The Rushmore Report – The Six Senate Races that Really Matter

The 2018 midterm elections are just two weeks away. It seems likely that Democrats are poised to take control of the House of Representatives with a net pick-up of at least 23 seats. But the Senate is another question. While 35 races are on the ballot, only six really matter. The others will all likely be won by incumbents, meaning none of these 29 races will impact the Republicans’ current 51-49 lead. So how are these six key races stacking up with just 14 days to go?

First, a bit of history. PolitiFact notes that, dating back to 1862, the party that holds the White House has averaged a net loss of two Senate seats in midterm elections. If that holds this year, Democrats will flip the Senate by the most narrow of margins, 51-49.

The problem for Democrats, however, is that of these six races, they are defending four of them. So let’s take a look, state by state.

1. Missouri

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) is trying to fend off the challenge of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). The state voted for Trump, 57-38 percent. but McCaskill has already been elected to the Senate twice. And she led this race by as much as seven points just two months ago. But recent polls have shifted toward Hawley. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polling puts Hawley ahead, 46.3 to 45.8 percent. This narrow lead of .5 percent has given optimism to Republicans in a highly Republican state. However, energy remains on Democrats’ side. This may be the closest of the six competitive races. I’m going against recent polling and guessing that McCaskill will hold this seat by a whisker.

Winner: Claire McCaskill (hold for Democrats)

2. Nevada

Republican Senator Dean Heller is trying to hold a seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. In fact, this is the only state where a Republican won a senate seat along with a Clinton vote for President. Democratic challenger Jacky Rosen, who has represented Nevada’s third congressional district for two years, has the strong backing of former President Barack Obama. Heller is not particularly popular in his home state. Current average polls give him a narrow – but growing – lead of 1.7 points.

Winner: Dean Heller (hold for Republicans)

3. Florida

This one will go down as the most expensive Senate race in history. It is truly a battle of the heavyweights. In one corner is Senator Bill Nelson (D), who is running for a fourth term. In the other corner is popular Governor Rick Scott (R), who has the backing of President Trump. Trump beat Clinton in Florida by 1.2 points. A wild card is the governor’s race, which is currently leaning Democrat. For months, Scott maintained a narrow lead in the polls. Then things shifted to Nelson, who led in most polls by three to five points through early fall. But now, things are shifting back toward Scott. Real Clear Politics has this as a dead heat, 46.3 to 46.3 percent. So who will win? I give the edge to Rick Scott for three reasons. First, momentum is on his side. Second, when an incumbent can’t crack 50 percent in the polls, that incumbent usually loses. Third, people want change. Re-electing an aging three-term senator hardly represents that change.

Winner: Rick Scott (pick-up for Republicans)

4. North Dakota

One-term Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D) is being challenged by Kevin Cramer (R) in a heavily Republican state. Cramer is the state’s only member of the U.S. House, so he has high visibility, the president’s backing, and he is surging in recent polls. The latest polls out of North Dakota have the challenger up, 57-42 percent.

Winner: Kevin Cramer (pick-up for Republicans)

5. Arizona

With the retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake (R), this state is wide open, and is becoming more Democratic by the moment. Democrat Rep. Kyrsten Sinema led for months over Republican Rep. Martha McSally. But recent polling is moving in McSally’s direction, with Real Clear Politics now giving McSally a very narrow lead of 45.3 to 45.0 percent. I have moved this state from Democrat to Republican based on two factors: polls are sliding toward McSally, and her experience in the military will sway the older population of Arizona.

Winner: Martha McSally (hold for Republicans)

6. Montana

Jon Tester (D) has held this seat since 2007, in a heavily Republican state. State auditor Matt Rosendale is mounting an uphill challenge against the popular Tester. But President Trump is going all in with his support for Rosendale, and it seems to be working. What makes this one hard to predict is the lack of polling in the sparsely populated state. Montana is reliably unpredictable. My thinking is that voters will place a high value on keeping their incumbent in place, as Tester has moved into leadership roles within the senate.

Winner: Jon Tester (hold for Democrats)


Remember, the other 29 senate races are pretty much set. Unless there is a major upset in West Virginia or Indiana (both held by incumbent Democrats), it will all come down to these six states: Missouri, Nevada, Florida, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana. Because only two of these are held by Republicans (Nevada and Arizona), in order for Democrats to retake the Senate, they will need to hold all four of their seats and pick up both Republican seats. Neither is likely. I see Democrats losing Florida and North Dakota, with no change in the other four states. This represents a net pick-up of two Senate seats for the Republican Party.

Final Score: Republicans 53, Democrats 47

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