Is the Senate Up for Grabs Yet?

President Donald Trump’s problems continue to mount, raising more questions about turnout and how independent voters and college-educated women will vote. But the Senate map remains daunting for Democrats, and the polarized nature of our politics continues to limit Democrats’ Senate prospects.

While handicappers generally label Nevada as a toss-up and the early polls are tight, the Democratic nominee, Rep. Jacky Rosen has an edge over incumbent Republican Dean Heller in a state that went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In Arizona’s open seat contest, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has been the de facto Democratic Senate nominee for months, while Republicans have had a lively three-way primary. The frontrunner for the GOP nomination, Rep. Martha McSally, is a quality candidate, but her party is divided. Trump carried the state only narrowly two years ago, and his standing among the older, more affluent voters of metropolitan Phoenix certainly has not improved.

Sinema’s lead would narrow if Republican voters coalesce around McSally, but the Democrat has better overall positioning in the race and the edge in the race.

Republicans remain nervous about Tennessee, where the Democratic nominee, popular former Nashville Mayor and Gov. Phil Bredesen has a good reputation and appeal to independents and swing voters. Even Democrats are pleasantly surprised that Bredesen has been such a good candidate so far. But GOP nominee Marcia Blackburn is an aggressive campaigner, and the state’s strong Republican bent — Hillary Clinton drew only 35 percent of the vote — should eventually give her a boost. Bredesen probably has a slight edge now, but the state’s partisan landscape means he still has an uphill climb.

Finally, in Texas, some Democrats believe their challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is now a serious threat to incumbent GOP SenTed Cruz. The Democrat’s fundraising has been stunning, and recent polls from Quinnipiac and NBC News/Marist show the Republican incumbent with only a single-digits lead. But Cruz is at 49 percent in both surveys, and all of the other poll numbers suggest it will be all but impossible for O’Rourke to pull off an upset. Republican don’t seem very worried at all.

So, Democrats find themselves in virtually the same place they did months ago — needing to re-elect all or almost all of their incumbents up for re-election in November.

That was a tall, tall order six months ago, and it is a tall, tall order today.

A few of the 10 states that went for Trump in 2016 and have Senate races this cycle are not worth much attention. Democratic incumbents are expected to retain their seats easily in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Sherrod Brown looks to be comfortably ahead in Ohio.

While a recent Marquette poll put Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin and Republican challenger Leah Vukmir in a near dead heat, other polling (non-public) suggests that Baldwin has a double-digit lead over her opponent. Given the problems of GOP Gov. Scott Walker, it’s likely that Baldwin has a comfortable advantage in this Senate contest and that even if the race narrows, the Democrats should hold onto this seat.

In Montana, which Trump won by 20 points, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester continues to have a solid lead, and the GOP challenger, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, isn’t one of his party’s top challengers. Even Democrats figure that the contest will close as November approaches, but for now Tester looks like he has a clear advantage.

That leaves five states that will likely decide Senate control. Democrats need to hold all of them, or “only” four out of five, depending on how other races fall .

The Democrats’ best chance of the five is West Virginia, a state that went for Trump by 42 points and gave Hillary Clinton only 26.4 percent of the vote. Incumbent Joe Manchin III’s numbers are holding steady in recent polling, and he has a surprisingly comfortable lead over GOP challenger Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general. Republican attacks are likely to erode some of Manchin’s strong personal numbers, and the ballot test should close, but the Democrat is a well-known and well-liked figure in the state, and he has so far succeeded in swimming against the state’s Republican tide. Morrisey is a mediocre candidate.

The Republicans’ best chance is in North Dakota, which Trump carried by 35 points two years ago. Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp is a strong campaigner, but the state’s profile — heavily rural, heavily Republican and heavily white — puts her in a hole against challenger Kevin Cramer, the state’s at-large GOP congressman.

Nathan Gonzales’ Inside Elections moved the race to tilting Republican in July, reflecting the challenges Heitkamp faces. This race certainly isn’t over, but the Democrat’s struggle looks uphill.

The three remaining races, Indiana, Missouri and Florida, are all toss-ups and close according to recent polling. Trump carried Indiana and Missouri by 19 points each, while Florida was a squeaker.

Of the three, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly may have the best prospects given voters’ views of his values and personal traits.

We should see some movement in all of these races after Labor Day, as the campaigns fully engage and the parties decide where to put their remaining dollars.

A blunder here or there could affect a race, and national news could impact who votes and what message they send in November. But at this point, Republicans have every reason to feel confident about the likelihood that they will keep the Senate in November. Only a substantial national Democratic wave would seem to threaten that outcome.

