What had shaped up to be a fairly mild, predictable Senate cycle has become one of the hairiest in memory.
To see why, let’s start with the stakes: The policy consequences of Republicans losing only a seat or two and holding onto a sliver of a majority is dramatically different than if their net losses are on the magnitude of five, six, seven, or eight, which is entirely possible given the dozen vulnerable GOP seats. With such losses, the red team would find themselves on the other end of a Democratic majority of between 52 and 55 seats.
Particularly if Democrats opt to jettison the Senate filibuster rule, the difference in what comes out of the upper chamber would be as different from 2017-18 as night and day. Perhaps the presidential debate on Thursday night might make a difference, but if swing voters have hit the mute switch or at least turned down the volume on President Trump, as I think they did after the previous debate, the event is likely to make little difference on the presidential outcome. There was a synchronized drop for many GOP candidates in the days immediately after that debate, suggesting that some of Trump’s problems, particularly in the suburbs, have metastasized to other candidates—especially those who are close to their polarizing party leader.
Jessica Taylor, Senate and governor editor of The Cook Political Report, puts Republican Senate incumbents in the following order of vulnerability: Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona face the most difficult reelection challenges, followed by Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Joni Ernst of Iowa—each in contention to potentially be the tipping-point seat should any of them lose. Tillis hasn’t gained much from the sex scandal involving his Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham. Initial polls suggest that it shaved the challenger’s mid- to high-single-digit lead to one in the low- to mid-single digits. We are waiting to see data about whether Ernst’s fumble of a debate question last week about the price of soybeans will have an effect on that race. Going into the debate, she had been at best tied and more likely down a few points.
Taylor suggests there are three races in contention for the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-most-vulnerable GOP seats: the two Georgia contests and a fight in Montana.
Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia is opposed by 2017 Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff in a race that could hardly be much closer and could well go to a Jan. 5 runoff. The special election for the seat once held by former Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, on the other hand, is a wild one, with around 20 candidates running in a jungle, nonpartisan primary. It looks increasingly like a Democratic candidate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church (formerly headed by both Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr.), is most likely to come in first and head to a runoff (there is no way any candidate will top 50 percent). On the Republican side, appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins are both trying to run as far right as they possibly can in hopes of finishing second to Warnock, something that could get awkward as they try to move to the middle just two months later.
In Montana, an even-money contest between GOP Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will test whether a Democrat can win in a state that the president is likely to carry—albeit with a mid-single-digit margin, down considerably from what GOP presidential nominees usually do.
Rounding out the list is Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who is running about even with challenger Jaime Harrison in most polls. Harrison recently reported $57 million raised in the third quarter, the most of any House or Senate candidate from any state in history, a sign of the animosity many Democrats around the country feel toward Graham.
The open seat in Kansas is next on Taylor’s list. State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who is now the Democratic nominee, is giving GOP Rep. Roger Marshall fits. Marshall will have Trump at the top of the ticket, but it would appear that is of limited value. The president’s lead in the state is a slimmer-than-expected 6.3 points, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages.
Sen. John Cornyn’s race in Texas has drawn closer, though not enough to yet rate as a Toss Up. Ditto the Alaska race, which pits Sen. Dan Sullivan against challenger Al Gross. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday afternoon gave the incumbent an 8-point lead, though private polling from both sides is said to show a far closer race. Alaska is a notoriously difficult state to poll, particularly for out-of-staters.
The only competitive race that’s unlikely to yield much drama is in Kentucky, where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is almost certain to be reelected. The question is whether he will be majority or minority leader come January.