(Real) Early Look at the 2018 Senate Races

Of the 33 Senate seats up for reelection in 2018, the Democrats have to defend 25 of those seats.  The GOP has only eight seats up for reelection with six of them in deeply red states.  We know the intentions of only two Republican incumbents to run- Ted Cruz in Texas and Dean Heller in Nevada.  Among the 28 Democrats (which includes two independents who caucus with the Democrats), 18 are definitely running for reelection.

Looking first at the Republicans, other than perhaps Arizona and Nevada any drama may more likely be at the GOP primary level.  Roger Wicker in Mississippi and Bob Corker Tennessee, who have not declared their intentions, may face a more conservative opponent in a primary.  The other wildcard is in Texas where there are some rumblings about opposing Ted Cruz given his run against Trump in 2016.  The bottom line is that whoever emerges the GOP primary victor in Mississippi, Tennessee or Texas will likely win.  Likewise, whether Fischer in Nebraska, Hatch in Utah, or Barrasso in Wyoming run or not, these states are safe for the GOP.

The two other states are Nevada and Arizona.  Dean Heller in Nevada is probably safe from a primary challenge.  However, in 2016 the loss in an effort to replace Harry Reid was probably the only low point of the evening for the Republican Party.  Hence, keep an eye on this race as the Democrats likely have some people on the Nevada bench who will rise to the occasion.

For Jeff Flake in Arizona, the problem is twofold.  Flake was a rather consistent NeverTrump person and that may come back to haunt him in a primary, especially if Trump’s fortunes improve.  That may make him vulnerable to a primary challenge and Kelli Ward is again in the mix.  The silver lining is that Ann Kirkpatrick, perhaps the best the Democrats can offer up in 2018, went down to easy defeat at the hands of John McCain in 2016.  Flake may prove a better opportunity, but that is something Kirkpatrick has to work out.  There is also talk that the House’s only bisexual witch- Krysten Sinema- may jump in this year.

For the Democrats, thus far the following have not declared their intentions for 2018:  Diane Feinstein (California), Tom Carper (Delaware), Ben Cardin (Maryland), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Bob Menendez (New Jersey), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  As one can tell, only two of those states represent a possibility for the GOP- Michigan and North Dakota.

This writer is not of the belief that Michigan (or any state) won by Trump in 2016 is in play for the Senate in 2018.  There is a world of difference.  Just because Trump won Michigan does not mean that Stabenow is in danger of losing her Senate seat.  Only if this becomes an open seat will that opportunity present itself.  However, Heitkamp- who has positioned herself to the right of her Democratic counterparts, especially on energy- stands the biggest risk of losing her seat if she runs.

The following have stated they will run in 2018:

  • Chris Murphy in Connecticut;
  • Bill Nelson in Florida;
  • Mazie Hirono in Hawaii;
  • Joe Donnelly in Indiana;
  • Angus King in Maine;
  • Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts;
  • Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota;
  • Claire McCaskill in Missouri;
  • Jon Tester in Montana;
  • Martin Heinrich in New Mexico;
  • Kirsten Gillibrand in New York;
  • Sherrod Brown in Ohio;
  • Bob Casey in Pennsylvania;
  • Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island;
  • Bernie Sanders in Vermont;
  • Tim Kaine in Virginia;
  • Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and;
  • Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin

We can summarily take Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont out of the mix.  Again, because Trump won Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin (and came close in Minnesota) is not necessarily a reason to assume these seats are in play.  Depending upon the GOP opponent, they may come into play, but not at this point.  There are, however, two exceptions- Bill Nelson in Florida and Sherrod Brown in Ohio.  The Republican bench in Florida is very deep and there is no shortage of talent with statewide name recognition to take on Nelson.  Trump’s victory in Florida was not a squeaker and that should give any Republican a fighting chance.

As for Ohio, the Trump victory was resounding by Ohio standards.  Brown’s electoral fortunes will be dependent on Trump’s misfortunes.  If Trump proves successful as president, then Brown’s political stances stand in direct opposition to him.  He is a stone cold liberal in the Sanders/Warren mold.  Additionally, like Florida, the GOP has a deep bench in Ohio.

Despite Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin and his close loss in Minnesota, one does not see Tammy Baldwin or Amy Klobuchar being too threatened at this point.  Both have decent approval ratings in their home states.  The same could be said for another Trump state- Pennsylvania- where Bob Casey has good approval ratings.  There may be a GOP House member willing to take the plunge, but after the defeat of GOP Governor Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania GOP statewide seems to be a bit discombobulated.  Some have suggested that Warren in Massachusetts may face a challenge.  Come on…it is Massachusetts.

Now things get interesting and dicey for the Democratic Party starting with the twin states of Indiana and Missouri.  In 2012, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill won because they defeated weaker, gaffe-prone opponents in the general election.  Assuming the GOP does not offer up another Akin/Mourdock, both these states are clearly in the red column and proved it even more with resounding Trump victories.  Both have viable candidates and a deep bench of possibilities.

Technically an “independent,” Angus King in Maine probably has a greater than 50% chance of reelection dependent on who the GOP offers up.  Trump did surprisingly well in Maine, they have a Republican albeit controversial Governor and Bruce Poliquin surprisingly won reelection to the House in 2016 against a strong opponent.  Joe Manchin in West Virginia would seem a likely target, but he is a Democrat the GOP can live with in the Senate.  Despite the state increasingly turning red in terms of presidential politics, they still have a Democratic streak and that should vault Manchin to reelection.

Jon Tester in Montana- another red state- is probably breathing a sigh of relief now that his most likely contender- Ryan Zinke- is out of the picture having joined the Trump cabinet.  Regardless, they have a very popular Democratic Governor.  Zinke’s chances would have been 50/50.

That leaves Tim Kaine in Virginia.  Objectively, he did nothing to disgrace himself as Clinton’s 2016 running mate.  In the vice presidential debate, he clearly lost out to Mike Pence.  He clearly intends to run, but the big question is whether he will throw his hat into the ring in 2020?  Regardless, there are viable Republican possibilities in Virginia assuming they can make inroads with the growing DC suburban voters.

Besides the sheer number of seats to defend, the Democrats do not have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket this time out.  The GOP is likely to gain seats in the Senate for these reasons alone.  Perhaps the best the Democrats can do is deny the GOP a 60-seat majority.