By Drew Zirkle | United States
With midterms fast approaching, Democrats are beginning to target specific races in the hopes that they will win back the seat advantage in the Senate. Currently, the GOP holds a slim majority of 51 to 49, but that majority is far from secure. The Democratic Party, which hasn’t held a majority of Senate seats in over 3 years, is making a valiant effort to retake enough seats to put them back in control. Coalitions of establishment voters, progressive voters, and young people all over the country are looking to catapult fresh faces past GOP incumbents as well as secure weak incumbents against GOP advances.
As we get closer to November 6th, key races that will be necessary victories if the Democrats are to win back the Senate majority are beginning to emerge. Along with the exorbitant amount of data and factors to consider when determining the performance of Democrats, these five Senate races will stand out as indicators of whether the balance of power will shift in Washington after the midterm elections.
#1. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) V. Sen. Dean Heller (R), Nevada:
Jacky Rosen is relatively new face both Nevada and National politics, however, her candidacy is proving to be a powerful force that her opponent, incumbent Dean Heller, is struggling to contain. Jacky began her career in politics in 2016 after then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid asked her to run for Nevada’s 3rd congressional district, a congressional district that encompasses the area South of Las Vegas. Despite being a newcomer to politics, she beat career politician and familiar GOP candidate Danny Tarkanian in a very close race.
Although the race was close, it was still a great victory for the Democrats, as the NV-3 district had only been in control of the Democrats for 2 years since the year 2000. Rosen then decided to throw her hat into the ring for the 2018 Senate race, and to her benefit, no other major Democrat’s opposed her. After mopping up a field of weak primary candidates in June, Rosen has put all her energy into building a robust campaign to unseat the incumbent, Dean Heller. Behind Rosen’s robust campaign is a strong foundation of political capital in the form of endorsements, which she got from key figures like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Despite having only two years of political experience, Rosen has the appearance of a seasoned politician despite being a fresh face in Nevada politics.
Nevada Senate races are especially unique, as only 2 counties reliably get over 150k voters while the rest get less than 30k. Those two counties, Clark and Washoe counties, are the keys to the Senate seat. Although Clark county almost always has a Democratic majority because of the presence of Las Vegas, Rosen must secure a large margin in that county to ensure victory. Luckily, Rosen already has a wealth of political connections in the county because her current house district, NV-3, is located within Clark County. In order to be successful, Rosen must get at least a 10% margin of victory in Clark County.
In 2012, the unsuccessful challenger against Heller only had a 9% margin of victory in Clark County, compared to the successful Democratic candidate in 2016, who had an 11% margin of victory the county. Although a 2% difference in one county doesn’t sound like a lot, that 2% figure will represent nearly 15,000 voters, a number which could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Rosen will also have to outperform her 2012 counterpart in Washoe county to achieve a victory. In 2012, Heller had a near 10% margin of victory in Washoe County. Rosen will have to limit her margin of loss to at least 3-5% in order to win the race.
The power behind the Rosen campaign has the Nevada GOP and the Heller camp sweating bullets. Recent scientific polling is looking favorable for Jacky Rosen and although she currently has the advantage, further polling could even bring her outside of the margin of error. As long as Rosen doesn’t underperform in key areas, she becomes the kingpin Democrats need in their crusade for dominance in the Senate.
Rep. Jacky Rosen (D) Chance of Victory – 70%
#2. Sen. Claire McCaskill V. At. Gen. Josh Hawley, Missouri*
*(Missouri Primary elections are on August 7th)
Senator Claire McCaskill is an outlier. She is a two-term Democratic Senator in a state that is reliably Republican in Presidential elections as well as most state offices. McCaskill has had a long career in politics, with her involvement in state and local politics beginning in 1982 in the Missouri statehouse. She began to rise through the ranks in state politics until 2004, where she made a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful run for Governor. She tested her luck again statewide in 2006, but this time, for a Senate seat. She successfully unseated incumbent Jim Talent (R) with just under 50% of the vote and then in 2012, won a second term with a 55% share. McCaskill has been able to walk a very thin line of moderate policies to keep the support of mostly-red Missouri, however, it appears as though her luck may be running out.
