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Are The Democrats Screwed In The Senate After 2024?


I’m not that impressed by long-term projections of Democratic doom in the Senate. Mostly that’s because I’m not that impressed by long-term political projections in general. Political coalitions change; not many people would have had it on their bingo card that Democrats would obtain a Senate majority in 2020 by winning two runoffs in Georgia, and then would actually expand on that majority in 2022 following another runoff in Georgia despite their party controlling the White House.

With that said, while I don’t think we can say very much about what politics will look like 10 or 20 years from now, a medium-term look-ahead is possible. Do Democrats have a reasonable hope of regaining a trifecta — control of the House, Senate and presidency — at any point in the near future (2024, 2026 or 2028)? And how long will they hold onto control of the Senate and the presidency, allowing them to appoint Supreme Court justices without Republican help?

My colleague Geoffrey Skelley already took an initial look at the 2024 Senate map, which is bad for Democrats, but I wanted to dig slightly deeper and also consider 2026 and 2028. Like Geoffrey, I’ll be focused on the Senate, because that’s the weakest link in Democrats’ effort to win back the trifecta. Despite some disadvantages in the Electoral College, Democrats obviously have no trouble winning the presidency. And they nearly held onto the House this year despite losing the popular vote for the House. The current House map doesn’t have much — if any — of a Republican skew, and Democrats should be able to win back the House if the national political environment is reasonably good for them.

So let’s look at the 2024, 2026 and 2028 Senate maps (yes, 2028 features the same map as the midterm we just finished; I just can’t let go, I guess). We’ll classify races into bronze, silver, gold and platinum “tiers” in terms of how feasible they are as pickup opportunities. I’m deliberately using this goofy metallurgical theme as opposed to the categories FiveThirtyEight typically uses (e.g., “toss-up,” “lean Republican”) so you’ll recognize these as being back-of-the-envelope suppositions rather than any sort of official race ratings.

In general, these ratings lean heavily on looking at how close a race was the last time it was contested, with some subjective adjustments for candidate quality. I’m also considering how the electoral environment has shifted within the state — Florida has gotten redder since Rick Scott was elected in 2018, for instance — although it is definitely not always safe to assume a state will continue trending in the same direction.

2024

Republican pickup opportunities

Platinum tier: West Virginia (Manchin), Montana (Tester), Ohio (Brown),

Gold tier: Arizona (Sinema), Nevada (Rosen)

Silver tier: Wisconsin (Baldwin), Michigan (Stabenow), Pennsylvania (Casey)

Bronze tier: New Jersey (Menendez), Virginia (Kaine)

As Geoffrey noted, the platinum-tier states listed here are the Democrats’ main problem. They have three senators up for reelection in states that Donald Trump carried by 8 (Ohio), 16 (Montana) and 39 (West Virginia!) percentage points in 2020. Each of those Democratic senators won reelection in 2018, of course, but that was a strong Democratic year, and there’s been further movement of white voters without college degrees — a key part of the electorate in these states — toward Republicans since then. 

I don’t want to focus too much on any one individual race, but it’s probably safe to assume that Joe Manchin has the toughest reelection campaign of all. Meanwhile, maybe Sherrod Brown can feel a bit more comfortable following Tim Ryan’s relatively good performance in Ohio this year, but Ryan did lose, and Brown may face a tougher opponent than Ryan did in J.D. Vance. Democrats also run the risk of retirements here; neither Manchin nor Jon Tester has officially yet announced they will seek reelection.

Beyond the platinum tier, Democrats face some other risks. Kyrsten Sinema is likely to face a serious primary challenge. Democrats keep winning close races for Congress in Nevada but it’s a very purple state. Tammy Baldwin, Debbie Stabenow and Bob Casey won by fairly comfortable margins in 2018 and will likely be fine in the event of a decent-to-good Democratic year, but if 2024 turns into a good Republican year, they could be in trouble.

Democratic pickup opportunities

Platinum tier: None

Gold tier: None

Silver tier: Texas (Cruz), Florida (Scott)

Bronze tier: None

Conversely, it’s very slim pickings for Democrats. On paper, you’d think that Texas might be close — Ted Cruz won by less than 3 percentage points there in 2018 and Texas is more competitive than it once was — but the erosion of the Democratic vote in South Texas has prevented Texas from turning truly purple. And although Scott won by only 0.12 percentage points in 2018, Republicans did so well in Florida in 2020 and 2022 that I was tempted to demote his race all the way to the bronze tier. Plus, there’s a good chance that the GOP’s 2024 nominee will be either Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Florida resident Donald Trump, which could help drive Republican turnout.

Beyond that, any other races look like an extreme stretch for Democrats. Maybe Josh Hawley in Missouri could be vulnerable in a 2018-type environment, but that’s less likely in a presidential year and Hawley’s approval rating isn’t that bad. Put him in the “honorable mention” tier, I guess.

Given all this, I’d imagine the modal outcome from 2024 is something like Republicans picking up about three Senate seats. There’s uncertainty around that; it’s surely within the realm of possibility that Democrats hold the Senate, but it’s also possible that Republicans could wind up with 54 or 55 seats. And of course, all of these races are correlated. If the GOP is doing well enough to win the presidency in 2024, they should have no trouble also winning the Senate.

