After Manchin, the Democrats’ path to holding the Senate is narrow

Sen. Joe Manchin III said he decided to forgo re-election because he had accomplished all of his goals. But for the Democrats he leaves behind in Washington, the work to prop up an already weak party in the Senate is just beginning.

While there are no guarantees in politics, West Virginia is now a virtual lock for a Republican turnaround. The state has become so conservative that only Wyoming offers a wider Republican edge in the 2020 presidential race.

Immediately after the publication of Mr. Manchin, several well-placed Democratic operatives said they could not name a single West Virginian who could take his place on the ballot and be even remotely competitive, especially if Gov. Jim Justice wins the Republican nomination.

“This is a huge impact,” said Ward Baker, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, a group that monitors Senate races. “Manchin not running will save Republicans a ton of money — and get rid of a board seat early.”

The road to retaining power was always going to be difficult for the current 51-seat Democratic majority, with or without Mr. Manchin.

Two incumbents are running for re-election in the red states of Montana and Ohio. A third senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who was elected as a Democrat but has since switched her party affiliation to an independent, has yet to announce her plans — leaving open the prospect of a typically competitive trio. The party also must defend four Senate seats in four of the most contested presidential battlegrounds: Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

But Republicans face potentially divisive primaries and a recent history of nominating extreme candidates who have lost key contests.

With West Virginia off the Senate board next year, Democrats must win every race they defend — and depend on President Biden to win the White House — to retain the majority. In a 50-50 Senate, the vice president casts the deciding vote. But that’s a risky bet given that a large number of Americans disapprove of President Biden as of August 2021. Gallup polls.

The bad news for Senate Democrats is that they are on the defensive in each of the seven seats that both parties consider the most competitive this year. The good news is that in five of those seven, the party is running for re-election, which historically has been a huge advantage.

Least 83 percent Senate incumbents have won re-election in 18 of the past 21 election cycles, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. Last year, 100 percent of the members of the Senate were re-elected.

“Given the success of the Democrats in 2020 and 2022, it would be a mistake to write off the Democrats at this stage,” said Justin Goodman, a former top aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader. “Candidates matter,” he said, also as a constant contrast Democrats are trying to strike against the “extreme MAGA agenda.”

Democratic leaders in Montana and Ohio — two top Republican targets while West Virginia is off the map — are seeking re-election in states that former President Donald J. Trump easily won twice. Both Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio have exceeded expectations before, but never with such an unpopular presidential candidate at the top of the list. And unlike most current presidents, whose victories become easier over time, Mr. Tester always had close races. Mr. Brown’s margins were shrinking.

But close wins count as much as easy ones, and Democrats argue that the personal brands of both Mr. Brown and Mr. Tester are more important in their states than the national political winds.

Republicans, who also face obstacles from Mr. Trump’s unpopularity and the party’s role in rolling back abortion rights, are trying to follow suit. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is placing a heavy emphasis on candidate recruitment this cycle to find candidates who can appeal to both conservatives and moderates in the party.

The strategy has already paid off in West Virginia.

One of the first calls of the year by Sen. Steve Daines, the Montana Republican who oversees his party’s Senate races, was to Mr. Justice in West Virginia, believing the popular governor’s presence in the race would help Mr. Manchin retire.

The second part of the strategy of Mr. Daines in West Virginia has been persistently lobbying to secure Mr. Trump’s support. Justice, with the aim not only to expel Mr. Manchin is already hoping that this will convince him to run for president as an independent. Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Justice last month.

Mr. Manchin, meanwhile, fueled speculation about a potential presidential run by saying on Thursday that he planned to gauge “interest in creating a movement to mobilize the environment and bring Americans together.”

In 2018, Democrats and Republicans combined spent about $53 million on the West Virginia Senate race. With no competitive racing in 2024, both sides will have tens of millions of dollars to spend on another tier of battlefield racing. Last year, candidates, parties and outside groups spent more than 1.3 billion dollars in 36 Senate races, including $737 million in just five states — Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that are also on the ballot next year.

“I think Wisconsin and Michigan are going to get a ton of Republican money that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who has worked on Senate races.

The most interesting of the runoff races could be in Arizona, where the state may have a competitive three-way race — a rarity in American politics. The wild-card is Ms. Sinema.

If he runs for a second term, he will likely face Rep. Ruben Gallego, a popular progressive Democrat who has already spent $6.2 million on the race this year, and Kari Lake, a fiery conservative Republican and one of the best in her party. a well-known pro-choice denier who is favored in her party’s primaries.

A competitive three-way general election would add a tantalizing dynamic to what could be the nation’s most expensive Senate race next year. Last year’s state Senate race, which pitted Sen. Mark Kelly against Blake Masters, the Republican nominee, cost more than 225 million dollars.

In Wisconsin, there is no top Republican challenging Sen. Tammy Baldwin, but the party has pushed for Eric Hovde, a businessman who ran for Senate in 2012. In Pennsylvania, Republicans have cleared the way for David McCormick to avoid bruising the primary and bolster their bid against Sen. Bob Casey, who is seeking a fourth six-year term.

Republicans were not so lucky in Michigan or Nevada.

In Michigan — the only competitive Senate race without an incumbent — Democrats have so far largely lined up behind Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who represents a split district. Mr. Daines recruited former representative Mike Rogers, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But James Craig, the former Detroit police chief, and former representative Peter Meijer, who lost his seat after voting to impeach Mr. Trump, have also entered the Republican race.

The Republican establishment’s pick in Nevada is Sam Brown, a retired Army captain who lost a Senate primary last year. But he faces a primary against Jim Marchant, a Trump loyalist and election denier who lost the race for secretary of state last year. The winner will face Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat seeking a second term.

With West Virginia infested, the Democratic Senate map is undeniably narrowing. But the party will look to go on the offensive in Florida and Texas. Both states have been reliable Republican strongholds in recent years, but Democrats realistically have no better option to replace a Republican seat this year.

In Florida, Senator Rick Scott, the state’s former governor, is seeking a second term. He’s never won an election by more than 1.2 percentage points, and he’s also never run in a presidential election year — when Democrats typically do better in Florida.

But the state swung to the right last year when Republicans won five statewide ballot races by an average of 18.9 percentage points. The leading Democratic challenger in the Florida Senate race this year is former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was ousted from her Miami seat after one term.

In Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz has been a constant target for Democrats — and he’s survived every time. His main challenger this year appears to be Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who defeated the Republican incumbent in 2018.

“Cruz’s vulnerability means there is an opportunity and Cruz can be defeated regardless of the presidential outcome,” said JB Poersch, chairman of Senate Majority PAC, which has spent more than $140 million over the past four years supporting Democratic Senate candidates.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee tested campaign messages in both states, and the party has dedicated communications and research staff in each location.

But to win Florida and Texas, Democrats will need the stars to align in a way they haven’t in West Virginia.

“Probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Mr. Baker, a former NRSC director, said of Democrats’ hopes of taking Florida or Texas. “They just lost their seat in the Senate. There’s no way to spin it.”

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