Four years ago, Virginia was emblematic of the Republican wave that struck Congress.
Republican Ed Gillespie came from behind to nearly defeat popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner. As Virginia Republicans vote on Tuesday to determine who will take Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, the state is once again characteristic of this year’s midterm elections.
Unlike 2014, though, it’s the Democrats who look to be in the driver’s seat in the 2018 midterm elections.
Much of the attention this cycle has been focused on the five Democratic senators who may be in trouble in deeply red states. That is those states that went for Republican President Donald Trump by about 20 percentage points or more (Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia). One or more of these Democrats may lose re-election. That could allow Republicans to maintain control of the Senate given that Democrats need to pick up a net gain of two seats and there are very few Senate pickup opportunities for Democrats in 2018.
More instructive for understanding the national political environment though are the 10 Senate contests being held this year in states that were decided by less than 10 points in the 2016 presidential election that have an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats or a Democratic senator up for re-election. That is the swing states of American politics.
If the national environment leaned Republican, Democrats would be running for the hills in these states.
The Republicans, though, are really only competitive in one of these Senate contests: Florida. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson probably is a slight favorite over Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose campaign is spending millions of dollars and can tap his own personal wealth if he chooses. Trump won the state by a point, and it could be close this year.
In the other nine contests, however, Republicans are in a weak position.
Perhaps the best indication of the Republican weakness nationally is to contrast these 10 contests to ones in seats currently held by Republicans.
There are three Senate races occurring in states that were decided by less than 10 points in 2016 but that are currently held by Republicans: Arizona, Nevada and Texas.
The races in Arizona, which Trump won by 3.5 points, and Nevada, which he lost by 2.4 points, are tossups. The polling since the beginning of the year actually has the Democratic candidates up a little in each state, though it’s still close.
Put another way, while Republicans are truly competitive in 1 of 10 in contests in purple states with Democratic senators, Democrats are competitive in 2 of 3 purple states with Republican senators.
It doesn’t take a math wizard to know that 67% is much higher than 10%, and Democrats are in a much better position nationally than Republicans.
Let’s take a closer look at the nine swing-state Senate contests this year with Democratic incumbents where Republicans just aren’t that competitive as of now:
Kaine is a heavy favorite for re-election in a state that has seen its share of competitive races. Clinton won it by 5 points when she was winning nationally by 2. Kaine holds leads ranging from 18 to 20 points over all three potential Republican nominees (Nick Freitas, E.W. Jackson and Corey Stewart) in an average of polls this year.
The state was so competitive in 2016 that Trump won its 2nd Congressional District and picked up an electoral vote in the process. Independent Sen. Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, won by 22 points in 2012 and is thought to be safe by most race raters. CNN puts the race at likely Democratic.
Minnesota was the site for one of the more surprising 2016 election night results. Trump lost it by just 1.5 points after the state had voted for every Democratic presidential nominee since 1976. Trump’s was the best performance for any Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
This year the state actually has two Senate races because of the special election triggered by Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s resignation. The Republicans are underdogs in both of them. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar won re-election in 2012 by 35 points. Although it’s unclear whether she’ll match that margin, the seat is rated as solid (i.e. the most safe) Democratic by CNN and all the major race raters. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who is running for a full term after taking over Franken’s seat, isn’t seen as the shoo-in as Klobuchar is, but the race is still rated as "likely" Democratic in CNN’s race ratings.
New Mexico wasn’t nearly as close as Minnesota in 2016. Clinton, it by 8 points, though it does have a Republican governor. Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich is the heavy favorite for re-election. All the major political race raters and CNN put this contest in the solid Democratic column.
The fact that Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico and Virginia aren’t competitive isn’t too surprising. All lean a little to the left on the presidential level. More surprising are the five states where Clinton lost to Trump. Only the aforementioned Florida is really competitive. The rest aren’t at this point.
Michigan went for Trump by the thinnest of margins, after it hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. The one live interview poll out from this year suggests that Republicans won’t be able to repeat that feat. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow led both potential GOP opponents over 20 points in that Glengariff Group poll.
Ohio is thought of as the ultimate swing state. Trump crushed Clinton there by 8 points after Democrat Barack Obama won there twice. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown like Stabenow doesn’t look like he’ll fall victim to the same fate as Clinton in 2016. He is ahead of Republican Jim Renacci by an average of 13 points in non-partisan polls taken this year.
Pennsylvania, like Michigan, hadn’t gone Republican for president since 1988, until Trump took it in 2016. It’s where "The Great Revolt" author Salena Zito is from. There’s no revolt going on against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, however. He is ahead of Republican Lou Barletta by an average of 17 points in live interview polls this year.
Finally, in Wisconsin, Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state since Reagan in 1984. There is no gold standard polling from the state, though the polling that does it exist has Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin with a double-digit advantage over two potential Republican opponents.
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