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Democrats’ Tough Path to Keep Control

Congressional Lawmakers Return To Work On Capitol Hill After The Weekend

Democrat Jon Tester will again test his red state’s willingness to split ballots.
Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

No matter who wins the 2024 presidential election, the outcomes of close races for control of both chambers of Congress are going to matter a lot. The Senate in particular is a very big prize, thanks to its role in confirming or rejecting executive and judicial nominations. And the possibility of a party trifecta is tantalizing since it enables the president’s party to enactment of legislation via a budget-reconciliation bill that can bypass a Senate filibuster. There’s also an opportunity for a new Majority Leader to take charge, since Mitch McConnell announced he will step down from the helm of the Republican conference in November.

While House elections often follow presidential results, Senate election outcomes can be a bit counterintuitive since they are held in only one-third of the states in any cycle, and the mix of states can tilt the landscape significantly. The 2024 landscape tilts Republican since Democrats must defend 23 seats while Republicans have only 11 to hold on to. In addition, none of those GOP Senate seats are in states carried by Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, while three Democratic seats are in states Donald Trump carried twice. That’s significant because ticket splitting between presidential and Senate candidates has been declining rapidly in recent elections.

The peril for Democrats is increased by the fact that four of the 2024 Senate races are in battleground states where Trump is leading in the current RealClearPolitics polling averages (Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin), and in another state where Biden’s lead is less than a point (Pennsylvania). Unless the presidential election takes a decisive turn in Biden’s direction, it’s going to take a lot of old-fashioned ticket-splitting for Democrats to hang onto the Senate.

Here’s a breakdown of this year’s battle for the Senate, from the races that are the riskiest for Democrats to their safest bets for holding Republicans at bay.

Fortunately for the Democratic Party, they have some strong incumbents running in difficult territory. Only one seat looks already forfeited: in West Virginia, a deep-red state where Joe Manchin didn’t even bother to run for another term. In Montana, a state Trump carried by 20 percent in 2016 and 16 percent in 2020, Jon Tester has won three times, including once in a presidential year (2012) when he ran seven points ahead of Barack Obama and also benefited from a strong Libertarian candidacy that cut into the GOP vote. He has strategically split with the Biden administration on occasion without making himself a nuisance to Democrats. For a while it appeared he would also profit from a divided Republican field, but then fiery conservative congressman Matt Rosendale dropped his Senate candidacy after Donald Trump endorsed GOP Establishment favorite Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and aerospace entrepreneur. A recent SUSA poll showed Tester leading Sheehy by a nine-point (49 percent to 40 percent) margin.

Another veteran Democrat in hostile territory is Sherrod Brown of Ohio, which was until recently the preeminent battleground state but is now reddish (Trump won it by eight points in both 2016 and 2020). Brown has a more significantly progressive (or some would say “populist”) reputation than Tester, but has also been reelected twice by decent (6 percent) margins. Unlike Tester, Brown does have the advantage of a fractious Republican primary (on March 18) featuring Bernie Moreno, a wealthy car-dealership owner; Frank LaRose, the Ohio secretary of state; and Matt Dolan, state senator and part owner of the Cleveland Guardians. Dolan is currently the front-runner in the GOP race, but any of the three candidates could win. However, Brown led all of them narrowly in January polling from Emerson.

Democrats also have solid candidates in some of the purple-ish battleground states this year, including Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin. Casey has built a solid lead (49 percent to 40 percent in the RCP polling averages) over Republican Dave McCormick, a wealthy Wall Street type who narrowly lost the 2022 Senate nomination to Mehmet Oz but has cleared the field this year. Wisconsin has a relatively late primary in August, and the early GOP front-runner is wealthy businessman Eric Hovde, though MAGA-ish former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is considering a race as well. While the state is intensely polarized and will be a major presidential battleground, Baldwin is favored to hold her seat.

Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen is a freshman but has built a formidable reelection campaign, which she’ll need in a state that may be trending red. The Republican front-runner is severely injured veteran and political “outsider” Sam Brown, who ran an impressive primary challenge to Adam Laxalt in 2022. A recent Emerson poll showed Rosen with a two-point lead over Brown and running ahead of Joe Biden.

Michigan’s Senate seat is open, with Democrat Debbie Stabenow retiring. The state has another late primary (in August). Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin is the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination and Congressman Mike Rogers leads a very large Republican field that includes former House member Peter Meijer, who was purged in a 2022 primary after voting to impeach Trump for the January 6 insurrection. Slotkin had a narrow lead over Rogers in an early EPIC-MRA poll.

Two Democratic seats in very blue states are a bit shaky. In New Jersey, indicted incumbent Bob Menendez is (finally) doomed, but the June Democratic primary to choose a successor between congressman Andy Kim and New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy could turn nasty. Mendhem Mayor Christine Serrano Glassner is the Republican front-runner and could benefit from a backlash to Menendez’s issues and Murphy’s dynastic implications.

In Maryland, Republicans scored a big coup by recruiting former two-term governor Larry Hogan to run for the open Democratic seat created by Ben Cardin’s retirement. Ultra-wealthy congressman David Trone or Prince George’s county executive Angela Alsobrooks are vying for the Democratic nomination, and like Tester and Brown, Hogan will be trying to talk Marylanders into split-ticket ballots.

Nine of the 11 Senate Republican seats up this year are entirely safe, and the incumbents in the other two will be solid favorites. In Texas, Ted Cruz is not very popular, but his state is red leaning enough that he should be able to turn back a challenge from Dallas-area congressman and former NFL player Colin Allred, the front-runner in a March primary (though there’s a chance he may have to go to a May runoff to win the nomination over a large field).

In Florida, former governor Rick Scott also has underwater approval ratings, holds a host of controversial policy positions, and will likely face former Miami-area congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in November. But Scott is undefeated in four statewide races and will as usual be able to self-fund his campaign, and Florida is expected to be relatively safe for Trump at the presidential level.

The California contest to choose a successor to the late Dianne Feinstein (and, more immediately, Laphonza Butler, who was appointed to the seat upon Feinstein’s death last year but isn’t running for a full term) will almost certainly place another Democrat in the Senate given the Golden State’s current complexion. But under California’s top-two system, the two leading candidates in the March 5 nonpartisan primary will, regardless of their own party affiliation, proceed to the general election. Right now, Democrat Adam Schiff is steadily leading the large field with fellow Democrat Katie Porter and Republican Steve Garvey battling for second place (Schiff’s and Porter’s veteran House colleague Barbara Lee is also in the race but is lagging in the polls and in fundraising). If Garvey makes the general election, the race will effectively be over and Schiff can begin measuring the curtains in his Senate office. But if Porter edges Garvey, the general election will be a grueling and very expensive battle that could hoover up much of the available Democratic dollars in a state with lots of close House races and plenty of donors counted upon by Democrats elsewhere.

There are a lot of close Senate races Democrats must win to preserve a majority, even if Joe Biden is reelected and they only need 50 seats for control. With West Virginia all but gone, they’ll need to avoid losing any seat they now hold or pull off an unlikely upset in Florida or Texas. They have the raw material for that kind of election night, but the odds clearly favor GOP control and a fresh start for whoever succeeds McConnell as Republican leader.


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