Senate Landscape Not as Rosy for the GOP as It Once Was

by Stuart Rothenberg March 22, 2017 · 9:16 AM EDT

If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election, the GOP would now be headed to a dramatic 6-8 seat Senate gain next year, maybe even more, if history is any guide.

But with Donald Trump in the White House, Republican prospects are much less certain.

That doesn’t mean the GOP can’t or won’t have a successful 2018 cycle in the Senate. Given the Senate seats up, the president’s party could still win half a dozen seats or more. But there is no doubt that Trump’s victory in 2016 changed the national political environment in a way that makes next year’s midterms much more challenging for his party.

The fundamentals of the 2018 Senate elections are as favorable for one party as I have seen in my nearly 40 years of writing about and handicapping House and Senate races.

While only eight GOP Senate seats are up next year, 25 Democratic seats (including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats) are up. Many of the Democratic incumbents represent very Republican states.

This stunningly unbalanced Senate class first took shape during the 2006 midterms, when Democrats swept to victory in both the House and the Senate. Six years later, Democrats were expected to lose some of those seats. But instead, they added a couple of more Senate seats, as inept Republican nominees in Missouri and Indiana (Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock) lost contests they should have won.

The combination of a terrible partisan cycle in 2006 and underwhelming GOP nominees in 2012 produced the current Senate class of 2018. 

With ten Democratic senators up for re-election in states carried by Trump (and only one Republican senator up in a Hillary Clinton state), the GOP has an abundance of opportunities.

Five of those ten states – Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia – range from slightly Republican to solidly Republican in federal races.

Luckily for Democrats, three of those five Democratic senators – Jon Tester (Mont.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) – represent less populated states and have demonstrated an ability to connect with their states’ voters, which should enhance their chances of winning re-election.

Two states, Florida and Ohio, are normally regarded as pure swing states. Democratic senators in both states have proven their electoral mettle, but the fundamental competitiveness of the states make them serious targets.

Together, those seven states offer the GOP the best opportunities for takeover.

Three Rust Belt states that went for Trump (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) could well see interesting contests, though they at least lean Democratic normally in federal races. 

While some Republicans cite Trump’s victory in those three states as proof GOP Senate candidates can win them next year, history suggests presidential victories don’t automatically predict Senate victories two years later. 

Trump’s victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were so narrow – and so particular to the election cycle in which he ran – that it will be difficult, though not impossible, for Republicans to win Senate contests in those states next year.

As I wrote almost two months ago, Donald Trump’s fast start and continued controversial comments are likely to energize the president’s critics next year and convince some anti-Clinton voters that he and his party need a “check” in Washington, D.C.  

Of course, elections are not only about fundamentals, but also about candidates, campaigns and news developments. The early recruiting buzz seems good for the GOP, but it is far too early to know how races in individual states will look a year from now.

For me, in analyzing next year’s fight for the Senate, there are two major questions: Will the midterms primarily be about Donald Trump? And if so, how much of a drag will he be on GOP Senate nominees?

The answer to the first question is likely to be “yes.” The answer to the second question is still unknown.

Each cycle is different, but given the current occupant of the White House’s style and agenda, as well as Congress’s early actions, I would expect 2018 to be more like 2006 and 2010 than 2002, when the president’s party did unusually well. 

Given the map, the GOP should make considerable Senate gains. But those gains probably won’t be anywhere near what they might have been with President Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office.