Her opponent, Missouri state AG Josh Hawley, is a young face in the Republican party and has received a lot of support from national figures, such as President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Although Hawley is a strong candidate, he has flaws too. Hawley has been criticized for being a “ladder candidate” and is still embroiled in a primary battle with GOP underdog Austin Petersen. McCaskill is going to need every ounce of her experience and grit if she is going to keep this state blue, however, if the past is any indicator, McCaskill is sure to put up a good fight.
If McCaskill is to win in November, she is going to have to push hard in key counties that she lost in her failed 2004 gubernatorial campaign and that Jason Kander (D) lost in his doomed 2016 senate bid. She will also have to secure key high population areas that traditionally vote Democrat in Missouri. In St. Louis City, St Louis County, and Jackson County she will need to earn 80%, 55%, and 60% respectively in order to stay afloat. However important this urban base is, it is not enough to win outright.
In 2006 she won a number of more rural counties south of St. Louis such as St. Francois, Washington and Iron counties. She also managed to keep above 35% in many of the rural counties she lost. This is in stark contrast to 2004 when she struggled to win any rural counties and dipped into the 20-30% range in the rural counties she lost. Trump’s invigorated base is what doomed Jason Kander’s race in 2016, however, if Josh Hawley is unable to harness Trump’s energy again in 2018 McCaskill may be able to gain just enough support from the smaller counties of Missouri to cobble together a victory.
McCaskill is in a very dangerous spot. She is running in a state where Hillary Clinton only got 38% and is up against a young candidate who has the backing of a President who performed very well in the state. Despite all this, McCaskill is polling marginally better than Josh Hawley, although her lead is so small it’s almost superficial. If McCaskill is able to buckle down in key rural counties and secure her base in urban and Suburban centers, McCaskill will have a good chance of securing her third term and helping the Democratic Party maintain a majority.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) Chance of Victory – 55%
#3. Fmr. Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) V. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), Tennessee*
*(Tennessee primary elections are August 2nd)
Tennessee is a state without an incumbent this election cycle. Last September, when current Senator Bob Corker (R) announced his retirement, the Democratic Party saw a window to potentially flip this state from red to blue. The challenger looking to take the state back into Democratic hands is experienced politician and well-loved Tennessee figure, Phil Bredesen. Bredesen was the Mayor of Nashville from 1991 to 1999, a position that gave him enough political clout to claim victory in the 2002 and subsequent 2006 elections for Tennessee Governor. Bredesen was able to accomplish all of this by maintaining a moderate stance, as any position too far left would be detrimental in a state as conservative as Tennessee. Despite his moderate stance on most issues, Bredesen has earned endorsements from Joe Biden as well as Sen. Doug Jones, Sen. Ron Wyden, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth.
Bredesen is expected to easily win his primary field on August 2nd, as is his presumptive opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Blackburn is a familiar face in Tennessee politics as well. She has been the representative from Tennessee’s 7th district since 2003 and has won all of her elections with over 2/3 of the vote. Despite her success in congressional races, Blackburn has never run for a statewide position before and lacks the high number of statewide political connections that Bredesen has. Despite this, Blackburn’s campaign is being helped along with endorsements from a slew of GOP figures, including outgoing Senator Bob Corker and President Trump. Although Bredesen is a dying breed of blue-dog Democrat, he is the perfect candidate to concoct a winning formula in this deeply red state. He has done it twice before for the Governorship, and, with any luck, he should be able to pull it off again for Senate
Predicting what a statewide Democratic victory looks like in Tennessee is not easy due to its rarity. The only modern examples to go by are Bredesen’s previous statewide victories in 2002 and 2006. Most Democratic candidates running in statewide elections in Tennessee only achieve victory in Davidson County (Nashville) and a smattering of other rural counties, a result which adds up only about 1/3 of the votes statewide. To do better, Bredesen is going to have to replicate the magic that got him elected in 2002.
