Could Democrats Take the Senate? Flip a Coin

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The conventional wisdom on Senate elections this year has emphasized how hard it will be for Democrats to capture 51 seats in November. They have many more seats to defend than Republicans have, and in states that are better for Republicans. So I was surprised to see this comment on Tuesday from Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics:

That rates a “wow” on the scale of informed Senate speculation. After all, National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar — who has been bullish on Democratic chances in the House — says that Republicans “control their destiny” in the sense of having to win only those contests they should win in order to retain their majority. The Crystal Ball’s Kyle Kondik says that a Democratic majority is “not impossible,” which is quite a bit worse than Trende’s 50-50. 

I’m about half sold on Trende’s argument.

The basics: Republicans currently have 51 seats. They’re vulnerable in Nevada, Arizona and maybe Tennessee. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine Democratic gains, although there are at least hints that Texas or even Nebraska and one of two Mississippi seats up this cycle could conceivably be somewhat competitive. Cook Political Report considers the first three contests toss-ups and the latter three “likely Republican.” 

On the other hand, five Democratic incumbents are in what Cook considers toss-up races: Florida’s Ben Nelson, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. And then there are seven other potentially vulnerable Democrats, two in races rated “lean Democratic” by Cook and five that are rated “likely Democratic.” In other words, even if Democrats win all three of the most vulnerable Republican seats, they still have to protect 11 of their own dozen danger spots. 

Even worse for Democrats? While polling for them has been promising in the open Tennessee seat, where former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen faces Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn, a lot of  analysts (myself included) have been skeptical about how predictive those surveys really are. If they can’t win in that strongly Republican state, then even if they do capture Nevada and Arizona they’d have to hold on to all of their current seats to elect 51 senators. 

On a seat-by-seat basis, that seems possible, but unlikely.

As Trende says, Democrats did win each of those seats six years ago — that’s why they have to protect them now! — and 2018 is shaping up as a better year for Democrats than 2012, so on average each of those Democrats should do a little better. Democrats seem to have fairly stable polling leads in Nevada and Arizona, and they are at least competitive in all of their own seats.

That’s true, but perhaps a little misleading. McCaskill and Donnelly won in 2012, but both of them had extremely weak Republican opponents, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who didn’t even have solid support from their own party. So far at least, that’s not shaping up to be the case this time.

On the other hand, there’s been a tendency for the close races to break the same way. In 1980, for example, Republicans won several close elections to seize a Senate majority. Then six years later, when the same states went the other way, Democrats regained the upper hand. If we think of it that way, then Democrats are likely to win all of their “lean” and “likely” seats in the 2018 contests, getting them to 44. Then if it really is a good year for them, prevailing in seven of the eight toss-ups isn’t that big a lift.

So the real question is how likely it is that 2018 will be an unusually favorable environment for the party. With President Donald Trump’s approval ratings at a very low 41 percent, it’s hardly a stretch to put those chances at 50-50 or better.

Two other comments. One is that while Democrats need to pick up two Senate seats to reach 51, even a 50-50 split would give them more power than they have now. When the Senate was tied in 2001, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the deadlock to make Trent Lott of Mississippi the majority leader, Republicans were forced into a power-sharing agreement with Democrats. So while it’s true that every seat counts in the Senate, the difference between a 49-51 minority and what would be a 50-51 minority (that’s counting the vice president’s vote) is particularly important.

There’s also an additional wild card. Arizona Republican John McCain hasn’t been in Washington all year as he continues treatments for brain cancer. It’s possible he’ll be replaced by January. It’s also possible that he’ll continue to serve without being able to show up to vote. If there is a tied Senate and McCain’s situation remains unchanged, that’s going to become a very uncomfortable subject very quickly. 

All of this remains fairly speculative in large part because we just don’t have a lot of high-quality polls, or even any polls at all, in several states with Senate races. We’ll presumably know more soon. If I had to guess, I’d still put Democratic chances of reaching 51 seats somewhere below 50 percent. But I’m not at all sure that Trende has it wrong.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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