Surprisingly, the Senate Is Now in Play

I have argued repeatedly that while the House is up for grabs — and indeed likely to flip to the Democrats in November — the Senate is not in play. I now believe that it is, so I must revise and extend my remarks.

Only about three weeks ago, I reiterated my view that Democrats didn’t have a path to a net gain of two Senate seats, which they need for a chamber majority. But a flurry of state and national polls conducted over the past few weeks suggest Democratic prospects have improved noticeably, giving the party a difficult but discernible route for control.

Democrats are at least even money to flip two GOP-held Senate seats in November — Arizona and Nevada. Both races are very competitive, but President Donald Trump’s problems, the midterm dynamic and the two states’ fundamentals — Trump lost Nevada and barely carried Arizona — surely give Democrats a narrow but clear advantage in both states.

Months ago, I acknowledged a long-shot Democratic opportunity in Tennessee, largely because of the reputation of their high-quality nominee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen. But I didn’t take Bredesen’s chances against the Republican nominee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, seriously given the state’s partisan bent and Trump’s strong showing there two years ago.

I’m still skeptical about Bredesen’s prospects, but recent polls show that the race is for real. I can no longer simply dismiss his chances.

Unlike some, I still have trouble imagining Rep. Beto O’Rourke upsetting Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. But Trump’s problems in some suburban areas of Texas in 2016 and his upcoming trip to the state to boost Cruz’s prospects certainly suggest that the Lone Star State should be on the radar. The challenger is still a distinct underdog, of course, but the race deserves some attention.

Democratic edge

Two vulnerable Democratic incumbents — Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — now appear to be narrowly ahead in their races.

West Virginia GOP nominee Patrick Morrisey is a relatively weak challenger, but GOP insiders warn that the state’s demographics and Trump’s strength there mean it’s too early to count the challenger out. Still, there is little doubt that Manchin currently has the edge in the contest.

Donnelly led GOP businessman Mike Braun by 6 points in a recent NBC News/Marist survey, and if the Democrat votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, as many expect, it could be enough to prove the senator’s “independence” to swing voters and even some Republicans.

Braun must raise the incumbent’s negatives and rally Republicans behind his effort to get some momentum.

Republicans believe Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin remains vulnerable and cite a recent Marquette poll that showed Baldwin’s lead within the margin of error. But other polls have found Baldwin in much better shape, and the state Supreme Court race earlier this year, as well as Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s weak poll numbers, confirm that the Badger State is a problem for the GOP. Any midterm breeze helping the Democrats should keep the Senate seat in their column.

In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester remains ahead, though Republicans note Trump’s strong following in the state. Tester’s re-election got off to a strong start, but GOP insiders hope that the president can rally his supporters behind challenger Matt Rosendale, the state auditor.

Good for GOP?

If those were the Republicans’ best prospects for takeover, Democrats would indeed have reason for great optimism. But three other Democrat-held seats are at the greatest risk, which still make the Democratic task of winning the Senate very difficult.

Veteran handicappers agree North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is in serious trouble, though they don’t yet agree with Republicans who think the race is essentially over. Heitkamp is again running a good race, but her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, doesn’t have the baggage that her 2012 opponent did, and even her admirers worry that the state may be too Republican, too conservative, too white, too rural and too pro-Trump for her to win another term.

Meanwhile, Florida’s Bill Nelson and his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, are running even in two recent statewide surveys, while Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and her opponent, GOP state Attorney General Josh Hawley, are tied at 47 percent in a recent NBC News/Marist survey.

Trump carried Florida very narrowly but won Missouri by almost 19 points.

Nelson, 75, was first elected to the Florida House in 1972, and he has run for office repeatedly in the ensuing 45 years.

McCaskill, 65, was first elected to the Missouri Legislature in 1982. She rode a Democratic wave to the Senate in 2006 and was surprisingly re-elected six year later when the GOP nominated a weak challenger.

Neither Democrat has the statewide strength of Manchin or Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, but so far, they are holding their own.

It’s likely that the midterm dynamic is a major factor in the closeness of those races.

Scott is over-performing among Hispanic voters now, and his deep pockets may be enough to help him squeeze out a narrow win. But it is also possible that a strong African-American turnout (to support Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum) and Republican midterm problems among seniors and college-educated white suburbanites could benefit Nelson.

The GOP’s 5-point advantage in the generic ballot question in Missouri and Trump’s strength in the state are obvious problems for McCaskill, as are her already high personal negatives. But even with those liabilities, she is hanging in against Hawley.

The good news for the GOP is that it still has many opportunities to oust Democratic senators. The bad news is that a handful of those targets look worse off now than six or 12 months ago, while the Democrats have added a race or two worth watching.

Republicans remain upbeat about their chances, and they should be. They are still more likely than not to retain control of the Senate. Democrats need almost everything to go right to net two seats.

