Revisiting the Senate: Democrats Now See Opportunity

Following Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama last year, the Democrats stand just two seats shy of controlling the U. S. Senate. With historical data suggesting big gains for Democrats in 2018, there is reason to believe they will perform well. Voter enthusiasm — historically an important indicator — has consistently favored the Democrats throughout this cycle. That fervor, coupled with setbacks in Republican candidate recruitment, is generating Democratic optimism. But an uneven battleground remains the largest impediment to Senate Democrats. They will defend seats in ten states carried by Donald Trump — including rural Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. However, looking at the battleground contest by contest, there is a path to victory.

Strong Economy Could Help Republicans

With less than six months before the election, the Democrats are benefiting from a positive political environment. Since January, six Republican state legislative seats have flipped, each with its own story but a consistent theme — Democrats are overperforming. In all six contests, the winning Democrat exceeded the NCEC’s Democratic Performance Index and outpaced Hillary Clinton’s major-party percentage. Donald Trump’s approval rating remains low, so Democrats can succeed if voters weigh their choice in November as a check on his party and his agenda.

However, economic indicators make the scale of that advantage difficult to gauge. Traditional metrics such as the generic congressional ballot and voter enthusiasm all suggest momentum for Democrats, but Americans are not quite ready to abandon the Republicans, in part because of the strong economy. A recent NBC News poll shows Democrats with an advantage on certain issues facing Americans — particularly healthcare — but they prefer Republicans on managing the deficit and taxes.

Voter enthusiasm will be the detail to watch as the election approaches. The figure here shows the Gallup measure of U. S. adults who say they are more enthusiastic than usual about voting in a given year. The connection between enthusiasm and the result of an election is arguably weak, but wave elections occurred in years when the margin between both parties’ voters was widest — 1994, 2006, and 2010. In each case, the party favored by the enthusiasm gap made significant gains in the U. S. House and added five or more seats in the U. S. Senate.

So far this year there are no Gallup reports on voter enthusiasm, but there are other encouraging signs for the Democrats. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority of registered voters prefer the Democrats in the generic congressional ballot. The same poll also indicates voters of both parties are even in reporting their intention to vote this year. In blowout years for Republicans, that metric showed them with a double-digit advantage. For Democrats, who typically suffer low turnout in midterm elections, this could be a good sign.

Breaking Down the Senate Races: Democratic Targets

From the beginning of the election cycle, it was widely assumed that the Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada were the only two likely Democratic targets this fall. But the retirement of Senator Bob Corker and the candidacy of former governor Phil Bredesen has created an opportunity for the Democrats in Tennessee. Additionally, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke is putting pressure on Senator Ted Cruz through record fundraising and frequent campaign stops, but a win there still seems unlikely.

Arizona: Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema appears the most likely Democratic candidate for the general election, though she faces a contested primary. Arizona has emerged in recent years as a battleground state, and the retirement of Senator Jeff Flake and uncertain future of Senator John McCain have drawn considerable attention to the state for this fall. If Senator McCain were to announce his retirement before May 30, his seat will be on the ballot this November.

The Republican primary to replace Jeff Flake is reminiscent of the Tea Party versus establishment days of 2012, with establishment Congresswoman Martha McSally running against Tea Party champion Dr. Kelli Ward and recently pardoned hardline sheriff Joe Arpaio. It is possible that Arpaio and Ward will split the right-wing vote, leaving McSally an easier path to victory. Attempting to win-over extreme primary voters may force McSally to adopt some unpopular positions. A recent poll showed her pulling ahead of Arpaio and Ward by ten points.

A growing Hispanic population and the sentiments of suburban voters could transform Arizona into a battleground state. An April poll gave Sinema a 5-point lead. (47% — 42%).

