Republicans have a slim 51-49 majority to defend from Democrats’ promises of a blue wave in November. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that his the GOP will weather a coming “storm” in the elections. Mixing metaphors, he likened the races to "a knife fight in an alley" from which he said he hopes there will be a Republican majority "when the smoke clears."
Republicans in the Senate have an advantage because Democrat incumbents must retain 10 seats in the six states carried by Donald Trump in 2016. Even so, Democrats think they have a chance to flip the Senate. However, Democrats are facing congressional district maps drawn by Republican-controlled state legislatures after the 2010 election. Democrat voters are concentrated in urban cores, while Republicans are spread out, as was seen in Trump’s 2016 victory. While he lost the popular vote by about 3 million, he won more congressional districts, 230 to 205. Another factor is that Democrats are pinning their hopes on first-time candidates, who may be favored by party strategists and the emerging left, but will come under closer scrutiny as time passes.
Complicating matters for Democrats running for re-election is the issue of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Widely seen as a perfectly respectable candidate, Kavanaugh got significant cross-examination and push-back by Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker -- two left-wing Democrats who have presidential ambitions. Moderate Republicans could suffer if they are associated with colleagues who stand opposed to Trump’s choice for the high court.
Here are top 10 seats that may flip.
1. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)
Heitkamp is at the end of her first term, and is one of five such Democrat incumbents who are facing reelection in a state that Trump won. North Dakota gave Trump, for example, a 36 point margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016, while the other four states returned double-digit voting for the president.
Heitkamp is facing U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a loyal fan of the president who has been in office since 2013 when she won by less than a point. Despite initial reluctance, Cramer was persuaded to run for the Senate by Trump himself. The most recent public poll, from June, showed that Cramer was leading by 4 points. North Dakota Republicans have expressed confidence in a win, based on their own polling.
Perhaps hedging her bets, the affable Heitkamp was the first in her caucus to meet with Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, and took her lumps from her party for doing so. In August, Heitkamp released a TV ad in which she openly embraced the Republican president. In the ad, she says, "I'm Heidi Heitkamp, and when I ran for the Senate six years ago I said I wouldn't vote the party line, because I don't think either party has all of the right answers." Looking into the camera, she says, "That's why I voted over half the time with President Trump."
Democrats contend that GOP polling was inaccurate and led to Heitkamp’s victory in 2012, and they are hoping that Trump’s trade policies will continue to be a central issue in the race.
Cramer criticizes Heitkamp for opposing Republican tax cuts and her support of Obamacare. Local reports suggest that while she is liked as a person, her voting pattern is leaving voters cold. Some observers contend that the race will hinge on the Trump brand and whether voters want Trump’s ally in the U.S. Senate.
2. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)
Hillary Clinton bested Trump in Nevada in 2016. In a state that is becoming bluer, due to baby boomer snowbirds and Latinos, Heller is the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate. He is the only Republican senator facing reelection in a state that Clinton won.
Debate between Heller and his rival, U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), has centered on Heller’s role in crafting the 2017 Republican tax cut that Rosen opposed in the House of Representatives. Rosen has relied on the usual Democrat mantra: support for ObamaCare and opposition to tax cuts that allegedly benefit only wealthy Americans and corporations. For his part, Heller supported the failed healthcare bill that was supported by the GOP. In a dodge to the left, Heller said in an ad that he is “fighting to protect pre-existing conditions” and would not have touched Nevada’s Medicare expansion.
The latest poll by Suffolk University/Reno Gazette Journal shows that Heller and Rosen are in a dead-heat race in which Rosen is nominally ahead.
3. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.)
Trump won Missouri by nearly 20 points, thus making her reelection an uphill battle for McCaskill. She is facing state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is was one of the top recruits among Republicans for 2018. She has served two terms and is counting on votes in St. Louis and environs to bat away support for Hawley. McCaskill is in a much better financial situation than Hawley, having garnered over $20 million in this cycle. By comparison, Hawley has $4.75 million in his campaign war chest.
Roll Call listed McCaskill as the 24th wealthiest member of Congress, estimating her net worth of almost $27 million. She is the wealthiest member who faces an uphill campaign this fall. Much of her wealth comes from husband Joseph Shepard, who she married in 2002. Media reports in July showed that Shepard’s businesses have been awarded over $131 million in federal subsidies since McCaskill took office in 2007.
Hawley has said that Shepard earned at least $230,000 by investing in a hedge fund tied to the Cayman Islands tax haven, while a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report showed that Shepard had invested at least $2.25 million in tax breaks for conservation easements. Hawley has made loyalty to Trump, and the president’s SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the hallmarks of his campaign.
4. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
Trump won Indiana by 19 points in 2016, thus making his race against Republican businessman Mike Braun an uphill battle. Donnelly retains a significant lead in polling: a NBC New poll showed that he is up 6 points in the state to provided Trump with his vice president, Mike Pence. Donnelly also voted in favor of most of Trump’s cabinet nominees.However, he voted against the GOP tax reform package, thus avoiding a primary challenge from fellow Democrats.
Donnelly has been dubbed one of the most moderate senators and a “weathervane,” thus frustrating both Democrats and Republicans. He voted in favor of Trump’s supreme court nominee Neil Gorsuch and is considered to be pro-life.
Braun has made an issue of the outsourcing evident in Donnelly’s business interests. Donnelly denounced Carrier Corp. when it moved jobs to Mexico in 2016. However, his family business profited by using Mexican labor to produce dye for ink pads that it ships back to the U.S. The Donnelly family arts and crafts business sends thousands of pounds of raw materials to Mexico, where the company factory produces ink pads and other supplies.
