominee Rick Scott (the current Governor). However, Governor Scott has only narrowly won his past elections to the Governor’s mansion, and Nelson is a strong two-term incumbent. That being said, Scott has been praised for his response to Hurricane Irma, which will no doubt help him in his Senate run. The Wisconsin race features a Republican candidate, Kevin Nicholson, that seems to check all of the boxes needed to win here. There’s only one problem: Nicholson is the former president of the College Democrats of America. That label will be hard to escape in a primary.  Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia are all states Trump won by over 20 points, but all three feature Democratic Senators with approval ratings above 50% who are very strong fundraisers. Particularly in West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin has managed to walk a fine line of some resistance to Trump and appeasing to the overwhelmingly pro-Trump West Virginia voting population. West Virginia’s Democrat-turned-Republican Governor Jim Justice has said that he will support Manchin’s reelection bid, and given the Senator’s current high approval rating, Manchin seems likely to retain his seat here. In Ohio, Senator Sherrod Brown is a progressive populist with the enthusiastic backing of organized labor and the valuable political skill of being able to talk to and connect with voters on both a personal and political level. It’s tempting to put Senator Brown in the Likely Democratic category, but Ohio’s swing towards Trump in 2016 places this race (albeit barely) in the Leans Democratic category. All of these Senators, being from states Trump won, have shown a willingness to work with the President. It remains to be seen if they will be rewarded for it at the ballot box, but the odds of these Democrats winning reelection are better than even. This tier of candidates needs to maintain the line they walk between resistance and compromise with the President, and play up their independence to their constituencies back home without alienating left-leaning Democrats and their representative interest groups. Many of these candidates rely heavily on the support of organized labor, particularly in the Midwest states. Groups such as these will be crucial in terms of financial support and recruiting volunteers, so these Democrats must stick to their base in these races.

Toss-Up: AZ, IN, MO, NV

Here’s where things get complicated. In Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill is one of the most brilliant campaigners in politics. The way she influenced the 2012 Republican primary in order to produce the most unelectable opponent is nothing short of brilliant: many people still remember Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” controversy. She will have a much harder time running this time around, but she has proven to be a strong fundraiser and has made a concerted effort to reach out to her constituents in town halls across the state of Missouri. However, Republicans have a quality candidate in Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, and given the red tilt of the state, McCaskill faces a daunting but winnable race. Indiana features a very similar race: a Midwestern state with a Democratic incumbent (Joe Donnelly) that has close ties to organized labor. Indiana, like Missouri, went for Donald Trump by a wide margin, and the 2012 race there also featured a Republican candidate that saw his campaign sunk by controversial comments on rape. Senator Donnelly is relatively popular in the state, and the Republican primary has been among the ugliest in this cycle. However, Vice President Mike Pence hails from Indiana, and he will certainly play a prominent role in the campaign. The influence and popularity of both Pence and Donald Trump will play a key role here, perhaps more so than in any other Democrat-held seat. Indiana voted for President Trump by a wide margin, so Donnelly must run a very efficient campaign in order to win this seat. This could be the most vulnerable Democratic seat up this cycle, but Donnelly certainly still has at least a 50% chance of retaining this seat. McCaskill and Donnelly must be careful about where they resist the President and where they work with him. Both races will need astronomical amounts of money raised, and it will be crucial for the candidates to crisscross their states as much as possible and make themselves available to voters.

As for the Republican held seats, Nevada is the only GOP-held seat up for election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Harry Reid may be retired, but his political machine lives on and is still among the most effective political operations in any swing state. Senator Dean Heller’s approval rating has cratered recently, mostly due to his positions regarding the President’s health care plan. Heller has a primary challenger in perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who has the backing of Steve Bannon. He also has a strong Democratic opponent in Jacky Rosen, the Reid machine’s chosen candidate. This is a pretty clear cut opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a seat, and if Heller doesn’t improve his standing with Nevada voters soon, he is in real danger of losing this seat. Rosen simply has to let the Reid machine do what it has done in the past, because Heller seems to be sinking his own ship. In Arizona, deeply unpopular Senator Jeff Flake is retiring. Arizona Democrats are coalescing around Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, a Representative from Phoenix. She brings a distinctly bipartisan record (she is a member of the centrist/conservative Democrat “Blue Dog” Coalition) and a touching personal story to the race, as well as the chance to become the first openly bisexual person to win a Senate seat. On the Republican side, former state senator Kelli Ward is the only declared candidate. She is famous for saying John McCain should resign from the Senate after his cancer diagnosis and is seen as a Bannon-esque and Tea Party-aligned candidate, making her very conservative and difficult to elect in a state that is trending purple. However, Flake’s retirement may enable a more moderate Republican to run for this seat (Congresswoman Martha McSally seems likely to enter), therefore giving the GOP a better chance to hold this seat. However, the eventual GOP nominee must walk a fine line between moderate and very conservative voters, because the primary is already gearing up to be an ugly one. This race remains a tossup, but could swing either way depending on if any more electable Republicans enter the race and how the Republican primary itself shapes up. A lot of this race’s strategy depends on what sort of Republican comes out of the primary: Sinema may find it to her advantage to rehash Claire McCaskill’s 2012 strategy and attempt to influence the GOP primary in an attempt to choose the weakest opponent to face in the general election.

