By Hastings Wyman –
With the 2016 election barely behind us, political insiders are already focused on 2018 when 33 US Senate seats will be on the ballot. The map heavily favors the Republicans. The Democrats will be defending 25 seats (including two independents who vote with them), and ten of them are in states that Donald Trump carried in the presidential election. Only eight are held by Republicans, with just one – in Nevada – in a state that Hillary Clinton won.
The map and voting histories aside, it is impossible to foresee what the political climate will be like in two years. If the economy is booming, Democrats will claim it is an afterglow of President Obama’s policies; the Republicans, however, will just as quickly credit President Trump’s policies, presumably including tax cuts and a cutback on regulations on business. Moreover, the massive Trump victory among white working class men could add to the Democrats’ problems. All other things being equal – and they rarely are – the voters would probably reward the GOP two years hence. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, so Republican optimism should be tempered at best.
The South will not play as big a role in the Senate battles two years hence as it did in the Trump-Clinton presidential election, but there will be five US Senate races in Southern states (FL, MS, TN, TX & VA), two of them potentially competitive (FL & VA). In addition, there may be a special election for the remainder of US Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) term.
US Sen. Bill Nelson (FL), who will be 76 in 2018, is one of two Democrats in the mix. He has already said he will run for reelection and at this early stage is probably the favorite, but not a lead-pipe cinch. There are rumblings that Gov. Rick Scott (R) may challenge him. Moreover, there are a slew of other GOPers who might run, some of them even if Scott runs. Barney Bishop, Tallahassee-based political analyst, says Nelson “will be the odds-on favorite.” Scott, a former healthcare executive, has also said he is considering a Senate bid. Bishop notes that Scott has shown he can use his wealth and business acumen to forge an effective campaign with “very astute advertising and a strong message.” In 2010, Scott defeated former state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R), who was the favorite of the
Sunshine State’s Republican establishment, in the primary, then defeated Democrat Alex Sink by a narrow 1% to win the governorship.
The other potentially competitive Southern senate race is in Virginia. US Sen. Tim Kaine (D) did help carry the Old Dominion for Clinton, but his poor performance in the only vice-presidential debate, coupled with the lack of any observable boost to the Democratic ticket elsewhere, suggests that, although he is popular in Virginia, he will not be insulated from a significant Republican challenge. “We have proven that people we nominate (for state offices) come very close to victory,” says Morton Blackwell, the state’s long-time Republican National Committeeman. He adds that social conservatives are “still as big if not bigger than they have ever been,” and adds, “I think we could have some very interesting races.”
In three other Southern states, Republicans are strong favorites to hold the seats.
In Mississippi, US Sen. Roger Wicker (R) is heavily favored for reelection to a third term. He will be 67, not old by US Senate standards. He currently serves as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and could expect strong backing from party officials in Washington and across the country. His voting record – averaging 68% conservative, says the National Journal – isn’t as hardcore as some Magnolia State GOPers. He isn’t likely to face a primary challenge, but might. But the seat will stay in Republican hands.
In Tennessee, US Sen. Bob Corker (R) is a centrist by temperament, but is mostly conservative on issues (65%, says the National Journal. He is knowledgeable about economic issues and foreign policy (he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). It is possible that Corker will end up in Trump’s cabinet. Secretary of State would be a good fit, especially if Mitt Romney doesn’t get it. Corker could also face a primary foe from the GOP’s social conservative wing if he seeks reelection, but would be heavily favored. Or he could run for governor. In any case, Trump carried the Volunteer State 61% to Clinton’s 35%, the GOP has a deep bench in the state, and a Republican is a good bet to hold the seat.
And in Texas, a Republican is probably a safe bet to keep the seat in GOP hands, but it is not certain that incumbent US Sen. Ted Cruz (R) will be the nominee. He angered many in his party’s base when he withheld his support from Trump until near the end of the campaign. It is possible Trump will appoint him to the Supreme Court. It is also possible he will lose a tough primary in two years. Says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of The Quorum Report, despite Cruz’s heavy home-state presence in the last few weeks, “I don’t know if he’s fully recovered.” Two potential GOP challengers are former Gov. Rick Perry and US Rep. Mike McCaul. As for the Democrats, “They are not strong enough,” says Kronberg, citing Trump’s nine-point win over Clinton. “The Democrats are demoralized.”
In addition, if US Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) is confirmed for attorney general, there could be a special election in 2018 for the remaining two years of what would be his fourth term. The big name in the list, at this point, is state Attorney General Luther Strange (R), though several of the state’s US Representatives are also said to be interested. In any case, a Republican would be heavily favored.