But during wave elections, tight Senate contests often all fall in the same partisan direction — and if Tennessee, Florida and Missouri do just that, there is a certainly a path for Democrats. It’s just a very narrow and rocky one.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on September 12, 2018.

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.

Are the Alabama & Tennessee Senate Races for Real?

Democratic strategists have been searching for ways to put a third GOP-held Senate seat – after Nevada and Arizona – into play in the hope of winning back the Senate next year. Now, some activists think Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement and a special election in two months to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama open seat are providing surprising opportunities.

No, Nevada and Arizona are not sure bets as takeovers, and there are plenty of Democratic senators up next year who could lose their seats to a GOP challenger.

But putting a third Republican-held seat into play would at least give Democrats a theoretical chance of wresting control of the Senate away from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump next year.

But veteran Democratic strategists remain cautious – and skeptical – about Alabama and Tennessee, worrying that a high profile national Democratic role in the contests would be self-defeating.

Past election results don’t offer much reason for Democratic optimism.

Trump won Alabama last year with 62.1% to 34.4% for Hillary Clinton, and he carried Tennessee 60.8% to her 34.7%. In other words, Trump’s margins in Tennessee (26.1%) and Alabama (27.7%) were both large.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Alabama was solidly Democratic and Tennessee was politically competitive.

As late as Election Day 1994, both of Alabama’s sitting senators were Democrats. Howell Heflin was re-elected in 1990, while Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992. But the day after the 1994 elections, Shelby changed parties, and two years later Heflin retired. His seat was won, 53%-46%, by Sessions. Since then, no Democrat has drawn as much as 40% of the vote in an Alabama Senate race.

The last Democratic governor of Alabama was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection four years later, and in 2006 he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but then the bottom fell out for Democrats in presidential contests. Gore lost his home state by more than three points in 2000, and since then the Democratic percentage of the vote in the Volunteer State has shrunk every election.

But Tennessee has seen some competitive high profile general elections over the past decade or two.

Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in a landslide four years later. He carried every county in the state. And in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, Democrat Harold Ford lost the open seat contest to Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring next year, by less than three points. Admittedly, 2006 was a terrible year for Democrats nationally.

The Democratic case for making either of these races competitive relies on two pillars: (1) Donald Trump and (2) what you might call the “crackpot factor.”  (For a thoughtful argument that the Alabama race is worth watching, see Zac McCrary’s and John Anzalone’s piece here.)

Midterm voting trends tend to favor the party not controlling the White House, and the President Trump’s unusual style and behavior could in some states be a considerable liability for Republican candidates. If Democrats have any chance in the South, it would be in year when a Republican president is embattled and voters are unhappy.

Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore’s views and his behavior while a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court – including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of United States Supreme Court decisions and his view that God’s Law overrides civil law – could turn off some more moderate and less partisan voters. That could boost the prospects of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones.

If Jones can avoid the national Democratic label and keep the focus on Moore, argue some Democrats, Jones might actually have a path to victory.

In Tennessee, the Democratic scenario is based on the crowded Republican primary field producing a Senate nominee who is also at the extreme end of his or her party. If that happens, and if Democrats can find a credible nominee who can raise money and appeal to a broad swath of Tennessee voters, they could have a chance to win. (In the past, Tennessee has had a history of producing pragmatic nominees rather than anti-establishment bomb-throwers.)

In other words, the Democratic scenarios are mostly wishful thinking at this point. That could change, of course, and there are polls in Alabama that show a Moore-Jones race starts out surprisingly close in the single digits. (See here and here.)

But Trump’s national problems are not likely to be so serious in Alabama, where he is still popular and whites have deserted the Democratic Party.

Smart Democratic strategists are playing it very low-key in both the Alabama and Tennessee races. They will wait to see whether a strong candidate emerges in Tennessee and are conducting polling to see whether they have a serious path to victory in Alabama, but they understand how difficult both of those races are.

If Democratic groups jump in too early and commit major resources, they will essentially “nationalize” the two Senate races, which would undermine the party’s chances in both states. Whatever Alabama Republicans think of Moore and even Trump, they do not want to turn the Senate over to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

While it is difficult to “sneak up” on an opponent these days because of the money and media attention that races can attract, Democratic insiders wisely believe that making either race a cause celebre for the national party or national Democratic figures will actually harm the party’s chances in the two campaigns.

As one Democrat told me, he had no desire to re-play the Georgia 6 special election, which became a partisan fight and was eventually won narrowly by the GOP nominee. “Getting close” in one or both of those races would not be good enough.

We’ll know soon whether Moore is so radioactive that he has turned a Republican landslide into a competitive race, and whether Democrats can find a formidable candidate in Tennessee. For now, the burden is on the Democrats to prove that either Senate race is really winnable.

At this point, both Alabama and Tennessee appear to be too Republican, too conservative and too pro-Trump to elect a Democrat to the Senate.