Politics

Analysis: It’s a Blue House Wave, but Not Yet a Senate One

Rural, Trump-friendly states make for a formidable map for Democrats

Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota are among the Democrats’ many vulnerable incumbents this cycle, which complicates the party’s efforts to retake the Senate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo.)

“The odds are greater than half we will take back the Senate.” — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Monday night 

Democrats ought to temper their optimism about the fight for the Senate this year.

Yes, Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama’s special election gives their party a path to a Senate majority in November. But at this point, it remains an unlikely path, despite the official party line.

Even assuming Senate seats in both Arizona and Nevada fall to Democrats — not a certainty, but more likely than not — Republicans can maintain control of the Senate by swiping a Democratic seat in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota or one of the half-dozen other states carried by Donald Trump in 2016.

Republicans don’t need to win all those states or most of them or even some of them. They need only one, unless another GOP-held seat comes into play.

While Democratic strategists are trying to flip the House by targeting districts Hillary Clinton carried and seats where minorities, younger voters and suburbanites are anti-Trump, Senate Democratic strategists must hold on to a handful of rural, religious, conservative and very white states to have any chance of flipping the Senate. That’s quite a challenge.

Democratic incumbents in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states with diverse electorates, appear to be in good shape. Trump carried both states very narrowly, and greater Democratic unity and enthusiasm during the midterms should help the party retain those Senate seats.

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Tougher races

The outcome in Wisconsin is less certain, since Republicans and Democrats disagree about Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s vulnerability.

On one hand, Trump carried the state very narrowly (with 48 percent of the vote), and Baldwin has proved her mettle.

On the other hand, the state is certainly competitive, Baldwin is among the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and Gov. Scott Walker and the state GOP know how to win nasty, hard-fought statewide races. One Republican insider praised his state party effusively, calling it among the best in the country.

My own view is that the state’s battle lines are already drawn and a relatively small number of persuadable voters in the middle will decide the election’s outcome.

That said, any Democratic wave is likely to hurt GOP prospects here, so I’d be surprised if Baldwin loses. But the race certainly bears watching.

That leaves control of the Senate up to seven states, only one of them a 2016 nail-biter: Florida. Two-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott has personal wealth, and that would make him a threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who is seeking a fourth term.

But Trump carried Florida with 49 percent, winning by just 1.2 points, and events over the last year are likely to cost the Republicans support, especially with suburbanites, African-Americans, Haitian-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic voters. Scott is likely to run but has not yet announced his plans.

Trump carried Ohio with almost 52 percent, and his 8-point victory margin was large for the swing state. GOP Rep. James B. Renacci just jumped into the race after state Treasurer Josh Mandel dropped out.

Democrats can’t take this seat for granted, but incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is a fierce campaigner. His blue-collar populism should win back some Trump voters, and likely strong Democratic turnout gives him the advantage.

Trump won Montana much more comfortably (with 56 percent), but the GOP field against Sen. Jon Tester is uninspiring.

Tester is another terrific campaigner, which gives him the edge.

Four toss-ups

Even if they hold all those seats, Democrats are left with four terribly difficult states to defend: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia.

Trump carried West Virginia by 42 points (69 percent to 27 percent) and North Dakota by 36 points (63 percent to 27 percent).

Those are huge mountains that Sens. Joe Manchin III and Heidi Heitkamp must climb, and each will have to attract thousands of Trump voters to win re-election in two increasingly polarized and partisan states.

Of course, those two Democrats, as well as Maine Republican Susan Collins, have run well ahead of unpopular presidential nominees before.

Collins ran 21 points ahead of GOP nominee John McCain in Maine in 2008, while in 2012 Manchin ran 25 points ahead of President Barack Obama in West Virginia, and Heitkamp more than 10 in North Dakota.

It’s also true that Heitkamp and Manchin are both strong campaigners who have built up personal relationships with voters in lightly populated states. (Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who recently held both North Dakota Senate seats, did the same thing.)

The two final states, Missouri and Indiana, may be the most challenging tests for the Democrats.

Trump carried each with 57 percent of the vote. But these larger states are more difficult for incumbents to personalize. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly is a quality candidate, and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill has found a way to win twice when she was not expected to, but both are in office now because their 2012 opponents were inept.

This time, Republicans will have strong nominees in both states — Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri and one of three Indiana Republican hopefuls, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita and former state Rep. Mike Braun.

A Democratic sweep of all 10 races would be remarkable. It’s certainly true that in wave elections all of the competitive Senate races tend to fall in one direction.

Democrats didn’t take away a single Republican seat in 1994 or 2010, and the GOP didn’t swipe a single Democratic Senate seat in 2006.

But none of those years had a Senate map like this one.

For Senate Democrats, the problem is clear — increased Democratic enthusiasm among younger voters, minorities and highly educated suburbanites will help their nominees nationally but not in states like West Virginia, North Dakota or Montana.

So, while the House of Representatives is increasingly at risk in November, the Republican Party’s Senate majority still looks very formidable. At some point this cycle, that chamber may well be “in play.” But it is not there yet.

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