2018 Is Looking A Lot Tougher For Senate Republicans

With the results from Alabama. the GOP faces a hard road ahead defending its majority in the Senate.

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

Thanks to the victory of Democratic nominee Doug Jones on Tuesday, the GOP’s battle to keep control of the Senate just got more difficult:

At this time last year, the Democratic path to Senate control seemed impossible: Hold all of the Democratic seats, flip Arizona and Nevada, then hope for a miracle.

The Democrats got the political version of a miracle on Tuesday. Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama means Democrats have accomplished the most difficult item on their checklist in pursuit of the Senate. A Democratic path is now obvious, and the race for control is basically a tossup, perhaps with a Republican advantage.

It is hard to overstate how surprising this would have seemed a year ago. Democrats needed three states to flip control of the Senate, but they entered the cycle defending 25 seats (two of them independents) to the G.O.P.’s eight. Of those Democratic seats, a staggering 10 of them were in states that chose Donald J. Trump for president, including five that he carried by at least 18 percentage points.

Only one Republican, Dean Heller, represented a state (Nevada) won by Hillary Clinton. Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona was also plausibly competitive after Mr. Trump’s tepid 3.5-point win in the state, but it was hard to find the third Democratic seat. Perhaps the next best Democratic opportunity was against Ted Cruz in Texas — a long shot at best.

But the Republican position has steadily deteriorated throughout the year. Most obviously, Mr. Trump’s weak approval ratings have decidedly shifted the national political environment. The party’s two most vulnerable seats — those held by Mr. Heller and Mr. Flake — became much more vulnerable. Mr. Flake said he wouldn’t run for re-election, while Mr. Heller came out of the health care debate badly damaged and facing a primary challenge.

The retirement of Bob Corker in Tennessee and the entry of a former Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen, gave Democrats a new, credible option for that crucial third seat. Texas remains a long shot, but the likely Democratic nominee, Beto O’Rourke, has run a vigorous and well-funded campaign. Republicans did get some good news in Al Franken’s retirement, but Democrats would clearly be favored to hold a Minnesota seat in this political environment.

At the same time, it became clear that the Republican opportunity to flip Democratic-held red states wasn’t as good as it looked.

It increasingly seems that many red-state Democrats are favorites to win re-election, despite the steady national trend toward a tighter relationship between presidential and Senate vote choice. Polls show that red-state Democrats remain popular, and most hold a lead over many of their strongest potential challengers. A tough political environment has so far discouraged many of the G.O.P.’s strongest potential candidates, and those who do run might face tough primary challenges from Steve Bannon-backed insurgents.

When Jones takes office, the Republican majority in the Senate will be reduced from the current 52-48 balance to the razor-thin margin of 51-49. As a practical matter when it comes to legislation, this complicates things for Senate Majority Leader since it means, even leaving aside concerns about the sixty-vote majority required to invoke cloture on ordinary legislation, he would only be able to afford to lose one member of the GOP caucus. Anything more than that would mean falling below the 50-50 margin that allows Vice-President Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote. Less than a year into the Trump Administration, Mike Pence has done 6 times since January 20th, which exceeds or comes close to the number cast by all of his recent predecessors. Depending on whether or not the Senate is able to take up the tax reform legislation before January, this could have an impact on that issue and will most assuredly have an impact on any further efforts to change the health care laws, as the events of the summer demonstrated quite aptly.

Beyond those immediate concerns, though, the issue of defending their majority in the Senate is obviously more difficult once Jones is in the Senate. Just a few months ago, it seemed as though the Republicans in the Senate were sitting pretty and even in a position to potentially buck the trend of the President’s party losing seats in the first midterms of his term that has generally been the historical case with the notable exception of the 2002 midterms, which took place just over a year after the September 11th attacks. This was largely due to the fact that the GOP only has to worry about defending eight seats next year while Democrats need to worry about defending twenty-five. While many of these seats are in solidly blue states, nearly a dozen of them are in traditionally red states such as Montana, South Dakota, and Indiana while others are in states that President Trump won last year. Of the Republican seats, the only one that seemed vulnerable was Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada.

