2018 State of Play: Senate

As we close out on the first year of the Trump Era, my initial thought was to do a retrospective on the best moments of 2017. It’s not as though we aren’t spoiled for choice: between Trump staring at the solar eclipse, Shinzo Abe’s wife pretending not to speak English, the nomination and subsequent defeat of an actual child molester, Greg Gianforte body slamming a reporter, and the defeat of the AHCA, it’s been an eventful year for those of us who follow politics.

But looking backward is tedious. It builds nothing. 2018 is shaping up to be a year of surreal thrills that make 2017 look positively sedate. Whether we end up at war with Iran or North Korea, or simply mired in economic meltdown, 2018 promises to deliver laughs, tears, and most importantly, Senate elections.

That’s right! While the whole House is up for election every two years, the six-year terms of Senators mean that their elections are staggered: every two-year cycle, only a third of the Senate is up for re-election. Because of this, the map changes year to year, and idiosyncrasies of geography or quirks of history matter as much as the prevailing national sentiment in determining control of the chamber. With 2018 shaping up to be a banner year for Democrats — they lead by double digits in the generic congressional poll — and with control of the Senate hanging by a thread after Roy Moore’s embarrassing flameout, it may seem like the upper chamber is in our grasp. Don’t pop champagne corks yet, though.

The Senators currently up for re-election were last elected six years ago, in 2012. You may recall this as a pretty good year for Dems. It was a presidential year, which always boosts Team Blue’s turnout, and the senators defending their seats had last been elected in 2006, which was another wave for Dems. In other words, there are plenty of Democratic senators standing now who were last elected in two great years for Dems. Anyone can win when the tide is high; the true test of survival is what happens when the wave recedes. Given that 2018 is looking pretty wavelike, it may be that they’ve lucked into another unearned win, but in the hyperpolarized era it’s always right to worry.

This wonderful chart comes via Wikipedia

The dark blue states show a Democratic incumbent running. The dark red states are Republican incumbents running; the light red show the Republicans retiring, Corker in Tennessee and Flake in Arizona. The yellow are independents, but since both are probably going to be re-elected with large margins and both caucus with the Democrats we can ignore them.

There are 8 Republicans up for re-election and 24 Democrats. That’s a BIG difference. Democrats have three times as many seats to lose, and many fewer opportunities for pickups. In order to control the Senate, they must lose no seats and win at least two — or at least, win two more red seats than they lose. Let’s look at some possibilities.


McCain-R (L) Flake-R (R)

Nobody likes to say this, but Arizona probably has two open seat races this year. Jeff Flake is retiring, having correctly predicted that his moderate stance on immigration means he cannot win a contested primary in the Trump era, and McCain is 81 with aggressive brain cancer. I want to point out here that I am not rooting for cancer to kill an old man, even as spiteful and mercenary an old man as he; I am simply stating facts. That said, the likelihood of a Democratic pickup is probably strongest here. The Sun Belt has been trending blue for a while.

Arizona is generally pretty red; Trump won it by 3.5%, not a blowout but not super close either. Racist old whites like to retire there, and they’re the core of Trump’s base. However, an increasingly Latino population makes these old suburbanites’ blood run cold, and with a proper GOTV operation the Democrats could tap into a deep well of potential voters. Moreover, Trump’s pardon of vicious Gestapo thug Joe Arpaio is sure to inflame Arizona’s immigrant and immigrant-sympathetic population. They’ll have to battle voter suppression, but with proper party support — and, most importantly, inspiring Democratic candidates — I think it’s doable.

Right now everyone is talking around McCain’s seat being open, but many of the same people who declare for Flake’s seat will make a play for McCain’s. The frontrunner is Kelli Ward, a grasping, venal doctor whose naked ambition has made her very unpopular with the national Republican party (she was one of the first to call for McCain to resign after his diagnosis, and openly appealed to the governor to appoint her instead). She’s embraced Trumpism, but in the same opportunistic way as Ed Gillespie, and look how that worked out for him. Other contenders include Jeff DeWit, the state Treasurer, and Robert Graham, the former party chairman. DeWit is clearly looking at it, as he has announced he won’t seek re-election as treasurer, and Graham has the institutional chops to make a serious run — though both are pretty bog-standard big-business Republicans, which may not cut the mustard with the base in the age of Trump. Also running is Craig Brittain, a frankly psychotic revenge porn baron straight out of r/The_Donald, and possibly Martha McSally, a former fighter pilot and current member of the House of Representatives.

