As the political environment continues to favor Democrats and likely to rob Republicans of their majority in the U.S. House and a handful of gubernatorial seats, the conventional wisdom is that the fate of the GOP’s Senate majority will rest more on political geography than the way the partisan winds are blowing. Maybe.
The map continues to favor Republicans as Democrats are defending 10 seats in states that President Trump carried, four of which are in the Toss Up column, while two others are in Lean Democratic. In keeping with the notion that geography is destiny this cycle, the one Republican-held seat (Nevada) that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 is in the Toss Up column. But, Democrats have managed to put three more Republican seats in play: the open seats in Arizona (Trump +4) and Tennessee (Trump +26), and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas (Trump +9) into play. This raises the question as to whether political geography really will dictate the fate of the Senate majority.
Generally, races in the Toss Up column don’t break down the middle; one party tends to win a majority of them. Over the past 10 cycles, no party has won less than 67 percent of all Toss Up races. In 2004, 2006 and 2014, one party won 89 percent of the races in the Toss Up column. The working theory for this cycle has been that if Democrats end up winning a majority of the Toss Up races, then the political environment proved to be the factor driving the election. If, on the other hand, Republicans wind up carrying a majority of the Toss Up contests, then political geography is indeed destiny. But, what if for the first time since we’ve been keeping tabs on the outcome of Toss Up contests, they did break down the middle? Usually, it’s easy to dismiss such an idea. It’s just not as simple this cycle. And, what would it say if the Toss Up races do break down the middle?
At this point, the overall political environment is not likely to change. The President’s approval rating, voter intensity, and the generic congressional ballot test are baked into the proverbial cake. The only real unknown factor is the fate of the Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a teenage girl in the 1980s have stalled the nomination process. There are about a dozen scenarios as to how this will play out and the situation seems to change with each day. Suffice it to say that both parties have made mistakes in their handling of the allegations and both sides are walking a bit of a tightrope.
The parties have very different views of how it will play out at the polls. Democrats believe that it will further energize their base. Republicans say that it is firing up their supporters. They may both be right, but Democrats are already energized, which raises the question of how much more the base can expand. It’s unlikely that Democratic voters can be more enraged than they already are. But, Republican voters haven’t been as energized, largely because many don’t believe that the party is really in danger of losing their majorities in the House and/or Senate, according to a survey Public Opinion Strategies conducted for the Republican National Committee. The fate of the Supreme Court is a huge issue for Republican voters, and they will go to the polls if they feel that Democrats have politicized the allegations against Kavanaugh, even if they believe Christine Blasey Ford's story. Some Democratic strategists say the allegations against Kavanaugh make it easier for most Democrats to vote against his nomination. At the same time, they are concerned about the fallout if the nomination drags on through October.
The State of Play
The Senate battleground has been pretty stable for much of the year. There have been very few rating changes. With just over six weeks to go, a majority of the most competitive races are within the margin of error, but a couple of races have closed over the past several weeks, expanding the playing field a bit going into the final stretch. On the Democratic side, Montana moves from Likely Democrat to Lean Democrat, and West Virginia moves from Toss Up to Lean Democrat. For Republicans, Texas moves to the Toss Up column.
Montana (D – Tester): Likely Dem to Lean Dem →
Texas (R – Cruz): Lean Rep. to Toss Up ←
West Virginia (D – Manchin): Toss Up to Lean Dem ←
Full ratings can be found here
Democratic Toss Up Races:
There are four Democratic-held seats in the Toss Up column; U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Strategists from both parties agree that these races are within the margin of error, but disagree on which candidate is ahead. To reiterate a point we’ve made all cycle, we are playing very little attention to public polls, relaying instead on conversations with strategists of both parties.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has heavily outspent Nelson and Democrats. Democratic strategists argue that all those television ads haven’t buried Nelson and that this will be a fight to the end. Even Republicans, who remain very optimistic about their chances here, acknowledge that Scott could run a perfect campaign, and come up a point or two short.
In Indiana, GOP nominee Mike Braun has come under fire for squandering the summer months with little presence on the air or the campaign trail. During that time, Democrats, particularly the Senate Majority PAC, used television ads to drive up Braun’s negatives, while the Donnelly’s positive ads have boosted his profile. Braun does have a path to victory as he hasn’t fully consolidated the GOP base, but Democrats feel good about where Donnelly is today.
In Missouri, McCaskill is walking a fine line between the Democratic base in St. Louis and Kansas City and their suburbs and traditionally GOP voters in rural areas who have supported her in the past. The question is whether these rural voters still feel that McCaskill is an independent moderate looking out for their interests or whether she is now more aligned with the Senate Democratic leadership. McCaskill this week announced that she would vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. While most would assume that the sexual assault allegations led to her decision, McCaskill cited Kavanaugh’s views on dark money in campaigns as the reason for her decision. Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley continues to come under criticism for his lackluster candidate skills and low-key campaign, but Kavanaugh’s nomination (apart from the allegations of sexual assault) has been a boon to his campaign.
