A lopsided map, heated primaries, and Trump: Where the 2018 Senate races stand today – Business Insider
At first glance, some of 2018’s most pivotal elections look very
promising for Republicans.
Democrats have to play defense — big league. Of the 11 Senate
seats the party controls in states President Donald Trump won in
2016, ten senators are up for reelection in the upcoming vote.
“When you look at our incumbents, I mean, our third most
competitive state this cycle is Texas,” a Republican close to the
campaign process told Business Insider. “So it definitely is a
good place to be.”
But take a step back from the promising map, and Republicans are
faced with a litany of outside challenges.
As it is, the GOP is taxed with a number of key issues this early
in the cycle that could prove to be detrimental in the months of
campaigning ahead: A potentially risky vote on unpopular
healthcare legislation, a number of already bruising primaries, a
number of top contenders deciding against entering the race, and
— possibly the most important factor — where Republicans stand
with Trump, who has routinely seen his approval rating dip into
“When Trump won, I think one had to immediately downgrade
Republican prospects even while acknowledging their excellent
list of targets,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s
Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics,
told Business Insider in an email. “I don’t think anything is
certain, but it remains the case that if the Democrats avoid a
net loss that would be a significant victory, and Republicans
could make a small Senate gain even under poor conditions next
Terry Sullivan, who served as campaign manager for Republican
Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, echoed Kondik,
pointing to the Democrats having “some very strong candidates”
who are “tailor made” for the states they’re running in, even as
the map proves daunting.
“And, they’ve got a hell of a tailwind, given the environment,”
he added. It’s “a cat’s game in the Senate.”
The specific seats up for grabs are the Democrats’ “biggest
problem,” Kondik said. Some of those races are in traditional
Democratic states that Trump won by slim margins in 2016, such as
Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Others are in states like
West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri — states in
which Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary
Clinton by anywhere from 19 to 42 points.
A total of 34 seats are up for grabs, and 25 of them are
currently occupied by Democrats or independent senators who
caucus with the party. Just one of the Republican seats —
Nevada’s — seems to have a very real shot of flipping, although
some consider Arizona to be very much in play, while Democrats
believe Texas is on the table, too.
“In the west, you know, Nevada and Arizona, those are going to be
challenging races,” Tim Miller, communications director for
former Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Business
Insider. “But those are Republican incumbents.”
“There are states that are going to be less favorable than what’s
happening under the Trump administration, but, you know, in a lot
of these states that people mention as potential Republican
pick-ups — Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Montana,
Missouri — these are big Trump states,” he continued. “So the
Republicans are going to have a big advantage as long as they
nominate somebody who doesn’t blow themselves up. I think we’re
going to be in good shape to win a lot of those states.
Incumbent senators naturally have an advantage when it comes to
getting reelected, particularly when the opposite party is in
power. That bodes as good news for the likes of Democratic Sens.
Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly
of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, among many others.
As the data journalism
outlet FiveThirtyEight reported, there have been 114 senators
of the opposing party to the one occupying the White House who
have run in a midterm election since 1982. Only four have lost.
That amounts to an astonishing 96% success rate.
In the absolute worst year for opposition party senators, 1998,
the party out of power won 86% of its senatorial incumbents
On the flip side, incumbents of the controlling party tend to
lose more often. Among the same time-span, 25 of 128 incumbent
senators of the ruling party lost reelection, roughly 20%. In
other words, one could expect that either Sen. Jeff Flake of
Arizona or Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada will end up going down, if
that trend holds.
Of course, you’re still looking at a scenario in which everything
going right for the Democrats means they essentially maintain
their current foothold in the Senate. Actually gaining seats on
the GOP appears to be virtually impossible.
“I mean, when you look at Barack Obama coming to town in ’09,
everything was amazing, great, and then ’10 happened,” a
Republican close to the campaigns said, pointing to the Tea Party
wave. “I think everyone is very cognizant that the map looks
really, really good, but there is a lot of time between now and
“The bruising element of the primary matters less than the result
of the primary”
As a Democratic staffer close to the campaigns told Business
Insider, a long and heated primary season could be a boon for the
Republicans are also hoping that repeats of 2012 don’t take place
in Republican strongholds like Indiana and Missouri.
That year, Republican candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin
pulled off improbable primary victories, only to both make
comments related to rape that made both virtually unelectable in
a general election. In turn, that led to the Democrats in those
states, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill, pulling off victories.
But Democrats too could face some primary challengers from the
left, as some progressives seek to primary Democratic candidates
they believe are too close to the center. And Republicans know
all too well the challenges of a tough primary season, which many
believe actually improve a candidate when it comes time for the
“There’s always the talk of primaries hurting the candidates in
the general election,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know if that’s
necessarily the case.”
Primaries help to build name recognition, intensity, and a
campaign organization, he said.
“In some cases primaries really do hurt, but I’ve seen just as
many cases where a healthy primary matters more,” he added. “And
the momentum out of winning a primary is a big advantage heading
into a general.”
