The Dashed Dreams of Senate GOP

As odds of a Democratic wave grow, Republicans have given up hopes of winning a supermajority and have set their sights on maintaining control of the upper chamber.

Sen. Claire McCaskill
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 31, 2017, 8 p.m.

Wave elections in which one party wins nearly all of the contested congressional races have become the norm over the last decade. In 2006 and 2008, Democrats picked up every one of the 14 Senate seats that flipped. In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans ran the table on all 15 Senate pickups. And even in the more competitive 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the winning president’s party won the vast majority of up-for-grabs races. (Obama’s Democrats and Trump’s Republicans each won eight of The Cook Political Report’s 10 tossup Senate races in 2012 and 2016, respectively.)

This is a function of our fickle and turbulent politics. No one is ever satisfied with the politicians in power. Voters in both parties always want to drain the swamp. Even discounting the Trump administration’s looming legal troubles and inability to pass legislation, Republicans were going to face severe headwinds in next year’s midterms.

So even with as favorable a map as Senate Republicans have in 2018—where 10 Trump-state Democrats are up for reelection, compared to one Clinton-state Republican—the poisonous environment is prevailing. The problems have grown so severe that it’s now as likely that Democrats will gain seats next year as it is that Republicans will expand their narrow 52-seat majority.

Four developments are leading to such a pessimistic forecast for the GOP: polling, fundraising, recruitment, and the internal divisions within the Republican Party.

First, a newly released batch of Morning Consult polls testing senators’ popularity is showing that three of the most vulnerable Democratic senators—North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Montana’s Jon Tester—hold job-approval ratings above 50 percent, while the one swing-state GOP senator up for reelection (Nevada’s Dean Heller) has an approval rating among the lowest in the Senate. Among all Democratic senators up in 2018, only Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is in truly precarious territory (with 42 percent approving, 39 percent disapproving).

Second, Democrats hold an imposing fundraising advantage. All 10 red-state Democrats banked over $3 million in their campaign accounts at the end of the quarter ending in September—with seven topping the $5 million mark. Not a single Republican challenger raised $1 million—something of a Mendoza line for Senate fundraising. Heller was outraised by Democratic challenger Jacky Rosen. Even Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Alabama nominee Roy Moore were outraised by long-shot Democratic opponents.

At the national level, the fundraising gap is equally stark. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $4.4 million in September, more than double the $2.1 million reported by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, marking the sixth month in a row that Democrats have held the financial advantage. The DSCC now has more cash on hand than its GOP counterpart.

Third, the recruiting picture for Republicans is decidedly mixed even with the favorable map. They’re counting on Florida Gov. Rick Scott to be the brand-name, deep-pocketed recruit to run against Sen. Bill Nelson. And Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is living up to early expectations in his race against McCaskill.

But Republicans are still scrambling to land a challenger against Heitkamp, despite North Dakota’s solidly GOP bent. They’ve struggled to land top candidates in the Rust Belt region, which Trump flipped in last year’s election. Competitive primaries in Indiana, West Virginia, and Wisconsin could end up hurting the eventual nominees. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on numerous recruits with decent résumés but unproven track records.

Fourth, the animosity between Republican leaders and grassroots activists is worsening. The feud between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has gotten so bad that it threatens to dampen Republican turnout—at a time when the Democrats’ own engagement is supercharged. These divisions hamper the party’s ability to nominate an electable successor to Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who was forced to retire because he alienated the pro-Trump wing of the GOP. Party leaders also fear that a deeply flawed candidate could threaten a senator in a primary—and put an otherwise safe seat in play for the Democrat.

Senate Republicans have gone from dreaming of a Senate supermajority to merely hoping to prevent any losses for 2018. The favorable map is likely to protect them from losing the majority, but their margin for error will be narrow. Republicans still have promising opportunities in Missouri and Indiana, but they face a serious risk of losing seats in Arizona and Nevada. There are other opportunities for Republicans, but they look less encouraging than they once did. As things stand now, netting any seats would count as a victory.

The emerging Democratic wave may not put Sen. Chuck Schumer in the majority leader’s chair, but it will drown out any hopes of passing conservative legislation of consequence beyond next year’s midterms.

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