Senate Democrats are three seats shy of a majority and almost entirely on defense in the 2018 elections, making it all but impossible for them to retake the chamber next year.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and DSCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen are privately refusing to rule out an improbable midterm victory, even though they must first defend 10 incumbents in states President Donald Trump won. Their insistence is primarily to keep donors invested and excited about next year’s Senate races, said a handful of top party operatives. But Democrats also want to be prepared to ride a massive wave next fall should one develop, potentially taking advantage of bloody Republican primaries to spur a red-state surprise and swing the Senate.
“Our priority is to make sure that we win all our incumbent races,” Van Hollen said in an August interview. Then, “we have great pickup opportunities in Nevada and Arizona,” he continued. “And we have good candidates in other states, and we’re going to have more. We’re going to work to maximize our opportunities.”
Democrats’ path to 51 Senate seats in 2018 is exceedingly narrow. They would have to defend all of their Trump-state incumbents, including five in states the president won by double-digits. They would have to successfully pick off Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the only two battleground-state Republicans up for reelection next year — though Flake in particular looks more vulnerable than expected after conflict with Trump this year. Then, Democrats would have to pull off a major upset in a state like Alabama, Texas or Tennessee, victories that would make their 2012 wins in states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota look easy.
Yet the party is investigating potential candidates in those states and preparing to aid them if the right circumstances arise. And already, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is plotting primary challenges against incumbents, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is mulling retirement and picked up a potential primary challenger on Thursday, and Republicans are fighting a bitter and expensive primary in Alabama’s special Senate election.
This wouldn’t be the first time Democrats prepped for a wave that never came. In 2016, they got top-tier recruits in Arkansas and Kentucky in the form of former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. Both men lost by double-digits, despite outrunning Hillary Clinton.
Republicans, for their part, don’t find Schumer’s plotting plausible.
“Chuck Schumer has said for years that Democrats will win the Senate, and that claim is no longer funny, but just plain sad,” NRSC spokeswoman Katie Martin said. “There are 25 Democrats up for reelect, with 10 of those in states President [Donald] Trump won. Either Schumer has trouble with math or he has trouble living in reality.”
The most immediate opportunity for Democrats may come in Alabama. Some Republican operatives privately fear former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore could lose the general election if he defeats incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Strange in the primary. Democrats are wary of turning a race in such a tough state into a national referendum, and they worry that it might be impossible to boost former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones over the hump. But the opportunity to boost Jones, a civil rights attorney who won fame prosecuting members of the KKK, against the ultra-conservative Moore may be too tempting to pass up.
National Democrats still have no immediate plans to get involved in Alabama, and the candidate says he’s ready to run either way.
“It doesn’t really matter whether I’ve got help or not,” Jones said in an interview. “I’m running as a Democrat. The other side is going to try to tag me however they’re going to tag me.”
The next opportunity comes in Texas, where Rep. Beto O’Rourke has already announced a challenge to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. Democrats are pleasantly surprised by O’Rourke’s strong online fundraising, and he has impressed national operatives with constant campaigning throughout the state.
Still, O’Rourke’s refusal to accept PAC money frustrates strategists who think he’ll need every penny possible to compete in an ultra-expensive state. Democratic outside groups have recently shied away from spending heavily in big states, with the DSCC and Senate Majority PAC pulling out of Florida last fall.
But Van Hollen said the committee would be ready to back up O’Rourke if he can make the race competitive.
“If Texas becomes clearly competitive, we’ll be able to find the resources,” he said.
But the state Democrats are most openly excited about is Tennessee. In conversations with other senators — in which he refuses to rule out winning back the Senate — Schumer often brings up Corker’s seat, which Senate operatives regard as the white whale of 2018.
As DSCC chair in 2006, Schumer saw Corker win his seat by just 3 points. Fellow senators and campaign pros have taken to wondering whether former Gov. Phil Bredesen might be interested in running. (The 73-year-old has shown no intention of jumping in.)
Even if Bredesen stays out, Democrats seem content with an announced candidate against Corker: James Mackler, a 44-year-old lawyer who joined the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, flew Black Hawk helicopters and fought in the Iraq War, and then joined the JAG Corps and prosecuted sexual assault cases. Mackler made the rounds at the DSCC donor retreat in Martha’s Vineyard, making a favorable impression on donors and lending his candidacy extra legitimacy, some said.
In an interview, Mackler said he thought Tennesseans and national Democrats both were ready to get behind a candidate with his “proven track record of service and sacrifice.” Mackler attacked Corker as overly partisan, and said the Tennessean’s criticisms of Trump weren’t backed up by actions.
“He’ll vote for whatever his party puts in front of him,” he said, referencing a quote where Corker dismissed the substance of an Obamacare repeal bill. “I’m an outsider. I’m not the Democratic Party.”
While Corker’s occasional critiques of the president haven’t satisfied Mackler, they have prompted some Republicans to muse about a primary challenge. On Monday, Corker said he wasn’t committed to running for reelection.
“I think everyone in the Volunteer State knows, as they did in 2012, that running for reelection has never been an automatic for me,” Corker said in a statement. “While we are in a strong position, I am still contemplating the future and will make a decision at the appropriate time.”
That Democrats are even considering offensive tactics, rather than preparing to hemorrhage losses in red states, is a reflection of how strongly they feel about their 2018 chances despite the Republican tilt of the Senate map.
The DSCC believes Democrats have a clear upper hand on health care and that fewer top-tier candidates than expected are challenging Democratic incumbents. They have eagerly watched Trump’s spat with Heller and war with Flake and wondered if such intra-GOP conflict could spread. On Wednesday, the Schumer-controlled Senate Majority PAC released polling showing Flake trailing state Sen. Kelli Ward in a GOP primary and losing to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in a general election. And former Americans for Prosperity state director Andy Ogles’ decision to potentially challenge Corker in a Tennessee primary could complicate things there.
“We have a tough political map,” Van Hollen said. “This is a year where anything can happen.”