The GOP currently holds a slender lead of 51-to-49 in the Senate.
In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is being challenged by Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth, in Ohio. While that race has had plenty of fireworks of late, analysts seem to be more closely watching a handful of close races in Republican-leaning states won by President Donald Trump in 2016 against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s approval rating of 43 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll might allow the Democrats to win the House, but the math is more treacherous for Democrats in the Senate because of the number of seats the party is defending in Trump-friendly states.
“It’s like looking at two different elections,” said Jenny Duffy, senior editor at the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington. “The House is being driven by the political landscape and the congressional generic ballot, while the Senate seems to be driven more by the map. That geography is destiny.”
Duffy said loses in North Dakota and Missouri — where Republicans are currently leading in polls — would likely mean Democrats would have to sweep the four states the Cook Report lists as toss-ups: Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.
Publicly, both parties remain bullish about the Senate. One GOP strategist in Washington flatly predicted, “We are going to pick up seats — net two or three.” But Democrats dismiss that possibility, saying Democratic voters are more energized to vote in midterms than at any time since 2006.
“This election looks like more a presidential turnout rather than midterms,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant in Boston. “I am not saying it will be presidential turnout, but it will be better than midterms. If that is the case, Democrats will do well.”
Traditionally, the president’s party loses seats in a midterm election. But this election takes place as the nation’s gross domestic product expanded by 4.2 percent in the second quarter, personal income increased by 0.3 percent in August, and the unemployment rate has tumbled to 3.7 percent, the lowest since 1969.
The wild card is the controversial confirmation this month of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His confirmation sent a jolt of enthusiasm into GOP ranks but enraged Democrats, who contend the Senate Republicans gave short shrift to accusations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford when both were teenagers.
“The Kavanaugh effect in North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana, and Missouri is undeniable and has also helped our candidates in Arizona and Nevada,” said Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“This is not a time in politics where issues move people,” Bennett said. “Tapping into their anger moves people. You have to speak from your heart and be angry about what they are angry about.”
The Kavanaugh confirmation could spell trouble for Democratic senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana — each facing tough elections in state where Trump is popular. All opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Rebecca Katz, a onetime adviser to retired Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said McCaskill voted her conscience on Kavanaugh while listening to her constituents — “which in theory is what we’re asking our elected officials to do.”
But Duffy said the Kavanaugh vote is benefitting McCaskill’s Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley. “It led him to talk about things that are far more in his comfort zone,” she said.
Some argue the Kavanaugh impact will recede before the election.
“The things people are focused on are very practical, with health care being No. 1,” said William Carrick, a Democratic consultant and longtime adviser to former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. “We all get caught up chasing the Trump circus all the time, and it doesn’t seem to move anybody outside of his base.”