A Few More Thoughts On The Senate

Bill Clark/CQPHO

Here’s the key concluding line from Charlie Cook’s article on the Corker meltdown: “Last week’s news reduced the odds of the GOP retaining its majority from a good bet to even money.”

So Cook, one of the best known election predictors, says it’s 50/50 who controls the Senate after the 2018 midterm.

That’s quite a statement, even if you think Republicans are looking at a wave election in 2018. Almost every Senate Republican up for election is in a safe seat, save two. Lots of Democrats are running in states that Trump either won or won with an overwhelming margin. Cook’s point isn’t just Trump’s unpopularity, which likely wouldn’t be enough to turn the Senate with the Republicans holding so many advantages. It’s that his mercurial personality is leading him to war with Senators he needs to pass any major legislation this year. Those legislative fails, meanwhile, are driving a rebellion among both GOP voters and funders. The legislative chaos is bleeding over into the reelection efforts and making improbable Democratic gains at least possible.

Can Democrats really take back the Senate?

I’m skeptical. But when you look at the seats, it’s more plausible than I would have thought, at least getting to 50/50. Dean Heller looks very vulnerable in Nevada. I expect he loses. Jeff Flake shouldn’t be vulnerable or at least not as vulnerable as he seems to be. But the Trump machine might knock him off in the primary or ruin his chances in the general with damage in the primary.

If those two lose, the next step is for Democrats to defend every seat. That’s tough, given how many are up for election and how many are running in Trump states. But it’s doable. My sense is it will be an all or nothing type thing. If Democrats can find a way to position themselves as a check on Trump to middle-of-the-roaders and non-Trump Republicans while grabbing hold of energized Democrats, probably all of the races are winnable. But you have certain races that are just going to be really tough. Claire McCaskill was almost certainly a goner in 2012 before Todd Akin’s notorious “legitimate rape” flame out. It’s probably a more conservative state now than it was in 2012. Joe Donnelly probably wouldn’t have won either if his opponent, Richard Mourdock, had made his own reprehensible comments about rape. Even that might not have been enough if Akin hadn’t come first.

The wildcard, as I suggested below, is whether Bannon is really going to be able to recruit challengers to a bunch of GOP incumbents. I have real questions whether Bannon really makes things happen or just deftly jumps on bandwagons once they’re a good bet. He didn’t get Roy Moore to run. That was Moore. But Bannon got in and branded it as a Bannon effort and a Bannon win, even though Moore was already a strong favorite. You could make a similar argument about Bannon’s late takeover of the Trump campaign.

It’s hard to make heads or tales of all the different data points which figure into this question. My biggest takeaway right now is that Trump is taking a sledgehammer to his own Senate majority on both the legislative side and the electoral side simultaneously. And it seems more about spleen and rage than any real strategy. We’ve never seen that before.