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The 6 Senate seats Democrats could maybe, possibly win from Republicans

The opportunities for Democrats to gain ground in the Senate, ranked from most to least likely.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Democrats have a tall order in the 2018 Senate elections. They have to defend 10 seats in states that Donald Trump won — and on top of that, if they want to reclaim control of the Senate, they have precious few opportunities to take seats from Republicans.

And this week, with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and the prospect of another Donald Trump-appointed judge on the Supreme Court being confirmed by the Senate this fall, the stakes just became much more vivid.

At this point, Democrats need more or less a straight flush to win the Senate: They have to hold those 10 seats, some of which are in very hostile territory, and then pick off two states from Republicans. The two obvious candidates are Nevada, where Dean Heller is already in clear trouble, and Arizona, where Jeff Flake is retiring and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema already has a strong showing in the early polls.

After that, things would have to get weird for Democrats to make bigger gains in the campaign for the Senate. Some of the ingredients are there: They have a popular former governor, Phil Bredesen, running in Tennessee. Texas is the Democratic white whale and they have a young, charismatic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, to challenge Ted Cruz. Maybe Republicans will self-sabotage in the South again, if Chris McDaniel can top Cindy Hyde-Smith among Republicans.

All those seats are very long shots. The degenerates who gamble on politics give Republicans the upper hand in keeping the Senate for a reason. But there is a path for Democrats to win the Senate. It starts with winning eight or nine or all 10 of those seats they’re defending — and then winning two or three or four of the Republican-held seats on this list here. To make it easier to follow, we broke these races into a few tiers.

The “absolute best chance” tier: Democrats are well positioned in two races

Nevada: Dean Heller is in big, big trouble

Who is the Republican? Dean Heller, who was appointed to the Senate in 2011. Perhaps the biggest loser of the Obamacare repeal debate, after he stood beside extremely popular Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and said he wouldn’t support any plan that Sandoval didn’t — and then, a few months later, did exactly that.

Who is the Democrat? Rep. Jacky Rosen. First elected to Congress in 2016.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? Heller holds the unfortunate-for-him distinction of being the only Senate Republican up for reelection in a state that Hillary Clinton won. Plus, Nevada is a state with an increasingly active Latino- and labor-dominated Democratic base. Per Gallup (our source for the whole post), Trump is at 42 percent approval and 53 percent disapproval. According to Morning Consult, our other go-to source, Heller himself is looking at 37 percent approval and 40 percent disapproval.

Tell me the weird stuff. Seriously, Obamacare repeal was a debacle for Heller. First, he held a press conference with Sandoval and proudly declared that for his state, which had expanded Medicaid to cover tens of thousands of poor people, the governor’s opinion would be the deciding factor — and Sandoval did not support repeal. But then after some browbeating from Trump and some reports that outside GOP money would help out Heller if he went along with the party, the senator ended up voting for several different repeal plans. Truly a profile in courage.

This is in a state that voted for Clinton, 48 percent to 46 percent, over Trump. The road was already hard for Heller. He didn’t make it any easier on himself.

So do we know who’s going to win? The one poll we have put Heller up a single point over Rosen, his lesser-known challenger, which is not great for an incumbent. Officially, from the Cook Political Report, it’s a toss-up. But Dean is in for a very long year.

Arizona: in the race to replace Jeff Flake, Kyrsten Sinema looks like a legit contender

Who are the Republicans? Poor Jeff Flake is retiring. Running to replace him for the GOP is mainstream favorite Martha McSally, conservative insurgent Kelli Ward, and anti-immigrant, Trump pardon–receiving ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio. The primary to for this isn’t until August 28.

Who is the Democrat? Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has a pretty clear path to the Democratic nomination. Elected in 2012, she served in the state legislature before that.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? Trump squeaked out a 49-46 win in 2016 — and it was immediately on the 2018 Democratic radar.

Tell me the weird stuff. Well, Flake, you may remember, has given some very stern Senate floor speeches warning us what a danger to the republic Trump is while voting for his agenda almost every time. Still, it’s an odd dynamic to have the outgoing Republican senator be such a noted critic of Trump.

Meanwhile, did I mention that Arpaio is a convicted criminal who received Trump’s first pardon? Ward is a Breitbart favorite who has been attacked by the GOP establishment for supposedly entertaining “chemtrails” conspiracies. McSally, on a much more serious note, recently revealed she was sexually abused in high school and is the establishment favorite.

So do we know who’s going to win? Well, it probably depends a bit on who wins the Republican primary. McSally is the most likely to make it a tight race — if she makes it out of the primary. That polling is all over the place: Just this month, two surveys put McSally up by double digits, but another had her leading Ward by just 2 points. Arpaio is looking like a long shot either way. The primary is August 28.

But recent polls have shown Sinema leading all three of her possible challengers, even McSally. She was pacing McSally by 8 points in two different polls this month, and another found her leading by 11. Arizona is looking bluer and bluer, at least for 2018.

The “unexpected opportunity” tier: Tennessee

Tennessee: Bob Corker is stepping down. Ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen could actually give Democrats a real shot to replace him.

Who is the Republican? Sen. Bob Corker is retiring. Stepping up to replace him is Rep. Marsha Blackburn. First elected way back in 2002. Notably led the special House GOP committee to investigate Planned Parenthood. She has a couple of challengers, technically, but she’s the presumptive nominee given she’s got the important Trump endorsement and all of the Washington establishment’s support. The primary is August 2.

