Midterms 2018: The Race for the Senate

November 1, 2018

Whilst Nancy Pelosi is probably feeling fairly confident about the chances of her party, the Democrats, taking control of the House of Representatives next Tuesday, her colleagues in the senate will be feeling far less bullish. Unlike the House, which has all 435 of its seats up for election every two years, the Senate is divided into three classes, each serving a six-year term with elections alternating every two years. This time round, the 33 class one senators, who’s previous election coincided with the re-election of President Obama in 2012, are up for election. There are also two special elections, one in Minnesota and one in Mississippi. As is the case in the House of Representatives, the presidential party usually suffers losses at midterm elections to the Senate. In 1994, President Clinton’s Democrats lost nine of their 57 Senate seats, losing control of the chamber to the Republicans. In 2010, the Democrats lost six seats. The change in seats in the Senate tends to appear less dramatic than the house, on account of the fact that there are only 100 seats in total. 

This time round, the Senate may well provide some good news for President Trump. That is mostly by virtue of ‘crop’ of races that are up this time. Including special elections, the Democrats are defending a massive 26 races whilst the GOP are defending just nine. Whilst incumbency is a major advantage, there is further bad news for the Democrats as ten of their 26 defences are states carried by President Donald Trump in 2016 and many of them by double digits. In North Dakota, for example, Heidi Heitkampis defending her seat in a state that President Trump carried by nearly 36-points over Hillary Clinton. By contrast, the Republicans are defending only one race in a state won by Mrs Clinton, Nevada, and even then, it was by just two-and-a-half-points. 

Indeed, whilst the Democrats look like they will hold most of their seats, there are at least two races that are looking very difficult for them and a couple of others that are looking dicey. The most difficult of these is almost certainly North Dakota. FiveThirtyEight rates the state as the fourth most Republican in the country and gives it a partisan lean of 33.2 percent Republican. In the ten polls of the state taken since January 2018, Heitkamp has trailed her Republican opponent, Kevin Cranmer, in nine of them. Although Heitkamp pulled off a somewhat ‘impossible’ victory in 2012, she did lead at least some of the opinion polls in the run up to election day. Indeed, it was remarkable that she won the Senate seat by one-point whilst Mitt Romney carried the state by 20. But since then, the state has moved more further to the right, with President Trump significantly improving on Romney’s winning margin. Further to this, an opinion poll taken in September by Strategic Research Associates showed that 60 percent of North Dakotans approved of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. As a result, Heitkamp’s vote against his confirmation may well have worked against her chances of re-election in a race where every vote is going to be critical. Of course, her vote against Kavanaugh may have no impact but it could also prove critical if the race is close. 

Elsewhere there are several races, such as Missouri, in which the Democrats are facing a tough fight to hold on. Claire McCaskill held onto Missouri in 2012, increasing her vote share to just under 55 percent. As with North Dakota, Mitt Romney comfortably carried Missouri on the same day, by just under ten-points and President Trump almost doubled this margin in 2016, when he extended it to 18.6-points. In short, as with North Dakota, the state has become more Republican. McCaskill has trailed the Republican candidate, Josh Hawley, in all of the public opinion polls that have been published so far, although FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average gives McCaskill a tiny advantage of just half a point. So, with the advantage of incumbency and an effective get the vote out operation, McCaskill may well hold onto Missouri but the race could certainly go either way. 

The third seat in which the Republicans believe they are in with a real chance of making a gain is Indiana. The opinion polls here have been varied, showing leads for both the incumbent Democrat, Joe Donnelly and his Republican challenger, Mike Braun. The state is rated as leaning 17.9-points towards the Republicans than the country and once again, was carried by President Trump with a double-digit margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Whilst FiveThirtyEight gives Donnelly a five-in-seven chance of holding the state with just over 50 percent of the vote, other sites have been more cautious with Real Clear Politics rating the race as a tossup. Across the country, Democrats are facing a tough fight but the toughest of these fights will almost certainly be in races such as Montana, North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, where President Trump performed strongly in 2016 and the states have moved more to the right since the 2012 battle. It would be fair to categorise these races as ‘GOP hopes’, and given the small number of defences that the party has this time round, they are likely to take at least one of them, quite possibly two. 

Any gains that the Republicans make amongst these states are likely to be offset by a couple of losses. The most likely of these losses will come in Nevada. The Silver State voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, by two-and-a-half points and voted for Barak Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Dean Heller won the senate election in 2012 by just over one-point and the state is currently a pure tossup, with opinion polling showing small leads for both candidates. FiveThirtyEight rates the race as a tossup but gives Dean Heller a slight advantage. Next door, in Arizona, Hillary Clinton missed out by just over three-and-a-half points in 2016. This margin is very similar to that which Democrats lost by in the senate race in 2012, when the Democratic candidate outpolled President Obama in the state presidential election. Despite the state’s Republican lean of 9.2-points, FiveThirtyEight currently rates the race as ‘lean Democrat’. Indeed, the fact that there is no incumbent on the ballot will no doubt help the Democrats and opinion polling in the state will have provided Kyrsten Sinema with plenty of hope. 

Given the Democratic advantage in the Generic Congressional Ballot, the races in Nevada and Arizona will certainly be ones to watch on election night and may prove pivotal if the Democrats successful stave off the Republicans in their other ‘iffy’ races. The other senate race which the Democrats will be watching closely will be Texas. The Lone Star state hasn’t voted for a Democrat at either presidential or senate level in many years. There was some speculation at one point in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had a chance, but in the event she didn’t, and President Trump comfortably carried the state with its 35 electoral college votes. This year, the Democrats probably haven’t really got a chance but, there is just an outside shot that the popular Beto O’Rourke will put in a good performance and unseat Ted Cruz. Texas is certainly a big ask for the Democrats and to reiterate, is an unlikely pick up but coming within a few points of Cruz would be an impressive feat.

To conclude, the Republicans are highly likely to remain in control of the Senate and could well increase their majority in the process. In the Democratic held North Dakota, Montana, Indiana and Missouri things are very close and could go either way. Indeed, it would seem likely that North Dakota and Missouri will be picked up by the GOP whilst Nevada and Arizona will turn blue. This would lead to a ‘no change’ result, with the Senate balanced exactly as it was prior to the election. If the polls are wrong by a couple of points in the right places, however, the GOP could well end up with 53 to 55 senators but equally, if they were wrong in favour of the Democrats, they could end up gaining one or two seats. So, whilst things look bleak for the blue team, there is still a small chance that they will pick up enough seats and successfully defend themselves in order to take the majority. Indeed, the ‘best case scenario’ for the Democrats would probably be holding everything except North Dakota and picking up Nevada and Arizona. In that scenario, the GOP would remain in control by virtue of Vice President Pence’s casting vote but would be well placed to win control in 2020.

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