The column originally appeared in Roll Call on August 24, 2018.

It’s a Blue House Wave, But Not Yet a Senate One

The odds are greater than half we will take back the Senate.” — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Monday night 

Democrats ought to temper their optimism about the fight for the Senate this year.

Yes, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama’s special election gives their party a path to a Senate majority in November. But at this point, it remains an unlikely path, despite the official party line.

Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

Republicans don’t need to win all those states or most of them or even some of them. They need only one, unless another GOP-held seat comes into play.

While Democratic strategists are trying to flip the House by targeting districts Hillary Clinton carried and seats where minorities, younger voters and suburbanites are anti-Trump, Senate Democratic strategists must hold on to a handful of rural, religious, conservative and very white states to have any chance of flipping the Senate. That’s quite a challenge.

Democratic incumbents in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states with diverse electorates, appear to be in good shape. Trump carried both states very narrowly, and greater Democratic unity and enthusiasm during the midterms should help the party retain those Senate seats.

Tougher races

The outcome in Wisconsin is less certain, since Republicans and Democrats disagree about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s vulnerability.

On one hand, Trump carried the state very narrowly (with 48 percent of the vote), and Baldwin has proved her mettle.

On the other hand, the state is certainly competitive, Baldwin is among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP know how to win nasty, hard-fought statewide races. One Republican insider praised his state party effusively, calling it among the best in the country.

My own view is that the state’s battle lines are already drawn and a relatively small number of persuadable voters in the middle will decide the election’s outcome.

That said, any Democratic wave is likely to hurt GOP prospects here, so I’d be surprised if Baldwin loses. But the race certainly bears watching.

That leaves control of the Senate up to seven states, only one of them a 2016 nail-biter: Florida. Two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott has personal wealth, and that would make him a threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term.

But Trump carried Florida with 49 percent, winning by just 1.2 points, and events over the last year are likely to cost the Republicans support, especially with suburbanites, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic voters. Scott is likely to run but has not yet announced his plans.

Trump carried Ohio with almost 52 percent, and his 8-point victory margin was large for the swing state. GOP Rep. James B. Renacci just jumped into the race after state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out.

Democrats can’t take this seat for granted, but incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is a fierce campaigner. His blue-collar populism should win back some Trump voters, and likely strong Democratic turnout gives him the advantage.

Trump won Montana much more comfortably (with 56 percent), but the GOP field against Sen. Jon Tester is uninspiring.

Tester is another terrific campaigner, which gives him the edge.

Four toss-ups

Even if they hold all those seats, Democrats are left with four terribly difficult states to defend: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Trump carried West Virginia by 42 points (69 percent to 27 percent) and North Dakota by 36 points (63 percent to 27 percent).

Those are huge mountains that Sens. Joe Manchin III and Heidi Heitkamp must climb, and each will have to attract thousands of Trump voters to win re-election in two increasingly polarized and partisan states.

Of course, those two Democrats, as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins, have run well ahead of unpopular presidential nominees before.

Collins ran 21 points ahead of GOP nominee John McCain in Maine in 2008, while in 2012 Manchin ran 25 points ahead of President Barack Obama in West Virginia, and Heitkamp more than 10 in North Dakota.

It’s also true that Heitkamp and Manchin are both strong campaigners who have built up personal relationships with voters in lightly populated states. (Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who recently held both North Dakota Senate seats, did the same thing.)

The two final states, Missouri and Indiana, may be the most challenging tests for the Democrats.

Trump carried each with 57 percent of the vote. But these larger states are more difficult for incumbents to personalize. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is a quality candidate, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill has found a way to win twice when she was not expected to, but both are in office now because their 2012 opponents were inept.

This time, Republicans will have strong nominees in both states — Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri and one of three Indiana Republican hopefuls, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

A Democratic sweep of all 10 races would be remarkable. It’s certainly true that in wave elections all of the competitive Senate races tend to fall in one direction.

Democrats didn’t take away a single Republican seat in 1994 or 2010, and the GOP didn’t swipe a single Democratic Senate seat in 2006.

But none of those years had a Senate map like this one.

For Senate Democrats, the problem is clear — increased Democratic enthusiasm among younger voters, minorities and highly educated suburbanites will help their nominees nationally but not in states like West Virginia, North Dakota or Montana.

So, while the House of Representatives is increasingly at risk in November, the Republican Party’s Senate majority still looks very formidable. At some point this cycle, that chamber may well be “in play.” But it is not there yet.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on Januart 17, 2018.