Minimizing Damage Matters
JACOB DENNINGER: Since the second round of Kavanaugh hearings, Democrats’ already slim chances of taking the Senate this year have only become slimmer. The Republican base is fired up, endangering red state Democratic incumbents. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota seems particularly likely to lose, with Republican opponent Kevin Cramer up by 10 and 12 percentage points in two recent polls.
But while Democrats will find winning the Senate very challenging, we have to remember that it was a very difficult map for them. Republicans are defending only 9 seats, and only 1 in a state Hillary Clinton carried (Nevada), while Democrats are defending 26 seats. 10 of those seats are in states Trump won (Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, West Virginia). Also, both seats in Minnesota, a state Trump lost narrowly, are up for election as well. Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and and West Virginia are very red states that backed Trump by overwhelming margins in 2016.
Yet despite such an unfavorable map, democrats are holding their own. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) are almost certain to win reelection in states Trump carried. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and Jon Tester (D-MT) seem likely to win reelection in states Trump won by 42 and 21 points. The races in Florida and Indiana are leaning towards Democrats, according to 538, and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is in a winnable tossup race. Only Hietkamp seems likely to lose.
In addition to likely keeping most of their seats in states Trump won, Democrats have a chance to pick up two seats by beating incumbent Republican Dean Heller (R-NV) and winning the Arizona seat left open by retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake. The Tennessee seat left open by retiring Republican Bob Corker is a longer shot, and most recent polls show Republican nominee Marsha Blackburn with statistically significant leads, but Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen was up by one point in a recent poll. Despite all the attention it has garnered, the Texas election is a much longer shot for Democrats, and at this time it is unrealistic to think that Beto will win.
So while a Democratic takeover of the senate remains unlikely (538’s forecast gives it a 15.8% chance at the time of this writing), Democrats will most likely minimize losses, or even pick up a seat despite the terrible map.
Why does it matter for Democrats to minimize losses if they don’t ultimately win the Senate? Won’t they still be out of power in the upper chamber? Well, since Senators serve 6 year terms at staggered intervals, minimizing losses now helps Democrats have a better chance of taking the Senate in the future. For example, if Democrats have a net gain of 0 seats this year, they only need to net 2 seats in 2020 to take the Senate. Every additional seat Democrats lose this year is one more needed to take back the majority in 2020. Which is especially critical considering that only 3 Republican-held seats up for election in 2020 are likely to be competitive races (Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and Susan Collins in Maine) and at the same time Democrat Doug Jones is up for reelection in deep red Alabama.
So as disappointing as Democrats will find the likely outcome of a Republican majority in the Senate next year, they can take comfort in the fact that minimal losses on this terrible map means an increased likelihood of a Democratic Senate after 2020.