How the US midterms will unfold, Part 2: The Senate

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Today marks one of the most important elections in modern American history. Trump’s election heralded the ascendancy of a divisive and populist kind of politics which has trampled the norms of American democracy. The outcome of today’s midterm elections could either demonstrate a swift repudiation of Trumpian politics, or rather its enduring appeal. If Trump’s race baiting and incendiary rhetoric delivers the Republicans a creditable midterms performance, then not only will the GOP’s agenda remain unchecked, but it will spur the President to double down on his mendacious and chaotic style of governance. 

Importantly control of the Senate also allows Republicans to fill Supreme Court vacancies. Having already elevated arch-conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the court despite enormous controversy, Republicans may have a chance to tilt the court even further to the right, if the liberal stalwarts of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both in their 80s, are forced from the court due to old age. Given the court’s enormous power in deciding issues such as abortion, LGBT, and voting rights, and to overturn swathes of legislation, an ultra-conservative court would severely hamstring Democrats’ ability to enact progressive policy.

As a previous Globalist article explored, the Democrats look to be in a strong position to reclaim the House of Representatives. The Senate, however, where Republicans currently maintain a narrow 51-49 majority, looks to be beyond Democrats’ reach unless they have an exceptional night. Whilst all 435 House seats are up for election biennially, only one third of the Senate is contested every two years. Two special elections will determine who will succeed Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota after he resigned amid sexual assault allegations, and Republican Thad Cochran of Mississippi who retired due to ill health. As such a total of 35 Senate races will be decided today. Usually the Democrats would have an excellent shot at retaking the Senate given the favourable political environment, but this year Democrats hold a whopping 26 of the contested seats already, meaning they have a lot more ground to defend than the GOP, and relatively slim opportunities to seriously challenge Republicans. 

Ten of these Democrat senators are in states Trump won in 2016, including five in the Rustbelt states of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Two further Democrat seats are up for election in neighbouring Minnesota which Clinton only won by around 1%. Before 2016, the last time a Republican had won Pennsylvania and Michigan was 1988. The last time the GOP had won Wisconsin was 1984. Trump’s elevation to the Presidency was such an upset precisely because it rewrote the electoral map, flipping states which had been considered solidly blue. Pundits suggested that working class whites in the Rust Belt might have decisively defected from the Democratic Party, much as their counterparts in the Deep South did some time before. After the Presidential election, Republicans were therefore salivating at the prospect of ejecting these Midwestern Democrat senators. These hopes have now been largely dashed. 

In all these seats, with the exception of Indiana, voters look set to return Democrats to the Senate. Trump’s popularity has significantly slumped in these states since his election, with his trade-war with China particularly hurting farmers throughout the Midwest. Equally, whilst Hillary Clinton’s historic unpopularity and perceived elitism drove voters to Trump, Democratic senators in Trump states are significantly better liked on their home turf, taking care to present themselves as sincere and in touch with their constituents’ concerns . Even in Ohio which Trump won by about ten points, incumbent Sherrod Brown looks a safe bet for reelection. Indiana’s Joe Donnelly has about equal odds at surviving the midterms, and is in a worse position than his Midwestern colleagues simply because his state is that much more conservative. Whilst Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by about as many people as can fit into Wembley, Indiana voted for Trump by a 20% margin over Clinton.  

Donnelly is one of six Democrat senators who are in serious danger of being unseated. Five of the others, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, are in similarly ruby red states Trump won by about twenty points or more. Tester and Manchin look soft favourites to pull through, while McCaskill like Donnelly is seen as having fifty-fifty odds to win. Heidi Heitkamp is the most threatened incumbent, with her defeat seeming relatively likely. Heitkamp is notably the Democrat with the strongest challenger, Congressman Kevin Cramer, which pundits suggest accounts for her disadvantage. The final vulnerable Democrat is Bill Nelson, a long term incumbent in Florida, who is being challenged by the outgoing Republican governor Rick Scott. Nelson looks in a much better position than he did a month or two ago, however, and should eke out a narrow win. Scott barely managed to win election as governor in 2010 and 2014, the last two midterms where Republicans performed very well nationally. This time around the Democratic political environment may provide too much for Scott to overcome.

Of the paltry nine Republican seats up for election, Democrats have four targets, two of which are widely acknowledged long shots. In Nevada, the only Clinton-won state up this year with a Republican incumbent, Democrat Jacky Rosen is taking on Dean Heller, the latter of whom has taken heavy criticism for his U-turn to support Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare. Rosen is seen as a slight favourite to win. Equally in Arizona which Trump won by about three points, Kyrsten Sinema, a centrist Democrat, looks to have a small edge over Martha McSally. There is no incumbent in the Arizona seat as Republican Jeff Flake has declined to run for another term, anticipating defeat in the GOP primary in retribution for his criticism of the President. Open seats swing particularly heavily against the party in the White House in midterms, which may bode well for Sinema. 

Democrats have narrow paths to taking an open seat in Tennessee, where their candidate is popular former governor Phil Bredesen, and to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas. Early voting has broken records across the country this election cycle with Texas drawing particular attention, where the early votes cast have already surpassed total turnout at the previous midterm, and the turnout of young voters who lean towards the Democrats has increased five-fold. The charismatic congressman Beto O’Rourke has raised an astonishing $70m largely from small donors, while Ted Cruz has raised less than half of that. If Cruz, one-time contender for the Republican Presidential nomination and conservative darling, is defeated in a state which has not elected a Democrat state-wide since 1990, that will be the defining moment of the 2018 midterms. It would also embolden those who have long hoped that demographic change in Texas, notably the growing Hispanic population there, could one day deliver the largest red state in the country to the Democrats. 

Nevertheless, the most likely outcome in the Senate according to election forecasters and pundits, remains a small shift towards to the Republicans of one or two seats. A good night for Democrats would simply be to avoid any losses in the Senate. An exceptional night would be to take the upper chamber of Congress outright, but after the nightmare of the Presidential election, many Democrats may not dare to dream of quite that much.