As Miller said, the only way a primary battle becomes a negative
is if the nominee that emerges “is so extreme that they have a
potential to not appeal to the overall electorate or to blow
themselves up with comments that are so far outside the
mainstream that makes them unelectable.”
He cited Mourdock and Akin.
“The bruising element of the primary matters less than the result
of the primary,” he said. “As long as Republicans nominate
candidates that can unite the base and at least have a mild
appeal to independents, they’re going to be in good shape in most
of these states.”
Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s 2008
presidential campaign and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s
2006 reelection bid, told Business Insider he thinks that so long
as Republicans don’t “get in their own way” with a “bunch of far
right-wing” nominees, they “should be able to do very well.”
Galen expects primary turnout to be more “activist in nature” on
“There used to be a lot of activists that could save the
establishment candidate in a primary,” he said. That “doesn’t
appear to be the case anymore. At least on the Republican side.”
Galen said that with Trump’s improbable victory through the most
heavily-crowded Republican primary field in history, many
candidates might feel compelled to echo the president’s campaign
style and rhetoric.
“Somebody was telling me a story where they were like ‘oh yeah,
we’re working with a candidate and we have to tell him you can’t
say this stuff,'” Galen said. “‘He said it worked for Trump.'”
“You are not Donald Trump,” he continued. “You have zero name ID.
No one knows who you are. … Do not compare yourself to Trump.
And a lot of people are just going to go out there and think ‘I
can go all crazy and say all this stuff about Latinos and ISIS
and the mainstream media.’ And that’s all catnip to a very
frustrated and angry Republican base voter. Probably a little
different for a, relatively speaking, unaffiliated general
election voter wherever.”
Noting that primaries are “definitely not a new thing” to
Republicans, the Republican working close to the campaigns
pointed to the fact that Trump won many of these states by nearly
or more than double digits — and unlike in 2012, the message is
going to be helping out with the current president’s agenda, not
a message against the former president, Barack Obama.
“That’s a very different argument than 2012,” they said. “That
was an issue in that cycle.”
The Republican aide said McCaskill and Donnelly likely would not
have been elected if not for the results of Republican primaries
in their states last time around.
“Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly really benefited from weak
opponents in 2012 and may not have the same good fortune this
time,” Kondik said. “If either survive it probably won’t be by
Kondik said that states with later primaries, such as Florida or
Wisconsin, “could make it harder for the eventual nominee to
fully compete in the general election.”
“But I doubt the primary battles matter too much so long as the
primaries produce viable candidates, which is not a certainty,”
he added. “The national environment and the president’s standing
are likelier to play a much bigger role.”
Ultimately, the individual who will dictate the most about the
2018 elections — not only in the Senate but at seemingly all
other levels — will be the president.
As Politico recently
reported, top Republican officials and senators have said
chaos and impulsiveness coming from the White House are hurting
their 2018 efforts.
A classic example was the Trump-backed nonprofit America First
Policies launching an ad campaign against Sen. Dean Heller — the
only Republican up for reelection in a state Clinton won — for
opposing the Senate’s original healthcare bill last month. The
group later pulled the ads at the urging of Senate Republican
In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake, who at times has been one of Trump’s
most vocal Republican critics, has angered the president, and
will be facing a much more Trump-friendly primary opponent in
former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who challenged Sen. John McCain in
Plus, there are Trump’s poor polling numbers, which have
frequently dipped into the 30s in terms of approval, which is
unheard of at this early of a stage of an administration. Kondik,
the University of Virigina political analyst, called this “the
biggest problem for Republicans.”
Galen, the deputy campaign manager for McCain’s 2008 presidential
bid, echoed this point.
“And whether you believe it or not, President Trump, his numbers
stink for the most part,” Galen said. “So you might run on
national issues, but if I were wanting to win a Senate race in a
Republican state, I would say ‘I wish President Trump would get
off Twitter and I wish he would focus on the problems of this
country, here’s what I’m going to do when I get to the Senate.’
… And of course, every Democrat is going to hang President
Trump around their opponent’s necks like an albatross.”
But the Republican aide close to the campaigns made a salient
point: Taking Trump’s numbers at face value may be ignoring
something beneath the surface that is more important.
“I think it’s funny that a lot of reporters are like ‘well, his
approval rating is so terrible,'” they said. “And it’s like,
‘well, yeah, because that includes California and New York and
places like Chicago. And you take those places out, places that
we’re not playing in, and he’s above water in the states, he’s
still very, very popular in the states we’re going to be
While that “might change” in six months, they said “folks can’t
seem to wrap their heads around” the idea that Trump is still
popular in many of the states where Republicans will be investing
heavily during the next cycle.
“Who knows, could everything go to hell? Sure,” they added. “But,
what we’re looking at like the facts that we have today, that’s
not the case. And I don’t know if that becomes the case.”