GOP Senate Targets Fade From View

by Stuart Rothenberg May 8, 2018 · 8:30 AM EDT

When this election cycle began, handicappers repeatedly pointed out that 10 Democratic Senate incumbents from states carried by Donald Trump would be on the ballot in 2018. That count was accurate, and the point behind it obvious — Republicans had a long list of opportunities.

But now even the most partisan Republicans are acknowledging that the list of serious targets is shrinking to five or six states. Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota and Florida are certainly in play, but how are the other competitive Senate races holding up?

Michigan was never going to be more than a footnote in the list of Republican Senate opportunities this cycle, and it still looks like a snoozer.

Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow isn’t very controversial, and Trump’s razor-thin 11,000-vote margin (two-tenths of a percentage point) looks like a fluke rather than a sign the state is realigning.

The state’s filing deadline passed a couple of weeks ago, and two GOP hopefuls who have never held office will fight it out for their party’s nomination in an August primary. Neither party is spending in this race, and nobody is taking the general election in Michigan seriously at this point.

Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by seven-tenths of a point — about 44,000 votes out of more than 6 million cast. Unlike Michigan, where Republicans will pick between two political neophytes, the Keystone State GOP has two officeholders in the May 15 Senate primary: state Rep. Jim Christiana and Rep. Lou Barletta.

Barletta served as mayor of Hazleton before winning election to Congress in 2010. He has been re-elected three times and has earned a reputation as a leading critic of illegal immigration and a loyal Trump supporter.

Incumbent Democrat Bob Casey served as state auditor and state treasurer before being elected to the Senate in 2006. He has a reputation as someone who connects with working-class voters — just the kind of voters who defected to Trump and whom Democrats need to win back.

The recent special election in southwestern Pennsylvania was terrible news for Trump loyalists, and any midterm election drag is likely to put the Senate race beyond reach for Barletta, no matter how effusively Trump promotes the Republican congressman. As in Michigan, the parties are not spending money in Pennsylvania, and the Senate race doesn’t look very exciting.

Republicans have a lively Senate race underway in Wisconsin, pitting state Sen. Leah Vukmir against businessman Kevin Nicholson, and outside groups have already spent heavily to damage Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. But there is growing pessimism among Republicans that they can defeat one of the Senate’s more liberal members.

As in the Keystone State, Trump won Wisconsin by seven-tenths of a point. But Democrats recently won a state Senate special election and an election to fill a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, suggesting that the Trump coalition is shrinking or that Democratic voters are energized. Either way, it’s not good news for the president’s party in the Badger State.

Baldwin’s numbers are surprisingly strong, in part because Democratic numbers in the northern part of the state have bounced back. I wouldn’t ignore the Senate race, but it isn’t nearly as competitive as Republicans had once hoped and Democrats had once feared.

Given Trump’s 450,000-vote victory in Ohio, you might think the GOP is awash in confidence about Rep. Jim Renacci’s prospects of kicking Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown out of office. They’re not.

Brown is a liberal firebrand, but on tariffs, trade and working-class issues, he was Trump before Trump. The populist Democrat is a strong campaigner who relishes attacking. He isn’t likely to get a lot of Republican votes, but he’ll win back many Democrats (and independents) who defected to Trump in 2016.

This race is getting surprisingly little buzz, which reflects the lack of real Republican optimism about November.

Finally, Republicans aren’t as upbeat about their chances of ousting Montana Sen. Jon Tester as you might think. Of course, now that Trump has targeted Tester for leading the change against Dr. Ronny Jackson, the president’s former choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, that could change. And Montana is still a very “red” state.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in the state in 2016, so Tester certainly can’t take his re-election for granted. GOP veterans of Capitol Hill note that unlike some vulnerable Democrats, Tester isn’t worrying about establishing his independence or proving that he is open to Trump’s leadership. Instead, he is opposing the president consistently.

Democrats worry that Tester can be a little headstrong, but they note that the senator has a great brand in his state and the likely GOP nominee isn’t all that intimidating. The Republican field in the race includes former judge and onetime state Rep. Russ Fagg, state Auditor Matt Rosendale (the favorite), a state senator and a businessman.

Of course, Montana still is a competitive contest that should be treated as a serious Republican takeover opportunity. But given the incumbents and the cycle, the Democrats probably have a narrow advantage in both Montana and Florida. Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia remain much better GOP takeover opportunities.