Friendly Reminder: Cocky Dems Still Have a Very Difficult Road Ahead to Win Back the Senate

Posted: Mar 15, 2018 2:01 PM

I've said my piece about the post-Pennsylvania warning signs that a blue wave could be cresting ahead of this fall's national elections -- but even the tilted political momentum we're witnessing cannot erase the fact that Democrats are playing a ton of defense in US Senate races this cycle.  I'm not sure Republicans could have drawn up a friendlier map if they'd tried.  It's true that the Democrats improbably picked off an upper chamber seat in Alabama late last year, but those circumstances were highly unusual.  Let's play out a worst-case(ish) scenario for the Senate GOP:  For the sake of argument, let's say Democrats are able to net three more seats in November, thanks to gains in some combination of Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas (did I mention this is a near-doomsday hypothetical?); that would put Chuck Schumer at a 52-seat majority.  

Republicans, therefore, would need to knock off at least two Democratic incumbents to bring things back to a 50-50 tie, under which the GOP would hold a technical majority, thanks to Vice President Pence's decisive vote.  Holding even the barest of majorities is absolutely crucial because it determines who controls committees and the floor schedule, and is the most important factor in nomination battles. In light of the major swings toward Democrats in the special and off-year elections of 2017 and early 2018, it's not entirely unimaginable that Republicans could simply get wiped out, but I still believe it would take something extraordinary and unexpected for Democrats to win more than two GOP-held Senate seats.  They could conceivably win just one, or none at all. But Mitch McConnell would likely be feeling a lot better about keeping his current job title if a couple of Democrat-controlled seats were looking primed for flipping.  

As we've discussed previously, those opportunities abound.  At first glance, it looks like two female Senators representing heartland states are among the most vulnerable; both Claire McCaskill (MO) and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) are out of step with their respective electorates, which strongly supported Donald Trump in 2016.  Each is also now matched up with a formidable GOP challenger.  Indiana's Joe Donnelly is in similar trouble but is undoubtedly quite happy to be standing off to the side and watching a bloody Republican primary play out.  And conservatives are also targeting West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who hails from perhaps the most pro-Trump state in the nation.  Both the president and vice president have fired harsh partisan salvos at Manchin, who has made a few moves that telegraph nervousness.  West Virginians may not view him as a lockstep liberal -- he isn't one -- but voters will be constantly reminded of the national stakes and presented with contrast messaging like this:

Manchin will argue that he's been an independent voice for his state, but he would still be a vote in favor of a Chuck Schumer-helmed majority.  If West Virginia voters want someone who will help advance the Trump administration's agenda (the president's in-state approval rating is 65 percent), anyone with a 'D' next to his or her name is inextricably allied with a party motivated by intense resistance to said agenda.  That's simply a reality, underscored by Manchin voting with every single Congressional Democrat against the successful tax reform law.  Meanwhile, an incumbent who is rarely mentioned in the same breath as glaringly-beatable red state Democrats is Florida's Bill Nelson.  Some may assume that a Democratic Senator sitting in a closely-divided purple state would be relatively safe in an election year that's slanted toward his party anyway, based on historical trends and polling.  That may end up being a safe assumption.  But not necessarily.  As Matt has covered, Nelson's name ID is weak, he's hardly a powerhouse campaigner, and his likely opponent is the popular sitting governor.  One survey we highlighted last week showed Nelson comfortably ahead, but two more published since then give Republican Rick Scott an edge:

Scott is a potent self-funder who's won widespread admiration among Floridians for presiding over both a strong economy and an effective hurricane response. This race should very much be on 2018-watchers' radar.  So should Tammy Baldwin's re-election bid in Wisconsin -- in addition to other potential pick-up chances in Montana and Ohio.  Pennsylvania and Michigan will be heavier lifts.  I'll leave you with some helpful, on-the-ground praise for Claire McCaskill's top-flight opponent:

By the way, for what it's worth, Ed Morrissey thinks people like me are overreacting to this week's special election results. I disagree, but his argument is worth considering.  But here's a piece of information that throws a little bit of cold water on 2010/2018 House comparisons: