Democrats are defending all 3 seats they hold in states that Donald Trump carried for president in 2020 -- Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Additionally, they are defending 5 more in states that President Biden carried but by margins smaller than his national edge (roughly 4.5 points). Those are Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Of those, one is already an open seat -- Michigan, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) is retiring at the completion of her fourth term in office -- and another is effectively open because of Sinema’s decision to leave the Democratic Party. She still caucuses with Democrats, but it’s become clear that she will have credible opposition to both her left and right if she seeks a second term. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) entered the race on Monday.
So it isn’t necessarily a stretch to say that Democrats are defending the top 8 Senate seats likeliest to flip. This level of exposure may feel unusually significant at the start of a cycle, although Democrats were also greatly exposed heading into the 2014 Senate elections -- in our first update that cycle, we suggested that at least the 7 most vulnerable seats were held by Democrats. Democrats ended up losing all 7 of those seats, plus 2 more for a total of 9 as Republicans flipped the Senate.
That was, of course, a Republican wave year -- it is way too soon to say anything about what the environment will be in November 2024. But 2014 also was, to a great degree, a realigning election, as 6 of the 9 Republican Senate flips came in double-digit Republican presidential states where Democrats were living on borrowed time in an era where presidential and Senate results are becoming more greatly correlated (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia). The Senate map is now much better aligned with presidential results -- just 5 of the 100 senators are from a different party than the one that won their respective states in the 2020 presidential election. The tricky thing for Democrats is that all 3 of those seats they hold are on the ballot this year (again, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia).
Democrats also were overexposed the last couple of times this map was contested: 2012 and 2018. They basically held the line in both cycles, netting 2 seats to expand their majority in 2012, and then losing just 2 net seats in November 2018, keeping them within striking distance of winning a future majority, which they did in 2020.
Despite the Democrats’ level of exposure, we view the overall race for the Senate as a Toss-up. Republicans have a ton of opportunities but the burden of proof is on them to produce capable candidates after they just had a terrible slate in 2022. The presidential race will also have a large bearing on 2024 -- in the past couple of presidential races, only a single state split its vote for president and Senate (Maine reelecting Republican Susan Collins while backing Biden in 2020).
Map 2 shows the initial ratings.
Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings
The rating that likely stands out the most is West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) starts out in a Leans Republican race. It is fairly unusual for us to start an incumbent as an underdog, but we think it’s warranted in this instance.
First of all, it is not at all clear as to whether Manchin will even be on the ballot again. Appearing on Meet the Press over the weekend, Manchin declined to say whether he will be running again. And West Virginia has just become so, so Republican; It backed Trump for president by roughly 40 points each time.
Manchin squeaked by with a roughly 3-point margin against a mediocre opponent, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), in the good Democratic midterm environment of 2018.
In a presidential year where the GOP nominee appears likely to win West Virginia by another landslide, we are skeptical of Manchin’s ability to generate the immense amount of crossover he will need. Polling also suggests Manchin is relatively unpopular at home: Morning Consult’s recent polling had his approval spread at just 40% approve, 53% disapprove. Manchin may face a stronger opponent in 2024, too: Gov. Jim Justice (R) is considering running. While Justice has some baggage from his business history that could hurt him in a hotly-contested campaign, he has good approval ratings, again per Morning Consult. Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2), who is already running, would not be as formidable of a challenger, but he (or another Republican, like Morrisey) would benefit from West Virginia’s heavy shift toward Republicans. The bottom line is that Manchin is going to be hard-pressed to win again -- and, if he retires, this should be a fairly easy GOP flip.
Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT) start in the Toss-up category. Both of their states are Republican at the presidential level but are more competitive than West Virginia. Each benefited from beatable opponents in 2018: Brown’s challenger, then-Rep. Jim Renacci (R), never really got going, allowing Brown to run well ahead of the other statewide Ohio Democrats that year, while Tester successfully painted then-state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) as a carpetbagger from Maryland and won a closer race. Rosendale, who has since won election to the House, may very well run again, as might newly-elected Rep. Ryan Zinke (R, MT-1), who returned to the House following a checkered stint as Donald Trump’s first Secretary of the Interior. We wouldn’t regard Rosendale or Zinke as super-strong challengers to Tester, but both probably would be capable of getting the job done under the right circumstances (and perhaps others will emerge). Tester has not announced whether he is running again; Morning Consult has found his approval to be quite good lately.
Brown has already announced his plans to run for a fourth term. His first prominent Republican challenger is state Sen. Matt Dolan, who won a somewhat respectable third place in last year’s Senate primary. Dolan ran a bit closer to the center in that primary than his rivals, and he likely benefited from at least a little bit of crossover support from Democrats in what is effectively an open primary state (the GOP Senate primary was by far the most interesting race, which likely drew some non-Republicans to it). Dolan won’t have the field to himself -- Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) appears to be gearing up to run, likely along with others. It is possible that Brown’s eventual challenger may be stronger than Tester’s, but we’ll just have to wait and see how things shake out. Brown should be able to get at least some crossover support, but will that be enough to overcome a GOP margin of, say, 8 points for president (Trump’s margin in both 2016 and 2020)? We don’t know, which is why this is a Toss-up.