That was months ago, though, and since then much has changed that has the potential to make things much more difficult for Republicans.

At the top of the list, of course, are the decisions by Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to retire rather than run for reelection. In Flake’s case, the retirement opens the door to a far-right Bannonite candidate such as Kelli Ward capturing the GOP nomination and making a Democratic victory in an increasingly purple state possibly. In Corker’s case, the retirement has led popular former Democratic Governor Phil Breseden to enter the race for Corker’s seat, which could make it competitive. In addition, there is a possibility of other potential open seats next year. In Arkansas, Tom Cotten has been mentioned as a potential replacement for Mike Pompeo at the Central Intelligence Agency while Pompeo would become Secretary of State. Additionally, John McCain’s cancer diagnosis could make a potential retirement necessary, thus leading to the possibility of two open seats in Arizona.  While one wishes the best for Senator McCain, he has described his prognosis as poor and is currently being treated at Walter Reed Army Hospital for complications due to his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. If these seat get added to the GOP’s list of seats they need to defend, things could become very difficult indeed.

In addition to the addition of at least two more vulnerable Republican seats, the political climate is not looking well for the GOP. As I noted yesterday, Donald Trump’s job approval numbers remain at historic lows and are likely to stay there for the foreseeable future. Additionally, the Generic Congressional Ballot AS tracked by RealClearPolitics, Pollster, and FiveThirtyEight continues to lean heavily in favor of Democrats at this point, although it’s arguably a bit too early to be giving this number much significance. Finally, the benchmark Right Track/Wrong Track poll continues to show that the vast majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

Finally, contrary to Republican hopes at the moment it doesn’t appear that Democrats running for re-election are nearly as vulnerable as the GOP would like. This is particularly true of Jon Tester in Nevada and Heidi Heitkamp in South Dakota, both of whom remain popular in their home states notwitstanding the fact that these states are generally Republican-leaning. Additionally, it doesn’t presently appear that the Democratic incumbents running in the four Midwestern/Middle Atlantic states that Trump won last year — Pennsylvania, Ohio Michigan, and Wisconsin — are vulnerable at all. Given that, the prospect for GOP pickups that would balance out any potential losses is far less likely than it may have appeared on paper earlier this year.

All of this adds up to a difficult road ahead for Senate Republicans, who have already had a difficult time even though they have controlled the Senate for nearly four years now.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2018, Congress, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gobsmacked says:

    2018 Senate races – chart by last GOP/Trump margins of victory/loss

    If Democrats can win Alabama they can win the other closer races.

  2. @Gobsmacked:

    I’d be careful about seeing Moore’s loss as indicative of anything necessarily. Moore was a uniquely bad candidate, and it’s far easier for Democrats to focus on one Special election than it will be to focus on a number of seats around the country while simultaneously defending their own seats.

  3. KM says:

    I’m starting to wonder if Trump isn’t just the physical manifestation of a brain fart America happened to have on Election Day. His election brought up all the nastiness that’s been lurking in conservatives like a backed up sewer. For all the people rage about “liberals ruining America”, they sure aren’t pleased with how Republicans have been handling it. The GOP should be basking in the glow of victory, not sweating bullets about how to keep their tenuous hold.

    Dems should be utterly screwed right now and they’re *not*. Maybe if Trump and Co actually did what the masses thought and wished, it’d be smooth sailing. Luckily they keep putting up terrible candidates, make imbecilic and malicious decisions that clearly run against public opinion and basically just chirp “WINNING!!” as their rationale to piss off voters into showing up.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Nevada we will take, I think. Heller can’t stop stumbling, and he’s a boring candidate. Arizona? Who knows? We could take both seats. And we may yet see more retirements. The map favors Republicans, the mood favors Democrats.

    Of course a lot can change. There’s a non-negligible chance we’ll be in one, possibly two new wars. Also it may be that impeachment is the main issue in 2018. Or we may no longer have Mr. Trump by then. 11 months is a long time in politics, particularly when the agenda is set by an increasingly terrified Trump.

