Can Democrats Expand the Senate Map?

I follow politics closer than the average person, but I still can’t say that I have more than a superficial understanding of the politics of all 50 states. For example, if I want to know why Phil Bredesen has a chance to win a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee but Dave Freudenthal isn’t running for a U.S. Senate seat in Wyoming and probably wouldn’t have a chance in hell if he did, then I have to do some research. Both men, during the last decade, were popular two-term Democratic governors in blood red states. Yet, it’s Bredesen who has made the plunge and has been leading Rep. Marsha Blackburn in recent polls.

On the House side, the Democrats are at long last taking my advice and running hard in rural districts, and it’s beginning to look like there’s some hope on the Senate side, too. There’s even talk that Lincoln City Council member Jane Raybould might make a real contest out of Sen. Deb Fischer’s reelection bid in Nebraska. I have to admit that I didn’t see that coming.

The Democrats were disappointed that both Evan Bayh and Russ Feingold lost their bids to rejoin the Senate. Had they won, the Democrats would have had a majority during the first Congress of Trump’s presidency. But the voters weren’t in the mood to go back in time, and the skills and strategies that Bayh and Feingold had used to be successful candidates in the past did not translate to our new era of politics. It’s possible that Bredesen will meet a similar fate. But it’s also possible that we’re in a completely different cycle and the people of Tennessee will swing like a pendulum toward the kind of non-ideological stylings that Bredesen is offering.

I can’t say that the former Volunteer State governor is using my playbook. He appears to be pursuing a classic Blue Dog strategy of presenting a business-friendly profile while criticizing the national Democratic Party at every turn. It may work since the Republican establishment in Tennessee is beginning to show the same kind of splits that we’ve seen in states like Kansas where moderates are willing to crossover to elect or vote with Democrats to marginalize the hard right.  We don’t see the same kinds of fissures in places like Wyoming, and however radical Senator Barrasso’s voting record might be, he isn’t unpopular or controversial at home in the same way that Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Marsha Blackburn appear to be.

It’s definitely more difficult for Democrats to win federal than statewide office in red states, just as it’s easier for the Republicans to win gubernatorial races in places like Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland than it is for them to compete for Senate seats in those states. That’s why it was a bigger upset when Doug Jones won Jeff Sessions’s seat in Alabama than when John Bel Edwards replaced Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.

Control of the Senate may turn on whether Democratic candidates can make breakthroughs in places where they’ve been doing very poorly of late. Tennessee and Nebraska weren’t considered promising places to pick up Senate seats when this cycle began. The Democrats could potentially beat Ted Cruz in Texas and one of the two seats up for election in Mississippi. On the other hand, they could blow what look like promising opportunities to win seats in Arizona and Nevada or even see a bunch of their incumbents fall in Trump states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, West Virginia, and Florida.

It’s too early to forecast the Senate elections, but the map is expanding in a way that is unfavorable to the Republicans. They never thought Tennessee would be in play and it most definitely is going to be a competitive race. I just wish Bredesen was offering something a little newer and fresher rather than running almost exclusively on a good record that he compiled in a different era that feels like it might as well have been decades ago.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.