Senate Battles in 2024: Can Dems Hold the Line?

March 29, 2024 by Dan McCue
Senate Battles in 2024: Can Dems Hold the Line?
The main doorway on the Senate side of the US Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — In 2022, Democrats faced a nail-biter when it came to maintaining their majority in the Senate.

They held on in contests that got surprisingly tight in the end in Arizona and Nevada and managed to flip a seat in Pennsylvania.

Then came Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Republican college football legend Herschel Walker in a December 2022 runoff election that grew the caucus to 48 members.

That, plus the three independents who caucus with them — Sens. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, Angus King, of Maine, and Kyrsten Sinema, or Arizona — gave the Democrats a 51-50 edge in the Senate.

All Republicans could do at the time was say, “See you next time,” but they were far from resigned about the prospect.

They knew that come 2024, Democrats would be defending more precariously flippable seats than in any other election in the past five years.

Democrats (and independents who caucus with them) currently hold 23 seats that are up in November, while Republicans are defending a mere 11 Senate seats this year.

At least seven of those Democratically controlled seats are in play, and remember, Republicans only need to snatch two to get back in the majority — and only one if former President Donald Trump is reelected and he can send his as yet unnamed vice president to Capitol Hill as a tie-breaker.

Making this cycle even tougher for Democrats is that many supposedly vulnerable seats are in states crucial to the presidential contest.

These include Michigan, where Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s pending retirement has created an open seat, and Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where incumbents — Sens. Jackie Rosen, Bob Casey and Tammy Baldwin — are considered vulnerable.

President Joe Biden prevailed in all three states, but only by margins ranging from a meager 0.6 percentage points to an anemic 2.4%.

By comparison, the Republicans this year are not defending any Senate seats in states that did not go for Trump in 2020, or gave him a win of 3 percentage points or less.

The three other seats considered to be in play for the Republicans are in Montana, where Democrat Jon Tester is up for reelection; Ohio, where the Democratic incumbent is Sherrod Brown and West Virginia, which is now certain to flip to the GOP now that longtime Sen. Joe Manchin is retiring.

Though wildly popular with rural Democrats, Tester, who first took office in 2007, is the only Democrat holding statewide office in an otherwise deeply red state. Trump won the state by 16 percentage points in the 2020 election.

Though the Republican Party won’t choose its candidate until the state’s June 4 primary, it’s widely believed Tester’s challenger in November will be Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL officer and entrepreneur who has Trump’s endorsement.

As of February, however, Tester held a decided fundraising advantage, reportedly having $24.6 million in his campaign coffers compared to Sheehy’s $5.2 million.

In Arizona, the Republican nominee is likely to be Kari Lake, another Trump ally, though the GOP Senate primary in that state won’t be held until July 30. Her opponent in that contest is Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

Arizona is also notable for who won’t be running. Last month, Sinema opted out of what would have been a contentious, three-way contest in a decisive swing state.

As for the outcome in November, the latest Emerson College Polling/The Hill survey has Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., holding a 4 percentage point lead over Lake among registered voters. Still, roughly 16% of respondents described themselves as undecided at this point in the race.

In Ohio, Republican voters last week chose Trump-endorsed Bernie Moreno to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. 

The race is considered crucial to Republican hopes to win back the majority in the Senate because Brown is one of only two senators seeking reelection in a state Trump won in 2020.

The reason Ohio is so critical is because of the state of play in West Virginia, which will hold its Republican primary on May 14. Political strategists say whoever emerges victorious from the seven-candidate field is almost certain to be the next senator.

Even if Democrats were able to hold onto all of their other seats, a Republican victory in West Virginia would result in a 50-50 Senate. Ohio would give the GOP the majority.

In addition to Manchin and Stabenow, the other incumbents not seeking reelection this year are:

Laphonza Butler, Democrat from California, who was appointed in October 2023 to fill the Senate seat held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died Sept. 29, 2023. Butler has not revealed her plans for the future.

Tom Carper, Democrat from Delaware, said only he is not running from reelection.

Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah, former candidate for president, said he will not seek a second term.

Mike Braun, Republican from Indiana, will not seek reelection to the Senate, opting instead to run for chief executive of his home state.

And Ben Cardin, Democrat from Maryland, who is retiring from public office.

Democrats were widely expected to hold on to the reliably blue seat after Cardin announced his impending departure, but those expectations took a decided turn after the state’s popular former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced his bid for the GOP nomination.

Hogan, a staunch Never Trumper, is now expected to handily win the Republican primary on May 14.

A recent poll released by the University of Maryland found that Hogan holds a double-digit advantage over the two top Democratic candidates, Rep. David Trone and Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. 

Democrats do not yet have any primary targets among Republican incumbents yet, but the two names that keep popping up are those of Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Sen. Rick Scott, of Florida.

Earlier this month Cruz literally cruised to victory in the Texas Republican primary, garnering more than 88% of the vote. But he also picked up a formidable challenger in Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who once played in the NFL.

Scott, meanwhile, is being challenged by former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Though she only served one term in Congress before being defeated in 2020 by Republican Rep. Carlos Gimenez, she is considered the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic primary on Aug. 20.

A big reason is her compelling biography. 

“My mother brought me to this country so we could live in a nation with opportunities for all and where it doesn’t matter who you are,” Mucarsel-Powell said after she became the first South American-born immigrant to be elected to Congress.

“Everyone has a chance to make it,” she said.

Another interesting race to watch this year is the special election to fill the last two years of the six-year term of Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Sasse resigned from the Senate on Jan. 8, 2023, to succeed Kent Fuchs as president of the University of Florida. 

Former Gov. Pete Ricketts was appointed to replace Sasse by his successor and political ally, Republican Gov. Jim Pillen in January. 

Ricketts has to compete in a special election this year to fill out the rest of Sasse’s term. If he wins, he could then run again in 2026 for a full six-year term.

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