The 2018 midterms may not be a stellar year for the GOP. The president’s approval rating continues to hover in the upper thirties and the Republican-controlled Congress touts even worse numbers. Midterm elections historically do not bode well for the party in power.
However, there are many reasons for Republicans to be optimistic. Right off the bat, Republicans have a phenomenal map on their hands. In total, 33 Senate seats are in play. Of those 33, only eight are GOP controlled. This leaves the Democratic Party defending 25 seats (two independents caucus with Democrats). Of these 25, 10 are up for election in states Trump won just last year.
Math alone suggests 2018 can be a year for the Grand Old Party to go on offense.
Here are the five Senate seats likely to flip.
Sen. Claire McCaskill is clearly sweating over Election Day. In an effort to talk to as many people as possible, the two-term Democrat is holding 25 town halls this month alone. She is facing attacks from both the left and right now that she has attracted a Bernie bro primary challenger in 31-year-old Angelica Earl, a first time candidate. McCaskill is dealing with the stress that comes with representing a red state while simultaneously not upsetting her liberal base.
Missouri has lurched right in recent years. In 2016, the state elected President Trump by double digits, chose a newly minted GOP governor and re-elected Republican Sen. Roy Blunt over what national Democrats believed was their best candidate. McCaskill has had one of the luckiest careers in Congress. Elected to the Senate in the 2006 Democratic wave year, she was given the gift of Todd Akin as her GOP challenger in 2012 – a guy who infamously coined the term “legitimate rape.” She may not be so lucky this go-around. It’s looking increasingly likely that Missouri attorney general Josh Hawley will throw his hat in the ring. A graduate of Stanford and Yale, Hawley is a rising star in Missouri GOP politics. He was just elected as attorney general last year, but almost every former Republican senator from his state has pressured him to hit the campaign trail yet again and take out McCaskill.
A wild card in this race: Austin Petersen. A former presidential contestant for the Libertarian Party, this liberty-minded conservative has the potential to muster a grassroots coalition and win the GOP primary. The establishment media has seemingly ignored his candidacy, but I wouldn’t count him out.
Inside Elections rates this as a toss-up. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball also rates this as a toss-up.
Sen. Joe Donnelly has every reason to worry. Indiana voters inched more red under the Obama years. Trump won the Hoosier State by a near 20-point margin over Clinton. Republican Todd Young defeated Democrat Evan Bayh, a former occupant of that seat, by almost 10 points – a truly impressive feat considering Bayh entered the 2016 Senate race way ahead in the polls over Young.
Donnelly lucked out in 2012 when he faced an undisciplined GOP challenger in former state treasurer Richard Mourdock.
The former governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence, now boasts a nationwide network of political operatives and fundraisers. You better believe he’ll play a role in this race.
Smelling blood, a handful of Republicans have already announced challenges against Donnelly. The top contenders in the GOP primary will be Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. Despite the two varying little in ideology, the campaign is already getting messy. As far as the White House is concerned, Mike Pence’s inner circle is mostly siding with Messer (Greg Pence, the brother of the vice president, is finance chair of Messer’s campaign) and Trump allies are hovering towards Rokita. Primary polls have these two virtually neck and neck.
Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this race as a toss-up.
Can someone tell me how Sen. Heidi Heitkamp won election here? 2012 wasn’t a blockbuster year for the GOP, sure. But Mitt Romney still bested Obama in North Dakota by almost 20 points. You’d think coattails would mean something. Heitkamp eked out her victory by one percentage point five years ago.
Flash forward to last year. The GOP dominated The Roughrider State by jaw dropping margins. Trump won by over 35 points. Incumbent GOP Sen. John Hoeven won his election by over 61 points (his charismatic opponent, Democrat Elliot Glassheim, captured 17 percent of the vote). The gubernatorial election also favored the GOP by astounding numbers. It’s safe to say North Dakota is elephant country.
To top it all off, Sen. Heitkamp has not even committed to running for re-election. However, not many Republicans have stepped up to the plate either. Given the optics, it’s pretty amazing to go on Ballotpedia and find that no GOP member has officially entered the race. There is buzz about Rep. Kevin Cramer. He holds North Dakota’s sole Congressional district so he’s already a familiar face statewide. Another name tossed around is state Sen. Tom Campbell. Heitkamp would be an easy target, the GOP just needs someone to actually challenge her. Despite not officially announcing her re-election, Heitkamp has been fundraising prolifically. Her campaign chest has around $3 million on hand.
Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the race as a toss-up.
This is the one and only race where the GOP may lose a seat. Sen. Dean Heller is up for re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton and President Obama twice. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid runs a well-oiled Democratic operation in Nevada. In 2012, Heller defeated a flawed Democratic candidate, Shelley Berkley, by about one percentage point. He may not be so lucky this time.
As far as balancing the delicate line between representing a swing state while pleasing primary voters – Heller has done a poor job. He pissed Trump’s people off so much, America First Policies (a pro-Trump group) had the audacity to run attack ads against him. Danny Tarkanian, a perennial Republican candidate, has announced a primary challenge against Heller.
Rep. Jacky Rosen, Reid’s chosen Democrat to run, has thrown her hat in the ring. Rosen currently controls Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District. A moderate, swing district and within Clark County, it’s perhaps the best place for a representative to springboard into a Senate career. Godspeed Sen. Heller.
Inside Elections and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate this as a toss-up.
I have fun breaking this race down because I think most everyone is underrating the Republican shift this state has undergone. The Badger State didn’t shock the country by electing Trump (the first Republican presidential candidate to do so since Reagan) by chance. Wisconsin voters also re-elected Sen. Ron Johnson, a man everyone believed was going to lose badly to former Sen. Russ Feingold, by a respectable margin. This all happened in part because of the GOP operation Gov. Scott Walker has built. Forced to run three times statewide in almost as many years, Walker has built a Republican apparatus here like no other. He ended the stranglehold union Democrats had on Wisconsin politics and set the state into a new direction.The Wisconsin Democratic Party has been decimated as their members have watched the GOP take control of the state’s legislature, a majority stake of their Congressional delegation and governor’s mansion.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, one of the most liberal members of the upper chamber, must face re-election in a state that has changed since 2012. It sucks that GOP Rep. Sean Duffy opted against a run, but there are others still mulling a campaign. Marine Corps veteran and businessman Kevin Nicholson has taken the plunge. His campaign was given a major boost when former UN ambassador John Bolton endorsed his candidacy. State Sen. Leah Vukmir and businessman Eric Hovde have yet to decide on entering the Republican primary.
Inside Elections rates this as tilts Democratic. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates this as leans Democratic (I’m more optimistic).
A Side Note:
Insiders may take umbrage with the fact that I included Wisconsin, but not West Virginia. It’s true, The Mountain State is Trump country. Voters here elected the president by almost 70 points, taking home every county. The national Democratic brand is so toxic, in fact, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made the very rare move of switching party allegiances – going from blue to red. As a way of rubbing salt on Democratic wounds, Justice made the announcement at a Trump rally.
Why not consider this seat in danger? My answer to you is: the candidate matters.
If there is one Democrat who can win in West Virginia, it’s Sen. Joe Manchin. He is a gun-toting, coal-loving blue dog. Having held elected office since the 80’s, he’s a mainstay in West Virginia politics and voters here like him. Trump’s victory actually did him a favor in the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about supporting a Hillary Clinton agenda. He will still have to keep his distance from Democratic leadership if he wants to keep his seat.
Unfortunately for the GOP, they may have to wait until Manchin retires before they can claim the seat (but I hope I’m wrong).