GOP Senate Opportunities in 2018

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 51-
This week:

  • First look at 2018 elections
  • Why the Senate is safer for Republicans than the House
  • Maine and Virginia, moving in opposite political directions

Today, Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College will be secured. Republicans in Washington now look forward to 2018, a year whose fundamentals in the U.S. Senate look very good for Republicans, no matter what the winds of political fortune bring.

Senate 2018

Last week, we mentioned that the U.S. House — not the Senate — would be the Republican Party’s weakest link in 2018. It’s an important point, because political parties tend to do poorly in midterms when they control the presidency.

So why is it that the Senate, where Republicans will hold a narrow two-seat majority, should seem a safer bet for them than the House, where their majority is still historically large? Ultimately, it comes down to the map, and the unique nature of U.S. Senate elections.

The 2016 Senate election map was an especially ugly one for Republicans. It required them to defend all the ground they had gained in the wave year of 2010. In the end, they successfully defended all but one of the seats they picked up that year (Obama’s own seat in Illinois) and just barely lost one additional seat (in New Hampshire) which they had successfully defended in 2010.

The 2018 Senate map is the polar opposite of the 2016 map. This time, it is the Democrats who will be happy to get away losing just one or two seats. And as a matter of fact, the gravity of their situation is even more dramatic than it was in other recent cycles.

The six-year Senate term makes Senate elections unlike any others. It means there are three classes of senate seats, each composed of 33 or 34 seats that always stand for election at the same time.

  • Class Three just stood for election in 2016. Republicans were bound to lose seats in that one, if only because over the previous three cycles for that class (2010, 2004 and 1998), they had gained a net 10 seats. If you do count 2016 and let 1998 fall off the other end, Republicans now stand at +8 in Class Three over three cycles.
  • Class Two stood for election in 2014. Over the previous three cycles (2008, 2002, and 1996), Democrats had gained a net of four seats in that class. Republicans bounced back — counting the 2014 wave election, Republicans have gained a net three seats in the last three cycles.
  • But Class One, which stands for election in 2018, has been cursed for Republicans for quite some time. It had been the class of the 1994 revolution, but it has never gone Republicans’ way since. In the Class One cycles since 1994 (2000, 2006, and 2012), Republicans have lost a cumulative net 16 Senate seats.

Now Class One is in the cycle again, and it’s going to be hard for Democrats to make gains even in a terrible Republican midterm, given that they have so much territory to defend and Republicans have so little. The map (this version created by Mirashhh under the Creative Commons License) tells the whole tale:

screenshot-2016-12-18-at-6-20-50-pmGoing into 2016, 2014, and even 2010, Republicans had a number of vulnerable seats to defend. They still did well, even if they underperformed expectations in 2010.

In 2018, they have only eight seats to defend in all. Five of those can be considered completely safe (Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming), one probably safe (Texas) and two others competitive but still Republican-friendly and quite winnable (Arizona and Nevada).

Democrats, on the other hand, must defend seats in ten states that Trump won.

  • The five in which he won by more than 18 points (Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia) comprise the first tier of potential GOP pickups.
  • The one state in which Trump won by more than 8 points (Ohio) already looks competitive, and for now occupies tier two all by itself.
  • Tier three consists of four other states in which Trump won very narrowly (Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania). With the right sort of candidate, Republicans could make any or all of these competitive.
  • Finally, the map-extenders. Democrats must also defend Maine, New Mexico and Virginia — states where Trump fell short but the right Republican candidate could make a real race of it if it turns out to be a strong GOP year. 

This week, we begin by looking at these “map extenders” and what sort of potential they hold.

Maine: On the face of it, Independent former Governor and current Senator Angus King (who is a Democrat in all but name) should be bulletproof. He was a very popular governor and had little trouble entering the Senate. The only potential problem is that his state has changed so dramatically since 2012, when King convincingly defeated the nominees of both major parties on his own line.

