The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can Democrats take the Senate? It’s unlikely, but there are paths.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Sept. 11 that he's gearing up for a "very challenging election," with "dead-even" races in nine states. (Video: Reuters)

If Hillary Clinton were president right now, Democrats would be facing a bloodbath in the Senate. Not only would they have the problem the president’s party usually does in a midterm election — an angry and motivated opposition — but this year they’re defending 26 seats, while Republicans are defending only nine. From the starting point of a 51-49 GOP advantage, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Republicans to achieve a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.

But in our reality, Donald Trump is president, and that has changed everything. For the first time, respected election-watchers such as Stuart Rothenberg are saying that Democrats have a chance to take the Senate after all. And Republicans are freaking out:

Republicans have grown increasingly worried about losing control of the Senate, as President Trump’s approval rating tumbles and Democrats gain steam in key battleground races.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday sounded some of the most doubtful notes of Trump’s presidency that Republicans will keep the upper chamber of Congress, telling reporters, “I hope when the smoke clears, we’ll still have a majority.”
His comments came as Republican strategists and officials fretted over a fresh round of private polling on the Senate races, while public polls registered further erosion in Americans’ approval of Trump. “Shipwreck” was how one leading strategist described the situation, adding an expletive to underscore the severity of the party’s problems.

This is a significant change from just a couple of weeks ago, when the conventional wisdom was that Democrats will probably take the House but Republicans will hold the Senate. But how much of a chance do Democrats really they have? Let’s look at the reason the outlook has changed.

Trump’s popularity is falling, just at the worst time. A round of recent polls has shown Trump’s approval dipping below 40 percent: Quinnipiac at 38, CNN at 36, NPR-Marist at 39. There are many possible contributing factors, such as the multiple former Trump aides headed to jail, the ongoing Russia investigation, the growing realization that Trump hasn’t in fact drained the swamp, and the revelations of behind-the-scenes chaos in the White House. Every point that Trump falls is another push away from Republicans in the fall.

Some vulnerable Democrats don’t look so vulnerable anymore. To be clear, there are many close races, and many Democrats running in states Trump won. But some of the most vulnerable Democrats are seasoned, skilled politicians — Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Claire McCaskill — who have long experience in the complicated enterprise of running as a Democrat in a red state. That isn’t true of all of them (Bill Nelson in Florida has run a somnambulant campaign), and things still have to break right for them all to win, but without any factors pushing in the Republican direction, they’re in a pretty good position.

In addition, there are Democratic incumbents who in a different year would be vulnerable, but right now don’t look vulnerable at all. Senators such as Debbie Stabenow in Michigan (up by 12 points in this poll), Sherrod Brown in Ohio (up by 16) and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin (up by 8) are looking comfortable, even though all are running in states Trump won two years ago.

Democrats have fielded quality candidates. In a couple of cases, Democratic candidates have made races competitive when few thought they would be. The party persuaded Phil Bredesen, a popular former governor, to run in Tennessee, a state Trump won by 26 points. The race is a tossup, and some polls show Bredesen leading. In Texas, a race nobody thought would be competitive, Beto O’Rourke turned out to be charismatic and dogged, and he’s now trailing Ted Cruz by a whisker. As The Post’s Sean Sullivan reports, “Republicans are so fearful about losing the seat that they are diverting resources to Texas, a sore point in the White House after the animosity between Cruz and Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary.”

Just as critical, none of the Democratic nominees have turned out be the kind of disastrous bunglers or extremists that caused Republicans to lose winnable races in recent years, such as Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Sharron Angle.

So what are the possibilities? Here are the scenarios:

  • Democrats run the table. The idea of Democrats winning every contested race may seem far-fetched, but in a true wave year, it can happen. Democrats have a plausible chance to protect all their incumbents and flip seats currently held by Republicans in Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee and Texas. That would give them a 53-47 Senate majority. Still, this remains very, very unlikely.
  • Democrats win the close ones but not the long shots. They could hold their incumbents and take Nevada and Arizona, the two GOP-held seats where they’re thought to have the strongest chance, but lose Tennessee and Texas. That would give them a 51-49 majority and control of the chamber.
  • Democrats find another route to the majority. If one red-state Democratic incumbent loses, Democrats could still get to the majority by winning GOP seats in Nevada and Arizona, and pulling off a flip in Tennessee. This is a very narrow path, but it’s not impossible.
  • Deadlock. It’s entirely possible that through some combination of wins and losses, Democrats will get a net gain of one seat, resulting in a 50-50 Senate. That still leaves it in Republican hands, since Vice President Pence would break any ties.
  • Republicans keep or expand their majority. This is still a possibility, if the Democratic wave isn’t what we expect and they fall short in Arizona and Nevada, or Republicans offset Democratic pickups with a couple of wins in places such as Florida and North Dakota.

I’d even say that the last scenario is still the most likely one — but not by much. In fact, it might take nothing more than a few bad news cycles and a few more Trump screw-ups to give the entire election that little nudge it needs to hand Democrats control of both houses of Congress next year. Don’t say you weren’t warned.