On the Democratic side, the frontrunner is Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema is the epitome of a Bad Dem, a lily-white Blue Dog who was endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce. She’s good on some issues, like the DREAM Act and LGBT issues (she’s also bisexual, and getting more queer representation in government is good). However, on economic issues her record is miserable and there’s little chance of her tacking left. More importantly, she’s white as snow, and as the Democratic party in Arizona is more and more Latino its candidates should reflect that. I don’t hate Sinema, but I’d be somewhat disappointed if she got into the Senate during a wave election that could have boosted a progressive candidate of color; but if she’s the nominee, I really hope she wins. Another possibility is Mark Kelly, the husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. A former astronaut, Kelly cuts a distinguished figure but is rather light on policy, and is also a white man, running into the same problems as Sinema. We have time to find more candidates, but the lack of Latino/a representation on the Democratic bench in AZ is worrying.


Dean Heller (R)

Dean Heller isn’t retiring, but I’m not sure why. Heller is a one-term incumbent who is running for re-election in a state won by Hillary, the only Republican to do so this cycle. He’s faced opposition from his own party, especially from Trump himself, who has singled Heller out for criticism. He faces a primary challenge from Danny Tarkanian, a businessman and attorney with a history of unsuccessful races. This time Tarkanian has the backing of esteemed political luminary Sarah Palin and, more importantly, Steve Bannon and Breitbart. This should give you an idea of the direction his campaign is tracking in. After Gillespie and Moore, it’s hard to see how Tarkanian has a path to victory in the general, but he can certainly crush a moderate squish like Heller in the primaries.

On the Democratic side, the frontrunner is US Representative Jacky Rosen, who’s already beaten Tarkanian once. The field seems pretty clear for her, and she’s already taking the fight to Heller for standing too close to Trump on issues like ACA repeal (Nevada expanded Medicaid in 2014). Harry Reid is still a tremendously powerful political force in Nevada and he’s clearly anointed Rosen; with the endorsement of Catherine Cortez Masto, the other sitting senator from Nevada, Rosen is unlikely to face a primary challenge. I’d like to see her policy positions develop, but with the party united behind her, the biggest question will be if they can drive Latino turnout to the level that gave the state to Clinton in 2016. If so, she should coast to victory regardless of who she’s facing.

West Virginia

Joe Manchin

Joe Manchin is a bad dem. I do not like Joe Manchin. But I will credit him with this: he knows on which side his bread is buttered vis-a-vis Trump, and he has consistently opposed him, even in West Virginia. The heart of Trump Country, W. VA is dicey ground for any Democrat. Under normal circumstances I’d say Manchin is toast, and his seat is certainly among the highest priority targets for the Republicans. But he’s a survivor, and he has a very good sense of his constituents. West Virginia is ravaged by deindustrialization and the opioid crisis, and the Trump administration has little to offer on either front. Assuming that he does not turn into FDR 2.0 and establish a Yuge Deal, Trump is unlikely to deliver the economic salvation this distressed state needs, which gives Manchin an opening. Trump won the state by more than 40 points, but Manchin enjoys broad popularity at home, and that is reflect in the strength of his challengers.

Ryan Ferns, the majority leader of the West Virginia Senate, declined to challenge Manchin, as did US Representative David McKinley. Evan Jenkins, another US Rep is in, but as a former Democrat who switched parties he may not survive a primary. The highest-profile candidate is Don Blankenship, a former coal company CEO who served time in prison for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws after an accident killed 29 miners. He has a history of naked greed and self-interest, including paying for a private water line to his house after his business polluted the groundwater in the area, and he fits the archetype of the bloated plutocrat boss almost to a T. I think if he ends up with the nomination Manchin can beat him, but it’s still West Virginia, so who knows?

This is running long, so I’m going to cut it here. Next week: Missouri, Montana, Indiana, North Dakota and more!