Who is the Democrat? Former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Served two terms, leaving office in 2011. Mayor of Nashville before that. Oddly, Bredesen has something of a mixed record on health care, having overseen a dramatic rollback of the state’s Medicaid rolls as governor, which is a little off message for Democrats in a year when they’re hoping to make health care a winning issue.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? We’re back in more comfortable Trump territory. The president has 50 percent approval and 44 percent disapproval.

Tell me the weird stuff. Well, it’s weird that Tennessee is on this list at all, right? Bredesen has been out of politics for the better part of a decade, but the last time he did run here, he won 69 percent of the vote. Bob Corker even likes the guy! Blackburn is a solid, pro-Trump conservative in all respects, though it’ll be interesting to see how abortion plays out here — she’s a darling of the anti-abortion crowd and a top villain among abortion rights groups. It could be an even bigger issue now with Kennedy’s retirement.

So do we know who’s going to win? The early polling is strong for Bredesen, giving him a 5-point advantage on average. But he has unusually strong name ID, and Blackburn is still introducing herself to the statewide electorate. This one should be close.

The “long shots” tier: Something would have to break right for Democrats

Mississippi: Cindy Hyde-Smith, Chris McDaniel, and Mike Espy star in Alabama 2.0?

Who are the Republicans? Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was tapped to replace outgoing Sen. Thad Cochran, who was very, very old. But she has a real challenger on her hands, facing conservative insurgent Chris McDaniel, who wants to win a Senate seat, any Senate seat will do, here in the Magnolia State.

Who is the Democrat? Mike Espy. Former Congress member. Former agriculture secretary. He’s been out of politics for 25 years.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? Trump won comfortably, but maybe a little less comfortably than you might remember: 57 percent to Clinton’s 40 percent. Right now, his standing in the state is officially “meh”: 48 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove. Hyde-Smith, who was state agriculture commissioner before heading to the Senate, hasn’t been around long enough to really count as an incumbent.

Tell me the weird stuff. The backdrop to this race is the 2014 Senate race when McDaniel tried to unseat Cochran. There were two break-ins (one at a nursing home where Cochran’s wife resided, another at a courthouse), some criminal convictions, a suicide, allegations of Cochran’s campaign paying off black voters. It was a righteous mess, and some McDaniel supporters still believe the election was stolen from him. The establishment hates McDaniel as a result.

Espy, meanwhile, was forced to resign as Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary after a very long list of corruption indictments. He was eventually acquitted and it was 20 years ago, but that is still quite a lot of baggage to bring to a political campaign.

Also, Mississippi has the totally bizarre jungle primary, where every candidate will be on the ballot in November and then, if nobody gets 50 percent, the top two candidates go to a runoff.

So do we know who’s going to win? It’s clear that Alabama was a very special case. But there’s still some weirdness in Mississippi. Hyde-Smith will probably, if she bests McDaniel in the initial election, remain in the Senate. The most recent polling shows her pulling away from him on the GOP’s side.

Espy could make it competitive with Hyde-Smith — one poll showed him trailing her by just 6 points — and he would actually be the favorite against McDaniel. But it probably will not come to that. After all, Washington Republicans have never let a primary election get away from them and put a supposedly safe seat in jeopardy.

Texas: Ted Cruz versus Beto O’Rourke-mania

Who is the Republican? Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican who came the closest to toppling Trump in the 2016 primaries. There’s an old joke about Cruz being the Zodiac killer. No, I don’t get it either. Star of the failed 2013 government shutdown over Obamacare.

Who is the Democrat? Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is as handsome as Ted Cruz is conservative. He was first elected in 2012.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? Well, Trump won here by the narrowest margin for a Republican in 20 years. He’s, uh, deep underwater these days: just 39 percent approval with 54 percent (!) disapproval. Cruz himself is faring much better: 49 percent approval and just 34 percent disapproval. Texas likes Ted!

Tell me the weird stuff. Ah, the dream of purple Texas. Democrats keep convincing themselves they’re this close to winning statewide here and making a Republican stronghold a swing state. But so far, they haven’t been able to do it. Beto (we call him Beto) is the hero tasked with the job in 2018.

As for the campaign itself, well, Cruz’s campaign is attacking O’Rourke for allegedly making his name sound more Hispanic, which a few people have pointed out is kinda weird for a guy whose first name is Rafael but goes by Ted. Now Beto wants to debate Cruz in Spanish.

So do we know who’s going to win? Cruz, probably. He’s popular. Cook says this is Likely R. He is leading O’Rourke by a healthy 8-point margin, on average, in the polling.

Nebraska: Is there actually any way Deb Fischer could lose?

Who is the Republican? Sen. Deb Fischer was first elected in 2012. Reading her policy positions is like a caricature of “mainstream Republican.”

Who is the Democrat? Jane Raybould, Lincoln City Council member and former candidate for lieutenant governor, won the May 15 primary.

How much do people love/hate Trump here? Trump won by, my goodness, 25 points in 2016. Nebraskans are still generally positive about the president — 49 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval — but not as much as before. Fischer seems well liked: 43 percent say they approve and 35 percent say they disapprove.

Tell me the weird stuff. To be honest, I only added it to the list because Cook rated Nebraska as merely Likely R instead of Solid R, putting it in the same tier as more obviously competitive races like Texas and Mississippi. Kinda weird!

Raybould is raising some money and has run statewide before, and, I guess, Trump isn’t hugely popular here. If you’re looking for a wild card, Nebraska is one of those states that could be hurt by the president’s escalating trade war. Raybould, for her part, is promising to be “an independent voice” while slamming the incumbent as a “Washington Republican.”

So do we know who’s going to win? Fischer, almost certainly. Her campaign found her leading Raybould by 17 points a few months back. But if 2018 starts to get really weird, we’ll have to check back in with the Cornhuskers.


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