If Democrats are going to have any hope of winning control of the Senate, they have to overcome a very tough math problem.
Right now, while it looks as if Democratic incumbents in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are likely to survive, the polling averages show four of them — Bill Nelson in Florida, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana — locked in extremely tough races.
Here’s the rub. Democrats must keep all those seats and also net two GOP seats on top of that — most likely in Nevada and Arizona, which are also very close — to get from 49 to 51 seats and win the Senate. If one of those four Democratic incumbents loses, Democrats must flip three GOP seats, which is very hard. If two of those incumbents lose, Democrats must flip four GOP seats, which is really, really, really unlikely.
In other words, it’s hard enough for Democrats to flip just Arizona and Nevada — but with each incumbent seat they lose, Democrats must expand their net pickup from Republicans by one more seat to offset it. That’s daunting.
Today I spoke to J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, the biggest super PAC spending to elect Democrats to the Senate. He conceded that the situation is “challenging.”
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Poersch conceded to me. “But I don’t think the Republicans expected to be playing goal line defense the way they are.”
This basic math problem is partly the result of the fact that Nelson — the only one of the four incumbents in a state that Barack Obama won twice — is in a much tighter race in Florida than many had hoped against GOP Governor Rick Scott.
When I pressed Poersch on this, noting that many Democrats believe Nelson is running a lackluster campaign, he declined to admit that Nelson is struggling. Instead, he said Democrats should have always expected the race to be close. “We’re running against a sitting eight-year governor with all the financial resources in the world,” Poersch said. “Of course it’s going to be close.”
In fairness, as tough as the situation is for Democrats, it is looking worse for Republicans than most people expected. After all, the map favors Republicans, because a lot of Democratic incumbents are on defense in states President Trump carried. Yet, there are plausible, if very narrow, paths to a Democratic majority.
Poersch argued, for instance, that Tennessee — where Democrat Phil Bredesen is mounting a surprisingly strong challenge — is more in play than many believe.
“Republicans are doing 16 weeks of consecutive television and radio there,” Poersch said. “There is no way they anticipated having to go this far and this deep in Tennessee. … We believe we’ve held a lead here for some time.”
The thing is, though, that Tennessee looks like a must win for Democrats if they are to gain the majority. It goes back to that math problem again: If a Democratic incumbent loses in one of those four states, Democrats have to flip Tennessee in addition to Arizona and Nevada to win the Senate. The only alternative is running the table in all those six states other than Tennessee.
So Tennessee is probably crucial. When I asked Poersch about this, he said: “There’s a way to get to the majority without Tennessee. But it’s a high priority.”
What about Texas?
Which brings us to Texas, where Beto O’Rourke is mounting a surprisingly strong challenge to Ted Cruz. When I asked Poersch if his group would invest in the race, he demurred, saying only: “We’re looking at it closely,” and “we’re reserving the right to help,” though he did describe O’Rourke as “the best Democratic statewide candidate in Texas in 25 years.”
This raises a dilemma. Given how easily a Democratic majority can get derailed by a single loss somewhere — and given that in this political environment, anything can happen, as we saw in Alabama — you would think national Democrats might invest in Texas, if only to try to pull off a miracle. Along these lines, Democrats might also consider investing in Mississippi, where Democrat Mike Espy could conceivably pull off a shocker. Because it’s a multi-candidate “jungle primary” on Election Day, if no one reaches 50 percent and Espy finishes in the top two, it would force a late-November runoff in which Espy could conceivably prevail.
And if Democrats do not invest in Texas (or Mississippi) — and O’Rourke (or Espy) falls just short, and Democrats fall once seat short of the majority — the recriminations will be extreme. Asked about this, Poersch conceded the difficulty of the situation. “In a cycle with a map as wide as this, you have to give yourself many possibilities,” he allowed. As for whether that results in national spending in Texas, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.