With this year’s Presidential race more or less over, you may be asking – what’s next? Races for Governor in 2017 in Virginia and New Jersey should get some attention, along with the US Senate race in Virginia. But let’s look just a little farther out, to the 2018 Senate races.
Democrats are about to retake control of the Senate, but their margin will be critical. 2016 was a very favorable year for them, with vulnerable Republican incumbents defending a large number of seats. In ’18, the shoe is on the other foot.
A cohort of Democrats elected on the strength of Obama’s 2012 campaign will be trying to hold their seats. Democrats do well in Presidential Election years. Now these incumbents must hold seats in difficult terrain under less favorable conditions.
There are ten states in which Democratic senators are expecting tough races:
By contrast, Republicans should only be vulnerable in one state: Nevada.
So, Democrats are defending ten vulnerable seats while Republicans defend one.
One of those Democratic seats is a near-certain loss. Democrats are effectively finished in West Virginia. There may be no place in the country that has latched on to Trump-style Republican white nationalism as fiercely as the Mountain State. Joe Manchin has promised to run for re-election, but it is hard to imagine any scenario in which he wins.
Looking past a near-certain loss in West Virginia, the following Democratic seats are the most vulnerable:
Indiana – Joe Donnelly
Missouri – Claire McCaskill
Montana – Jon Tester
North Dakota – Heidi Heitkamp
If the election plays out according to the 2014 script, three out of four of these would probably be lost. Barring another enormous swing, Democrats should be able to hold at least 2. None of these races is a certain loss. All of these incumbents are popular, well-funded, and dug in. McCaskill is particularly well-positioned. She’s emerged as kind of a badass. Indiana is probably the most vulnerable seat in the list.
Of the remaining five seats, four of them are races that Democrats could reliably expect to hold in a more or less normal mid-term:
Florida – Bill Nelson
Ohio – Sherrod Brown
Pennsylvania – Bob Casey
Wisconsin – Tammy Baldwin
All but one of these is a Blue Wall state, and Ohio is starting to look like a pretty dark purple. A bitter intra-party challenge to John Kasich in the race for Governor is likely to cause ripples into the Senate race. That leaves one major wild card: Virginia.
Old Dominion hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in a long time, but Republicans will get two shots to take it back in two successive years.
After the ’16 Election Governor McAuliffe will nominate a Democrat to take Tim Kaine’s seat. That nominee will have to stand for re-election in 2017 and again in 2018. Virginia Republicans are disorganized, shrinking, and crippled with internal divisions, so there’s no reason to expect a Democrat to lose. But winning two races so close together cannot be considered a slam dunk.
In the worst case scenario, Democrats should brace for a potential net loss of 5 or 6 Senate seats in 2018:
-1 Democrats can write off West Virginia.
-2 Of the four seats in the most vulnerable tier, Democrats would normally expect to lose half of them in an off-year election.
-1 Of the remaining five, including Virginia, they could lose one or two.
.5 They have about a break-even chance of picking up a seat in Nevada.
However, apart from West Virginia, all of the remaining individual races are winnable. From a pure odds perspective, it’s hard to imagine Democrats running the table in an off-year election, but it is conceivable that they could win a large number of these races.
Overall, the range of likely outcomes for Democrats in 2018 is somewhere between 2 and six seats lost in the Senate.
Right now, the most likely outcome from the ’16 Senate races would give Democrats 53 seats going into the midterms. They face a slim shot at 54 if either McCain or Rubio fall victim to a turnout-driven poll shock. They could hit 55 in their best case scenario if both men lose.
If Democrats hold 53 seats after 2016, it is entirely possible that they could retain a bare Senate majority after the 2018 midterms. It is more likely though that they would lose Senate control by a small margin.
A few caveats.
In different circumstances, Republican Jeff Flake in Arizona might have been considered vulnerable. He won his seat by a very narrow margin in 2012 and demographics are moving the state toward the Democrats. However, Flake has been very successful this year in distancing himself from Donald Trump. Arizona offers a lot of promise for Democrats in general, but unless he does something outlandish, Flake shouldn’t face a tough re-election race.
Why isn’t Michigan on the list? Michigan hasn’t been competitive for Republicans at the national level for a very long time. Democrat Gary Peters won his Senate seat in the 2014 Republican wave election. Barring some candidate meltdown registering on the Larry Craig scale, Michigan is now a blue state at the federal level. Instead of worrying about the US Senate, Republicans in Michigan will have a fight on their hands to retain their influence at the state level.
And finally, Republicans can expect that their off-year advantage will continue to weaken. Hardcore Republican old people are dying off and they are not being replaced. With each passing year replacement voters are less white, less bigoted, and more adept at living in the Internet age. To put it another way, the fresh new oldsters are incrementally less likely to believe crazy shit they read on Facebook or Breitbart and incrementally less paranoid.
Meanwhile a very large wave of younger voters are just moving into voting age. By that I mean the real voting age: about 35. Almost no one under 35 votes consistently.
This younger cohort is more uniformly liberal than this country has ever seen. Yes, more liberal than the Boomers in the 60’s.
They are the country’s largest demographic and the leading edge of them will be 37 in time for the 2018 election. By the middle of the next decade half of them will have entered midlife and completely transformed our politics. Republicans are not remotely competitive among this demographic, struggling to hang on to second place in close competition from third parties.
In summary, it remains likely that Democrats will lose control of the Senate by a narrow margin in 2018, but this is the last stand of the Republican Party as we know it.
Current complete list of 2018 races: