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The Senate Surprises We Did — And Didn’t — See Coming

It’s been well over a year since we published our first stories about the race for control of the U.S. Senate. Even then, circa May 2017 (God help us), we knew that the map favored Republicans and that the battle for control of the chamber would be pitched. A lot has happened since then: There have been unorthodox primary candidates and a shifting battleground map; a Supreme Court seat opened up, creating an engulfing political controversy for senators locked in tight races; and the climate in the country has remained highly partisan and highly antagonistic when it comes to all things political — twice in the past year, I’ve arrived at work to the sight of police guarding offices that house dozens of journalists.

Given the pace of the political news cycle — and given that there just isn’t much left to say the day before Election Day — I thought it would be helpful to take a look back at the way the Senate races have unfolded from the early days when we knew even less than we do now, to the primaries, to the final general election push.

The far-too-early race handicapping

Let’s start at the beginning. The year was 2017, and President Trump had just been inaugurated. Democrats were worried, and Republicans were feeling good, considering that there were 10 Democratic senators from states that Trump won in 2016 whose seats would be on the ballot in 2018. Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin all had at-risk seats that were discussed in the press. (The Democratic incumbents in each of those states are currently favorites in each of those races, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast.)

In September 2017, I wrote a list of what I called “unlikely” scenarios that could shuffle the Senate map. The past year in politics turned out to be topsy-turvy enough that some of the things I gamed out sort of came true. Among the unlikely scenarios I identified? Alabama’s open Senate seat’s going to a Democrat, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s being in re-election trouble, and Texas’s or New Jersey’s busting out of their partisan paradigms to elect someone from the other side of the aisle.

Soon after, Corker announced that he would retire. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona did the same thing one month later. Two months after Flake’s announcement, Democrat Doug Jones won the Alabama Senate seat that previously was held by Jeff Sessions — and it was off to the races. That month, The New York Times called the Senate a “tossup,” though we were a little more circumspect.

As time went on, things looked a lot more in flux than they had a few months earlier. In Ohio, Republican senatorial candidate Josh Mandel who looked set to run an aggressive campaign unexpectedly dropped out of the race to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in January 2018, leaving Republicans without a clear front-runner candidate and yet another key state in an uncertain position as primary season closed in.

The primaries

Spring 2018 brought primaries and some unexpected dynamics. Namely, many candidates tried to get a little outlandish in their campaigning. A little, dare we say it, Trumpian. Sometimes it backfired; sometimes it worked. West Virginia’s Republican contest to pick an opponent for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was particularly colorful — you might remember outsider candidate and former coal executive Don Blankenship, who stirred up a little trouble by referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch.” While mainstream Republican Patrick Morrisey won the race, GOP mudslinging might have helped Manchin shore up his position in the race. His re-election had once been in doubt, but he now has a 7 in 8 chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast.1

In Arizona, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran in the Republican primary. This is the man who was pardoned by Trump after his criminal contempt conviction for ignoring a court order in a racial-profiling case. Also in contention were Kelli Ward, a hardline conservative former state senator, and U.S. Rep. Martha McSally. Both Arpaio and Ward brought flavors of the more outlandish side of the activist right, and the three-way race divided media attention. Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema, a U.S. House member, got a few months of non-internecine-squabbling attention in the press, and she now has a 4 in 7 chance of defeating McSally in the general election.

Some former Trump skeptics softened their stances on the president. McSally in Arizona and Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin, each the Republican Party’s eventual nominee in their state and each somewhat reluctant Trump supporters, ended up aligning more closely with the president. The slightly unnatural fits perhaps led to less-than-stellar performances during the general-election period. Vukmir, who is running against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in a state the president won in 2016, has only a 1 in 40 chance of winning, according to our forecast.

The general election

In many Senate battleground states, the theme of the general election has been “independence.” Red-state Democrats hoping to keep their seats are trying to distance themselves from the perception of a top-down leadership style in Washington (a recent radio ad for Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said she wasn’t “one of those crazy Democrats.”) Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana ran an ad that could have easily been cut by Republicans, right down to the Ronald Reagan quote, and Tennessee Democrat Phil Bredesen has out-and-out said he wouldn’t vote for Chuck Schumer to be party leader in the Senate.

But as we come down to the wire, the theme of the 2018 Senate races might just be “partisanship.” Red-state Democrats looking to defend their turf — and in the cases of Arizona, Texas and Tennessee, pick up seats — are battling a powerful force in the form of 2018’s team-sports politics. Turnout and persuasion could help Democrats defy the odds and take the Senate, but more likely than not, they won’t. Sometimes politics is exactly as tribal as we perceive it to be.


  1. All forecast data in this article is from the “Classic” version of the FiveThirtyEight model, as of Saturday afternoon.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.