Bredesen was able to reach a majority of 50.5% by coalescing victories in a number of rural counties in the Northwest and central parts of Tennessee as well as Nashville and its surrounding suburban counties. These victories combined with strong showings of above 40% in most of the counties he lost ensured a win for Bredesen. In order to win again, Bredesen must succeed where other Democrats failed. He must garner widespread support in a coalition of rural counties to stand a chance. The urban and suburban populations are not large enough to secure a victory alone.
Senator Bob Corker’s resignation is dream come true for Tennessee Democrats. The hole left open by Corker has turned this GOP stronghold into an incredibly volatile race. Phil Bredesen has repeatedly polled ahead of Marsha Blackburn and occasionally has been outside the margin of error in said polls. A repeat of Bredesen’s statewide results in 2002 and 2006 may be on the books if he is able to win the hearts of Tennessee’s rural population.
Fmr. Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) Chance of Victory – 65%
#4. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) V. Rep. Martha McSally (R), Arizona*
*(Arizona primary elections held August 28th)
Sen. Jeff Flake (R) made waves he announced his retirement from the Senate after speaking out against President Donald Trump, however, his departure from the Senate may be even more important than his time within it. A tightly contested battle to fill the shoes of Flake’s shoes is playing out in Arizona, with Democratic challenger Rep. Kyrsten Sinema gaining considerable support for her campaign. Sinema has held the AZ-9 district since its creation in 2012 and is not only the first openly bi-sexual member elected to Congress, but is also currently the only openly atheist member of Congress. Sinema is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and frequently compromises between progressive and moderate views when making policy decisions.
Sinema is expected to win her primary by a large margin, however, the same can not be said for her potential opponent Rep. Martha McSally. Although McSally is the favorite in a field of 3 major contestants, conservative firebrand Kelli Ward and contentious former sheriff Joe Arpaio are only polling about 10% behind McSally. McSally also suffers from a lack of inter-party support, failing to yet win an official endorsement from President Trump. On the contrary, Sinema has an endorsement from Joe Biden as well as 15 Democratic Senators. In the face of a very divided Arizonian GOP base, McSally will struggle to hold together a base of energetic voters should she win the GOP primary. Because of the GOP division, Sinema and the Democratic party may have the political upper hand in this key Arizona race.
Arizona county maps for statewide political races often look identical. There is often few races where a particular county will flip from cycle to cycle, meaning that the GOP continues to hold a small advantage in most statewide races. To secure victory, Sinema will have to shore up democratic strongholds as well as perform well enough in GOP territory to flip Republican-leaning counties. Sinema could work to flip either Yuma county or Navajo county, both of which will have around 30k voters and were carried by
Jeff Flake in 2012 with only 50% of the vote in each county.
Sinema could also target Maricopa County (900k voters) or Pinal County (100k voters). Both of these counties were also carried by Flake with less than 52% of the vote in 2012, however, their size and entrenched GOP base may make progress in these counties difficult. Finally, Sinema needs to retain at least 55% in Pima County, by far the largest Democratic stronghold (350K voters). Should she fail to secure this base of Democratic voters, any campaigning in GOP held areas will not be enough to achieve victory.
