We pundits can’t help ourselves these days in prematurely
speculating about U.S. senate races; it is simply too
tempting given the political climate. But like the current
discussions about “global warming” and climate change,
the data of the present does not necessarily tell us what will
really happen in the future.
U.S. senate races, unlike most U.S. house races, are especially
prone to early miscalculation. This is because house district
demographics in most cases strongly favor one party or the
other, and particularly, incumbents.
Senate races, too, offer advantages to one party or the other,
and to incumbents, but as statewide races, they are inherently
more volatile when special circumstances arise. This is
especially true when incumbent senators run in states
where the other party has won the most recent presidential
election by a large margin.
I have already written about the potential “special”
circumstance of the impact of President Donald Trump on
the 2018 senate races, particularly if he and his party fail to
keep their 2016 campaign promises on legislation. That, of
course, could have a notable negative impact, and cost the
GOP not only to fail to enlarge their majority, but even (in a
worst case scenario) to lose their majority.
Over the many years I have been covering national politics, I
have observed that there always seems to be in every election
cycle some dramatic variances in races initially rated “safe”
for one party or one candidate. Death, other removal from
office, or late-breaking scandal is usually the cause of this,
but an unpredicted strong challenger is also often a cause.
In recent days, more than a year from election day, some
surprises already have appeared. Only two GOP incumbent
seats have been rated as vulnerable, and they still very much
are up for grabs --- GOP Senator Jeff Flake in Arizona and
GOP Senator Dean Heller in Nevada. Their continued public
opposition of their own party’s president has not helped
matters, and now each of them has a serious primary
opponent. In Alabama, the incumbent Senator Luther Strange
has been forced into a primary run-off, and is trailing his
controversial challenger. This is usually rated a very safe GOP
seat, but if Roy Moore wins the run-off, the race becomes more
On the Democratic side, at least two races, previously rated
“safe” for their incumbents have suddenly also become
potentially more competitive. In Michigan, liberal Senator
Debbie Stabenow was thought to be a sure winner in 2018. But
a potential challenge by celebrity Robert “Kid Rock” Ritchie
could make this race too close to call by next November. In
New Jersey, liberal incumbent Senator Robert Menendez was
calculated to win easy re-election, but now facing a criminal
trial, and possible replacement by the GOP governor, this
“safe” seat is now in question. In Missouri, liberal incumbent
Senator Claire McCaskill was rated as only a favorite, but the
potential entry of the conservative state Attorney General
Josh Hawley into the race would probably make him the
favorite in this state carried by the GOP in double digits in
In Montana, liberal Senator Joe Tester also was rated
to have a potentially close race, but when his major
conservative opponent took a federal cabinet position, it
appeared his seat was safe. Now a major GOP opponent,
State Auditor Matt Rosendale has entered the race, and if
he wins the 2018 GOP primary, Tester could have a close race
for re-election. Democrats Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota
and Joe Manchin in West Virginia, already rated to have
close races in their conservative states, are perhaps even more
vulnerable now, especially in the case of West Virginia where
the Democratic governor recently changed parties. In Indiana,
the vulnerable incumbent Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly
might be helped by an unusually bitter GOP primary.
The political environment, needless to say, has considerable
time to change --- giving Democrats a big boost if President
Trump falters, or Republicans an advantage if the president
has a series of successes. There is also time for special
circumstances like those listed above to suddenly intervene
to change races for incumbents in both parties.
It should also be remembered that many incumbent senators
are quite old, and could choose to retire.
My counsel to readers is to withhold, at this time, judgments
about U.S. senate races in 2018. A year from now, the
political prospects might be quite different.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.