Just a couple of months ago Republicans would boast of the plethora of Senate pickup opportunities in 2018. Democrats will be defending 25 seats, Republicans only nine. Among the Democratic seats up for grabs are a slew from states President Trump won in 2016 — Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin. As of February, the Cook Political Report rated four Democratic seats (plus the seat of independent Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats) as “lean Democratic” races and listed eight in the “likely Democratic” column. By contrast, only two GOP-held seats are in the “lean Republican” column.

In the light of the confirmation hearing of now-Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and the House passage of the American Health Care Act, it’s very possible the Democrats could stay even or lose only one or two net seats. There are a bunch of reasons for Democratic optimism.

First, most Senate Democrats, with few exceptions, voted to filibuster Gorsuch. That prevented any challenge from their left flank without much downside. Gorsuch is on the court so Republicans have a hard time arguing that Democrats “obstructed” him. By taking away what remained of  the filibuster on nominations, Republicans ironically absolved the Democrats of responsibility for any failed nominations.

Second, Trump’s popularity has tumbled in traditionally blue and purple states that Trump was able to win in 2016. Newsweek recently reported:

A March survey of Wisconsin found 41 percent of registered voters approved of his job performance while 47 percent disapproved. A February poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College found just 32 percent of voters in Pennsylvania approved of Trump’s job performance. An EPIC MRA survey the same month pegged his support in Michigan at 40 percent, with 54 percent disapproving. In Ohio, a March Baldwin Wallace University poll found 49 percent of the state viewed the president unfavorably, while 46 percent viewed him favorably.
And it goes on. In North Carolina, which Trump won narrowly, his approval rating stood at just 36 percent earlier this month, according to a High Point University poll. Fifty-four percent disapproved. In Florida, a large, key state that helped hand Trump the win, his approval stood at just 34 percent with two-thirds of the state disapproving, according to a February survey by Florida Atlantic University.

Trump remains popular with Republicans, but his historically awful approval will make it easy for Democrats to nationalize the race as a referendum on an unpopular president.

Third, Republicans’ indifference to Trump’s conflicts of interest, refusal to release his taxes, use of the presidency to increase his wealth and apparent violation of the emoluments clause underscores how necessary it is to have a more active check on the executive branch. Whether it is Jared Kushner’s sister hawking visas of $500,000, or Ivanka Trump’s company working on a deal with a Japanese company the day she sat in on a meeting with her father and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, or China’s preliminary approval of 38 trademarks to Donald Trump, or Trump’s praise for thuggish leaders in countries in which Trump just happens to have properties (e.g. the Philippines), voters can see that Republicans’ passivity is enabling Trump to expand the swamp.

Fourth, Republican candidate recruitment has fizzled. The Post reported last month, “Some top potential Senate candidates are turning down the opportunity to challenge vulnerable Senate Democrats.” Top-tier GOP contenders in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Wisconsin have decided not to run while Trump picked former representative Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to be secretary of the interior, depriving Republicans of a viable contender against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). Recruitment can become a vicious circle — the less likely a party is to pick up seats, the harder it is to get capable challengers to run.

Finally, and perhaps most important, health care is now a powerful weapon for Democrats to wield against Republican challengers. Each GOP candidate will have to say whether he or she favors the widely panned AHCA bill — including Medicaid rollback, relaxing protections for people preexisting conditions and higher rates for those in many of the rural states with Senate races (e.g. Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia). In an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) gave a preview of the sort of argument Republicans will face on the AHCA:

I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t from this standpoint. We are a state, as I mentioned before, that’s done a lot of heavy work for this country. Heavy lifting for over 100 years. We have a lot of preexisting conditions. I have a lot of people that are elderly. Every dynamic in every demography of my state gets absolutely slammed with this piece of legislation. So I said, “Get rid of the word repeal, and start talking about repairing.” If they can get rid of the word repeal, John, we can sit down. Democrats and Republicans could work through this. We know that this bill needs to be fixed. The Affordable Care Act, there’s not a Democrat who doesn’t realize we need to work on the private market. But you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And then you’re throwing insult to injury by giving a $575 billion tax cut to the wealthiest Americans while you’re cutting $880 billion of service to the poorest Americans.

Democrats’ chances of winning control of the Senate are slim but not nonexistent (but likely would depend on an unexpected retirement or open seat). However, the Republicans’ chances for extending their majority look considerably dimmer. That’s why you will see Senate Republicans keep up their drumbeat of criticism of the House healthcare plan. It’s as important to them as it is to Democrats that the dog’s breakfast of a bill never becomes law.