The Nine Senate Races to Follow in October

Welcome to October, PPFA readers! While I adore baseball’s “Fall Classic” (especially when my beloved Red Sox are poised for a successful run), every two years the month of October gives us an even more heated contest: imminent federal elections. Tomorrow marks five weeks until the 2018 Midterms, when the entire House of Representatives and 35 seats in the Senate are up for grabs.

I normally start with the House in my Midterm breakdowns (here they are from ten months out, six months out, and two months out), but I want to give the House races another week to evolve. Instead, let’s return to the Senate and spend extra time on the only nine races that I think are in question.

I should first explain how I arrived at these nine.

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 Republicans can lose to retain majority: 1
  • Number of seats Democrats must add to attain majority: 2
  • 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!

Democrats need to win 28 of the 35 available Senate seats, which means they have to win at least two of the nine Republican-held seats while not losing any of their own. For every seat they lose, that’s another Republicans seat they have to win.

Clearly, with so many more Democratic seats up for election than Republican ones, the math is extremely tough for the challengers. Consider, moreover, that of the 9 Republican-held seats, only one (Nevada) is from a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Thus, both the math and terrain make taking the Senate an almost impossible trek for the Democratic Party. They can do it, but they need to be almost perfect the rest of the way. The Democratic Party is many things, but perfect is not one of them.

Fortunately for you, dear readers, you don’t have to follow all 35 races. PPFA and others help you focus your attention on certain seats. For example, readers know I love the Cook Report, which currently categorizes the Senate races as follows:

The 26 blue names are Democrats (or Independents caucusing with them) up for re-election. The 9 red names are GOP-held.

The Cook Report tells us that the “Solid” and “Likely” seats are almost certainly sticking to their current party, especially with only a month to go. We can therefore give 18 seats to the Democrats and 5 to the Republicans. That also removes 23 seats from the original 35 and leaves only 12 in play. That’s a helpful initial narrowing of our focus.

Next, I’ll use Real Clear Politics’s polling averages of these candidates to help determine which are particularly competitive:


For several reasons, I think we can cross out the bottom three of those races:

  • All three were categorized as Democratic “leaners” by the Cook Report.
  • Ohio and West Virginia in particular are starting to have overwhelming polling data for the incumbents.
  • Though less so, polling is also convincingly consistent in Minnesota. Moreover, Minnesota voted against Donald Trump in November 2016, when he was arguably at the height of his popularity. He’s less popular now, and there’s nothing about polling in Minnesota to show Housley can overcome that.

Starting with Tester, however, polling is much more even.

On the flip side, it’s tempting call the race for Cruz, but the state’s polling has been so erratic that I don’t think that’s safe. O’Rourke is not to be discounted as he continues to build an almost mythological reputation among Texan and national Democrats.

Adding those three races to the Democrats’ count now gives them 21 (14 safes, 4 likelies, and those 3 leaners) of the 28 seats they need to take control of the Senate. Nine races remain to keep an eye on, and the Democrats need to win seven of those nine.

Okay, 700 words later, we’re ready to begin. Let’s take a brief look at each race, and I’ll assign a 5-weeks-out percentage prediction for each. We’ll work from the Democrats’ easiest states to their most difficult. The question we’re asking ourselves: are they currently the favorite in seven of these nine races?

1. Montana
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Along with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, Jon Tester has been the poster child of a Democrat finding a way to have political success in a red state. His background before entering politics was a perfect merging of blue and red: he was a music teacher and a farmer. He has since won two close Senate elections — 2006 and 2012 — and this one’s shaping up to be another nail-biter. Though he’s led every poll in 2018, a June poll had him up 8 before more recent polling revealed a much tighter race with momentum to his opponent. Still, I like his chances to hold on. His numbers are close to 50 percent, which means if only a third of the undecided voters break his way, he’ll be put over the top. Plus, of all nine competitive states, it’s Montana where President Trump, as of this summer, had lost the most favorability since the election. Where he was once 24 points over water, he’s now down to 3.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 90%. That’s 1.

2. Arizona
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Though the RCP average still uses two older polls to help buoy McSally’s numbers, Sinema seems to have taken control of the race in the last few weeks. The McCain factor — which has evolved into taking a principled stand against the President when necessary — should not be overlooked, nor should the fact that Arizona, of the nine competitive Senate states, trails only Montana in the amount of favorability lost by the President during his tenure. He looks to be just two point above water — and that was before McCain’s death.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 70%. That’s 2.

3. Nevada
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Talk about too close to call! Every poll is well within the margin of error. I’m giving the edge to the Democrats due to something I mentioned earlier: this state was won by Hillary Clinton two years ago, and few areas of the country — and no states — are more favorable toward the President since he was elected.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 65%. That’s 3, but my confidence is dropping.

