Why The Stakes Are So High in Next Year’s Senate Races

The political map and math pose severe challenges for Democrats—and suggest that Republicans could retain a majority in the upper chamber long past Trump’s presidency.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who serve together on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, confer on Capitol Hill after doing television news interviews, in Washington, Tuesday, March 28, 2017.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Aug. 8, 2017, 8 p.m.

Republicans are nearly guaranteed to hold their Senate majority in 2018, thanks to an unusually favorable map this cycle that protects them from the worst political backlash. Only nine of their own senators are up for reelection—compared to 25 Democrats—and most of them are running in states that are safely conservative. To win back control, Democrats would need either to defeat Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, pray Sen. Bob Corker retires and a flawed GOP nominee emerges in his place in Tennessee, or hope Sen. Susan Collins of Maine abruptly retires or runs for higher office. All of these possibilities are remote.

But next year’s battle for the Senate will carry significant long-term consequences—with more at stake than the more-winnable battle for the House. If Republicans can knock off most of the five Democrats representing solidly Republican states, the GOP would have a chance to maintain a Senate majority long past Trump’s presidency. If Democrats can hold down their losses by winning on inhospitable terrain, they’ll be well positioned to elect Chuck Schumer as a majority leader in the coming cycles.

The high stakes are colored by a grim reality: Ticket-splitting in congressional races is becoming increasingly rare at a time of intense political polarization. If Democrats are unable to win any states in conservative territory, they will be consigned to a long-term minority. Their ability to compete is mostly due to the political talents of red-state Democrats like North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, whose personal brands are so strong in their states that they’re insulated from partisan blowback.

In an important column, The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman underscored how precarious the path is for Democrats to regain control of the upper chamber. He revealed that, despite the constant carping by Democrats about unfair House gerrymandering, the Senate map is even more unfavorable for them than the current House map. (Republicans won the median Senate seat by 3.6 points in 2016, while winning the median House seat by 3.4 points.) Don’t be surprised if you hear downcast Democrats talking about redrawing state lines if they can’t capitalize on the anti-Trump environment.

The piece also noted that Republicans can win an outright Senate majority merely if they hold seats in the 26 states where Trump ran 5 points ahead of his national averages. Fifty-two seats are in this Republican-friendly turf, 28 seats are in solidly Democratic states, and 20 are in traditional swing territory. Put simply, Democrats need to win at least two or three seats in inhospitable territory to gain a Senate majority.

Looking at the Senate math, race-by-race, is equally daunting for Democrats. Even in a productive year, they could see their numbers dwindle. Let’s say the two targeted GOP senators (Nevada’s Dean Heller and Arizona’s Jeff Flake) lose, while Republicans win just three of the 10 Democratic seats in states that Trump carried. Republicans would then hold 53 seats, and still have a decent chance to hold that majority going into 2020.

An equally realistic scenario is that Democrats pick off a vulnerable Heller, but lose the deeply red-state races where Republicans landed solid recruits (West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, and possibly Montana). That scenario would bring the GOP’s Senate representation to 55 seats, which would likely be enough to sustain the majority through at least another down year.

The 2020 Senate map isn’t much more favorable for the minority party. Democrats will likely go after a trio of swing-state Republicans: Cory Gardner in Colorado, Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. After that, the pickings are slim. If Collins runs for governor, Maine’s Senate seat would be winnable. And if Georgia’s demographic churn continues, Republican David Perdue could find himself with a challenging race. It could take back-to-back landslides for Democrats to even have a shot at the majority.

Indeed, the rules of the politics game require Democrats to field moderate candidates that are capable of distancing themselves from the national party if they want to win back power. Instead, Democratic leaders are catering even more to a left-wing base against their own interests—a sentiment reflected in this Dana Milbank column urging the party to ignore both the persuadable blue-collar Obama-Trump voters and anti-Trump Republicans who defected to Clinton in last year’s election. “The party would do better to go after disaffected Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016 or who voted for third parties,” Milbank advised.

This is a recipe for political suicide at a time when Democrats have a golden opportunity to capitalize on the deep anti-Trump sentiment coursing through the country. It’s easy to overlook that only 38 percent of Americans said they thought Trump was qualified to be president on Election Day, according to exit polling, but 46 percent voted for him regardless. There’s a sizable constituency of voters who dislike Trump but view the Democratic Party’s uncompromising progressivism as untenable.

For now, the Democratic Party’s hopes for a future comeback rests in the survival of their most moderate members. But if the party can’t appeal to West Virginia coal miners or North Dakota oil drillers anymore, they’re not going to be able to win back the Senate.

If the party’s progressives had more political sense, they’d recognize that the only way they can advance their agenda is by electing senators who don’t necessarily share all their values. Then again, the main reason that personally popular senators like Manchin and Heitkamp face tough campaigns is the very fear that they would be indirectly empowering an increasingly activist Left.

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