Democrats are Going to Have a Much Harder Time Winning the Senate Than You Think

Every day, especially near the end of each month, I get multiple emails from the campaign of Kyrsten Sinema, a U.S. representative from Arizona running for the U.S. Senate seat that Jeff Flake will be vacating after the 2018 election. Sinema’s a moderate Democrat, and she has to be, coming from Arizona, which was a solid red state until about 3 years ago.

Sinema is generally regarded as the top Democratic prospect to pick up a GOP-held Senate seat in November. She reminds her supporters of that quite often (or her campaign does). She’s up against some very conservative potential opponents in Martha McSally and Joe Arpaio. Polling would suggest a total toss-up for that seat, with some even giving the seat a lean-Democratic rating right now.

The Senate, as it sits right now, has 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats. If you’re looking at a political situation that highly favors Democrats due to anti-Trump sentiment, you’d assume that Democrats would easily reclaim the both houses of Congress. Generic ballot polls show Democrats with a lead of 7-10 points, and that number could in theory grow. Democrats are winning seats in special elections they haven’t won in decades. The pundits think something is shifting.

The cliche thing to write here would be to say that the pundits are wrong. I don’t know if they are. I hesitate to say they are or they aren’t, because in theory a handful will be correct and a handful won’t and the rest will be somewhere in between. But I want to give my insight on the midterms as well, because I want to be able to say whether or not I was right in 7 months.

Looking at the House, I’d say Democrats have a pretty darn good shot at winning. I’d make them the favorites. They need 23 seats, and that won’t be too hard given anti-Trump sentiment in suburban America. The question there, in my opinion, is by how much the Democrats win the House by.

But the Senate is a different story. There’s 34 Senate seats up in November. Of those 34 seats, 24 are currently held by Democrats (or the 2 independent Senators who caucus with the Democrats). 10 are held by Republicans. If that sounds daunting for Democrats, it only gets worse.

Democrats have to hold 10 seats in states that Trump won. Some of those look attainable, like the ones in Michigan or Pennsylvania. But they also have to hold onto seats in Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri, Florida, North Dakota, and Montana. That’s going to be quite a struggle.

Normally, I’d look at this and say that those incumbents would be safe. Almost all of those senators are fairly moderate, and should be able to safely hold their seats. But increased polarization has led to these seats becoming less and less safe as many more voters are likely to back one party the whole way down the ballot, especially voters who backed Trump in 2016.

That’s not certainly the case, but I’d put more money on that being the case than on Trump voters, especially the so-called reluctant Trump voters, deciding that he hasn’t done enough and deciding to back Democrats instead (those people will probably just not vote).

But let’s say that Democrats can hang on to all of those seats. That incumbency for those vulnerable Dems is strong enough. How do they, then, win the Senate? Well, that part’s difficult too. They have only one seat in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 (Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada) that is currently held by a Republican, and have one seat in a purple state without an incumbent (Arizona). There’s 2 potential pickups for Democrats there.

(Quick note: Some people would like to suggest that GOP-held seats in Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi could be picked up by Democrats due to there being 2 open seats in Mississippi, the unpopularity of Ted Cruz in Texas, and an open seat in Tennessee. Those people are crazy. It does not make sense to use Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama last December as a trend setting election of Democratic elections in the south. Roy Moore was a remarkably bad candidate, and Democrats aren’t going to get 3 more Roy Moores in 2018)

So Democrats have 2 potential pickups and Republicans have 10. It’s not outrageous for Democrats, but its rough. But I’m even less optomistic.

I have a program that I mess around with on my computer that I use to try to project to the best of my ability who will win an election. I’ve been able to use it to plug in numbers for the 2016 elections and have it put out numbers that mirror the actual results in the Presidential, Senate, and House races. The first version of those numbers for that program for the 2018 Senate race came out last week, and so, using similar numbers to 2016 and what I’ve heard from poll analysts over the past year and half, I ran about 1500 simulations of the 2018 Senate race.

The numbers aren’t great. It looks like Republicans could win the Senate, with anywhere from 51 to 56 seats, about 48% of the time. Democrats are likely to win the Senate, with anywhere from 51 to 53 seats, about 30% of the time. And a split Senate, with 50 seats each, is likely to happen about 21% of the time (a split Senate can also be seen as a GOP-held Senate since the tiebreaking vote is the Vice President, a Republican. However, some pundits believe that, if the Senate is truly split, that Susan Collins, the most moderate Republican in the Senate, could switch parties. I don’t think that will happen, but just keep that in mind as a possibility).

So control of the Senate is up in the air, as I can predict right now. But these are early, rudimentary numbers. They aren’t very specific directly to each state, and are more national trends and historical trends. They don’t take into account what the President might do before the elections. They don’t fully foresee who could win some primaries in some states, which could impact who wins (Joe Arpaio as the Arizona Republican nominee raises the likelihood of Sinema winning that seat, for instance).

It’s easy to get this stuff wrong, especially so far out. But I will just caution against anyone viewing anything as a sure shot. I mean, a week before the 2016 election, the NYT Upshot had Hillary Clinton favored to win with 90% certainty. That doesn’t mean they were certain, and that could mean that if we had run the election over 10 times, she would’ve won the other 9 times. But nothing is ever 100% certain.

The race for the Senate is going to be tight.

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