The GOP currently controls 52 seats to the Democrats’ 48 (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats). The Democrats would need to flip three seats in order to take control; but considering that Democrats are defending 25 of the 34 seats up for a vote in the next 14 months , including three of the four races deemed “toss ups” by the Cook Political Report (Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia, all states that voted for Trump), the numbers are not favorable. But perhaps the 2018 Senate races are not all simply chess pieces on a divine board controlled by Mitch McConnell and an angry Old Testament God. Perhaps there could be unforeseen events — it’s happened before — that upset the balance of the chamber not just in 2018, but beyond.
With this in mind, and to make sure we’re not thinking too narrowly, let’s consider a few Wild Card scenarios — places and races where certain factors, seen and unforeseen, likely and highly unlikely, might upset the staid Senate map. (We’ll leave out for now Wild Cards that aren’t likely to shift the party balance, like an Orrin Hatch retirement and a Sen. Mitt Romney replacement in Utah.)
After all, although President Trump is already historically unpopular, the political environment could get still worse for Republicans. (Bob Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election is inexorably moving forward.) Safely red seats could suddenly look much less safe in such a political future. But let’s start with a couple of scenarios that lean into the current narrative: The map could get a whole lot worse for Democrats than it already is.
New Jersey (Cook rating: Likely D)
States that voted for Trump, such as Ohio, Florida and Montana, are still rated as “leaning Democratic” even though the party will have to wage tough campaigns, but outside forces also threaten at least one “safer” Democratic senate seat. New Jersey’s Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez is currently on trial for bribery and corruption, and those things are not good things to be on trial for when you are a sitting U.S. senator. If Menendez were convicted, there would be grounds for his Senate colleagues to expel him. Chris Christie is the Republican governor of New Jersey and is in office until January 2018. If Menendez were convicted and thrown out of the Senate before Christie’s term ends on Jan. 18, Christie would be able to appoint a Republican to the seat. That hypothetical Republican appointee would be able to run for re-election in 2018, but Menendez losing his seat could throw the Democratic side into chaos. The drama!
That said, Menendez might not be convicted. Or, if he is, he might be convicted after Christie has left office (and a Democrat is currently favored to replace Christie as governor). But even if he isn’t convicted — an obvious best case scenario for the senator — the trial has been taking a political toll on him. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 50 percent of the state’s voters don’t think Menendez deserves to be re-elected in 2018.
Don’t take New Jersey off the 2018 board just yet.
California (Cook rating: Solid D)
The state might be seen by Republicans as half a continental coastline of sanctuary city after sanctuary city — Democratic home turf — but Democrats aren’t entirely happy with their representation there. Activists on the left have consistently voiced displeasure with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in recent months. She was booed at a town hall in April for telling constituents that she’s against single-payer health care, and she was booed last month at an event in San Francisco for saying Trump “can be a good president” if he were to “learn and change.” She hasn’t voted in support of Trump’s agenda often, but she’s done so more than any other Democrat in the Senate. And a late March poll showed that Feinstein’s approval rating had slipped 7 percentage points from the previous year, to 49 percent.
Primary challengers are emerging to take on Feinstein, and while the state is heavily Democratic, there is some (albeit little) risk that a fractured Democratic field, or Feinstein losing in the primary to a candidate who’s less general-election tested, could enable California Republicans, no matter how feeble they may be.
Of course, Republicans in general are considered favorites to hold on to the Senate, barring disaster. So, let’s look at some scenarios that could bring things crashing down around their ears.
Arizona (Cook rating: n/a)
Sen. John McCain has been a central figure in American political life over the past couple of decades, and his diagnosis with brain cancer this summer shook many. McCain’s exit from politics would also have the potential to shake up Arizona politics in the long term. Should McCain resign from office or pass away, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey would name a replacement. That person would have to run in a special election come 2018, and here’s where things become unsure. Arizona’s other senator, Jeff Flake, is already in a difficult re-election campaign in 2018 (I wrote about the race), being challenged by a more Trumpian candidate who some observers think can’t win in a general election. Should similar dynamics emerge in a special election — perhaps a more unorthodox candidate winning the primary but running weakly in a general election — solidly red Arizona could start to look purple. It’s not entirely unimaginable that the state has two Democrats in the Senate come 2019.
Alabama (Cook rating: Solid R)
In the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ former seat, Roy Moore currently leads Sen. Luther Strange. Moore seems more likely than not to win the primary runoff Tuesday, and since Alabama is a heavily Republican state (Trump won there by 28 percentage points), it seems safe to say that he’s likely to win the general election as well, which will take place in December of this year.
But “likely” is not “definitely.” Moore has a history of controversy — he was removed twice from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by court orders — and he’s been no stranger to it on the campaign trail. He used racial slurs in recent remarks, referring to “reds and yellows,” and defended the remarks by tweeting, “Red, yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. This is the Gospel.” It is not the Gospel that he quoted, but in fact an old-fashioned children’s hymn. Misattribution aside, it raises the question: Is it possible for Moore to say something so offensive – either on the campaign trail or in emergent remarks from his past — that political allies would abandon him and he could lose to a Democrat? Probably not, but you never know.
Tennessee (Cook rating: Solid R)
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the foreign relations committee, is influential. But he also might be in trouble when it comes to re-election. A poll out this summer indicated that 42 percent of Republican primary voters in the state thought it was time to “give someone else a chance” at the seat. In August, Trump tweeted his displeasure with Corker and indicated that Tennessee voters might want to give him the boot. (Corker has been critical of Trump and the White House, especially in the wake of Charlottesville.) Should Corker lose a primary — Steve Bannon, Trump’s ex-chief strategist, is apparently looking to back a challenger there — it might open things up in the red state for a Democratic candidate, like Iraq War veteran James Mackler.
Texas (Cook rating: Solid R)
Could Texas turn blue in 2018? This is the great white whale of Democrats, and if nothing else, it’s entirely Wild Card-worthy. Sen. Ted Cruz — remember him? — is up for re-election in 2018 and could be a bit vulnerable. This is in part because a lot of people don’t like Ted Cruz, including former President George W. Bush and those who booed the senator at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Moderate Republicans dissatisfied with both Cruz and Trump could be looking to defect. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has announced his candidacy against Cruz, and a (very) early poll showed the two tied with 30 percent of the vote. Vanity Fair glowingly and in a painfully on-brand move called the young (ish) congressman “Kennedyesque,” so that doesn’t hurt things. Who knows, with Trump in office and Democrats motivated, Texas could elect a Democratic senator, a Wild Card if there ever was one in 21st century American politics.