4. Florida
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: As usual, there is no shortage of polls from the Sunshine State. Here, the incumbent Senator (Nelson) against the incumbent Governor (Scott) makes for a dramatic race, and those roller coaster polling figures confirm as much. As of now, Nelson has the momentum. Perhaps it’s due to a suddenly galvanized state Democratic Party trying to stop passionately pro-Trump Ron DeSantis from winning the increasingly heated governor’s race.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 60%. That’s 4, but chances are they lose one of them.

5. Indiana
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Here we have the only instance of a third party Senatorial candidate having a polling pulse. Libertarian Lisa Brenton has gained the smallest of footholes. Then again, considering Wikipedia‘s article on this election does not yet have her picture or bio linked, it’s unlikely she’s scaling any mountains. Still, her presence has depressed the numbers of the two leading candidates, who’s polling figures don’t even combine to 90 percent. That’s a lot of Indianans still to win over. Considering third parties in recent elections usually lose support in the final days of an election, when their potential voters succumb to the lesser-of-two-evils argument, we must wonder from which candidate Ms. Benton pulls supporters. Our answer, appears, is the Democrat; Braun led by 2 in the last poll (from Fox) regardless of whether respondents had three choices or just two. However, in the NBC News/Marist poll, Donnelly’s lead was 6 in a two-way race but just 3 in the three-way. This is not surprising, because it feels like a year where people who don’t like Democrats but also don’t like the President is the most common swing voter. Senator Donnelly hopes Bentonites defect to him by election day, which I think is likely.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 55%. That’s 5, but sheesh.

6. Missouri
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Though only the polls higlighted in gray make up the RCP average, I thought it was instructive to show you every 2018 poll between these two candidates. What a race! Across 13 polls, there have been four leads for McCaskill, four leads for Hawley, and five ties! Four of those ties occurred successively in August and September, too. Dating back to April, neither candidate has polled better than 48 or worse than 44. Of these nine toss-up races, this one is the most tossy-uppy (a political term). If forced to make a pick, I’d say Claire McCaskill’s incumbency plus the opposing party of the President having a natural midterm advantage gives her the slightest of edges.

Prediction percentage: Democrats, 51%. That’d be six (but chances are they’ve lost two).

7. Tennessee
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Back and forth they go! If any modern Democrat could win this open Senate seat in Tennessee, it’s Phil Bredesen, the former governor of the state who was re-elected with 68.6 percent of the vote. However, his lead has significantly decreased (he led four straight polls to kick off the year, including a couple by 6 and 10), so it looks like Volunteers are gradually coming home to the GOP. Bredesen’s recent comment that he’d vote against Chuck Schumer as Senate Majority Leader shows the struggle he faces as a Democrat in a dark red state. How dark red? Donald Trump won it two years ago with over 60 percent of the vote.

Prediction percentage: Republicans, 60%. (The first one in which I favor the GOP.)

8. North Dakota
The polls used to determine RCP average:

Analysis: Here, the current RCP average is misleading. It’s still factoring in a poll from February. The two polls since then, including one from September, speak in unison: Cramer is up 4 points on the incumbent, Heidi Heitkamp. Though a sample size of two polls is too small, I see Cramer with the advantage here, especially since North Dakota was President Trump’s fourth strongest state in the 2016 election. Only about a quarter of its electorate voted for Hillary Clinton. With the Democrats desperate to not lose an incumbent anywhere, do not be surprised if the party releases Senator Heitkamp to confirm Brett Kavanaugh if Republicans are on their way to winning the vote anyway. (The same applies to Tester, Donnelly, and Manchin.)

Prediction percentage: Republicans, 70%. That makes them favored in two, Democrats in six. Democrats need seven, remember, and there’s just one state left. We must now travel deep in the heart of…

9. Texas
The polls used to determine RCP average:


Analysis: Though Texas is surely the safest Republican toss-up, and that last poll from Quinnipiac looks great for Cruz, the GOP still has to sweat this out. Cruz’s lead has been halved since the end of June, when he held a 9-point average lead:


Three of the last four polls have O’Rourke within or nearly within the polls’ margins-of-error. Nevertheless, though it’s not over, the smart bet is that the very Republican state re-elects its very Republican Senator.

Prediction percentage: Republicans, 80%. That makes three where they’re the favorite (but chances are they lose one of them).

Overall Prediction: Can the Democrats Win 7 of the 9?

  • Democrats favored in 6 (one barely). Chances are they win 4 out of the 6.
  • Republicans favored in 3. Chances are they win 2 out of the 3.
  • (Note: below was edited three days later. I had flipped Tennessee the morning of the post and adjusted the above two bullets as a result. However, I forgot to edit the the two bullets below.)
  • Overall: Democrats win 5 of the 9. They break even on the night. Due to the states in play, Democrats will claim this as a moral victory. They will be lying.
  • Final count overall: 51-49, Republicans hold the Senate.

But wow! Most of these races are close. They can all swing in either direction, and late momentum for a party could make all the difference. Make sure to keep an eye on all nine this month.

I’ll see you next week with an update on the House.


6 thoughts on “The Nine Senate Races to Follow in October”

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