D Is for Defense

The only reason Democrats have a chance to retake the Senate is because a handful of incumbents are getting the job done in Trump country.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey speak with reporters on Capitol Hill
Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey are the first line of defense for Democrats this fall.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

It would be near-impossible to draw up a worse 2018 midterm map for Senate Democrats, who need to pick up two seats to retake control of the upper chamber. Thanks to the quirks of the electoral calendar, in which roughly a third of the seats are up every two years, more than half of their 49-member caucus faces re-election this fall. More daunting still, 10 of those 26 incumbents are running in states Donald Trump won two years ago. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending just nine of their 51 seats, most of which fall somewhere between very safe and Mitt Romney–running-in-Utah safe.

And yet less than three months from Election Day, that difficult terrain now looks, if not friendly, at least far less unfriendly than it first appeared. When the Cook Political Report surveyed the field in early February, for instance, it saw eight Democratic incumbents in legitimate jeopardy; now, it sees six. Over that same period, the number of GOP seats thought to be in play grew from three to four with the addition of Sen. Ted Cruz to the list. Those 10 contests will go a long way toward deciding control of the Senate, but nearly as important as those battleground contests are a handful of other races that are noteworthy for what’s not happening in them.

Back in February, Cook handicappers saw five other Democratic incumbents—four red-state senators and embattled Sen. Bob Menendez in New Jersey, who is his own story—in the same situation as Cruz: potentially vulnerable if things broke against them. Today, all five of those Democrats, unlike Cruz, remain heavy favorites in races still considered to not be competitive. Contests that appear static are difficult to get excited about, but keeping any and all drama out of those four red-state races is essential to Democrats’ bid to retake the Senate.

Their secret to success in all four has been largely the same: A strong incumbent with a big campaign account and a dash of bipartisan cred against an unproven challenger who has run with arms wide open toward Trump.

In Montana, where the president won by 20 points, Sen. Jon Tester leads by more than 5 points and also had $5 million more on hand than his opponent, Matt Rosendale, at last count. In Wisconsin, where Trump won by seven-tenths of a point, Sen. Tammy Baldwin has a double-digit lead in a hypothetical matchup against either of her two potential GOP challengers and more than $6 million more in the bank than they do combined. In Pennsylvania, where Trump also won by seven-tenths of a point, Sen. Bob Casey is up 16 points and more than $8 million on Rep. Lou Barletta. And in Michigan, where Trump won by just three-tenths of a point, Sen. Debbie Stabenow has got 18 points and more than $5 million on the recently nominated John James.

Yes, money isn’t everything and polls can’t predict the future, but these red-state Democrats have less quantifiable advantages as well. Tester has a ranch in Montana, seven fingers, and a flat top, while Rosendale has a Maryland accent he can’t hide. The men of the Casey family have been winning statewide elections in Pennsylvania dating back a half-century, while Barletta’s strategy has GOP strategists cursing. Baldwin’s eventual opponent in Wisconsin will need to do some serious clean-up after a nasty GOP primary. And Stabenow won her last two terms by 16 points and 21 points, respectively, while James, as promising as he looks right now, remains largely unknown.

All four red-state Democrats have been able to appeal to moderates, to varying degrees, by reaching across the aisle when the opportunity arises. Tester has clashed with Trump a few times but has made a show of highlighting the areas where they agree. Casey, likewise, has had kind words for the president’s tariffs. And Baldwin has borrowed Trump’s “America first” language when it suited her. Stabenow has been the most critical of Trump, but even she once talked openly about her willingness to work with him.

History is also decidedly in these incumbents’ favor. According to a recent analysis by a GOP strategist, there have been 23 senators in the past 40 years who—like Casey, Baldwin, and Stabenow—ran for re-election in a state that a president from the other party carried by single-digits two years earlier. All 23 of those incumbents won. The news for Tester is nearly as good: 39 of the 43 senators who were up in places the other party’s president won by double-digits went on to win in the midterms.

It’s not November yet, of course. Republicans still have time to stir up trouble in those four states and, even if they don’t, they will still be favored to keep control of the Senate thanks to the six other Democrats incumbents who are in real danger. But as much as Democrats are desperate to play more offense at this stage of the campaign, the fact they’re not being forced to play more defense is what’s keeping them in the game.