For months now, the focus of Campaign 2018, rightly, has been on control of the House. All the metrics continue to point to a midterm election in which Democrats could seize control of that chamber. But for sheer drama and unpredictability, the contest for control of the Senate could be the place to look.
The House is no slam-dunk for the Democrats, but most Republicans following the campaigns are genuinely worried and probably right to be that way. The overall environment is difficult for the GOP because of President Trump and because of the location of the competitive races; suburban areas as one example. There are so many Republican-held seats at risk (and very few Democratic seats in similar danger) that Democrats have multiple paths to pick up the 23 they need to flip the chamber.
The Senate is and has been a different story. There the Democrats’ prospects are much more difficult, in large part because of the two big structural differences with the battle for the House. If the terrain that will determine control of the House more generally reflects the breadth of the country, the campaign for the Senate is largely playing out in the heart of Trump country.
Republicans are only defending nine of the 35 Senate seats up in November. They have to play far less defense than the Democrats. Second, many of the most competitive Democratic-held seats are in states Trump won easily in 2016: West Virginia by 42 points; North Dakota by 36 points; Montana by 20 points; Indiana and Missouri each by 19 points.
The range of possibilities in the Senate is not at all the same as in the House. No one questions whether Democrats will gain seats in the House in two months. The question is how many: a few short of the 23 they need, a few more than 23 or a lot more than 23. In the Senate, Republicans could, narrowly, lose control of the chamber or they could end up bolstering their slender two-seat majority.
The state of the races offers few definitive clues as to what is coming. Almost everywhere you look the contests are tight. Florida features one of the premier Senate races of the cycle and probably the costliest, pitting Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson against Rick Scott, the term-limited Republican governor.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Nelson and Scott tied at 49 percent, as have some other relatively recent polls. Scott is used to this. In two elections for governor, his victory margins were about a percentage point each time. Nelson won an easy reelection six years ago by double digits, but those days are gone.