Time for a Second Look at the Senate in 2018?

Stuart Rothenberg May 25, 2017 · 8:58 AM EDT

The numbers are daunting for Senate Democrats.

The party needs to net three seats to retake the Senate, and with only eight Republican Senate seats up in 2018 compared to 25 Democratic seats, Democratic prospects are bleak. (Two of those Democratic seats are Independents who caucus with the Democrats.)

But the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Donald Trump’s campaign, more controversial statements and actions by the president, and a GOP at war with itself on Capitol Hill over health care reform and tax policy, at the very least raises the question of Senate control.  Is the Senate still out of reach for Democrats even with President Trump’s performance, problems and sliding poll numbers?

History offers mixed messages to the Democrats.

In 1998, with President Bill Clinton under investigation by a special counsel and facing a barrage of criticism both for his behavior and his deceptive public statements, Republicans made no net gains in the Senate and lost a handful of seats in the House.

That Senate class was relatively balanced at 18 Democrats and 16 Republicans, so Republicans certainly had opportunities to take advantage of Clinton’s problems. But while the GOP picked off three Democratic Senate seats – in Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio – the party lost three seats of its own to Democrats – in Indiana, New York and North Carolina.

Democrat Harry Reid barely held on in Nevada, but he had received only 51 percent of the vote six years earlier, suggesting the closeness of his race had more to do with the state and the quality of his opponent (John Ensign) than with fallout from Clinton’s problems.

If the 1998 midterms were about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, they were as much about the GOP’s tone and agenda as Clinton’s behavior. And the strong economy certainly helped the president with midterm voters.

The other most recent midterm that took place during a presidency in crisis, in 1974, showed stronger signs of the Watergate scandal’s drag on Republicans.

Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, just a few months before voters went to the polls. The House GOP lost dozens of seats in that political bloodbath, taking the party down to only 144 seats. 

Only 14 Republican Senate seats were up in 1974, compared with 20 Democratic seats. On Election Day, the GOP lost a net of three seats: two incumbents were defeated, in Colorado and Kentucky, and two open seats went Democratic, in Florida and Vermont. One Democratic open seat, in Nevada, went Republican.

But Republicans barely held onto seats in New Hampshire (Norris Cotton/Louis Wyman), North Dakota (Milton Young) and Oklahoma (Henry Bellmon), suggesting that Senate Republicans were indeed hurt by the scandal.

And because the Granite State election was so close – two recounts showed different winners – the state ended up having a special election to fill the seat in 1975. Republicans lost that contest.

To this point, the make-up of the Senate class of 2018 makes talk of a Democratic Senate takeover somewhere between far-fetched and delusional. That could change, of course, between now and the beginning of midterm voting.

Four of the nine Republican seats up next year are in states that have not voted Democratic for president since 1976: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. Three have not voted Democratic for president since 1964: Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming.

That leaves only two states that have shown any partisan independence: Arizona, which last voted Democratic in the 1996 presidential contest, and Nevada, which voted Democratic in the last three presidential contests.

Seven of the nine states (all but Nevada and Nebraska) have not elected a Democrat to the Senate in the last 25 years. Only Nevada currently sends a Democrat to the Senate. 

Strange things can and have happened in American politics, so it’s unwise to flatly rule out a Democratic gain of at least three seats in the Senate next year. But the small number of Democratic opportunities and the states with Senate races next year give dispassionate observers no reason to believe that the Senate will be in play.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that the 2018 Senate races aren’t worth watching. The GOP’s advantage coming out of the midterms will say something about Republicans’ ability to hold the Senate in 2020, when 22 Republican seats and only 11 Democratic Senate seats are scheduled to be up.

Moreover, given terrific Republican opportunities this year, minimal or no GOP Senate gains undoubtedly would shake GOP confidence about the last two years of President Trump’s term, affecting the president’s ability to move his – or his party’s – agenda.

So, while Donald Trump’s controversial presidency has rattled some voters and caused worry among House members from swing and Democratic-leaning congressional districts, it hasn’t yet put the Senate “in play” next year – nor is there yet any indication that it will.