  5. michael reynolds says:


    Republicans want things that are impossible within the confines of reality. Their beef is with the 21st century. So of course they’re still unhappy. They’ll stay unhappy until the die of old age.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Republicans are proving once again that stupid is its own reward.

  7. Gustopher says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Republicans have a tendency of nominating uniquely bad candidates — not all the time, but at least a few times each cycle. Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell (not a witch), and Mr. Legitimate Rape come to mind.

    Moore’s defeat isn’t indicative of a Democratic wave, but it is indicative of Republican self-defeat continuing.

  8. Kathy says:

    IMO, when a party has as nominal leader a self-destructive personality, it tends to become self-destructive to some degree.

  9. de stijl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Moore was a uniquely bad candidate…

    Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, Linda McMahon…

    Moore was not unique, he was routine.

    R primary voters routinely nominate candidates that lose seats that the Rs should have won.

  10. de stijl says:

    In 2015, Republicans passed an amendment to a funding bill explicitly denying funding to ACORN – but ACORN closed shop in 2010.

    Wait, there’s more. Hold my beer…

    That was the fifth time since 2010 they explicitly denied funding to ACORN – an organization that no longer existed.

    Rs excel at platitudes, but not so much at policy. And reality and the details don’t seem to matter to them, but that is where a law matters – in the details.

    And they have the stones to claim that virtue signaling is a solely lefty thing.

  11. CSK says:

    To paraphrase an old saying: “Lie down with Steve Bannon and get up with fleas.”

    And God knows what else.

  12. Neil Hudelson says:

    Let’s add Indiana to the mix as well. Trump’s numbers are underwater. Joe Donnelly has $4.5M cash on hand. and I can tell you from personal experience that his donor base is fired up. His most likely opponent, Todd “pick up my dog poop” Rokita, went all in on Roy Moore 24 hours before his epic loss, managing to hang that millstone around his neck for absolutely no reason. And his second most likely opponent’s wife has become the poster child for political corruption in the state.

    Oh, and not to mention the state’s newest, most well funded, and quickest growing progressive activist group is composed primarily of suburban Republican women. Ask Roy Moore about what happens when you lose the suburbs.

    2018 shall be interesting.

  13. Neil Hudelson says:

    Moderator, please spring me from spam purgatory. Too many links. Should’ve known.

  14. Modulo Myself says:

    The thing about this tax bill is that no one is even pretending it’s going to help. The Bush tax cuts were garbage, but the GOP had a ton of flacks and hacks who were out in the world trying to sell it. Nobody is doing that. It’s just crap, pure unwanted crap.

    Same goes for the ACA. They couldn’t even draw up a suitable collection of lies for an Obamacare replacement. It was just another type of crap.

    I suspect that a) nobody intelligent under 50 being a member of the GOP might be a problem. But b)–this is a party that only wishes to turn off the lights. When that’s all you wish you get Trump, a bloated imbecile, and nothing else. And that might work in the middle of nowhere Kansas or the retirement home where Robert Mueller is clearly an agent of Hillary Clinton, but it’s not a message. Roy Moore was worse than the typical candidate, but he’s a lights-out type of guy running for lights-out people who have no future and can’t even lie about it anymore.

    I honestly don’t think a war could help. I mean, they can’t even capitalize on actual random terrorist attacks. Partly because the people who are at risk despise everything the GOP stands for, but partly because the white hordes fearing Sharia have so many fears they can’t get it together to deal with just one.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    How the world turns…perhaps the GOP might have had a chance to gain the magic number of 60 seats in the Senate next year if last year’s presidential election had turned out differently…

  16. de stijl says:

    @An Interested Party:

    HRC, in losing to Trump, may very well end up being remembered as the person that allowed us to lance the boil. That might be her lasting legacy.

  17. Andy says:

    Another thing to consider is that America, in the last few decades at least, generally doesn’t allow single party control of both branches for very long.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: “Lie down with Steve Bannon and get up with the clap.”