2018 State of Play: Senate (Part II)

When we left off at the end of Part I I had covered Senate races in Arizona, Nevada and West Virginia. Let’s move north and see what the Democrats’ chances look like in the Upper Midwest and West.


This handsome lad is Senator Jon Tester of Montana. First elected in the 2006 wave, he benefited from the comically exaggerated stupidity and corruption of the incumbent, Conrad Burns. Tester has since been re-elected once, in a pretty good year for Dems (2012), and both of his races were tight. He knows how to campaign, and he’s never taken his seat for granted. Montana is also less red than it may at first appear; they have a Democratic governor and nearly elected a Democrat to Congress earlier this year.

All that said this is still a tough race. Montana may not be as red as, say, Mississippi, but it’s still very red, and Trump won the state by more than 20 points. There are a number of Republican candidates, but the frontrunner at this point is Matt Rosendale, currently state auditor. Rosendale ran for Congress before but lost to Ryan Zinke by a comfortable margin (Zinke is now Secretary of the Interior). Rosendale is running a fairly bog-standard Republican campaign, and it remains to be seen if he tries to mimic Gillespie’s nativist appeal; if he trails Tester, we might see him try it, but like Gillespie he’s clearly not a true believer. I think Tester probably has the chops to survive this challenge, although sooner or later he’s going to come up against a credible opponent in a bad year for Democrats and lose.


Incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill is running for a third term. Like Tester, she came on board in 2006 and survive a bruising challenge in 2012; unlike Tester, this was partially because her 2012 opponent was Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, who has become practically a poster child for torching your own campaign to the ground. Her opponent was likely to be Ann Wagner, a current Congresswoman, but in June she announced she wasn’t running. McCaskill’s therefore probably going to face Josh Hawley, the current state AG, who has already pinned down support from the President and Congressional leadership. Missouri is a deeply red state without Montana’s quirky Democrat-electing history, and McCaskill may be in trouble. Hawley is leading McCaskill in early polling by a few points, and though early polling is extremely unreliable (the election is ten months away!), he’s unlikely to make the same kind of career-ending gaffe as Akin.

Of all of the vulnerable Dems running, I think McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp (of whom more later) are in the most danger. This is not just because they’re women, although unfortunately that is a factor; the sexism in the Republican party has metastasized, and Senators in red states require Republican crossover voters to survive. The Right will try to tie her to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton — two of the most hated politicians in Missouri — but McCaskill has a record of independence and, frankly, right-leaning votes, which might soften that blow. McCaskill’s won election twice and might pull it off again, but this race is a true tossup.


One-term Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly is running for re-election. Traditionally your first re-election is your hardest, and Indiana is pretty red, 2008 Obama victory notwithstanding. Trump beat Clinton here by a similar margin as he scored in Missouri. Donnelly is fairly popular — he’s more popular than Trump, certainly — but he doesn’t quite reach majority approval. He’s a pretty conservative Dem (all of the red-state Dems on my list are), but that often doesn’t matter to the dreaded Base, to whom all members of the Democratic Party are complicit in the Satanic crimes of Clinton and Pelosi.

One factor working in Donnelly’s favor is that there is no clear opponent. Two sitting Congressmen, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, are polling neck and neck, and Party leadership has stayed out of it so far. That promises a bruising, draining primary, which may weaken the survivor enough that Donnelly can finish him off. Still, this race is going to be tough. I rate Donnelly’s chances as better than McCaskill’s, but not by much. In a worse year for Democrats — for instance, a midterm in which they held the White House — Donnelly would be toast, but if he can make it through this race, he may have smoother sailing in 2024.

North Dakota

One-term incumbent Heidi Heitkamp is competing here in this reddest of red states, which Trump won by 36 points. She beat former Congressman Rick Berg in 2012, and he may be angling for a rematch, but the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is current state senator Tom Campbell. Heitkamp squeaked in by about a percent last time, but that was with an extremely unpopular (in North Dakota, anyways) incumbent Democratic president on the ballot. Without that, she may find her campaign buoyed. She’s also well-funded and has great name recognition, especially compared to Campbell, who has never held statewide office.