Nevada: Congresswoman Jacky Rosen is the anticipated Democratic candidate, but right now several other candidates are vying for the nomination. Recent polling from Gallup shows President Trump’s approval rating at just 45 percent in Nevada, and Democrats have dominated recent statewide contests. Hillary Clinton carried the state relatively easily in 2016, and along with Senator Cortez-Masto’s victory, represented one of the few bright spots of the election.

Senator Dean Heller has run in competitive contests since his days in the House, and all signs suggest he faces another tough challenge this year. In recent elections, Democrats have taken advantage of the state’s growing population to win. There is a good chance this can happen again. Recent fundraising numbers showed Rep. Rosen amassing twice as much as Sen. Heller so far this year.

Tennessee: The Democrats successfully recruited former Governor Phil Bredesen, a top-tier candidate with statewide familiarity. For the first time since 2006, Tennessee is poised to be the site of a competitive Senate race. It was that year when Senator Bob Corker outlasted Democratic candidate Harold Ford Jr. in a close race decided by single-digits. Corker decided earlier this year not to run for election. History shows that open-seat contests remain the most likely to change hands.

On the Republican side, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn faces a crowded field, which includes former Congressman Stephen Fincher. Tennessee’s Republican base and Donald Trump’s continuing popularity are obvious obstacles to a Democratic victory — his most recent job approval rating is a strong 55 percent but a recent poll in March showed Bredesen with a 5-point advantage (46% — 41%) over Blackburn. Also, speaking to reporters this week, outgoing Senator Corker made complimentary remarks about Bredesen, possibly encouraging some Republican voters to cross over and support him.

Texas: Congressman Beto O’Rourke — the Democratic candidate — has low statewide name recognition, which he plans to remedy by traveling to all 254 Texas counties. Democrats have not won a statewide contest in Texas in over 20 years, but as the state continues to change demographically, competition between the two parties has heightened. A recent analysis from CB Polling suggested that there has been a 37 percent growth in Democratic voters since 2004, further demonstrating the changing dynamics in the state. Senator Ted Cruz’s anemic approval ratings — measured recently at just 38 percent — provides another reason for measured optimism.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the state to Donald Trump by 9 points, improving significantly on Barack Obama’s 16-point loss to Mitt Romney in 2012. Rep. O’Rourke managed to raise more money than Cruz in the first quarter of 2018, and there’s ample reason to expect a competitive contest. In fact, a poll from Quinnipiac showed Rep. O’Rourke trailing Sen. Cruz by just 3 points

Breaking Down the Senate Races: Vulnerable Democrats

Florida: Longtime incumbent Senator Bill Nelson is facing a tough reelection campaign, especially now that Governor Rick Scott has officially entered the race. Recent polls have shown Nelson clinging to a single-digit lead over Scott in a head-to-head matchup. Donald Trump’s popularity may loom large over this competitive state, because Scott is one of President Trump’s most ardent supporters, backing him early on the presidential primary. Scott’s PAC eventually raised $20 million on behalf of the President in 2016. This will be one of the biggest races to watch in November.

Indiana: Senator Joe Donnelly is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection in 2018. He won a close race in 2012 over Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, who himself unseated longtime Republican Senator Dick Lugar in a primary that represented the height of the fringe group’s influence. Lugar’s loss created the pickup opportunity for the Democrats, which was still a close race despite repeated inflammatory comments by Mourdock throughout the campaign. The Republican primary is a three-way race between Congressman Todd Rokita, Congressman Luke Messer, and wealthy businessman Mike Braun, who has seized the momentum recently. Having now entered the last week of the primary campaign, the contest on the Republican side is getting nasty, as each candidate attempts to align himself closest with Donald Trump. There is some logic to this tactic, as Donald Trump carried the state by 19.1 points and remains popular. This campaign will be a true test of Donnelly’s local appeal.

Missouri: We expect Senator Claire McCaskill to face a very difficult road to reelection as Donald Trump carried the state by more than 18 points in 2016. Her effort has been helped by controversy surrounding Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley — widely seen as the strongest Republican challenger — who recently implied that feminism and the “sexual revolution” are to blame for child sex trafficking. His missteps are reminiscent of McCaskill’s 2012 opponent Todd Akin, who torpedoed his own campaign with similarly controversial statements.

