Sabato: Say, 2018 looks like a looming disaster for Senate Democrats

Democrats blew a golden opportunity to win back control of the Senate in 2016. Republicans defended 23 seats against the Democrats’ 13, and were widely expected to suffer significant losses — more than the four seats necessary to reduce the Senate to a tie. Instead, the GOP held on in Florida, Pennsylvania, and handily won a Wisconsin race that almost everyone expected Russ Feingold to win by a large margin. If the GOP wins the run-off race in Louisiana as expected, they’ll have a 52-48 majority for the next two years — and maybe wider, if Heidi Heitkamp gets a position in the Donald Trump administration.

By 2019, that might become a filibuster-proof majority, warns Larry Sabato. Rather than the 10-seat advantage they had in 2016, Democrats will have a seventeen-seat disadvantage. Furthermore, many of those races will be in states won by Republicans in November:

Including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats, the party holds 25 of the Class I Senate seats that are up for election in 2018, while the Republicans hold only eight. Again, a look back at the last few times this group of seats was contested explains the Democrats’ exposure. After Republicans netted eight seats on this map in the 1994 Republican Revolution (and party switches by Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado from Democrat to Republican would essentially make it 10 by the time of Campbell’s switch in March 1995), Democrats made big gains in Class 1 in both 2000 (four) and 2006 (six). Going into 2012, it appeared that Democrats would lose seats, but they upset expectations and instead gained two, which is why they are so overextended now. …

The last time a party was as exposed as Democrats are in 2018 was in the 1970 cycle. At the end of 1968, 25 Democratic-held seats were up in the 1970 midterm. There are some similarities between the position of Democrats in 1970 and 2018. First, Class I Senate seats were up in 1970, just as they are in 2018. Second, a sizable number of Democratic-held 1970 Senate seats (13) were up in states that Republican Richard Nixon had just carried in the closely-contested 1968 presidential election, compared to the 10 Democrats are defending in 2018 in Trump states. Perhaps endangered Democrats up in 2018 can feel a little bolstered by the fact that Democrats only lost three net seats in the 1970 midterm despite having to defend numerous seats, many in states that backed the most recent GOP presidential nominee. Overall, 11 of the 12 Democratic incumbents running in states won by Nixon in 1968 won reelection in 1970 (though Harry Byrd Jr. of Virginia ran as an independent that cycle, eschewing his previous party label).

Democrats overcame their overextension in 1970 in part because Nixon held the presidency, while the overextended parties in 1926 and 1938 held the White House, perhaps contributing to their bigger losses. So as the Democrats assess their Senate odds in 2018, they can take some solace in the possibility that the midterm dynamic might help them protect their many vulnerable incumbents.

Can they actually take solace in that, however? Take a look at the map and see where the contests will take place:

Now overlay that with the Congressional map from 270toWin after the 2016 election:


Bear in mind that Democrats usually do better in presidential cycles than midterms, thanks to the dynamics of turnout, and one starts to sense the disaster Sabato sees looming. There is little chance of Democrats losing the deep-blue coastal states or Minnesota, especially with Amy Klobuchar defending her seat. After that, though, Democrats have a large number of seats that look at serious risk, including Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin again, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and probably Florida. All of these states have Republican legislatures and went for Trump in this election. Picking up those eight bring Republicans up to 60, and that’s without considering what might happen in Virginia, West Virginia, and Maine — where Trump did stronger than expected and which is represented by an independent (Angus King) who caucuses with Democrats.

It’s entirely possible that Republicans could end up with a 62-63 seat majority, which would give them carte blanche on policy for the final two years of Trump’s first term. It’s also possible that some of this potential might dissipate as a reaction to Trump’s governance, as frequently happens in midterm elections. That would require Democrats to have learned the lessons of why they lost so badly in 2016 — and so far, as Salena Zito explains, they’re still in deep denial:

What is astounding, post-election, is the total lack of contrition Democrats have displayed for ignoring the workingman and -woman bloc that has been the party’s horn of plenty. The only regret they display is that they lost the election, not the voters.

What Democrats, academics and pundits keep refusing to see is that the loss was never about Trump’s candidacy; it was all about how Democrats have increasingly lost touch with their voters outside of coastal America — until those voters finally hit their breaking point.

“The Democratic Party has become a coastal elitist club and if there is any decision or discussion made to broaden that within the ranks it is squashed,” said Dane Strother, a legendary Washington, DC-based Democratic strategist.

“We have completely lost touch with Middle America,” he admits, “How did we go from the party of the little man to the party of the elite?” Then he answers; “Yes, we rightfully should protect the rights of minorities, African-Americans, Hispanics, the LBGTQ communities and we always should — but we can’t forget the rest of the country along the way,” he said.

They have less than two years to figure that out. So far, though, all they’ve done is kept their party’s leadership in the same hands that lost four straight election cycles and turned Democrats into that “coastal elitist club.” That portends yet another major electoral disaster for Democrats. And if Republicans and Trump actually deliver on their promises in 2017-18, it could be even worse than it looks for those coastal elites.