Elections for the U.S. Senate get less attention compared with the House, where control is likely to change hands, based on the latest polls. The odds that Democrats can pull this off in the Senate are maybe only about 25 percent.
This is about arithmetic and geography; 26 of the 35 Senate seats up this year are held by Democrats, with five in heavily Republican states. Republicans currently have a 51-49 advantage.
Still, it’s not far-fetched to think that Democrats could hold all but one or two of their seats and pick up two or three Republican seats; they need a net gain of two for control.
For Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, it’s important to add a couple of seats so he isn’t dependent on one or two senators for a majority. In 2020, it’s the Republicans who could have up to twice as many Senate incumbents facing the voters, so the party needs a cushion.
Although the odds are against the Democrats this year, the party that holds the presidency usually suffers setbacks in midterm elections, and issues favor them. In a survey late last month for the Democratic group Priorities USA, pollster Geoff Garin found that only 35 percent of voters say President Donald Trump’s economic policies are good for people like them and only 33 percent have a favorable view of the Republican tax cut.
Twelve weeks before Election Day, I think there are a half-dozen bellwether Senate races. This assumes some Democrats, once considered vulnerable, like Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, look to be in good shape. And if it’s a pretty good Democratic year, it’s hard to see how the party is not going to win back a seat in purple-blue Nevada. This outlook also assumes that the Democrats’ dream of pulling an upset in Texas, Mississippi or Nebraska will remain just that: a pipe dream.
So the big six, all rated toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, are:
- Florida: This will be the mother of all Senate races, and astronomically expensive, with the three-term Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson up against Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Scott, a thoroughly mediocre governor, is a shrewd campaigner with very deep pockets, which he is willing to open. Nelson, a competent senator, isn’t an exciting candidate.
Democrats note, however, that Scott won his governor’s races by very small margins in 2010 and 2014, which were banner Republicans years; this year will not be. While Republicans celebrate a few mildly favorable public polls, Democrats counter that Scott has spent $20 million this summer attacking Nelson without moving the needle. They also believe that the electorate, fueled by a fast-growing Latino population, will be as much as five points more Democratic than the the last time Scott ran.
- North Dakota: This is the top Republican target, where Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp is facing a difficult challenge from Representative Kevin Cramer, who represents the entire state. Trump carried North Dakota by better than 2-to-1.
Heitkamp is an independent-minded politician who has overcome big odds. Cramer, notes Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, “is not a perfect candidate but he’s better than any she’s faced before.” The race may hinge on whether Trump’s tariffs, which are clobbering some farmers, are a major factor in November.
- Arizona: Along with Nevada, this is Democrats’ top target for a takeover with Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a libertarian-leaning moderate Democrat. There’s a bitter Republican primary later this month with mainstream conservative Representative Martha McSally facing two right-wingers, one the infamous sheriff Joe Arpaio.
If either of them wins, this is a slam dunk for Sinema. And she’d still be a slight favorite over McSally, who’d have to appease both a forceful Tea Party element and those Republican supporters of two anti-Trump senators, John McCain and retiring Jeff Flake.
- Missouri: Months ago Republicans were confident they’d unseat two-term Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill in a state that has moved steadily their way. They had recruited 38-year-old Attorney General Josh Hawley, a “golden boy” candidate with glittering credentials and support from both establishment and Trump conservatives.
But Hawley has been a lackluster candidate and has been ensnared in some mini-scandals. McCaskill still needs all the breaks she can get. She may be helped by ballot initiatives on legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, raising the minimum wage and reforming redistricting — measures that will bring out more likely Democratic voters.
- Indiana: The state has moved right since Joe Donnelly, a moderate Democrat, was elected six years ago. Republicans were cheered when businessman Mike Braun blew away two incumbent U.S. House members in the primary.
There is a question now whether Braun was fully vetted in the Republican contest, and a Democratic poll shows Hoosiers evenly divided now on Trump. Vice President Mike Pence, Indiana’s former governor, will go all out for Braun to avoid an embarrassment in his home state.
- Tennessee: A state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic senator since Al Gore in 1990 wasn’t even on the radar until late last year when incumbent Republican Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement and popular former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen surprisingly jumped into the race.
He’s running against right-wing U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn. The key may be whether Republicans can paint Bredesen as a left-winger and tie him to Chuck Schumer, or whether voters remember his impressive record as governor, which ended eight years ago.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.