The Democratic Path to US Senate Control


With Donald Trump in meltdown, the Democrats have their most plausible path at capturing control of the U.S. Senate. As demonstrated by the worsening GOP position in the Congressional generic ballot polls plus the free fall in Trump’s approval ratings, Democratic victory for control of the House of Representatives is now a certainty.  What had not been anticipated was how a Trump meltdown would significantly enhance the chances of the Democrats winning Senate control as well.

At present, the Senate line-up is 51 Republicans to 49 Democrats, the Democrat delegation including two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Angus King from Maine and Bernie Sanders from Vermont.  The Democrats need to attain a post-election Senate delegation of 51 seats in order to obtain Senate control.  With a 50-50 even split, Republicans would maintain Senate control since Vice President Mike Pence as Senate president would break the tie on behalf of the GOP. 

With Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota a likely loser, the Democrat path to U.S. Senate control is now two-fold:1) Democrats win every toss-up race where they have an incumbent, i.e. Florida (Bill Nelson), Missouri (Claire McCaskill) and Indiana (Joe Donnelly) and 2) Democrats score victories over Republican incumbents in Nevada (Dean Heller) and Texas (Ted Cruz) and in Arizona, where the seat is held by a departing Republican incumbent, Jeff Flake.

The Trump meltdown, resulting from the continuing successes of the Mueller probe, the Bob Woodward book, and the anonymous “Resistance” op-ed in the New York Times has greatly enhanced the likelihood of success of the Democratic path.  Prior to the escalation of the meltdown, the Democrats were already ahead in the US Senate races in Nevada and Arizona.  The Trump meltdown will enhance the favorite status of the Democratic challengers Jacky Rosen in Nevada and Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona.  It will also enable Democratic incumbents Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana to forge into the lead in their respective campaigns. 

The real obstacles to success for the Democratic Senate control path are in the Florida and Texas contests. 

Most pundits had written off the reelection chances of Bill Nelson in Florida.  He is facing an extremely well-funded challenge from Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott.  But a victory by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum could give Nelson an unanticipated boost.  All three post-primary polls have Gillum in the general election lead, albeit within the margin of area.  A Gillum victory will generate a huge Democratic voter turnout in the African-American community.  And this could enable Nelson to turn back the Rick Scott challenge.

The Texas race presents the most difficult obstacle to the Democratic bid for Senate control. 

Donald Trump won the Lone Star State over Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016. In Texas, however, his meltdown has severely impacted his popularity.  His negatives now exceed his positives in Texas polls of his approval ratings.  This is a factor in the trend in Texas from a GOP red state towards a purple state. 

One of the major factors in Texas towards the status of a purple state is the growth in terms of numbers and influence of the Hispanic voting bloc, which leans heavily Democratic.  And in spite of his status as a Cuban-American, Cruz does not do well with Hispanic voters.   

Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Congressman Beto O’Rourke has run a well-financed, highly effective campaign.  He is an excellent, charismatic orator.

O’Rourke, however, has a fatal flaw.  He has a very anti-Israel record.  He would be the most anti-Israel United States Senator since the late William Fulbright of Arkansas.  The cause of Israel is highly popular in Texas, and the Jewish population has a significant impact on the politics of the state. 

Ted Cruz has one of the most pro-Israel records of any United States Senator since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.  The perception of Cruz as a friend of Israel and O’Rourke as an enemy will make the Cruz campaign a magnet for financial contributions and volunteer efforts from members of the Jewish community throughout the nation, even from liberal Jews who would not normally be kindly disposed towards the incumbent decidedly conservative United States Senator. 

So it is difficult to predict the outcome of the Cruz-O’Rourke contest.  It is truly a race to the bottom.  It is clear, however, in 2018 that as Texas goes, so goes the United States Senate. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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