2018 Midterms: Two Months Out—The Senate

On Thursday I predicted the Democratic Party would take control of the House, but what about the Senate? Let’s find out…

The Senate

Current composition:

Red = 2 RepublicansBlue = 2 DemocratsPurple = 1 of eachGreen = Independents caucusing with Democrats
  • Republicans: 51
  • Democrats: 47
  • Independents: 2 (both caucus with Democrats, effectively giving them 49)
  • Wrinkle: Vice-President Pence serves as a tie-breaking vote.
    • Therefore, Democrats need to hit 51 for the true majority.
    • Republicans would be satisfied with just 50.
  • Number of seats Democrats need to add for a majority: 2
  • Number of seats Republicans can lose to retain majority: 1
  • Number of seats up for grabs: 35
    • Number of those 35 seats that are Republican: 9
    • Number of those 35 seats that are Democratic: 26!
    • Number of those 35 seats Democrats need to win to take the Senate: 28!

As I’ve said in each of the last two Senate previews, those last two bullets almost impossibly blockade the Democratic Party’s quest to take back Congress’s upper chamber. Most of those nine GOP seats are in safe hands, which gives the Dems few chances to make up ground. Meanwhile, they have to play defense across the country with an extraordinary 26 seats up for re-election. For every one of those 26 races they lose, that’s one more Republican seat they have to win.

Let’s dig deeper to see if their task is truly as improbable as it sounds. We’ll first return to the Cook Report to see which of the 35 races are competitive, and then we’ll further break down those races. Below are the 26 Democratically-held Senate seats up for re-election. Four months ago, there were 14 solid Democratic seats, 5 likelies, 2 leaners, and 2 toss-ups. Has that changed?

Note: Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders are the Independents who caucus with Democrats.

It has not! No movement.

As for the nine-Republican held seats, four months go showed us 3 toss-ups, 0 leaners, 3 likelies, and 3 solids. Now…


Like the House, we see momentum to the Democrats, though comparatively much less. Ted Cruz’s increasingly dramatic race against Beto O’Rourke is the only shift in categorization, moving from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. All other Republican-held seats maintained their category.

What can we do with this information? To help narrow our focus, we can safely allocate all the Solid and Likely races, as they haven’t budged in four months. The Solid and Likely seats give the Democrats 19 of the 35, but they also give Republicans 5. That means we’ve allocated 24 of 35 available seats. What remains, therefore, are 11 races (7 held by Democrats, 4 by Republicans). Since Democrats need to win 28 of the 35 available Senate seats on Election Night, and we’ve only given them 19 so far, that means they must win nine of the eleven toss-up and leaner races. (I told you their math looked rough.)

So let’s take a look at those precious contests. I’m going to use Real Clear Politics’ polling averages of each race to sort them from most to least Republican-favored. If the GOP can win three of these eleven races to win the Senate, we’ll want to know what their third strongest race is. That race could very well determine the Senate; if they lose their third strongest competitive state, there’s a good chance they lost all the states that were even less favorable to them. Make sense? Good. Let’s do it:


Fascinating! Come with me to the Spin Zone:

  • Democratic spin: Only in one state does the Republican candidate have an average lead of more than 1.7 points, and even in that one state the latest poll has the Democratic challenger within a point of a national name in a dark red state. Momentum is with the blue team! As Trump continues to embarrass himself and his party at every turn, we might see a blue sweep across these 11 contests.
  • Republican spin: Not so fast, you loony libs. The most recent polls in five of these races actually shows Democrats have momentum in only half of them. Plus, now that Arizona Republicans nominated Martha McSally, a strong general election candidate who was in a tough primary, the polling in that state immediately looked better. She was only four points down even as her party was split, but the latest poll shows her ahead. We can easily win three of these races — and probably more.

Both of the above are somehow accurate at the same time. There are, however, three conclusions we can take away before I leave you alone:

  1. In a midterm, where a president’s opposition usually carries late momentum, I think those four safest Democratic races can basically be removed from the equation. The average margins and the most recent polling show solid Democratic leads that would take an unusual event to reverse. That leaves the other seven races to really keep an eye on, and the Democrats need to win five of those seven to take the Senate. Our focus can narrow even further to Texas, Florida, North Dakota, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, and Arizona.
  2. As of now, the Republicans’ third best state is Missouri. What else but the Missouri bellwether!
  3. However, these seven races are very much in flux, so I don’t expect Missouri’s position to hold up. Consider the mixed messages we receive in each of these crucial contests:
    • Texas is the deepest red and shows the biggest average GOP lead, but that last poll has O’Rourke nearly tied, he’s raising a ton of money, and national Democrats are smelling blood.
    • In Florida, Bill Nelson is the incumbent, but he’s being challenged by Florida’s governor, Rick Scott. That’s like two incumbents going head to head with just 1.7 points separating them by average and a wild 49-49 poll from Quinnipiac just last week.
    • North Dakota hasn’t had a poll in nearly three months!
    • It doesn’t get much more tossy-uppy (a political term) than that Missouri race…
    • …though Nevada tries to rival it.
    • Tennessee shows the Democrat with the average lead, but … it’s Tennessee we’re talking about. Wait until President Trump visits.
    • Finally, as noted above, that Arizona polling is pretty much obsolete.

Thus, all seven races could break either way. Though that gives the Democrats a puncher’s chance, perhaps a better one than I expected as the year opened, the math still says the Republicans should stumble into three wins, and maybe a fourth.

PPFA prediction, two months out: Republicans keep the Senate. Split Congress.


3 thoughts on “2018 Midterms: Two Months Out—The Senate”

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