In 1994, the GOP Revolution roared across the country. Republicans gained seats across the nation from from two in California, five in California, one to two in multiple states and several seats in North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, California, Texas and Indiana.
But, something new happened in 2010. Whereas the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 crested somewhat in the South and limited their gains, in 2010, the GOP gained a whopping 63 seats but only a single seat in WA State. The party also did not gain a single seat North of New Hampshire.
While this benefited Democrats then the lesson for the party now is clear-not all waves are equal. The 2018 environment is looking promising for Democrats-if general ballot polls are good proxies of individual races-but the party faces a virtual wall of opposition in the now heavily GOP South, likely limiting their gains. If Doug Jones loses next week, it will reinforce how badly the Democratic brand is viewed down south.
Underscoring this point has been how Doug Jones has run his campaign in Alabama. While he has run as a progressive he has promised to be an independent voice and many of his campaign ads omit his party affiliation.
The Trump brand may be in tatters in affluent, suburban swing districts across the country, but these voters seem to be sticking stubbornly to their down-ballot GOP tendencies. Further, the Democratic advantage in generic ballot polls seems to remain muted in Trump country and amplified in already deep blue areas of the country.
Specifically, regarding the Senate, for the party to regain the Senate they would need to run the table in five, deeply Trump states, win both Nevada and Arizona’s Senate contests and win over a red state. This is to say nothing of needing to hold a now open Senate seat in Minnesota and hold serve in several other narrow Trump states (Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin).
Exploiting Roy Moore’s ethical baggage would seem to offer the party the best path. But Jones, while running an excellent campaign by the numbers, has probably alienated voters who might support him if not for his full-throated endorsement of abortion. If Democrats cannot win in Alabama next Tuesday they will need something unlikely to go their way. In fact, probably more.
On the surface Texas might offer the party some hope. Ted Cruz is a firebrand and the party has a charismatic, young Hispanic running. But, Cruz has millions in the bank, has cozied up to the donors support he needs and O’Rourke seems to lack access to the cash to really challenge Cruz.
So, the next best chance is in Tennessee it seems. This is not saying much. The home state of Al Gore, which did not even back his bid for President in 2000, is deeply red. In fact, the state voted for Trump by a percentage point more than Alabama (rounding up).
Democrats believe they recruited their best candidate in former two-term Governor Phil Bredesen. But, even so, the race is definitely uphill. Out of all the swing state contests in the Democratic wave of 2006, Tennessee stayed red and it has only become redder since Obama’s election. The Congressional delegation has swung from five/four to seven/two and both are majority-minority districts.
Most importantly for the GOP is their top two leading contenders to replace Bob Corker, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Stephen Fincher are more conventional conservatives than not. Good luck painting them as outside the mainstream of their state.
Both Fincher and Blackburn have recently run competitive races (if 2010 counts). Bredesen, by contrast has not run since 2006. Bredesen would not be the first “legacy” candidate Democrats nominated with high hopes only to see their chances fizzle.
Last year, Democrats cheered when former Indiana Senator Evan Bayh decided to run for his old seat. The same could be said for Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. Both lost. Before last year, in 2012, Bob Kerrey lost by sixteen points in his comeback bid in Nebraska.
Underscoring how unpopular the party is in Tennessee, the DSCC didn’t even mention Bredesen’s recruitment in its week-in-review newsletter Friday. Indeed, few Democrats outside the beltway talk up Bredsen’s chances.
Democrats best path to an additional Senate seat now lies more in the GOP nominating a scandal plagued candidate or a surprise resignation outside Trump country. The reality is if Alabama slips from Democrats grasp Tuesday the party has a less than one percent chance of taking the Senate.
If anything, America’s politics have become more tribal as voter groups increasingly affiliate with those like them on ideological, racial and ethnic grounds. As a result, these trends benefit Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans in the short term. The same cannot be said for Paul Ryan.