Conventional wisdom tells us that an anti-Republican storm is brewing in the midterm elections and will hit on November 6 when America votes. But how likely is it that this will actually happen?
Analysts base their outlook on polls that show Democrats beating Republicans in “generic” congressional ballots by six to nine points. Recent elections in Alabama, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have provided further evidence of anxious anti-Trump voters laying in wait. If they vote in large numbers, it will give Democrats a huge turnout advantage.
Interestingly, the 46-seat House majority held by Republicans appears shakier than its two-seat Senate majority. This is due to a cascade of GOP House retirements, which have given Democrats a boatload of pick-up opportunities. It’s also due to a Senate map that’s favorable to the GOP by putting more Democratic senators at risk than Republicans.
For these reasons, the Senate could be the Republican Party’s bright spot—maybe even its life raft—this November.
Republicans currently hold 51 Senate seats, a bare majority. As long as Mike Pence is vice president and can break ties, the GOP will have one seat to spare. That’s a thin margin, especially in turbulent times, but it’s strengthened by an unusually favorable state line-up for Republicans.
While both parties want to win the most seats in every election, they breathe easier when they have fewer seats at stake in any given election. The more exposure, the greater the risk of loss.
This year, Senate Democrats have exposure coming out of their ears. They have 24 seats on the block, while Republicans have only nine. Even worse, 10 Democratic incumbents seeking re-election are from states that Donald Trump carried in 2016, and in half of them—West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Missouri—Trump posted landslide wins. If Republicans pick up all or most of those five seats, not only will they keep their Senate majority, they’ll expand it.
The five Democratic senators who have to defend seats in Trump strongholds are Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Each is potentially vulnerable. Hillary Clinton lost their states by 19 to 42 points in 2016. Polls show most of these Democrats have small or modest leads over actual opponents, but are still losing to generic GOP challengers in places where Republican nominees have not yet been chosen.
While none of these Democratic incumbents are pushovers—they’ve already shown they can beat Republicans—handicappers rate their chances as close calls, giving GOP campaigns an opening.
Granted, it’s still early to predict elections that have yet to take shape. A lot depends on the candidates Republicans ultimatly nominate. Remember Missouri in 2012 when Democrat Claire McCaskill was in a tough battle for re-election? The race was over the moment her GOP opponent started talking about “legitimate rape,” and she won easily.
Additionally, there are Senate races in other states that Trump won, albeit by much smaller margins: Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Democrats in these states tend to be in decent shape, although Republicans likely have their best shot in Florida, where Governor Rick Scott is challenging Democratic Senator Bill Nelson in what will be an expensive, brutal, closely fought battle.
On the other side of the coin, Democrats have a chance to knock off three Republican-held seats. Arizona GOP Senator Jeff Flake is not seeking re-election and Democrats are running hard to flip his seat. Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller has seemed weak and likely has a struggle in front of him. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker’s retirement has opened up his seat, and a popular former Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, is currently edging out GOP Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn in the polls—although Republican strategists are confident they can turn Tennessee around by November.
To take the Senate, Democrats need two things to happen. First, they must successfully defend all of their incumbents. Second, they must win both Nevada and Arizona. This would give them a 51-seat majority. If they lose one incumbent, they would then need Tennessee to compensate. The most optimistic Democrats believe the national winds will blow hard enough their way to give them a three-seat net gain, and with it, a 52-vote majority. We’ll see.
Republicans can lose Arizona, Nevada, or Tennessee, and still thwart a Democratic takeover, even if they don’t pick up any Democratic seats. If the GOP loses both Arizona and Nevada, then they’ll need to knock off one Democratic incumbent. Either way, a one-seat net loss would leave the GOP with 50 seats. And with Mike Pence as their 51st vote, they would still hold Senate control—albeit by the skin of their teeth.
Of course, all this goes out the window if anti-Trump, anti-Republican winds blow even harder than they are now. That would change the dynamics across the board.
It’s an understatement of biblical proportions to say that a lot of water has yet to flow under the proverbial bridge between now and November. But it’s also no understatement to say that Senate Republicans—in the stormy, unpredictable era of Trump—are already checking the skies and hoping the levees will hold.
Ron Faucheux is a writer, political analyst, and publisher of LunchtimePolitics.com.