The Democrats’ path to a Senate majority

“woman raise signage” by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

According to Nate Silver of polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, the Democrats now have an almost 80% chance of winning the House in the next election. That would be wonderful, and a huge success in and of itself given how successful the Republicans have been in gerrymandering the districts to their partisan advantage. At least Democrats would have the ability to block Trump’s most outrageous behavior while launching investigations into Trump’s various activities. The likely next Democratic chair of the House judiciary committee has said he will launch a more thorough investigation into now Justice Kavanaugh.

Unfortunately, this victory will do nothing to stop the march of the Republicans to remake the courts in their image. Already, Trump and McConnell have succeeded in confirming 84 judges to lifelong appointments. This success is in large part due to the fact that McConnell blocked Obama’s appointments, especially during his last two years in power, with Merrick Garland only being the most prominent example. To similarly block Trump’s appointments, we need to take control of the Senate.

Such a victory is so close we can taste it. As of right now, the Senate is divided 51–49. Since Pence gets to break any ties, Democrats need to net two additional Senators to take control. The biggest problem is that just holding onto the seats we have will be a huge victory given the nature of the seats up for election this year.

The Democrats could not have a worse year to fight for control. You see, the Senate only elects a third of its members every two years, since Senators serve for a term of six years. As a result, the class of Senators that is up for re-election this year were first elected in 2012 — at the same time as Obama ran for re-election. In general, that was a good year for Democrats, with Obama helping boost turnout. As a result, a number of Democratic Senators are up for re-election in states that are generally very Republican, and FiveThirtyEight only gives the Democrats an 18.8% chance of winning the Senate.

Consider the following. There are 35 seats up for election this year. Of them, 18 are solid Democratic (CA, CT, DE, HI, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, NM, NY, OH, PA, RI, VT, VA, WA, WI). It’s worth noting that a number of these states now rated as safe Democratic were won by Trump, including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. This just shows how well the Democrats are doing this year.

Next are the 7 seats rated as likely Democratic or lean Democratic, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota (the special election resulting from Al Franken’s resignation), Montana, New Jersey, and West Virginia. Again, all these states except for Minnesota and New Jersey were won by Trump, some by significant margins. And in New Jersey, the incumbent just beat corruption charges in a very public trial. Despite this challenge, these are all must win seats for the Democrats. Here are some of the key races to watch in this group:

  • Indiana — Democrat Joe Donnelly would probably be safe were it not for the fact that this is Mike Pence’s home state, and a state that Trump won by almost 20 points. Indiana is Republican. Remember that Donnelly won six years ago in part due to the Republican candidate’s statements that a pregnancy resulting from rape is “something that God intended.” Despite having such a flawed opponent, Donnelly got just over 50% in 2012. Despite such a tough state to run in, Donnelly appears to be leading most polls by about 5 points.
  • Florida — Trump also narrowly won this state, and the Republicans have benefited by recruiting a strong candidate, current Governor Rick Scott. With hurricane Michael, Scott has been everywhere trying to raise his profile. The Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, is a lackluster campaigner, but despite this, he is currently leading in most polls by an average of about two points.
  • Arizona — this is a pick-up opportunity for the Democrats, and remember, they need two. This is the seat being vacated by Jeff Flake. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema appears to be leading in most polls, but her margin is certainly within the margin of error.
  • Montana — Along with Indiana and Florida, this is a state the Republicans had initially hoped they might take from the Democrats. Recent polls, however, put Democrat John Tester out of reach of the Republican, Matt Rosendale. The fact that states like Montana are not even considered in play again shows how strong the Democrats are in this election.

Next are 5 seats that are likely Republican or solid Republican, both Mississippi seats, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Note that these seats are all in states won by Trump, and there are only two other seats currently held by Republicans that are up for election this year. In other words, out of 35 seats up for election, only 9 are being defended by Republicans. The Republicans hold 42 seats that are not up for election this year.

That leaves 5 seats that will determine who controls the Senate. They break down as follows:

  • Missouri — Democrat Claire McCaskill is facing re-election. Remember that she won six years ago against Todd Akin, the superstar who argued that sexually assaulted women only become pregnant if they are victims of “legitimate rape.” This year’s opponent, former Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has not made any such statements. As a result, the race is tight, with polls giving McCaskill a narrow lead, well within the margin of error. Democrats need to win this seat to have any chance of taking the Senate.
  • Nevada — This is another must win for the Democrats, and in this case, it is a seat currently held by a Republican incumbent, Dean Heller. He is the only Republican up for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton won. This is one of the seats that Democrats must take away from Republicans to gain the majority, along with Arizona. Recent polls have the race too close to call, giving perhaps a slight edge to the Republican.
  • North Dakota — Here’s where things get tough. Democratic Heidi Heitkamp is beloved by Democrats after her vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. She was narrowly elected six years ago with strong support from the large native American population in the state. Since then, Republicans have changed the voter laws to generally make it harder for native Americans to vote. Furthermore, North Dakota is a really Republican state, leaning that way by over 33 points. Democrats hope Heitkamp can survive, but right now, the odds appear against her. If the Democrats lose North Dakota, we have to make up for it from one of the following two states.
  • Tennessee — This is the seat being vacated by Bob Corker, who has at times said critical things about Trump only to fold like a deck of cards. Despite his rapprochement with Trump, Corker decided not to run again. Democrats did well in recruiting former Governor Phil Bredesen as their candidate. In fact, Corker at one point tweeted praise for Bredesen. The Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn is doing her best to follow in Trump’s footsteps, which works well in Tennessee. The race recently earned a higher profile when Taylor Swift broke her silence on politics and urged her Twitter followers to vote for Bredesen because Blackburn “appalls and terrifies” her. Nevertheless, polls show Bredesen as much as five points behind.
  • Texas — This race has gotten a lot of attention because of how deeply disliked Ted Cruz is, and how likable the Democrat Beto O’Rourke is. Despite this, Texas is deeply conservative and deeply evangelical, both Cruz’s strengths. Polls give Cruz the edge, but if anyone could pull off an upset, it is the exciting O’Rourke.

So to take the Senate, the Democrats need to basically run the board. The need to win all 18 of their safe seats, avoiding a surprise. They need to win all the likely/lean Democratic seats, despite many of them being states Trump won and one of them with a Democratic incumbent who had been accused of corruption. They need to win Missouri and Nevada, the two toss-ups. Finally, they need to win at least one of North Dakota, Tennesse or Texas, all of which would be upsets. In other words, everything has to go their way. Are the odds against it? For sure. Is it possible? Yes it is. And given the recent evidence of Democratic enthusiasm, hoping for a miracle in the Senate is not out of the realm of possibility.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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