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Here are the seats Democrats must win in 2018 to take back the Senate

It's an uphill battle, but it's possible.


Brenden Gallagher


Posted on Dec 27, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 6:48 am CDT

Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama was a massive win for Senate Democrats. Not only did it trim the GOP majority to two seats,  but the win came in a state no one thought would be in play for the Democrats. But, it happened. A seat vacated by Jeff Sessions will be held by a Democrat. Now, all Democrats have to do is pick up a couple seats in 2018 and hold onto the ones they have to halt President Donald Trump’s legislative goals. 

But how likely is that?

Given massive Democratic waves in New Jersey and Virginia state elections in early November and the Jones victory, you might think that a liberal revenge fantasy is on tap for 2018. Unfortunately, the numbers have never been in Democrats’ favor. Twenty-five Democratic Senate seats will be up for grabs in 2018, while Republicans will have to defend less than ten. Ten of those Democrat seats are in states that Donald Trump won in 2016. With Trump’s plummeting popularity, it may not matter what states swung for Trump in 2016. However, it remains to be seen just how much a red state can swing blue due to dissatisfaction with our commander-in-chief.

Let’s look at the most plausible Ws for the Dems.

Dean Heller (R-Nev.)

Nevada’s demographics are changing. The large Latino population and the massive culinary union (UNITE HERE Local 226) turned the state blue in 2016. Nevada Dems have been so effective at getting out the vote and leveraging the overwhelming support of service industry professionals in Vegas and Reno that the state has become a model for a new kind of Democratic success.

Incumbent Senator Dean Heller has made an already difficult situation worse for himself over the last year. He alienated more moderate voters by associating himself prominently with both the ACA repeal and the tax bill. He also made enemies among his base because he was an early opponent of the Obamacare repeal before he ultimately caved. Like many Republicans, he finds himself between the rock of the Freedom Caucus and the hard place of an energized left. Many experts see this as the perfect opportunity for a Democratic challenger, and the most likely seat to flip in 2018.

Jeff Flake (and Potentially John McCain) (R-Ariz.)

Though Arizona hasn’t had the kind of organized labor success that we’ve seen in Nevada, the same demographic shifts have taken hold there. The Latino population of Arizona might be unhappy with Trump’s many moves against immigration. From attacking DACA to expanding ICE to musing constantly about the border wall, Trump has built his presidency around inflicting pain on the country’s immigrant population. If Democrats can mobilize Latino voters, state contests could turn into a route.

As if the changing state dynamics weren’t daunting enough, Arizona Republicans might face an even steeper challenge than they previously thought. Jeff Flake has been one of the few GOP members to actually take a stand against Trump. Though history might look kindly on this move, there are real costs there. He will not be seeking re-election, meaning that the candidate who replaces him on the Republican ticket won’t have his incumbent name recognition.

It is a real possibility that John McCain may vacate his seat as well. The senator is suffering from brain cancer and he has already missed several key votes this session. Unlike in much of the rest of the country, Democrats also have a fairly deep bench in Arizona. There are about a half-dozen credible names circling around these Senate seats, while Arizona’s GOP is divided on what approach to take.

Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

Tennessee isn’t the first state you think of when you think about Democratic strongholds, but Corker’s retirement means that this is yet another seat where there is no GOP incumbent. In fact, Democrats may actually have the name recognition advantage in this race, as former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen will be running to replace Corker.

The Republicans’ likely candidate, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, isn’t exactly Roy Moore, but she is prone to gaffes (like mentioning “baby body parts” in campaign ads) and sits on the right end of the GOP political spectrum. To give you a taste of the kind of conservative she is, Blackburn recently filed a resolution on national anthem etiquette in response to NFL player protests. That is exactly the kind of move could push more centrists voters away, as heavy doses of culture war with little focus on the needs of working people is what often irks people about the Trump administration.

Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

This might amount to more wishful thinking than sound political prognostication, but people really don’t like Ted Cruz. His condescending debate club routine has made him one of the least popular senators in modern memory. Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso is already running a vigorous campaign, focusing on Texas’ Latino population. Considering so many prominent right-wing figures have come out of Texas, it might be surprising to hear, but there are some projections that Texas could be a blue state in the not too distant future. Trump’s nine-point victory in the state in 2016 marks the worst performance by the GOP there in decades.

O’Rourke feels like just the kind of candidate for this particular political moment. He is a former punk rocker and he has been an advocate of Bernie Sanders’ policies. He is not yet listed as an Our Revolution backed candidate (Bernie Sanders and Nina Turner’s progressive slate), but there have been flirtations. Regardless of whether he partners with the group, his soundbites about the “rigged economy” are straight out of their playbook.

Republican Long Shots

If Democrats can win in Alabama, they can win anywhere. However, the other Republican seats in play—Wyoming (John Barrasso), Nebraska (Deb Fischer), Utah (Orrin Hatch), and Mississippi (Roger Wicker and potentially Thad Cochran)—are about as tough a slate as you could muster.

But, Roy Moore didn’t happen in a bubble. The far-right is low on vetting their candidates of choice, which has led to some weak potential GOP candidates across the U.S. For example, Erik Prince of Blackwater fame is considering a run in Wyoming. If he survives the primary, Democrats would face an alleged war criminal, non-Wyoming native, and brother of much-maligned education secretary Betsy DeVos instead of incumbent establishment Republican John Barrasso.

These races don’t necessarily warrant close examination right now, but if the primaries break the right way for Democrats, that could change. Additionally, there is the possibility that a different kind of candidate could emerge in these races to challenge establishment Democrats in primaries. Rob Quist in Montana and Lee Carter in Virginia have proven that candidates with politics more closer to Bernie Sanders than the Democratic establishment can outperform typical Democratic numbers in red states.

Potential Democratic Losses

Winning a Democratic Senate majority wouldn’t just be about the Republicans losing seats. Democrats will also have to protect their own. It cannot be forgotten that some of the most likely seats to change hands in 2018 belong to Democrats. Claire McCaskill is one of the few Democrats who holds statewide office in Missouri. The other Missouri Senate seat went Republican in 2016. Joe Donnelly in Indiana is seeking re-election in a state that Trump won by nineteen points; North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp hails from a state that gave Trump a 36 point margin of victory. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin has tried to play both sides of the aisle and has ended up making enemies on the right and the left.

No matter how you look at it, Democrats are going to need a bit of luck and a lot of electoral discipline to take back the Senate. While Trump’s dismal approval rating and the recent rash of Democratic victories has been encouraging, a lot can happen between now and November.

If Democrats continue to apply pressure to Republicans and successfully link GOP proposals that hurt the working class to the politicians who push them, The Senate could turn blue and neutralize the Trump presidency. Whether the Jones victory was an aberration or a harbinger of things to come will depend on how both parties shape their message heading into a massively important midterm election.

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*First Published: Dec 27, 2017, 9:00 am CST