Politics

Senate Democrats Keep Getting Great News. Things Aren’t As Rosy As They Seem.

Official Tennessee state photograph of Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn, member of the United States Congress.
Official Tennessee state photograph of Phil Bredesen and Marsha Blackburn, member of the United States Congress.
Photos by Phil Bredesen and United States Government.

Senate Democrats seeking good news don’t need to go far to find it. The latest batch comes in a pair of polls out this week. The first suggests Democrat Mike Espy is the early front-runner in the November special election in Mississippi—Mississippi!—to replace recently retired Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. The second has Democrat Phil Bredesen up double digits—double digits!—in a hypothetical general election matchup in Tennessee to replace soon-to-be-retired GOP Sen. Bob Corker.

Those results are undeniably positive for Democrats running in states Trump won in landslides in 2016. But things aren’t quite as rosy as they seem—either in those specific races, or in their larger quest to gain control of the Senate.

I’ll start with the caveat that should be painfully obvious for anyone still nursing 2016 wounds: Polls don’t predict the future, they only tell us about the present, and even then they can only tell us so much. Seven months out from Election Day, they offer a helpful snapshot of where a race stands today, but they don’t show the entire picture.

Consider Mississippi, where an intraparty fight on the right and a few quirks of state law have given Democrats a slim chance of winning a special election this fall. On Tuesday, Espy’s team touted internal polling that had him leading a three-way race with 34 percent support over a pair of Republicans, interim Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith with 27 percent, and longtime GOP gadfly Chris McDaniel with 21 percent. The problem for Espy? Finishing first on Election Day won’t necessarily be enough to win. State law dictates that if no candidate tops 50 percent in the nonpartisan special election, the top two finishers proceed to a runoff. At that point, a healthy slice of conservative voters would be expected to rally around the only Republican left standing, even if Hyde-Smith and McDaniel spend the summer attacking one another as they’re expected to.

It’s also not clear how much higher Espy can go. According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, which got a look at the specifics of the internal survey, Espy’s own pollsters found that the vast majority of respondents, 94 percent, were already familiar with him. It’s possible, then, that most voters have already made up their mind about Espy, who served as a U.S. congressman before becoming secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton.

Another problem? The Mississippi poll is already largely obsolete. On the same day Espy’s campaign began hyping it, what had been a three-way race became a four-candidate contest when a second Democrat, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, jumped in. The dynamics of the race change considerably with two Democrats running, since there won’t be party primaries to narrow the field. Given their overlapping bases, Espy and Shelton could end up splitting the vote on the left, thereby ruining their party’s chances of getting a candidate into the runoff in the first place.

The story is a bit brighter for Democrats in Tennessee, where Corker’s pending retirement has made his seat one of their top pick-up opportunities this fall. A new Middle Tennessee State University poll out Thursday found Bredesen up 10 percentage points, 45 percent to 35 percent, on GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the conservative firebrand he’ll likely face in the general election. That’s the biggest polling lead that Bredesen, a former governor and one of Democrats’ top recruits this cycle, has had among the handful of surveys that have been released to date.

The results also speak to the crossover appeal of Bredesen, the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Tennessee in more than two decades. Twenty percent of self-identified Republicans said they’d vote for Bredesen, compared with just 5 percent of Democrats who said the same about Blackburn. That should terrify the GOP, which was already worried that the proudly un-P.C. Blackburn would turn off moderate conservatives. Still, roughly 1 in 5 respondents said they haven’t made up their mind, and it’s only been a little more than a month since Corker took himself out of the running.

Even if Bresden proves to be as dominant as the poll suggests, a victory in Tennessee won’t be enough on its own to deliver the Senate to Democrats. They need to pick up at least two seats this November, there are currently only two other GOP-held seats that appear to be within reach this fall: in Arizona and Nevada. (Mississippi is not yet seen as competitive, though it has been trending that way.)

The other half of the equation is even more daunting for Democrats. They are defending four seats that the nonpartisan handicappers believe to be at just as much risk of flipping as the three GOP-held ones the Democrats are targeting, and another three where the Democratic incumbent has only a slight advantage. Put another way, a total of 10 Senate races are currently competitive; Democrats would need to win nine of them to claim the upper chamber if nothing changes. That’s possible, of course, but it won’t become probable unless the Democrats’ run of good news continues for a good while longer.