This could be a tough race for Heitkamp; Trump’s approval rating remains high in North Dakota, even as it has declined elsewhere. Once the big money lines up behind Campbell he’ll be able to flood the airwaves. Again, as a one-term incumbent, Heitkamp’s facing what’s likely to be the toughest election of her career. This race is a real toss-up, and given Trump’s high popularity in North Dakota, could hinge on what happens nationally between now and November; if his popularity continues to slip and North Dakota drifts away from him, Heitkamp’s position will be a lot stronger.


I’m going going to lie: this is going to be a rough year for Democrats. Had Clinton won, we’d be looking at a total wipeout on all levels. The tendency of voters to punish the incumbent President’s party — combined with Trump’s unprecedented unpopularity — means that many marginal Democrats may survive, and they even have a few pickup opportunities despite the brutal map. The Dems’ chances of taking the Senate are slim, though if all of their incumbents survive they rise dramatically (and if the Dems take both Arizona seats — unlikely but not impossible — they can afford to lose a seat elsewhere).

So all that said, let’s take a look at some crazy scenarios.

Ted Cruz is not a popular man. He’s never been shy about his ambition for higher office, and after being repeatedly humiliated by Donald Trump on the campaign trail, has been uncharacteristically quiet. His colleagues hate him, the President seems to hate him, and the voters aren’t so keen on him either. With his higher aspirations in abeyance for now, he’s in a bit of a holding pattern, and he doesn’t exactly ooze charisma. Does all that add up to a Democrat winning in Texas?

Challenging Cruz is current Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a fresh-faced Democrat who it is not physically painful to look at. O’Rourke’s biggest hurdle — besides the D label — is his lack of name recognition. He will need to work hard to build a statewide profile in Texas, an expensive media market, and that means lots of money. He’s fundraising well off of his chops as “Ted Cruz’s opponent,” since the opportunity to unseat the loathsome Cruz is exciting to all but the weariest Democrats. He’s well behind in the polls, and has a lot of ground to make up, but if he can mobilize the Latino vote he has a chance. Democrats’ dreams of a blue Texas are coming eventually, but it will take a long time, and the state might not be there yet. If the presence of a nativist demagogue in the White House can’t motivate Latinos to vote, Democrats might have to do something drastic, like actually try to appeal to them or figure out what they want. Let’s hope it doesn’t get that dire.

With Republican Senator Bob Corker having correctly come to the conclusion that he cannot survive a primary in the Trump era, the way is clear for an open-seat race in Tennessee. This is not a particularly competitive state, having gone for Trump by 26 points, but open-seat races are always a bit of a wild card. Trump is still above water in Tennessee, but not by much, and the Democrats have gotten just about the best candidate they can: Phil Bredesen, a well-known and well-respected former governor. Bredesen has a solid background as Mayor of Nashville prior to his governorship, and now runs a solar energy business, which should appeal to Democratic base voters without alienating Republicans.

He’ll need those crossovers; opposing him is Marsha Blackburn, a current Congresswoman. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool Southern republican, so expect lots of hay to be made over kneeling NFL players and Confederate statues. Those culture war issues play well in Tennessee. Whether attempts to link the sober, staid Bredesen to the wild excesses of San Francisco Democrats will work remains to be seen, though you can be sure it’ll be tried. This is a red seat in a red state and it’s likely to stay red, but if the national environment is bad enough for Trump and the Republicans, anything could happen.

Overall 2018 is shaping up to be an interesting year. The House is gerrymandered to hell and back, but that’s just going to be true at least until the 2022 elections, so there’s nothing we can do about it. The Senate has some real opportunities, and while the Democrats are mostly playing defense this time, they have some opportunities for pickups. At the very least, they can make it a 50/50 Senate, thus dooming any legislation with even one defector (and granting immense power to Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, along with other so-called moderates).

In lieu of a pithy final line, I will urge you to vote for Democrats at every level, as the Republican party is the home of theocrats, plutocrats, and the very worst people ever to hold political office in the history of civilization. They are scum and deserve utter and abject humiliation.

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