Democrats have criticized Braun over his business record at his trucking and auto parts distribution companies. Braun touts his relationship with Trump, who has visited several visits to Indiana for rallies and made Donnelly a target.
5. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
Having faced no primary opponent, Nelson is up against two-term Republican governor Rick Scott. Nelson has handily won reelection in past years, but the challenge from Scott and his deep pockets has made the race a close one. The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Scott with a 1.7 point lead. However, it has called the race a toss up. The Quinnipiac poll shows them tied at 49 percent.
Scott filled the airwaves with expensive ads early in the year, having faced but nominal primary opposition, thus setting the terms of the race. Nelson has gotten on the air since then, after being subjected to months of negative headlines and aggressive ads.
Scott has outspent Nelson, but has not yet achieved a firm lead. While Democrats see this as an opening for Nelson, Scott him but has yet seen a surge ahead in the polls. However, Scott has a reputation of pulling ahead by a nose during years when Republicans are in the ascendant. However, Democrats are optimistic that they can turn Florida blue this year, ostensibly because of the influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing last year’s hurricanes. The two-term governor also has a history of winning by razor-thin margins in Republican wave years, and Democrats say that, this year, they are the ones with the momentum.
While Scott has frequently been at Trump’s side, during his senate run he has been seen to put some daylight between himself and the president. At two recent fundraisers, however, it was former President George W. Bush -- not Trump -- who came to help. And Scott -- who was a fundraising leader for Trump’s presidential campaign -- seldom mentions Trump.
6. An open seat in Arizona
Democrats’ mood is joyful as Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is running for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a critic of Trump as was the deceased Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). A prolific fundraiser, Sinema is considered to be a Blue Dog Democrat running as a moderate.
Running as a moderate, Sinema has the disadvantage of running in a state that came out for Trump by 5 points. Also, Arizona has not had a Democrat in the Senate for three decades. However, demographic changes are afoot that are to Sinema’s advantage.
Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) won a contentious Republican primary, defeating popular but controversial former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio. This has led some observers to conclude that enthusiasm for her will be cool among Republicans. Even so, polls show that she is consolidating support and has a slight lead over Sinema.
McSally is relying on her military credentials as the nation’s first female combat pilot. She also stresses her commitment to border security, which is a hot-button issue in the border state. McSally may sprint to the finish-line in the six weeks before Arizona’s early voting kickoff. She has gone on the offensive with an ad that depicted Sinema wearing a pink tutu and noted that Sinema opponent protested the Iraq War and “denigrated” the troops.
7. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
Manchin, a social conservative, has kept a lead over Republican challenger state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who survived a divisive primary this year. This comes despite the fact that West Virginia gave Trump one of his biggest margins in 2016, and that Manchin has been criticized by the National Rifle Association because of his votes on gun control. Also, Trump remains popular in the state and has told listeners at a series of rallies about Manchin’s opposition to the Republican tax cut and healthcare package.
Morrisey, on the other hand, has been endorsed by the NRA, and has been endorsed by Trump.
Nevertheless, the Real Clear Politics averaging of polls shows Manchin ahead by 8.5 points and notes that the state “leans Democratic.”
8. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
Trump won Montana by a big margin in 2016, and Tester’s GOP opponent, state auditor Matt Rosendale, has made support for the president a keystone of his campaign. For his part, Tester touts his willingness to work with Trump in some things, especially veterans’ issues. He supported two veterans’ health-care bills and hoped to convince voters to return him to Washington for his third term. One out of every 10 Montanans is a veteran.
Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock are the last Democrats serving in statewide offices in the state. Trump has frequently denounced Tester for the latter’s objections to Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, who the president had made an initial pick to head the Veterans Affairs Department, Ronny Jackson.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Tester ahead by 5.5 points but rates the race as a toss-up.
9. An open seat in Tennessee
Polls in the Tennessee race for the U.S. Senate show it that former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) are neck and neck for the seat Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Bredesen left the governorship in 2011 and hopes to convince voters in the Volunteer State that he is no sycophant of Democratic Party and its national agenda. Tennessee went for Trump by 26 points. That may be why Bredesen has been reluctant to say whether he will support current Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s bid to become leader of the Senate should Democrats wrest control from the GOP.
Blackburn has built a solid conservative base, touting her support for Trump in a race that has become nationalized.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls shows Bredesen ahead by 1.3 points in a race it ranks as a toss up.
10. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
Trump’s barely won Wisconsin in 2016 and gave flight to Republican ambitions to pick up another seat for the U.S. Senate in the state. Baldwin, however, had never been among the members of the Senate who are believed to be vulnerable.
Baldwin is the most liberal of the Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won. Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, has consistently characterized Baldwin as too leftist, even for Wisconsin.
According to Real Clear Politics, the race leans toward the Democrats. Baldwin enjoys an 8 point lead over Vukmir. Trump’s approval rating stands at 36 percent among Cheeseheads, according to a July NBC News/Marist poll. Also, Baldwin is filling up her coffers faster than Vukmir
Vukmir is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin and the daughter of Greek immigrants. A nurse, she pursued education reform while in the state legislature as a staunch supporter of Gov. Scott Walker, a fellow Republican. A Trump supporter, Vukmir could hardly be more different from liberal Baldwin. She wants to build Trump’s border wall, restrict labor union representation of federal employees, and “drain the swamp” by relocating federal offices to the states. She voted to end collective bargaining for most public workers and enacted Wisconsin’s 20-week abortion ban. Republicans feel that there is time for Vukmir to make headway in a race that Democrats now admit is competitive.