As GOP infighting continues to damage their front-runner, Kyrsten Sinema is taking charge and looks as though she may just have enough support to flip the seat in favor of the Democratic Party. However, the race is far from over and scientific polling is highlighting the closeness of the race. Sinema is currently is only polling with a 5-8% advantage over McSally, meaning although Sinema holds the advantage, it is by no means comfortable. So long as Sinema can stick to a smart campaign and the GOP remains divided, she has the opportunity to change the status quo of Arizona statewide politics.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) Chance of Victory – 75%
#5. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) V. St. Rep. Mike Braun (R), Indiana
This seat has repeatedly been rated among the most volatile for current Democratic Senators, and in a state that only voted 37% in favor of Hillary Clinton, its no wonder Sen. Joe Donnelly has been put in a precarious position. Donnelly, who has only been serving in the Senate since a 2012 victory, is expected to have a hard time holding onto his seat despite his challenger being a 2 term member of the Indiana state house. Although Joe Donnelly has a much greater wealth of experience than his opponent, he is running in a state that has really bought into the Trump narrative against establishment politicians, putting Donnelly in a position where his experience is actually preventing him from making inroads with certain blocs of voters. Donnelly has gained and maintained popularity in the conservative state of Indiana by being flexible and exemplifying the bipartisanship that red state Democrats must engage in to retain their seats.
Despite his efforts to maintain a base of moderate and left-center supporters, Mike Braun, Donnelly’s opponent, has managed to harness the populist energy that allowed Trump to win Hoosier moderates in 2016. Braun is also receiving national support from former Governor of Indiana and current Vice President, Mike Pence. Donnelly is also currently caught in a dilemma between his past support of protectionist trade policy and the current reality that Trump’s protectionist policies may hurt his constituency. It’s safe to say that there is an uneasiness among Democrats regarding Joe Donnelly’s chances at keeping the seat.
In order to win in November, Joe Donnelly will have to fight to earn widespread support beyond the Democratic sanctuaries of Northwest Indiana and Marion County. One key bellwether county could be Vanderberg county. This Southern county with about 75,000 voters was won by Obama in his 2008 presidential victory in Indiana as well as by Donnelly in his 2012 Senate victory. Other races where Democrats lose statewide have seen key losses in Vandeberg county as well as significantly lower percentages in other Southern counties.
In order to win in November, Donnelly will have to win Vandeberg county and retain between 42-45% of the vote in many of the southern rural counties that he has little chance of winning. Donnelly will also have to perform strongly in Delaware and Madison counties, two counties with over 40,000 voters that saw a heavy GOP swing in 2018. Furthermore, Donnelly will have to get at least 60% in the Marion County, the Democratic stronghold of over 300,000 voters. All of these circumstances and more will have to be met if Donnelly is to avoid a loss like Evan Bayh (D), who suffered a crushing defeat in the 2016 Indiana Senate Race.
Joe Donnelly’s seat is in an incredibly precarious position this November, and the DNC knows it. Money and resources from the coffers of the party have been flowing to Indiana in an attempt to crush the momentum that Mike Braun currently has. Donnelly’s victory in 2012 was an anomaly and many don’t expect his luck to hold up again. Luckily for Donnelly, much of the outlook of this race has been shaped by speculation, as solid polling has yet to be conducted in this key race. Donnelly will have to reverse the momentum that Hoosier Republicans had statewide in 2016 in order to avoid a devastating loss for Senate Democrats.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) Chance of Victory – 35%
This year’s midterms promise to be a very exciting time in politics, and an especially crucial time for Senate Democrats, who are hoping to break the GOP majority. Although these 5 Senate races are the bellwethers for Democratic performance, they are by no means the only races that are close or important. In both traditionally-red North Dakota and politically divided Florida, Democratic incumbents are trying to hold off strong campaigns by popular GOP figures. In Texas, dark horse Rep. Beto O’Rorke (D) has the opportunity to overthrow Republican heavyweight Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
All over the country, Democratic Senators from Montana to West Virginia to New Jersey are attempting to keep the upper hand in volatile races with formidable challengers. No one can doubt the power of the blue wave, however, the geography of this midterm heavily favors the GOP and will make it difficult for the Democrats to take back the Senate majority. The road may be long, but, there may just be enough power in the progressive movement to overcome the difficult situation the Democratic party faces this November.
Chances that Democratic Party Becomes the Majority Party Following the Midterms – 20%
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