North Dakota may be the race that Democrats are most nervous about. Heitkamp is running a very strong campaign, but her votes against tax reform and repealing the Affordable Care Act, among other GOP priorities, are hurting her. Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer isn’t running as strong a campaign as Heitkamp, but it appears he doesn’t need to. This is a state where President Trump’s support and visits are an asset to Cramer.
Lean Democratic Races:
While Ohio has been in this column for some time and seems destined more for the Likely column than Toss Up, Montana and West Virginia are new occupants.
Republicans are increasingly optimistic about their chances in Montana where Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is seeking a third term. Tester is running a very strong campaign that highlights his accomplishments in the Senate on behalf of Montana voters. He stresses the pieces of legislation he has sponsored that President Trump has signed into law, as well as his Montana-centric independence. Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale appears to be holding his own, despite a constant barrage of attacks from Democrats who have defined him as a heartless real estate developer from Maryland who owns a “trophy ranch.” While Trump is a big asset to Rosendale, the presence of a Libertarian candidate on the ballot may well prevent him from overtaking Tester; Libertarian candidates often cost Republicans elections here.
At the start of the cycle, West Virginia’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin bore the unwanted label of the most vulnerable incumbent of the cycle, making his move out of the Toss Up column noteworthy. Having served two terms as Governor, voters know Manchin and Republicans have had trouble selling the message that Washington has changed him. It has helped that GOP state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey isn’t the strongest candidate that the party could have nominated. Democrats have successfully tagged him as a former lobbyist from New Jersey who is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. Some Republican strategists maintain that there is still a path to victory for Morrisey, but it is narrow. For now, Manchin’s lead appears to be in the high single digits. If the race closes, it will move back to Toss Up.
Republican Toss Up Races:
There are now four races in the Toss Up column: U.S. Sens. Dean Heller in Nevada and Ted Cruz in Texas, as well as the open seats in Arizona and Tennessee.
Arizona is hosting a race between two female members of the U.S. House: Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. In many ways, they are evenly matched; both are strong fundraisers, both are strong personal narratives, and both have solid resumes. McSally had to deal with a primary that occupied her attention through August, while Sinema had a clear path to the Democratic nomination and months to define herself as a moderate. Now that the general election is engaged, Sinema’s advantage has eroded. She is coming under attack for the first time in the race, particularly over past statements about the military. Republicans contend that there is more in their oppo file that they will use to define Sinema. Democrats argue that McSally picked up some baggage in the primary and has moved too close to Trump, who isn’t terribly popular among general election voters. This may end up being the closest Senate race in the country.
In Nevada, GOP U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has been on the defensive through most of this race. Conservatives question his loyalty to their cause and President Trump, while Democrats contend that he is a party line Republican who votes against the state’s interests. Republicans say that Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen votes with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and has very little to show for her single term in the House. The conventional wisdom is that Rosen is a few points ahead, though Democrats acknowledge that they haven’t put this away. Of the four GOP seats in Toss Up, this seems the most vulnerable.
Some Republican strategists are surprised that the open-seat in Tennessee is still in play, with one bemoaning that it seems destined to be a tough slog until the end. Democratic nominee and former Gov. Phil Bredesen has run a very solid campaign with a moderate tone. He comes across as a statesman who thinks through issues. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the GOP nominee, struggles with an image problem and hasn’t consolidated the base yet. Republicans are confident that voters will home and note that President Trump is an asset here.
Finally, defying all odds and expectations, Texas has earned a place in the Toss Up column. GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz isn’t terribly popular, and while that might not necessarily be a problem is a red state, Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and his message have generated a great deal of enthusiasm among Democrats and independents, as well as Democratic donors across the country who have filled his campaign war chest. At this point, he has outraised Cruz and outspent him on television. A Toss Up rating makes both parties nervous: Republicans for obvious reasons and Democrats because it creates an expectation that they will start spending money on the race. For that matter, Republicans aren’t anxious to spend money in such an expensive state either. The Club for Growth is investing in the race on Cruz’s behalf, but O’Rourke has campaigned against PAC money and outside spending so having the party swoop in with millions in television advertising might well be counterproductive. O’Rourke has earned this rating, but getting the last couple of points to overtake Cruz and win the seat will be difficult though not utterly impossible.
The Bottom Line
The range of outcomes for the Senate is very narrow. There is a path for Democrats to win a one-seat majority, but it isn’t the most likely scenario. In fact, it’s the third most likely scenario. Despite spending close to $1 billion on Senate races, this may prove to be a status quo election in which the parties swap some seats, but Republicans continue to hold 51 seats. The next most likely scenario is that Democrats end up with a net gain of one seat, leaving the chamber tied but giving Republicans the majority by virtue of Vice President Pence holding the tie-breaking vote.
Image: Ted Cruz at Town Hall | Credit: James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram via AP