Thursday, October 19, 2017

Senate 2018: Dems Look for Openings in a Very Tough Map

Tom with our first in-depth look at 2018, this time focsued on the Senate.  And one of those elections is actually this December.

Our first hard look at the 2018 Senate mid-term elections yields but one inescapable conclusion:  it will be extremely difficult for the Democrats to retake the Senate.  The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the GOP maintaining control.

In fact, the Democrats would do well to “hold serve” and emerge with the same 48 seats they hold today (actually 46 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Dems, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine; for the purposes of efficiency in this article, all future references to “Democrats” will include them).

First, let’s review the basic math, with the help of the chart below, which lays out rather starkly the challenge facing the Dems.

SENATE 2018*: TOUGH MAP FOR THE DEMS

Current
Up for reelection in 2018*
Trump Won in 2016
Won 2012 by < 7 points
TOTAL
100
34
18
9
Democrats (Incl. Ind)
48
25
10
7
Republicans
52
9
8
2

* Includes the December, 2017 special election in Alabama
The math shows just how difficult a “map” the Democrats are facing in this election cycle.  Democrats are up for reelection in a whopping 25 of the 34 races, while the GOP will defend only nine seats.  Of those 25 Democratic seats, 10 are in states won by Donald Trump in 2016.  And nine of those Democrats won by less than seven points in 2012, when they last ran for the Senate, while just two of the nine GOP wins were that close.

So, to flip the Senate from red to blue, the Dems need to hold all of their seats plus flip three seats.  Both sides of that equation are daunting, to say the least.

But the Dems have a glimmer of optimism of late, driven by four factors.

·       The obvious one is the state of the Trump Administration.  With Trump’s approval rating teetering on the wrong side of 40%, and a “generic ballot” favoring the Dems by +6, the political winds are blowing at near-gale force at the Dems’ backs.  Truly terrible numbers like these can translate into real votes at the margin and swing many a close race.  Quite simply, rabid Democrats are energized and demoralized Republicans could stay home.  And this will be particularly true if the GOP fails in its quest for tax reform, and thus have not one single significant legislative win to run on.

·       One of the 34 races will be held in December, 2017 – Alabama, a special election to fill the seat previously held by Jeff Sessions.  His interim replacement, Luther Strange, lost to Judge Roy Moore in the GOP primary last month, and now Moore will face Democrat Doug Jones in December.  Moore is just the kind of far right bomb-thrower that could – could -- possibly be defeated, and even in deep red Alabama, the latest poll (by FOX) has them even.  In sharp contrast, Sessions ran unopposed in 2012.  Democrats, gun shy after losing all four House special elections by close-but-no-cigar margins, are torn over whether to provide Jones with full-out support – but the fact that they are taking this race seriously is a clear sign of GOP weakness.

·       The suddenly famous Bob Corker of Tennessee announced he would not seek reelection in 2018 (giving rise to his remarkably candid bashing of Trump), and arch-right Representative Martha Blackburn threw her hat in the ring to replace him, giving the Dems an unexpected opening there, too.

·       And, in a related manner, there is the “Bannon Factor,” as Steve Bannon has declared war on virtually all the GOP “establishment” incumbents, hoping to primary them with more conservative nominees.  The question here is, what lesson is to be learned from our recent electoral history?  Will Bannon’s strategy backfire as it did in 2010 and 2012, when far-right GOP crazies such as Todd Akin of Missouri (“legitimate rape”) and Christine O’Connell of Delaware (“I am not a witch”) lost races to Democrats that more mainstream GOP candidates – the ones they beat in the primaries – would likely have won?  Or did Donald Trump’s election to the presidency upend all that – if he could win, anyone could, crazy or not?  The Dems are hoping that Bannon, of all people, is successful and thus giving them an opening in “unwinnable” states, including Tennessee and, say, Mississippi.

Here is the early rack-up at this point, just over a year away from Election Day.  It is way too early for this – we don’t even know the challengers, and some incumbents could still choose to retire – but it is a starting point.  We’ve kept it at 52/48 because it is too early to call “flips”; but what is more interesting are the categories, not the totals.  Almost 20 races are “in play”, with, by our count, six Toss-Ups, 12 Leans and a few Solids to watch.

DEM TOTAL
48
Dem Holdover
23
Dem Solid
11
Dem Lean
10
Dem Toss-up
4
GOP Toss-up
2
GOP Lean
2
GOP Solid
5
GOP Holdover
43
GOP TOTAL
52

Let’s break down the 34 races and talk about the most critical ones.  The chart below ranks the races from the most solid for the Dems on down to the most solid for the GOP, using this data: the victory margin the last time the seat was up, in 2012; the margin in 2016 in the presidential election; the PVI Index, put out by the Cook Report, which measures the propensity of a state to be blue or red.  The last column identifies where we at BTRTN think the race is right now. 

