If we push the forecasts in the classic version of FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast, it has every Democratic incumbent winning reelection, while the Democrats knock off Dean Heller in Nevada and pick up Jeff Flake’s open seat in Arizona. If this were actually to happen, the Democrats would net two Senate seats in the upcoming midterms elections and take a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber.
Despite this, the same forecast gives the Democrats only a one-in-three chance of accomplishing this task, and that can be explained by the fact that many of the contests are far too close to call and that the Democrats would have to win every single close race in order to pull off the task.
Among their incumbents, no one looks more endangered than Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. While the classic forecast gives her a three-in-five (59.2 percent) chance of winning reelection, it also projects that she’ll win only 50.9 percent of the vote. The latest poll out of the state has her losing, albeit within the margin of error. If Heitkamp doesn’t win, then the Democrats will have to win somewhere else to compensate. The most likely place for them to make up the difference is Tennessee, where FiveThirtyEight’s classic forecast gives former Democratic governor Phil Bredeson as three-in-eight (37.9 percent) chance of winning. After that, there’s Beto O’Rourke in Texas who has a one-in-three (33.0 percent) chance and Mike Espy in Mississippi who gets a one-in-six (15.8 percent) rating.
The Republicans are disappointed in how their challengers are performing but they still have some solid opportunities to make pickups. In addition to North Dakota, they’re looking very competitive in Florida where Governor Rick Scott is challenging Senator Bill Nelson. In Missouri, Claire McCaskill is in a real dogfight, and while Joe Donnelly in Indiana is currently a 3:1 favorite according to FiveThirtyEight, he’s also down in the latest poll.
Midterms elections do tend to fall in one direction, meaning that it’s really as unreasonable as it might sound to think that the Democrats could win all the close contests. They could also lose them all. Either of those outcomes might be more plausible than a mixed bag, but there’s always seems to someone in wave election (like Harold Ford of Tennessee in 2006) who doesn’t come along for the ride. Maybe the Democrats have a big night but it turns out the Beto O’Rourke can’t quite get past the post in Texas.
Regardless, it’s significant that if the elections were held today the FiveThirtyEight projections actually have them winning a majority in the Senate. This is not a projection that seemed possible even a month or so ago. The controversy of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court could upset these predictions depending on things shake out. If he’s confirmed, it could cause complacency on the Republicans’ side. If he’s blocked or withdraws, they could become reenergized. However, that reaction isn’t guaranteed and it’s also likely that a lot of erstwhile Republican women could find themselves feeling more gender than party solidarity if Kavanaugh is rammed through despite the allegations against him of attempted rape. Some Democratic women (and men) who would have stayed home might be convinced to show up to vote in that case, too.
Probably the riskiest thing to do for the GOP is to confirm Kavanaugh since (as Barack Obama knows) voters aren’t very good at showing up to say “thank you” and are much more reliable about showing up to say something more filled with expletives. Yet, if they delay the vote or nominate someone new, they’ll probably see that nominee blocked too if the Democrats win back control of the Senate. So, there’s risk no matter what they do.
The best result for the country would be a Democratic Senate that insists that Trump nominate someone on a list of acceptable candidates. That way, we might get a real swing-vote in the mold of Anthony Kennedy, which is the best the Democrats can really demand and the right way for the country to handle it’s political divide.