To hear Democrats talk about the upcoming 2018 midterms, one would think that they have already retaken control of Congress. So confident are they in the “Blue Wave” about to crash down on the Republican Party in November that they are already openly discussing plans for President Trump’s impeachment.
While the House of Representatives is very much in play, it seems that in the Senate the Democratic wave will crash into a seawall known as electoral math. Simply put, Democrats are defending seats in too many states (and in too many red states) to take control.
The election of Doug Jones in deep red Alabama whipped Democrats into a frenzy, it was perhaps the biggest outlier in Senate electoral history. Never before had a candidate carried as much baggage as Roy Moore, and for a voter base that is far more loyal to its Christian values than to the Republican Party, statutory rape allegations were simply too much to stomach.
Jones will almost certainly lose his seat in 2020 (unless, of course, Moore somehow wins the Republican primary again), and, like in Massachusetts in 2010—when Elizabeth Warren handily defeated Scott Brown following Brown’s stunning election to a vacant Senate seat the previous year—Alabama will revert to its overwhelmingly Republican roots.
This is ultimately the problem for Democrats in 2018: They have too many vulnerable Senators in overwhelmingly Republican states. Of the 33 total Senate seats up for grabs next year, 24 are in Democratic hands (plus two others controlled by independents who caucus with the Democrats), while Republicans control just eight.
Of those 24 Democrats defending their Senate seats, ten are in states that President Trump won in 2016: Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Of those eight senators, five have to run in states Trump won by at least 18 points: Donnelly, McCaskill, Tester, Heitkamp, and Manchin.
To say Manchin and Heitkamp have an uphill climb is putting it mildly: Trump won West Virginia by 42% and North Dakota by 35%. No Republican challenger has yet emerged to take on Manchin, a very popular former Governor even in a state as red as West Virginia, but in North Dakota, Heitkamp will likely have to face popular Congressman Kevin Cramer. Given that Heitkamp eked out a one-point win in 2012—carried by President Obama at the top of the ticket—she should be considered the most vulnerable Senator in the country.
McCaskill, too, will face a strong challenger in Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is beloved by both the Republican Party establishment and the conservative grassroots. In 2006, McCaskill barely defeated incumbent Jim Talent in a razor thin 49%-47% contest in a big Democratic year and then skated to reelection over Todd Akin, a fringe candidate similar to Moore who believes that women’s bodies shut down during “legitimate rape,” preventing them from getting pregnant. Assuming Hawley doesn’t say something similarly ridiculous—and assuming that Steve Bannon doesn’t enter the fray with another possible pedophile candidate—Hawley should be able to win a state Trump won by 18 percentage points two years ago.
In Indiana, Senator Donnelly was elected in 2012 primarily because Tea Party Republican Richard Mourdock upset incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary and then destroyed his general election chances by saying that pregnancy after a rape was “what God intended.” He managed to lose 50%-44% in a state in which fellow Republican Todd Young defeated Senator (and former Governor) Evan Bayh by 12% just two years earlier. This year, at least three Republicans are running in the primary, and as long as the winner isn’t bruised too badly and has at least some money left for the general election fight, Donnelly is extremely vulnerable in a state that is even redder than Trump's 19-point victory in 2016 suggests.
Jon Tester is surprisingly popular in Montana (a state Trump won by 21 points), but he also won election in two big Democratic years; 2006 and 2012, in which all Democrats were boosted by President Obama’s presence at the top of the ballot. Though 2018 may well be a similar wave election, two strong populist Republican candidates—Troy Downing, a businessman, and State Auditor Matt Rosendale—combined with the inherent advantage Republicans enjoy in Montana could be enough to push Tester out.
Surprisingly, though, a far more vulnerable Democrat than Tester may be Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Once mentioned as a possible Hillary Clinton running mate, Brown faces an uncertain political future in a traditional swing state that has moved farther to the right in recent years. President Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2016, and Republicans will likely run State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who lost to Brown in 2012 largely on the strength of Obama’s popularity in Ohio. Brown is considered a more centrist Democrat who has kept pace with his increasingly conservative constituency, but if Cleveland and Cincinnati don’t turn out the Democrat votes like they did in a presidential election year, he could be in trouble.
Even if the blue wave is as big as Democrats are hoping, it won’t raise every vulnerable incumbent in every red state. The math simply isn’t there. A cautious projection would be that at least two and very possibly three Democrats lose their seats, with Heitkamp, McCaskill, and Donnelly the most likely among them.
Assuming that Democrats pick up two seats in Nevada, where incumbent Dean Heller is the only Republican running in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and Arizona, where Republican Jeff Flake is retiring, the likeliest outcome is that Republicans either keep their 51-49 Senate majority or even pick up a seat to increase their margin to 52-48.
Obviously, the election is still nearly a year away and almost anything can shake up the political calculus, but it’s safe to predict that Democrats are far too premature in thinking that the Senate is already won.