Since 2010, the Pine Tree State’s Republican Party has become relevant again in a way it hadn’t been this entire century. It is also a much more conservative Republican party now than it had been before. The two facts might be related.

Donald Trump came surprisingly close to carrying Maine in 2016, and managed to win one of its electoral votes, something no Republican had done since 1988. Two years earlier, Gov. Paul LePage had won a surprise massive-turnout midterm victory by running up the score in the Downeast and Inland sections of the state. Those two rural areas appear to be experiencing a quick realignment that leaves Democrats unable to count on the “Vacationland” region around Portland and along the state’s southern coast dominating the state’s politics.

LePage has talked about running against King, but at one point he claimed he was only joking about it. Many on the Left view him as a clear loser, but his Trumpian demeanor could actually make him the perfect candidate.

The other Republican candidate most often discussed is state Sen. Eric Brakey, who will reach the required age of 30 just a few months before the election. Brakey is viewed as something of a rising star within the state party. But he is something of a curiosity, as he comes from a sharply libertarian perspective that is not really typical of New England Republicanism or Trumpism. Brakey helped run Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign in the state. In the state Senate, he was heavily involved in shepherding “Constitutional Carry” and “Right to Try” legislation into law.

New Mexico: Republicans have not had much success in New Mexico’s Senate races since the retirement of Pete Domenici in 2009. But their party has shown signs of life elsewhere.

Republicans briefly seized total control of the state House in the 2014 election for the first time since the 1950s (only to lose it again in 2016). And by 2018, the GOP will have held the governor’s mansion for 18 of the last 24 years.

The current Republican governor, Susana Martinez, would be the Republicans’ ideal candidate to take on incumbent Sen. Martin Heinrich. But she has previously cited her need to care for her developmentally disabled sister as a reason she probably wouldn’t seek any position that requires her to move to Washington. That doesn’t mean she cannot be persuaded, but it means she cannot be counted on.

Another Republican, Lt. Governor John Sanchez, threw his hat in the ring in 2012 before withdrawing from that Senate race, which in the end former Republican Rep. Heather Wilson lost to Heinrich. Wilson, who has been mentioned as a potential draft for the Trump administration, could also go for a rematch. Rep. Steve Pearce, who represents the state’s southern half, ran for Senate and lost so badly in the Democratic wave year of 2008 that he might be shy to try again.

Another potential candidate for the position is Richard Berry, who in 2009 became the first Republican mayor of Albuquerque in more than 30 years. He easily won re-election in 2013 and would bring a strong fiscal record to the race, but he might also be interested in running for two other positions — either for governor, or for the local open U.S. House seat, which is being vacated by Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has already announced she is running for governor.


Virginia: It’s hard to offer any useful specifics about the re-election race of Sen. Tim Kaine, D, until we’ve seen what happens in the state’s gubernatorial election in 2017.

Until the GOP nominee for governor is chosen, it isn’t even clear who will be available to run. The only Republican already gearing up for this race is former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose unexpected loss in his 2014 primary bodes very poorly for the sort of reception his candidacy will attract.

One of the only Republicans who can be ruled out for certain is former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is committed to winning the governorship or going bust.

Even so, it is worth noting at this point that Democrats quite nearly suffered a shocking, unexpected loss in the 2014 Senate election between Gillespie and Sen. Mark Warner. And that one came straight out of the blue — no one really though the race would be close. Even if Republicans have become less competitive in Virginia on the presidential level since George W. Bush carried the state in 2004, they remain very much in contention for every down-ballot office.

The problem Republicans face is that, amid a Trump revolution that turned almost the entire Midwest red, Virginia is one state that clearly did not want to participate. It actually moved in the opposite direction — recall that Mitt Romney came very close to carrying the state. And it was moving that way even before Trump. Kaine, as a popular former governor and a vice presidential pick, will not be easy to beat. It would take a very special sort of year for Republicans to expand the map this far, but it’s not completely out of the question.