Senate Republicans are Newly Hopeful About Midterm Races
Posted June 2, 2018 3:19 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — After a turbulent first year confronting friendly fire from President Donald Trump, Senate Republicans are entering the summer before the midterm elections feeling more hopeful about retaining their narrow majority than at any time since the president’s election. And for good reason.
Trump is enjoying a modest increase in his approval ratings and, as important, is attacking Democrats rather than inciting the internecine feuds that could depress Republican turnout. The economy continues to grow, as demonstrated by Friday’s unexpectedly strong jobs report, while unemployment has fallen to levels unseen since 2000.
Republicans, already on the offensive thanks to a Senate map that includes 10 Democratic-held seats in states Trump won, have seen nearly every electoral variable turn in their direction in recent months: They have averted disaster in the West Virginia primary, successfully recruited their preferred candidates in North Dakota and Florida, and watched a renegade Republican challenger wane in one of Mississippi’s two Senate races.
This past week brought two developments that drew little attention for their Senate implications but could prove pivotal in November.
Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri resigned rather than face a felony computer tampering charge, depriving Democrats of a political weapon they had hoped to wield in the Senate race there. (A felony invasion of privacy charge against Greitens, who was accused of sexual misconduct, was dropped weeks earlier.) And the ailing Sen. John McCain remains in office, passing a crucial deadline that all but ensures there will be only one Senate seat up for grabs in Arizona.
“The Republican caucus in the Senate is feeling substantially more optimistic now than at this time last year,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, predicting his party will gain a handful of seats.
Not everyone in the party is as bullish, with worries that the president’s capacity for political self-sabotage, the Democrats’ fundraising advantage and the anti-Trump intensity propelling the left will make it difficult to do much more than break even and protect its one-seat Senate majority. But that Republicans are even discussing the prospect of gaining Senate seats, in the first midterm campaign of a president whose approval rating has never reached 50 percent, illustrates the wildly divergent electoral landscapes for the House and the Senate.
While the fight for control of the House is playing out mainly in the affluent and highly educated suburban districts that have been hotbeds of anti-Trump fervor, many of them on the coasts, the Senate campaign is taking place on much more Trump-friendly terrain. Six of the most competitive Senate races are in states he carried by double digits: Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia. (Democrats hold all of those seats except Tennessee’s.)
A major question looming over the 2018 Senate contest is whether so-called wave election years — in which one party makes significant gains in both chambers of Congress, as happened in 1994 and 2006 — can still exist as the country grows more polarized and politics more shaped by hardening party preferences. With ticket-splitting fading, especially in federal races, voters are increasingly turning to lawmakers who reflect the presidential leanings of their state.
That could spell trouble for Democrats representing largely conservative electorates and states where surveys show that, unlike in much of the country, the president is viewed more favorably than unfavorably.
“In the middle of the country people are by and large center-right, and they see the national Democratic brand as really far left, which is a ball and chain those senators have to carry around,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said.
But Democrats argue that the well-cultivated reputations and financial advantages of party incumbents like Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia matter as much as the red-leaning nature of their states.
And they say that what passes for good news on the right — simply being competitive in states the GOP otherwise dominates — underscores the Republicans’ weakness in a year when the map is so favorable.
“We’re feeling very good about our chances,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader. “At a minimum, there’s a 50-50 chance we’re going to take back the Senate.”
There are only nine Republican seats in play, but Democrats believe they have a chance to win three: Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee. Yet even some Democrats concede that Republicans have seen their prospects brighten recently — thanks to their actions in some cases and their good fortune in others.
“They are limiting their vulnerabilities,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist, conceding that “it’s entirely possible we lose two or three seats.”
The sudden resignation of Greitens delivered immense relief to Republicans, and none more than Josh Hawley, the attorney general of Missouri. Hawley has been under fire for running a lackluster campaign against Sen. Claire McCaskill, a wily political veteran trying to hang on in a state that has moved sharply away from Democrats. Greitens, accused of making threats and sexually coercing a woman with whom he was having an affair, had for months refused to resign, raising Democratic hopes that they could use him to tar the Republican ticket this fall. But by quitting, the governor cleared the way for Hawley to run a more policy-oriented, head-to-head race against McCaskill, who won in 2012 thanks in large part to self-inflicted Republican errors.
“People will move very quickly to other issues that more normally would be part of a Senate campaign,” Blunt said. He added wryly that “if we have learned anything from President Trump, it’s that people are willing to move on from a topic pretty quickly.”
The developing political landscape in Arizona could prove even more consequential. Because McCain, who is battling brain cancer, remains in office, Republicans believe that they will have to defend only one seat there this fall — that of Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring.
Even if McCain were to vacate his office before November, Republicans believe that the governor would not be obliged to schedule a special election this year. They say that May 30 was the final day for candidates to submit petitions to run and that there is no mechanism in state law to add candidates to the ballot.
McCain’s presence does not just deny Democrats an opening to compete in two Arizona Senate races this fall — it may also strengthen Republican chances to retain Flake’s seat.
The Republican leadership is backing Rep. Martha McSally and is optimistic she will emerge as the nominee in part because hard-right voters are divided between Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff who was pardoned by Trump, and former state Sen. Kelli Ward. With no prospect of a second Senate contest, the two hard-liners will most likely continue splitting voters because neither will be able to switch races. The unburdening in Missouri and the clarity in Arizona capped a stretch in which the White House convinced Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., to reverse course and take on Heitkamp and sidelined a primary challenger against Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
At the same time, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a multimillionaire Republican who can finance his own campaigns, entered the race against Sen. Bill Nelson, and Republicans torpedoed the coal magnate and ex-convict Don Blankenship in West Virginia. Chris McDaniel’s bid in Mississippi to resurrect his Tea Party-backed campaign for the seat he nearly won in 2014 has proved feeble.
“It is a very low bar when you’re celebrating the fact that a governor resigned because of a sex scandal and the candidate who had been criminally convicted in West Virginia is not your nominee,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who oversees the Senate Democratic campaign arm.
But after watching Trump’s approval rating hover in the 30s for much of 2017, and absorbing his frequent gibes, Republicans will take it.
“That’s a very big deal,” Thune said with a chuckle about how Trump is turning his fire toward the Democrats. He said Trump had come to realize that “attacking Republicans isn’t helpful.” But Thune also acknowledged that Trump could undercut the economic gains if he goes through with his tariff threats and “retaliation is leveled against farm states.”
Indeed, even as they grow more optimistic, veteran Republicans know they are placing their fate in the hands of an unpredictable leader.
“We’re on the right track, things look pretty good today,” Charles R. Black Jr., a veteran strategist, said. “But Trump is like a suicide bomber: He could still blow himself up the day before the election and ruin everything.”