SENATE SNAPSHOT
State
Inc. Party
Incumbent
2012 Margin
2016  Pres Margin
PVI (Cook)
BTRTN
Vermont
I
Sanders
D + 46
D + 26
D + 15
 D/I Solid
New York
D
Gillebrand
D + 45
D + 23
D + 12
D Solid
Hawaii
D
Hirono
D + 26
D + 32
D + 18
D Solid
California
D
Feinstein
D + 24
D + 30
D + 12
D Solid
Maryland
D
Cardin
D + 28
D + 26
D + 12
D Solid
Rhode Island
D
Whitehouse
D + 30
D + 16
D + 10
D Solid
Delaware
D
Carper
D + 37
D + 11
D + 6
D Solid
Massachusetts
D
Warren
D + 8
D + 27
D + 12
D Solid
Washington
D
Cantwell
D + 20
D + 16
D + 7
D Solid
Minnesota
D
Klobuchar
D + 34
D + 2
D + 1
D Solid
Connecticut
D
Murphy
D + 12
D + 14
D + 6
D Solid
New Jersey
D
Menendez
D + 18
D + 14
D + 7
D Lean
Maine
I
King
D + 22
D + 2
D + 3
 D/I Lean
Michigan
D
Stabenow
D + 21
R + 0.2
D + 1
D Lean
New Mexico
D
Heinrich
D + 6
D + 8
D + 3
D Lean
Virginia
D
Kaine
D + 6
D + 5
D + 1
D Lean
Florida
D
Nelson
D + 13
R + 1
R + 2
D Lean
Pennsylvania
D
Casey
D + 9
R + 1
Even
D Lean
Wisconsin
D
Baldwin
D + 5
R + 1
Even
D Lean
Ohio
D
Brown
D + 5
R + 8
R + 3
D Lean
Montana
D
Tester
D + 4
R + 20
R + 11
D Lean
West Virginia
D
Manchin
D + 25
R + 42
R + 19
D Toss Up
North Dakota
D
Heitkamp
D + 1
R + 36
R + 17
D Toss Up
Missouri
D
McCaskill
D + 16
R + 19
R + 9
D Toss Up
Indiana
D
Donnelley
D + 6
R + 19
R + 9
D Toss Up
Nevada
R
Heller
R + 1
D + 2
D + 1
R Toss Up
Arizona
R
Flake
R + 4
R + 4
R + 5
R Toss Up
Tennessee
R
Corker (retiring)
R + 35
R + 26
R + 14
R Lean
Alabama
R
Strange (Dec. 17 election)
R + 94
R + 28
R + 14
R Lean
Texas
R
Cruz
R + 17
R + 9
R + 8
R Solid
Mississippi
R
Wicker
R + 17
R + 18
R + 9
R Solid
Nebraska
R
Fischer
R + 16
R + 25
R + 14
R Solid
Utah
R
Hatch
R + 35
R + 18
R + 20
R Solid
Wyoming
R
Barrasso
R + 54
R + 46
R + 25
R Solid

GOP Toss-Ups (2) and Leans (3) and a few Solids to keep an eye on:

There are two truly contested GOP races; the two “leans” are, at this stage, stretches; they are in red states that went solidly for the incumbent in 2012, but may have openings in 2016. 
  • Nevada:  Incumbent Dean Heller was wildly unpopular in Nevada, and THEN he voted against one of the “repeal and replace” bills; his approval dropped from a merely abysmal 29% to a truly horrific 22%.  He will be challenged in the primary by Danny Tarkanian, son of the legendary UNLV basketball coach, and is trailing him in the polls.  Heller won only by a point in 2012, and Hillary Clinton took Nevada in 2016.  The Dems smell blood here.  At this stage, Nevada is truly a toss-up, which for now we will edge to the incumbent party.  Toss-up R. 

  • Arizona:  Donald Trump dislikes many Senators – let’s start with Mitch McConnell, move on to John McCain, and there’s Lisa Murkowski.  But top of the list is surely Jeff Flake. The feeling is mutual; Flake wrote an anti-Trump book – and he wrote it after Trump was elected.  Flake will face tough sledding, starting with the primary.  His approval rating is even worse than Heller’s, at 18%.  Trump appears to have endorsed his rival, Kelli Ward.  The winner will be in a tough race with the Dem who emerges.  Toss-up R. 