2026

Republican pickup opportunities 

Platinum tier: None

Gold tier: Georgia (Ossoff), Michigan (Peters)

Silver tier: New Hampshire (Shaheen)

Bronze tier: Minnesota (Smith), Virginia (Warner)

The 2026 map is more balanced. Democrats undoubtedly feel pretty good about how they’ve performed in Georgia and Michigan in the past two cycles, but Jon Ossoff and Gary Peters won by extremely narrow margins in 2020 and it would be a mistake to assume they’re safe. It’s not a particularly deep set of pickup opportunities for Republicans, though if Democrats retain the presidency in 2024, you’d expect Republicans to have good midterms in 2026, and New Hampshire and perhaps even Minnesota and Virginia could potentially be in play. 

Democratic pickup opportunities 

Platinum tier: None

Gold tier: Maine (Collins), North Carolina (Tillis)

Silver tier: Alaska (Sullivan)

Bronze tier: Texas (Cornyn), Iowa (Ernst)

Meanwhile, Democrats will try again in the two states that were most disappointing to them in 2020: Maine and North Carolina. Given all the focus on Georgia, I wonder if North Carolina hasn’t become underrated as a place where Democrats could gain ground in the future; the states are fairly similar demographically and it wouldn’t take that much of a shift for Democrats to go from narrowly losing races in North Carolina to narrowly winning them. Susan Collins will be 74 years old in 2026, meanwhile, an age at which there’s typically some chance of retirement.

Democrats also have a below-the-radar pickup opportunity in Alaska, where Mary Peltola was elected to a full term in the U.S. House last month by a 10-point margin after ranked-choice votes were tabulated. GOP incumbent Dan Sullivan has a mediocre approval rating and a Peltola-Sullivan race would potentially be competitive.

Suppose, though, that Democrats win the presidency but lose the Senate in 2024. It’s really not as crazy as it sounds. If every state votes identically to how it did in the 2020 presidential election — and every Senate race follows the presidential vote — then Democrats would come out of 2024 with the presidency but only 48 Senate seats after losing West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. Could Democrats pick up two Senate seats from the GOP in the 2026 midterm while controlling the presidency? Unlikely — but then again, Democrats gaining Senate seats this year seemed unlikely and they did it.

2028

Republican pickup opportunities

Platinum tier: None

Gold tier: Nevada (Cortez Masto), Pennsylvania (Fetterman), Arizona (Kelly), Georgia (Warnock)

Silver tier: New Hampshire (Hassan)

Bronze tier: Oregon (Wyden)

All right, now we’re literally coming full circle to consider the races that were just contested in last month’s midterm. So we’ll keep it pretty brief. Yes, Democrats have to feel pretty good about their wins in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia — especially given that the overall political environment wasn’t that great for Democrats this year. But they were narrow wins, and (with the possible exception of Nevada) they came against a mediocre set of GOP opponents. Maybe some of these races are toward the silver end of the gold tier, but more likely than not they’ll be competitive again.

And since we’re projecting a full six years out, I’m going to be a little bit more creative about considering long-shot opportunities in the bronze tier. Although the Senate races in Washington and Colorado received attention this year (Republicans spent a lot of money on both, only to lose by double digits), they wound up coming just as close in Oregon with a QAnon candidate as part of a comparatively strong year for the GOP in the Beaver State. Could a more mainstream GOP nominee have made it a race? Oregon is quite white, it has fewer people with college degrees than the “Portlandia” stereotype might make you assume, and Democratic incumbent Ron Wyden will be 79 years old in 2028 …

Democratic pickup opportunities

Platinum tier: None

Gold tier: Wisconsin (Johnson), North Carolina (Budd)

Silver tier: Vance (Ohio)

Bronze tier: Alaska (Murkowski), Florida (Rubio), Utah (Lee), Iowa (Grassley)

Again, we’re mostly just rehashing this year’s map. Ron Johnson, who originally hadn’t planned on running in 2020, is another retirement threat in 2026 — and he barely won reelection anyway. In Ohio, Sherrod Brown could seek to return to the Senate if he loses in 2024 by challenging J.D. Vance. And 2028 is far enough from now that I wouldn’t want to rule out Democrats being competitive in states as far-flung as Utah, where independent Evan McMullin ran a fairly competitive race against Mike Lee this year.

Even with an additional senator going into 2023, the 2024 map is still so bad for Democrats that keeping the Senate for years to come will be a fairly tough order. The party’s prospects might rest more upon limiting the damage in 2024 so that it has a chance to regain the Senate in 2026 or 2028. But a bad 2024 could make it very difficult for Democrats to regain the Senate before 2030 or 2032.

That bleak picture may shape the next few years of political maneuvering. When Vox’s Dylan Matthews suggested on Twitter that liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor (age 68) and Elena Kagan (age 62) should retire while Democrats have their Senate majority and be replaced by younger justices, it didn’t go over well. But it’s a perfectly rational suggestion if Democrats don’t feel like gambling with their judicial future. (Consider how consequential Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision not to retire has been for liberals.) Democrats have a narrow path to Senate control after 2024, but it’s narrow indeed, and one that might require the GOP continuing to nominate bad candidates — and a fair share of luck.