Democrats are hoping for a ‘blue wave’ in the midterm elections, but they are defending more seats than they are challenging. Will they lose seats?
WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats could break a record in the midterm elections, but it may not be one they want.
Since the nation started directly electing senators in 1914, the House has never flipped control without the winning party gaining seats in the Senate.
Although House Democrats headed into Tuesday with the wind at their backs, Senate Republicans had hopes of adding to their slim 51-49 majority.
The reason? Democrats are defending 26 of the 35 seats on the ballot, including 10 in states won by Donald Trump.
“It’s the worst map for one party I have ever seen,” wrote veteran political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg.
Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are trying to hold onto states that voted for Trump by double digits.
The last time they were on the ballot, the nation wasn’t as divided along partisan lines and voters were more willing to split their tickets.
“People are voting in a more parliamentary way,” said Charlie Cook, head of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
The incumbents focused on nonpartisan local issues – such as helping veterans – while heavily emphasizing health care, an issue with a lot of crossover appeal, particularly for female voters. They’ve promised to be with Trump when they agree with him and stand up to him when they don’t.
Red-state Democrats have had the difficult task of keeping their base enthused about their re-election bids while attracting enough of the Republicans they need to carry their states.
After Manchin voted for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the liberal group MoveOn.org did not include West Virginia in its voter mobilization campaign.
“We just felt like we couldn’t in good faith spend our members’ money on a race where the Democratic candidate was so far from where our members are on such an important issue,” said MoveOn’s Nick Berning.
Trump focused his final campaign blitz on turning out the Republican vote in states with close Senate contests.
“I think I’ve made a big difference,” the president said outside the White House on Sunday before flying to more states. “I think I’ve made a difference of five or six or seven.”
His campaign stops did not include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Michigan – states Trump narrowly carried but where the Democratic incumbents have had easier re-election campaigns than expected.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, called them “snap-back” states. Trump’s small 2016 margin means there are many voters “who have a party ID not aligned with the president.”
“Given the first opportunity, they reassert their old selves,” he said.
Conversely, the long-standing partisan leanings of red Texas are challenged by Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s social media-fueled campaign against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. In heavily blue New Jersey, Democrats had to pour millions of dollars into last-minute advertising to help Sen. Bob Menendez, who survived a trial on bribery and other corruption charges last fall, then was admonished by the bipartisan Senate ethics committee.
Democrats hope to offset any losses with pickups in Tennessee and Arizona, states where the Republican incumbent chose not to seek re-election after being publicly critical of Trump.
In Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller is the only Republican senator facing re-election in a state Trump lost, Heller has both embraced Trump and tried to create some distance.
Heller said 80 percent of what the president’s done has been “very, very good” while the rest has been a “reality TV show.”
Conceding that Democrats’ path to winning the Senate on Tuesday is a narrow one, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, head of the campaign arm of Senate Democrats, emphasized that his party is in a lot better shape than anyone would’ve predicted 18 months ago when Republicans thought they could win enough seats to have a filibuster-proof majority.
“No one’s talking about that right now,” Van Hollen said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Cook, the nonpartisan handicapper, said it’s possible for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat or two. But the most likely outcome, he predicted on the Friday before the election, is that Republicans at least hold steady, if not gain one or two Senate seats, while losing the House.
The Senate does not always move in the same direction as the House in an election. In 1970, for example, Republicans gave up 10 seats in the House while gaining one in the Senate.
But a party has never lost complete control of the House while increasing power in the Senate, according to Eric Ostermeier, author of the Smart Politics blog run by the University of Minnesota.
“This is unusual because the odds are so heavily stacked in favor of the party that is actually the less popular party,” Sabato said. “The Democrats pretty much were behind the eight ball in the Senate from the beginning.”
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