2018 Crystal Ball: Senate Democrats Are 'Very Exposed'

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Dec 14, 2016 6:10 PM
2018 Crystal Ball: Senate Democrats Are 'Very Exposed'

Well, if Democrats are hoping to pick up a few Senate seats during the 2018 midterms, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball just threw a wet blanket on those plans. Yes, Mr. Sabato and his crew got the 2016 race wrong. In fact, most of the news media did—but at least they have admitted it. Now, let’s rehash things are commonplace with the midterms, which have already begun. The party that is not occupying the White House usually picks up seats. We saw this in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, with the latter election ending with Republicans retaking control of Congress. So, Democrats should do well, right? It’s quite a climb.

The party has been gutted at every level. Republicans not only control Washington, but they control most of the country. Twenty-five states have a unified GOP state government, the GOP controls 69/99 state legislatures, 33 governorships, and have over 4,100 state lawmakers in office. It’s also hard to build a winning coalition for the midterms when you’re party has been devastated and reduced to their coastal and urban strongholds. All that’s left is a small, progressive, and snobby elite who views the voters they need to reconnect with in order to make a comeback with scorn and disgust. They don’t want to look inward and try and solve the problem. They want to blame the media, Russia, the FBI, racism, sexism, and homophobia etc. (Trump is the most pro-gay rights Republican ever elected by the way) for Clinton’s loss. Anything on the insufferable progressive social justice warrior buffet will suffice for these kids, instead of admitting that Clinton sucked and her loss to the eminently beatable Donald Trump is proof of that, among other things. Sabato crunched the numbers, noting how Senate Democrats are “very exposed” for 2018:

The last time a party was as exposed as Democrats are in 2018 was in the 1970 cycle. At the end of 1968, 25 Democratic-held seats were up in the 1970 midterm. There are some similarities between the position of Democrats in 1970 and 2018. First, Class I Senate seats were up in 1970, just as they are in 2018. Second, a sizable number of Democratic-held 1970 Senate seats (13) were up in states that Republican Richard Nixon had just carried in the closely-contested 1968 presidential election, compared to the 10 Democrats are defending in 2018 in Trump states. Perhaps endangered Democrats up in 2018 can feel a little bolstered by the fact that Democrats only lost three net seats in the 1970 midterm despite having to defend numerous seats, many in states that backed the most recent GOP presidential nominee. Overall, 11 of the 12 Democratic incumbents running in states won by Nixon in 1968 won reelection in 1970 (though Harry Byrd Jr. of Virginia ran as an independent that cycle, eschewing his previous party label).

Democrats overcame their overextension in 1970 in part because Nixon held the presidency, while the overextended parties in 1926 and 1938 held the White House, perhaps contributing to their bigger losses. So as the Democrats assess their Senate odds in 2018, they can take some solace in the possibility that the midterm dynamic might help them protect their many vulnerable incumbents.

But comparisons between 1970 and 2018 should be made with caution. First, the political environment was far less polarized in 1970 than it is now. Take, for instance, the fact that about half of the states that held Senate races in the 1968 and 1972 presidential cycles had split presidential-Senate outcomes, the latter being Nixon’s “lonely landslide” win against George McGovern. Compare that to 2016, which saw 100% of states with Senate races vote straight-ticket for president and Senate (with Louisiana’s final outcome still to be determined in a runoff this Saturday). Granted, 2018 is a midterm year, but the point is that the high level of party polarization matters. In 2014, Republicans won all seven of the Senate contests that took place in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. For Democrats in 2018, they only have one scheduled (i.e. Class I) target in a state won by Hillary Clinton — Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who may opt to run for governor instead — and only one other battleground state Senate seat to compete for — Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) may face a notable primary challenge from Kelli Ward (R), a former state senator who lost to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the GOP primary for Arizona’s other U.S. Senate seat in 2016.

[…]

… in this polarized era of American politics, the fact that Democrats are defending seats in some very Republican states suggests that the GOP should be in a good position to pick up seats despite the midterm environment.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) is one of those possible pick-ups. In fact, given that she only won her 2012 bud by around 3,000 votes, the increased polarization, and the fact that she comes from a deep-red state, it’s fair to say that Heitkamp is 2018’s Mark Kirk; someone who is probably going to lose many months before voting begins. Everyone knew that Kirk, a Republican Senator from Illinois who was recently defeated for re-election by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, had no chance in a presidential year with increased Democratic turnout in a solid blue state. The same fate may await Heitkamp, but she may avoid an election fight altogether as she’s reportedly at the top of President-elect Donald Trump’s list to helm the Department of Agriculture.

Salena Zito has been following the political dynamics of Middle America, noting that one of the things that Democrats needs to get is that flyover country and the white working class voters matter. That’s tens of millions of votes; voters who could have easily voted for Clinton if she, you know, talked to them this cycle (via NYPost):

What is astounding, post-election, is the total lack of contrition Democrats have displayed for ignoring the workingman and -woman bloc that has been the party’s horn of plenty. The only regret they display is that they lost the election, not the voters.

What Democrats, academics and pundits keep refusing to see is that the loss was never about Trump’s candidacy; it was all about how Democrats have increasingly lost touch with their voters outside of coastal America — until those voters finally hit their breaking point.

“The Democratic Party has become a coastal elitist club and if there is any decision or discussion made to broaden that within the ranks, it is squashed,” said Dane Strother, a legendary Washington, DC-based Democratic strategist.

“We have completely lost touch with Middle America,” he admits. “How did we go from the party of the little man to the party of the elite?” Then he answers: “Yes, we rightfully should protect the rights of minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics, the LBGTQ communities and we always should — but we can’t forget the rest of the country along the way.”

But more and more, that’s what they did, starting at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Al Gore didn’t remember. Nor John Kerry. Barack Obama was likable, charismatic and symbolic and so got a lot of votes. But many two-time Obama supporters went for Trump.

Let’s be honest though. Coastal elites, who are running the show, don’t like this. They rather focus and double-down on nonwhites and college-educated (and urban-based) women to win them elections. Still, even Obama’s people, like David Axelrod, are raising red flags about just focusing on the demographics that dominate the cities. After all, Team Clinton tried this and failed (via Washington Examiner):

We need someone who understands the big problem and focuses on it," said Kevin Washo, who ran the civic side of the Democratic National Convention planning committee in Philadelphia.

[…]

We need to do a better job of talking to a larger swath of the country," said Washo, a Philadelphia transplant who grew up in Scranton, Pa., where a lot of his fellow Democrats voted for Trump on Election Day.

"We also need a full-time chairperson," said David Axelrod, the former campaign manager for Obama.

In short, a true majority party for the Democrats is one that sees no flyover country at all and gives equal value to all voters, said Axelrod, adding that while there were a lot of smart people running both the Clinton campaign and the DNC, "There was too much tactical thinking."

"The Democratic Party cannot send a signal there is a new coalition and tens of millions of white working Americans are not part of it," he said.

So, maybe a few on the Left agree that the ship needs to change course, but don’t be shocked if a “it’ll happen next time” attitude seeps into the mindset of these folks. The good news is that this intra-party fight should help Republicans keep their gains over the past four years at all levels of government. Nevertheless, the playbook for the Democrats to make historic gains isn’t necessarily a secret. The GOP has to deliver, but for now their comeback doesn’t appear to be in the cards for 2018.