The Arizona situation is fascinating, given the possibility of a true 3-way race. Gallego may have the Democratic primary field to himself, but that remains an open question -- one possible contender, Rep. Greg Stanton (D, AZ-4), passed on a bid in advance of Gallego’s announcement. Gallego is definitely positioned to Sinema’s left, which may help him consolidate the Democratic base but could leave him vulnerable with the swing voters who ultimately will decide the race. But that also depends on whether Sinema runs, how national Democrats decide to handle the race if she does, and who Republicans nominate. Speaking of, the leaders of the Arizona Republicans’ weak statewide 2022 ticket -- gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Senate nominee Blake Masters -- are both reportedly considering entering this race, among others. Republicans would be wise to look elsewhere. Karrin Taylor Robson (R), a former member of the state Board of Regents who lost to Lake in the 2022 gubernatorial primary and very well might be governor now had she not lost that race, is also considering the Senate race (all of this Republican maneuvering was reported recently in the Washington Post). There are more moving pieces in this race than probably any of the others as this cycle begins.
We discussed Michigan in-depth in the aftermath of Stabenow’s retirement, and the race starts as Leans Democratic despite it being an open seat in a swing state. The Democrats holding the other marginal Biden states -- Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) -- all begin favored to some degree, with Casey best-positioned (in our view) thanks to his longer track record and the possibility that Pennsylvania may be a very marginally better state for Democrats at the presidential level than Nevada and Wisconsin in 2024. Casey did announce a prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month, but he also said his prognosis was good. It appears that Casey is planning on running for a fourth term -- obviously, if he retired, that would change our outlook.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) announced his reelection bid on Friday. He plus Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) start in the Safe Democratic column, as Republicans would need very outstanding challengers and a strong overall political environment to really push any of them. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also starts in the Safe Democratic column, despite the emergence of another federal investigation into him that was reported right before the recent midterm. Sen. Angus King of Maine, a nominal independent who caucuses with Democrats, indicated in December he intends to run again. He starts in the Likely column. The other Safe Democratic seats don’t merit much mention, at least in a general election context (we’ll have more to say about primary action across the Senate map in both parties in a future issue).
Democrats actually held several of the seats Republicans are defending this cycle at some point within the last dozen years or so. Republicans flipped Nebraska in 2012, and then Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota in 2018. But we’re starting nearly all of the 11 seats Republicans are defending in the Safe category -- many of these states are just no longer open to voting Democratic at the Senate level.
The pair of Republican-held Senate seats that are the most plausible Democratic targets, to the extent that any are plausible, are Florida and Texas. Both were close in the 2018 election -- Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) only knocked off then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D) by about a tenth of a point, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) beat Beto O’Rourke (D) by about 2.5 points (O’Rourke has since run unsuccessfully for president and for Texas governor). It may be the case that Florida and Texas are moving in opposite directions -- the former getting less competitive, the latter getting more competitive -- but as it stands now, both states are clearly positioned to the right of the nation as a whole at the presidential level. Neither Scott nor Cruz is a perfect incumbent, and both are sometimes mentioned as possible 2024 presidential contenders. We could envision one or both of these Senate races heating up if Democrats get impressive challengers and help from the environment. As of now, both start in the Likely Republican column.
An obstacle for Democrats is that both Florida and Texas are huge states with many pricey media markets. Outside groups can’t just dip their toes into such states to effectively advertise: They need to come loaded for bear.
On the other hand, we suspect a strong Cruz opponent would have little trouble raising money from what has become a formidable national Democratic small-donor fundraising base, and that may be true for a Scott challenger as well. Also, Democrats likely are going to want to play offense somewhere, even if the options are expensive and difficult.
Beyond trying to save their Senate majority, Democrats will at the very least want to hold their losses to a minimum. If Republicans can win the Toss-ups and even cut into the leaning Democratic seats, they could build a potentially durable Senate majority, given that the other 2 Senate maps (coming up in 2026 and 2028) are fairly well-sorted by party at this point. But that’s getting way ahead of the action -- the first order of business for Republicans is simply fielding a better roster of candidates than they produced last time in order to convert 2024’s potential into reality. We’ll see if they can do it.
Democrats overcame a difficult environment in 2022 and netted a Senate seat in large part because of their ability to court persuadable voters and turn races that could have been referendums on Democrats into, instead, choices between candidates. They will need to do that again in a presidential year, particularly in the otherwise unfavorable states of Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia.
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