  • Alabama: It sounds like a long shot, but, as stated, Democrat Doug Jones is even with the notorious Roy Moore in the polls.  If Moore loses, he is this year’s Todd Akin/Christine O’Connell, and Bannon’s theory is shot.  Lean R. 

  • Tennessee: Corker’s departure and Blackburn’s emergence may give the Dems a shot.  But Corker won by +35 points in 2012 and Trump by +26 in 2016, so this is tough terrain to crack; we’re a long way from the Gore’s in Tennessee.  Lean R. 

  • Texas and Mississippi:  These are two reliable red states, of course, but each shows a little crack that could split open.  In Texas’s case, it is demographics, which are a-changing, ever relentlessly, to blue.  Trump won by +9, but Texas was one of only five states where he did worse than Romney in 2012, who won it by +16.  But Cruz took it by +17 in 2012, and those demographics may not start to put Texas in play until 2020 or even 2024.  As for Mississippi, Bannon may go after establishment Senator Roger Wicker, providing an opening for the Dems, albeit a tiny one, like Alabama.  Both Solid R. 

Democratic Toss-Ups (4) and Leans (9):

Before thinking about “offense” and trying to flip GOP seats, the Dems have a challenging task defending their own seats. 
  • West Virginia:  Incumbent Joe Manchin is a classic “Blue Dog,” as right as they come within the party.  However, he has been a reliable Dem vote on health care and many other issues.  He won by +25 in 2012 in a deep red state that Trump took by +42 (Hillary Clinton was a particularly evil villain in coal-driven West Virginia).  Toss Up D.
  • Missouri and Indiana:  The GOP tossed these two seats away in 2012 and will certainly try to avoid the same fate in 2018.  Vulnerable Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill confounded the odds in 2012 by keeping her seat by +16 points, aided greatly by her inept opponent, the aforementioned Todd Akin.  First-termer Joe Donnelly had similar luck when facing Tea Party crazy Richard Mourdock, who had defeated six-term moderate GOP Senator Richard Lugar in the GOP primary.  Mourdock proceeded to “pull an Akin” when saying that “…when life begins in that horrible situation of rape…that is something God intended to happen.”  Both McCaskill and Donnelly will almost certainly face more able competition in 2018; as John Lennon once said in song, “It can’t get no worse.”  (This was John’s sardonic rejoinder to Paul’s hopeful “it’s getting better all the time” chorus.)  Both Toss Up D. 

  • North Dakota and Montana:  First-term Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and second-termer Montana Democrat John Tester won close races in 2012, by +1 and +4, respectively.  The GOP will set their sights on flipping these, in deep red states that Trump won by +36 and +20.  Of note:  Mitch McConnell advised Trump to name a Dem-Senator-in-a-Red-State to be Interior Secretary; if Trump had done so with, say, Heitkamp, the GOP might have repealed and replaced Obamacare with the vote of her GOP-governor-appointed replacement.  Both Toss Up D. 

  • New Jersey:  This should be a solid win for the Dems, but Democratic Senator Bob Menendez is on trial on corruption charges and that will complicate his run in 2018. If Menendez is found guilty and is forced to resign, either Republican Governor Chris Christie would name a replacement, or his successor would, depending on the time.  New Jersey happens to have a gubernatorial race this November, and Democrat Phil Murphy is favored.  Menendez, if convicted, could refuse to resign until Murphy assumes office in January.  There are many scenarios here; suffice to say, this one is complicated.  Lean D. 

  • Maine:  This is close to solid with popular Independent Angus King up for reelection, but Trump lost Maine by only -3 points whereas Obama won by +15 in 2012.  Lean D. 

  • Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio:  Students of the 2016 presidential election will know why we group these states together.  Democrats rode Obama’s coattails and won (or held onto) Senate seats in each state in 2012, but each state flipped from blue to red for Trump (barely) in 2016, putting the incumbents on high alert for their re-election bids in 2018.  Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow is popular and won by +21 in 2012; the rumor mill has her potentially opposed by redneck rocker Kid Rock (she leads him in the polls now).  Second-termer Bob Casey won Pennsylvania by +9 in 2012, and Wisconsin first-termer Tammy Baldwin – who is on some of the long lists of presidential hopefuls for 2020 – won by +5.  Florida’s Bill Nelson won by +13 and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown won by +5.  Each Lean D. 

  • New Mexico and Virginia:  Both seem to be reasonably solid blue states at this point, as Clinton beat Trump by +8 and +5, respectively in 2016.  Her running mate, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, each won by +6 in 2012.  Each Lean D. 

Take heart, Dems:  the odds of taking the House are much higher.  More on that soon.