Against the Grain

Is the Senate in Play? Don’t Bet on It.

Democrats would need to sweep the close Senate races in Trump country to win back a majority. That would require an epic Republican collapse this November.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite File
Sept. 11, 2018, 8 p.m.

After NBC News commissioned a series of three red-state Senate surveys showing Democratic candidates tied or ahead, it prompted a wave of rethinking about whether Democrats could actually win back the upper chamber. That has always been an outside possibility, but to this analyst, the odds aren’t any better now than they were several months ago. Republicans have made progress in several key states (North Dakota, Missouri, Arizona) even as they’ve suffered setbacks in others (West Virginia, Indiana, Montana).

All told, it’s looking most likely that the Senate will remain closely divided, with Republicans holding their narrow advantage past 2018. Republicans will blow a historic chance at picking up many seats, given the uniquely favorable Senate map, while Democrats are still struggling to ensure that all their vulnerable red-state senators return to Congress despite a favorable national environment.

Here’s the Senate math: If Republicans can defeat two of the six vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection, they’ve locked down their majority for another cycle. Strategists from both parties agree that Republicans have pulled ahead in North Dakota, where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is facing a spirited challenge from Rep. Kevin Cramer. Public polls show Missouri's and Florida’s contests as pure toss-ups, while Indiana remains highly competitive. Democrats have the momentum in West Virginia and Montana, but the conservative nature of those electorates give Republicans an outside chance.

If North Dakota already leans in their direction, Republicans would need just one more of these red-state races to clinch a majority—regardless of what happens with the several seats they have to defend. Even if Republicans fall short, Democrats would still need to win a GOP-held seat on deeply conservative turf, either in Tennessee or in Texas.

There are two competing theories of the political landscape. One, laid out by my colleague Charlie Cook, is that the House and Senate races are operating in two entirely different universes. Most of the House battlegrounds are taking place in affluent suburbia, where Trump is deeply unpopular and where Democrats should pick up numerous seats. Most of the battleground Senate races are occurring in some of the Trumpiest parts of the country, where the president is still popular and red-state Democrats are still weighed down by the liberalism of the national party.

The second theory, teased by NBC’s political team, is that one party inevitably wins all the close elections in wave years. So with polls showing competitive contests in red states like Missouri, Tennessee, Arizona, and Indiana, the instinct is to give Democrats an advantage in assessing which party has the edge. And if Democrats run the table in every close race, that’s how they can win a 51-seat majority. There’s plenty of historical precedent for this: In 2006, Democrats surprised the political world by taking back the Senate, winning all but one of the close races in the blue wave.

I’m much closer to the former camp. One senior Republican official compared wave elections to a different meteorological phenomenon: tornadoes, which can wipe out one neighborhood but leave a nearby one untouched. The 2010 GOP landslide hardly affected vulnerable Democrats in the West, which has since emerged as a Democratic beachhead in the Trump era. And in the Democrats’ 2006 wave, the only close Senate race that Republicans won took place in Tennessee, then in the middle of a political realignment to the right.

The latest round of public polling, while showing red-state Democrats competitive, also contain warning signs for the Democratic candidates. In Missouri, the NBC/Marist survey showed Sen. Claire McCaskill with an alarmingly low 41/49 job-approval/disapproval rating, while state Attorney General Josh Hawley held steady at 36/36. Hawley is more likely to see his support grow, while nearly half of Missouri voters view McCaskill unfavorably. If there’s a silver lining for McCaskill, it’s that Trump’s job-approval rating is down to 45 percent in the state, giving her room to make the argument that she’s a necessary check on the president’s excesses.

In Tennessee, where the NBC/Marist poll showed popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen leading Rep. Marsha Blackburn by 2 percentage points, the fundamentals still look favorable for the GOP. Republicans held a 12-point lead on the state’s generic ballot, while Trump holds a positive job-approval rating in the state (47-43 approval). The key to the race is whether Republicans can blur Bredesen’s golden image in a state that’s shifted sharply to the right. It’s hard to see how Bredesen will maintain his 61 percent favorability rating after the attack ads are through.

In today’s polarized times, we’re seeing reaction to Trump (and Republicans) differ dramatically depending on whether voters live in the suburbs or in small towns. The blue wave that’s expected to hit Northern Virginia is unlikely to impact North Dakota. The path for Democrats to win the Senate majority depends on a near-sweep of the most Trump-friendly parts of the map: Tennessee, Missouri, and West Virginia. If Democrats shock the political world with these unlikely red-state upsets, impeachment will be the least of Trump’s troubles.

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