The Senate 2018: Potential Warning Signs?- Part 1

A lot of attention is being focused on the House races this year where the GOP is expected to lose seats, possibly enough to wrest control away in favor of the Democrats.  There is a belief, echoed in many comments here, that the Senate playing field favors the Republicans this year.  On paper, it appears that way and this writer does not generally disagree.  The Democrats need to defend 26 seats including ten in states that Trump won in 2016.

Before looking at the Democratic seats in play, there are four GOP seats of interest.  Dean Heller is the incumbent in Nevada who is facing Jackie Rosen in November for the Democrats.  Heller has a dismal 33% approval rating against a 40% disapproval rating in his state which is almost a guarantee for a loss.  Meanwhile, a barn burner of a fight will occur to keep Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona in Republican hands.  Although they have yet to hold their primary, it appears as if Krysten Sinema (Democrat) will face off against Martha McSally if polls are to be believed.  And most of those same polls point to a Sinema victory.

There are two other seats of note that often get overlooked that bear some mentioning since they may be under the radar: Bob Corker’s seat in Tennessee where a contentious GOP primary is occurring, and Thad Cochran’s seat in Mississippi.  In effect, the election in November will be a jungle primary and if no one among three viable candidates reaches 50%, a runoff will be held.  Tina Hyde Smith is Cochran’s appointed replacement running to complete the term along with Chris McDaniel and Democrat Phil Espy, a black former Obama administration official well-known in Mississippi with deep pockets.  It would truly be a big exclamation mark on the midterms if the GOP were to lose even one of these seats.

The purported vulnerable seats among the Democrats are: Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin- ten Democratic incumbents who hail from states Trump won in 2016.

There are several factors besides the fact Trump won these states in 2016.  Personally, this writer feels this is an overestimated metric especially considering that Trump’s margin of victory in three of those states was extremely close.

Those three states were Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.  These are also traditionally blue states.  So let’s dispense with the big elephant in the room first: Donald Trump.  In Wisconsin, 54% of voters disapprove of Trump, 52% disapprove in Michigan, and 51% disapprove in Pennsylvania.  In these three states, voters have made up their mind about Trump and the news is not good.  If Bob Casey, Debbie Stabenow, and Tammy Baldwin can latch Trump to their Republican opponents in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, they can easily retain their seats.

Conversely, Trump has net positive approval ratings in Florida, West Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana and Missouri.  Thus, it may be to the advantage of Republican challengers to tread a fine line as concerns Trump in these states, or to go firmly behind Trump in states with large net approval ratings (West Virginia, Indiana, and North Dakota).

A second consideration is fundraising.  Although this writer does not necessarily agree with the theory that he who raises, spends or receives the most money or outside help wins a race since dollar bills do not vote and people tend to get turned off by the barrage of advertisements as Election Day nears, there is one metric that does sort of foretell an outcome.  That metric is the amount raised from in-state donors.

According to FEC filings, only donations of $200 or more have to be itemized with the address of the donor.  In 2014 in Missouri, there was a total of $17.6 million donated to federal candidates from instate sources with 19% of it going to Democratic candidates.  So far since January 2017, $27.7 million has been raised from instate donors with 56% of it going to Democrats.  Most of that has gone to Claire McCaskill.  The same trend is seen in Ohio where 51% of instate donations are going to Democrats (Sherrod Brown mainly) and 47% of instate donations in Wisconsin going to Democrats (versus 25% in the 2014 midterms).  Instate donations are an indication of support for candidates within that state, and a metric of state voter motivation and enthusiasm.

Does this mean there is necessarily a lack of enthusiasm for their Republican opponents in these states?  First, not all of the donations are going to Senate candidates.  In Missouri, after McCaskill, Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner is the second highest recipient of instate donations.  Obviously, open Republican House seats are receiving instate donations also going to the Democratic challenger.  It also does not account for self-funding by candidates and party support.  Fortunately for the GOP, nationally Republicans are far outperforming the Democratic Party in overall fundraising (DNC vs. RNC).

As for outside spending, 54 liberal groups have spent at least $100,000 thus far compared to only 28 in 2014.  However, among conservative groups, 80 have spent at least $100,00 thus far.  The good news is that the Democrats have spent $30 million more than Republicans thus far in just the primaries.  For the general election, liberal groups have $132 million to spend versus about $105 million for conservative groups.  Not all of that money on either side is going to Senate campaigns.

In the second part of this entry, this writer will look at incumbency, voter approval and specific issues and how they may affect the Senate vote in 2018.