Where it gets Difficult: AL, TN, TX

If Democrats win all of the aforementioned races, they only need to win one of these races for a majority. In Alabama, Bannon-backed former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore defeated recently-appointed Senator Luther Strange in the primary to run for Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat. Moore was already controversial, having been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice. Now he’s facing multiple allegations of initiating sexual encounters with teenage girls as young as 14. Several other Republicans have rescinded their endorsements, cut off funding to his campaign, and even called for him to drop out of the race. This is all coming on the heels of Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee, leading in some polls. Jones is a former US Attorney famous for prosecuting the Klansmen responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing over 30 years after the case went cold. It’s almost unbelievable to think a Democrat could win statewide in Alabama, but this could very well be the perfect storm that makes it possible. As of writing this, Sabato’s Crystal Ball had briefly moved the rating of this race to Leans Democrat, meaning that even the experts see a real path for Jones to win this seat. It is now back at a Toss-up rating, but this is still as close a Democrat has been to winning an Alabama Senate seat this century. Moore has dug himself into quite a hole, but party loyalty is very strong in this day and age. The African-American turnout is absolutely crucial for a Jones victory. He needs to convince Republican voters to vote by their conscience and not by their party affiliation. Tennessee is an open seat being vacated by Senator Bob Corker, and the feasibility of Democrats winning this race rests on one man: Phil Bredesen. Bredesen is a former mayor of Nashville and two-term Governor from 2003-2011. Tennessee’s other Senator Lamar Alexander admits he would be a formidable candidate, and political observer Charlie Cook claimed that if he runs, this race moves into the toss-up category. At the time of revisions for this piece, Bredesen announced that he will run for this Senate seat. This is a huge win for Tennessee Democrats, who are used to some awful candidates in major races. Ultimately, if Democrats want to win here, Bredesen needs to win this primary. As a candidate, he needs to remind voters of the good work he did as Governor. Tennessee is definitely a very Republican state, but this race just got a whole lot more interesting. Finally, there is Texas. A state that even GOP strategists admit is trending purple, and Ted Cruz may be in for a tough reelection bid. The current Democratic frontrunner, El Paso Rep Beto O’Rourke, is a former punk rocker-turned-Congressman who is crisscrossing the state talking to voters and reaching out to as many Texans as he can. O’Rourke is reminiscent of Robert Kennedy, and may be the kind of Democrat that can finally win statewide in Texas. He has refused to take PAC money, and managed to out-raise Cruz in the second quarter while keeping it close in the third. This may be a longer shot than any of the previously mentioned races, but Beto has a chance. His statewide travel and eccentric image will be boons to his campaign. People respond really well to politicians not taking PAC money, and hopefully the anti-Trump sentiment that is widespread in this country can combine with people’s general disdain for Ted Cruz and push O’Rourke over the finish line.

Conclusion

Democrats face a difficult path to a Senate majority. However, while the geography is daunting, the national environment is squarely in their favor. The increasing unpopularity of Donald Trump combined with Steve Bannon’s far-right recruits and the historic trend of high opposition turnout generated by an unpopular incumbent president creates a perfect national environment for Democrats. If Hillary Clinton were in the White House, Republicans may have been able to win a supermajority this cycle. With President Trump, they may not even hold their majority. The reality of today would have been unbelievable before last year’s election. But the fact of the matter is, Democrats have a very real chance to win the Senate in 2018.