Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Analysis | Senate Democrats had a good 2022. The 2024 election could be brutal.

Analysis | Senate Democrats had a good 2022. The 2024 election could be brutal.

The good news for Democrats is that, by virtually any historical measure, the 2022 election was a success for their party.

Perhaps the biggest measure of that success: They managed to hold the U.S. Senate, where they couldn’t afford to lose any ground. And they actually gained a seat.

The bad news is that the victory might be quite temporary. To keep the Senate in 2024, they’ll likely have to beat history — and more significantly than they did even in 2022.

One of the quirks of our election system is that the map of Senate seats that each side must defend can look quite different from election to election. Sometimes Republicans are defending the most vulnerable seats, and sometimes Democrats are. The 2024 election very much falls in the latter category.

Of the 34 seats that are up for reelection in 2024, Democrats are defending 23 — including the seats of three independents who caucus with Democrats. Three of those seats are particularly ripe for the GOP, given they’re in states that favored Trump by at least eight points in 2020: Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.

But the opportunities are extensive for Republicans, even beyond that trio. Of the six states Biden won by less than three percentage points in 2020, Democrats have to defend seats in five of them. And one of them is Arizona, where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema recently became an independent and where the political dynamics, if she runs again, will be unpredictable.

That’s eight solid pickup opportunities for the GOP. To take back the Senate it would need to win either two seats or one plus the White House. (In the event of a 50-50 Senate, the vice president breaks ties.)

As for the GOP’s best pickup opportunities? Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) have each proven difficult to beat, and Tester has now joined Brown in running for another term. But those senators have also run in favorable election cycles of late, including the 2012 election when Barack Obama was reelected and the 2018 cycle when Democrats won the House.

There is no guarantee the 2024 environment will be as friendly, and each of these states has trended to the right in recent presidential elections — Ohio and West Virginia, especially. West Virginia was Donald Trump’s second-best state in both 2016 and 2020, Republicans landed a major recruit there in Gov. Jim Justice. Manchin hasn’t announced his plans, and if he doesn’t run this is a very likely pickup for the GOP.

Beyond that, the most endangered seats would seem to be Sinema’s, Sen. Jacky Rosen’s (D-Nev.), and the open seat in Michigan left by Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) retirement. The other swing-state Democratic senators up in 2024 — Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) — won a little more comfortably in 2018 but will be targets.

The presence of open seats also has major implications for the playing field, as they’re generally easier to flip than campaigns against incumbents.

Thus far, besides Stabenow, only Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) have announced plans to retire — Braun will run for governor — but these are in relatively uncompetitive states. Democrats did get a break when Tester and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) announced they’ll seek another term.

Much will depend on how the presidential race plays out, but there’s an argument that even a close win for Democrats in the White House could still come with the GOP re-taking the Senate. This is the Senate class, after all, that gave Republicans a two-seat gain in 2018, even as Democrats were winning more than 40 seats and taking the House.

The reason? That map was just very good for the GOP. And it still is.

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