Senate Democrats are now set to spend two more years in the majority, and that’s before voters in Georgia decide the final seat in a December 6th run-off.
By this point, of course, even the most casual follower of politics should know just how crucial every single seat in the upper chamber can be. Not only would a 51st Senate seat give Democrats some breathing room, and additional committee seats, it would also prove vitally important two years from now.
After all, Democrats are facing an imposing Senate map in 2024. Just how daunting will it be? Well, they’ll have to defend 23 seats while Republicans will only have to protect 11. Furthermore, three of those Democratic seats are in states Donald Trump won in 2020 while none of the GOP seats are in states Joe Biden won.
To get a sense of the arduous path this creates for Democrats, let’s take a deep dive into the 2024 Senate map, starting with those aforementioned Dem seats in Trump states.
The Big Three: Montana, Ohio and West Virginia
The Senate majority may very well come down to the trio of Democratic Senators vying for re-election in states Donald Trump easily won in 2016 and 2020: Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
First of all there’s Montana, which hasn’t been competitive on the Presidential level since 2008, even while Sen. Tester continues to vex Republicans both inside and outside the state. Tester was first elected back in 2006, when the anti-Iraq War blue wave gave him just enough of a lift to oust incumbent Republican Conrad Burns.
Six years later, Tester was re-elected even as President Obama handily lost the Big Sky State. In fact, it was the second straight contest in which Tester was able to win with a plurality, thanks to a Libertarian candidate siphoning off enough of the vote.
So by 2018, the GOP was hopeful that Trump could motivate enough voters to dump Tester. That strategy worked in four other red states, but not Montana, where Tester finally won his first majority alongside his third term.
Now the Democratic lawmaker is weighing whether to run once again and his party’s hopes depend on him giving it another go. Indeed, that’s the party’s conundrum in all three states.
In Ohio, for instance, Sherrod Brown is another member of the Class of 2006, although he was able to secure majorities in all three of his prior races. Also unlike Tester, Brown has already made it clear that he’ll be running for re-election.
Speaking of uphill battles, no Senate race better qualifies for that description than the one in West Virginia. The Mountaineer State, of course, underwent a massive shift over the past quarter-century from a solid blue state to the second-reddest state in 2020.
So can Joe Manchin possibly win another term as a Democrat here? Well, he overcame the red tide of 2010, and two years later won a full term by 24 points despite President Obama losing the state by 27. In 2018, though, Manchin barely hung on with a three-point victory margin. He’s also seen his approval rating in the state plumet recently.
It’s tough to see him winning another term, but impossible to imagine any other Democrat winning one. Therefore, Democrats desperately need Manchin and Tester to both run in 2024.
A Warnock run-off victory would give Dems a 51-49 majority and allow them to lose one of these three tough races. Should Manchin and Tester both go down in defeat or decide to retire, however, then the GOP would be set up for their own 51-49 advantage.
Can Democrats Make Any Pick-Ups of Their Own?
Well, probably not.
President Biden’s party could survive a pair of losses in the Big Three states only if they can manage to pick-up a Republican-held seat, and the circumstances are far from favorable.
Of the eleven seats the GOP is tasked to defend, just two of them are in states Trump won by less than 15 points.
Particularly distressing for Florida Democrats is that they just saw their most promising rising star, Congresswoman Val Demings, lose by sixteen points to Sen. Marco Rubio. Moreover, given the massive red shift Florida just experienced, the Sunshine State is rapidly trending in the wrong direction for Dems.
Are the Dems’ prospects any better in Texas? Well, Beto O’Rourke just lost the Governorship by 11 points and Julian Castro’s 2020 presidential campaign was a complete bust; so that takes them off the table. Julian’s twin brother, Congressman Joaquin Castro, is still an enticing possibility for Texas Democrats, as are fellow Reps. Veronica Escobar and Colin Allred.
Whether it’s Castro or someone else, whichever Democrat wins the nomination will need to run a stellar campaign to oust even a post-Cancun Cruz, an indication of just how unlikely a red to blue switch will be in 2024.
Republican Opportunities in Those 20 Other Democratic Races
As for the rest of the Democratic seats on the 2024 map, the eye is instantly drawn to the trio of states that make up the fabled Blue Wall.
When Donald Trump shocked the world in 2016 by flipping Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republicans were suddenly hopeful that they could win Senate seats in these states during the 2018 midterms.
Instead, incumbent Democratic Senators Debbie Stabenow, Bob Casey and Tammy Baldwin won re-election by 6.5%, 13.1% and 10.9% respectively. The GOP will naturally try again in these states, but with all three of these Dem Senators expected to run, they’re unlikely to succeed this time either.
Therefore, the best hope for a Republican upset in a Biden state remains Nevada. Sure, Dem Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto won re-election this month, but it was by a razor-thin 0.8% margin. Plus, Republicans were actually able to flip Nevada’s Governorship, the only Senate or Gubernatorial gain the GOP made in the 2022 midterms (pending the Georgia Senate run-off).
So the vaunted Democratic “Reid Machine” in the Silver State will have to gear up again to defend freshman Sen. Jacky Rosen, who won her 2018 race by exactly five points and is set to seek her second term.
Are there any other possible targets for the GOP? Well, if Angus King of Maine decides to retire, then they’ll likely make a concerted try there. Additionally, New Jersey Democratic incumbent Bob Mendendez is in legal trouble once again so an October surprise could potentially imperil him. Barring those outcomes, though, there’s only one real wild card left.
Kyrsten Sinema: Arizona Wild Card
There’s a rare confluence of interests out in Arizona, as both Democratic party regulars and the progressive base want to replace incumbent Senator Kyrsten Sinema.
The iconoclastic Sinema has exhausted the patience of party leaders for several reasons. Not only has Sinema been a thorn in the side of the Biden Administration, she’s also abandoned her responsibilities as a party member. After all, Sinema refused to publicly campaign with Senator Mark Kelly, Gubernatorial nominee Katie Hobbs or any other Arizona Democrats during this year’s midterms.
As for progressives, past attempts to primary Joe Manchin from the left in ruby red West Virginia fell woefully short, but in purple Arizona such efforts actually have a chance at success. On top of that, Congressman Ruben Gallego of Phoenix is already actively angling towards a primary challenge.
Normally, replacing an incumbent Senator in a toss-up state would pose an intolerable risk. With Sinema’s approval ratings plummeting into the 30s, however, it’s far from clear that she’d be the party’s best shot at holding the seat.
At this early point, then, it appears that the top five Senate contests will all involve Democratic-held seats. Likewise, while the Dems may start out as favorites in Arizona and Nevada, Republicans have the early advantage in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.
Now you see how critically important it is for Democrats that Sen. Raphael Warnock wins that Dec. 6th run-off. If he doesn’t, the party will have to sweep all five competitive races in 2024 to hang onto a bare majority. Yet even if Warnock prevails in Georgia, Rosen can hold her own in Nevada, and Democrats can painlessly make a replacement in Arizona, then they’d still need to win two out of three races in deep red territory.
Suffice to say, Chuck Schumer’s got his work cut out for him.