Democrats largely dodged a bullet in 2018, and that might be a problem for the GOP in two years. The midterm election has finally concluded, at least in the US Senate, with the special-election victory of Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith in Mississippi. That gives the GOP a 53/47 majority for the next two years and represents a two-seat improvement over their pre-election 51/49 majority.
That’s not bad news, but in context of the opportunities afforded the GOP in 2018, it’s not great news either. Counting special elections, Democrats had to defend 25 Senate seats in the midterms against only ten for Republicans — and ten of those Democratic seats were in states that Donald Trump won two years earlier. The GOP won four of those seats while losing a red-state seat in Arizona and a blue-state seat in Nevada. By missing on other key opportunities — Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia in particular — Republicans lost the chance at a commanding Senate majority.
And in 2020, they may end up paying for that lost opportunity. Republicans will have to defend 21 Class 2 Senate seats in two years (and two special-election seats in AZ and MS), with Democrats only defending 12. The GOP will likely pick Alabama back up from Doug Jones when his term expires, forcing Democrats to pick up five other seats to wrest majority control away from the GOP. Is that too much? National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar thinks it might be:
McConnell holding 53 Senate seats + the ever-growing rural vote for Rs makes 2020 Senate majority challenging for Ds.
Dems have solid chance flipping CO + NC + AZ, but significant rural vote in IA/GA/TX will bolster Rs.https://t.co/mj3PqyOQas
— Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) November 28, 2018
The link goes to a firewalled article, but a look at Class 2 seats shows that neither party will have anywhere near the same exposure as Democrats had in 2018. The only obviously vulnerable Democratic incumbent is Jones; after that, assuming all incumbents run for re-election, the most promising target for Republicans is likely Gary Peters in Michigan, a route that did not work out well for John James this time around against Debbie Stabenow. If some Democratic incumbents run for president rather than the Senate, then perhaps an opening might come up, but the only one in that category is Cory Booker. And New Jersey just re-elected their crook rather than go Republican by giving Robert Menendez another term this month.
Republicans aren’t as fortunate. Let’s look at Josh’s list first. Cory Gardner might squeeze by in Colorado in a presidential cycle with Trump at the top of the ticket, but Mike Coffman’s loss signals that it will be a tough hold. Thom Tillis barely won his last election campaign in North Carolina and didn’t get to 50% in a state targeted more and more by Democrats. Arizona didn’t like Martha McSally enough for her to beat Kyrsten Sinema even while re-electing governor Doug Ducey to a second term by double digits. If Ducey picks McSally to replace Jon Kyl next month, she’ll already be seen as weak; if he picks someone else less known, that’ll be a handicap as well.
Still, Democrats can’t get to a majority just with those pickups even if they manage to rescue Jones. David Perdue could have a tough fight in Georgia, where Brian Kemp barely won the gubernatorial election this month even with the rural vote Josh mentions. The GOP lost three of the four congressional districts in Iowa, where Joni Ernst will run for a second term, again showing the limits of “rural strength” in statewide elections. The Left will come hard against Susan Collins in Maine for her support of Brett Kavanaugh. Pat Roberts might also have a tough time in Kansas, which just elected a Democratic governor (in a rural state!) and where Roberts’ general-election support has dwindled from the mid-60s to 2014’s 53%.
In short, Republicans really needed those other red-state pickups this cycle, because the pickings will be mighty slim in two years. Even if the GOP manages to escape that trap in 2020, the Class 3 split looks just as bad (22 GOP seats, 12 Democrats) and the battlegrounds even more challenging — Georgia and Arizona again, Florida, North Carolina again, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, among others. If Republicans don’t figure out how to increase their suburban strength again, it’s possible that we’ll see a net loss of anywhere from two to seven seats in the upper chamber in two years, and worse down the road.
My column at The Week addresses the acute need for expanding the party’s footprint in other ways as well, springboarding off of Mia Love’s comments earlier this week:
“This election experience and these comments shines a spotlight on the problems Washington politicians have with minorities and black Americans — it’s transactional. It’s not personal,” Love said. “Because Republicans never take minority communities into their home and citizens into their homes and into their hearts,” she argued, those voters “stay with Democrats and bureaucrats in Washington because they do take them home, or at least make them feel like they have a home.”
Here, Love hits the nail on the head. She echoes what a number of minority voters told me when I started field research in key swing counties for the 2016 election while writing my book, Going Red. Republicans would open an office and hire someone to talk to the people in minority neighborhoods a few months before an election, then as soon as the voting ended, pack up and decamp.
The problem, as the thoughtful and concerned citizens of these communities told me, wasn’t so much that Republicans “never take minority communities into their home,” but that they don’t make minority communities their home in the first place. Former GOP Florida Rep. Shawn Harrison related how election consultants pushed him to ignore minority communities as hopelessly Democratic, and how that cost him a re-election bid in 2012. African-American conservatives in places like Wake County, North Carolina, said that while they often felt Democrats took them for granted, at least Democrats try to participate in their communities, whereas Republicans abandon them entirely.
The 2018 midterms show what happens when Democrats show up to vote: They outperform Republicans, even in red districts. Base-turnout strategies only take either party so far in general elections, but they take Democrats further, thanks to the party’s sustained registration advantages. Trump managed to win in 2016 without a campaign strategy to improve this failing on behalf of the GOP. However, he won those blue-wall states not because he significantly expanded the Republican voter footprint, but because Hillary Clinton failed to turn out Democratic voters, falling well below the turnout for Barack Obama four years earlier.
At this rate, Republicans should be cheering for Hillary to throw her hat in the ring again. Otherwise, they have their work cut out for them.