New Year Senate Preview – Part II

By Jim Ellis

Jan. 5, 2018 — Continuing our New Year’s preview, today we look at the 2018 Senate races from the Democrats’ perspective.

THE DEMOCRATS

Sen. Claire McKaskill | (Facebook)

Sen. Claire McKaskill | (Facebook)

Because they are now defending 26 of the 34 in-cycle seats, with the addition of the Minnesota special election, the Dems must primarily develop a solid defense before venturing into attack mode. If they are to have any chance of gaining a 51-49 majority, they will realistically have to win all 26 of the incumbent and open seat races they are forced to risk. This includes three contests already considered toss-up campaigns: Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill likely facing Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), Sen. Joe Donnelly in the Indiana race, and the budding Florida campaign likely between Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott.

Regardless of whom Sen. Donnelly ultimately faces in the Hoosier State, he will draw a top-tier opponent. Reps. Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg/Lafayette) and Luke Messer (R-Greensburg/Muncie) battle for the Republican senatorial nomination, and they also face a credible third challenger in former state Rep. Mike Braun (R-Jasper). Braun has the strong ability to finance his own campaign, thus allowing him to adequately compete with the two congressmen. Since he has the promise of becoming his own force, Braun could conceivably strike a chord with the Republican electorate if the two congressmen continue fighting amongst themselves and allow him to slip by both of them.

Republicans will also be competitive in several other Senate races, as they project to have a strong opponent against West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins battle for the GOP nomination to be decided in May), while state Treasurer Josh Mandel looks to provide a stronger challenge to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) than he did in 2012 when he fell 51-45 percent. The Pennsylvania GOP electorate looks to be coalescing behind Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazelton) but upsetting Sen. Bob Casey Jr. is still a highly formidable task, and this developing contest must be considered a long shot as the new year begins.

The GOP challenger fields are still relatively undefined against other Democratic senators in what could, or should, become competitive campaigns. Such seems to be the case in North Dakota (Sen. Heidi Heitkamp), Michigan (Sen. Debbie Stabenow), and Wisconsin (Sen. Tammy Baldwin).

The situation revolving around new Sen. Tina Smith (D), who was officially sworn into office earlier this week to replace resigned Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D), is obviously fluid. Republicans look to have a strong challenger to oppose her in November. Originally believed to be a caretaker office holder, Sen. Smith has already announced that she will run to complete the term that Franken won for the second time in 2012. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty appears to be the Republicans’ first choice to run, and though he has not closed the door upon such a race is still far from declaring his candidacy.

It is important to keep in mind that the Democrats must win all of the aforementioned campaigns before they are in position to make converting Republican seats translate into majority power.

As we covered in yesterday’s Update, the top two Democratic conversion opportunities lie in Arizona and Nevada, but they become less critical if Republicans take down one or more of the vulnerable Democrats.

Though the Dems are now in position to compete for the majority because of Sen. Doug Jones (D) upset win in Alabama, everything must still fall exactly right for them to usurp the Republican majority. Even if what the Democrats proclaim proves true: that is, ‘we are seeing the underpinnings of a Democratic wave election beginning to form,’ there is no guarantee they can capture the Senate majority even if such a surge actually occurs.

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