Hawley’s repugnant missteps and his connection to supporters of former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore will be problematic. Further, McCaskill’s fundraising prowess gives hope that she may yet win again. Hawley faces ten primary challengers, but is widely expected to emerge as the candidate. President Trump remains popular in Missouri, with approval ratings in the state approaching 50 percent, so McCaskill’s reelection is by no means secure. She continues to benefit from political good fortune, while deftly navigating the Senate as a moderate.

In addition to Hawley’s missteps, the Republican Party is dealing with another statewide problem in the person of Governor Eric Greitens whose extramarital affair and other legal troubles threatens to pull the party down with him.

Montana: Democratic Senator Jon Tester has consistently opposed Donald Trump’s deplorable agenda, despite Trump winning Montana by more than 20 points. Senator Tester bucked the trend among vulnerable Democrats by voting against the temporary funding measure that ended the brief government shutdown in January, and he voted against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

Senator Tester has never won more than 50 percent of the votes cast in his previous campaigns, benefiting from a Libertarian candidate in 2012 who captured more than six percent of the vote. Despite two close elections, Senator Tester boasts a 53 percent approval rating among Montana voters, giving him reason to be confident. Republicans have experienced some recruiting setbacks for this race, but their field remains crowded. State Auditor Matt Rosendale appears to be the NRSC’s preferred candidate, while also enjoying the support of the Steve Bannon wing of the GOP. His main challengers in the June primary appear to be businessman and Air Force veteran Troy Downing, who has aggressively sought Donald Trump’s support, as well as from former Judge Russell Fagg.

Tester recently made news by leading the charge against Dr. Rony Jackson, President Trump’s brief nominee to head the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

North Dakota: Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp is one of the most vulnerable incumbents this year. Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer joins State Senator Tom Campbell in the contest for their party’s nomination. North Dakota’s obvious Republican slant assures that Heitkamp will face a tough challenge regardless of her opponent. In September 2017 a poll showed that 44 percent of North Dakota voters “wanted someone new” representing them in the Senate as opposed to 42 percent favoring Heitkamp. However, Heitkamp’s cash advantage should help balance the playing field. As of her last filing, Heitkamp has raised more than $6 million toward her reelection.

Ohio: Senator Sherrod Brown is the only Democrat holding statewide office in Ohio. The state swung toward Republicans in 2016, following President Obama’s 3-point victory in 2012. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 8 points. The biggest news out of this race to date came when State Treasurer, and 2012 candidate, Josh Mandel withdrew from the race. Attempting to fill the void, Congressman Jim Renacci has entered the race, along with a few others. Senator Brown remains popular in his state, which gives us confidence that he will win a close election.

West Virginia: Like Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Senator Joe Manchin has endured West Virginia’s transition from a competitive bellwether state to a Republican stronghold. The 2018 primary features a crowded Republican field. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Congressman Evan Jenkins, and convicted coal company CEO Don Blankenship are gathering most of the headlines as they try to align themselves closely with President Trump, who won the state by a whopping 42 points in 2016. Despite these political realities, a poll in 2017 found that Senator Manchin — a former governor — remains more popular than President Trump.

Wisconsin: Senator Tammy Baldwin has already weathered $3.1 million of outside spending by Republican groups since late 2017. Wisconsin has been trending Republican in recent elections and is home to a strong Republican mobilization machine, built in part by Governor Scott Walker, who is also on the ballot in November. Businessman Kevin Nicholson has moved to the front of the pack of potential challengers, raising more than $1 million for his campaign, but other challengers such as State Senator Leah Vukmir remain in the contest. Senator Baldwin’s approval ratings are cause for more concern, as a recent Morning Consult poll showed that only 40 percent of voters approve of her job as Senator.

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