The concept of “off years” once meant relative political tranquility, save the occasional special congressional election and the regular off-year state elections in Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia.
The new reality is that for the two major parties, odd-numbered years are about candidates, while even-numbered years are about campaigns. The year before an election, there is no greater task than convincing incumbents, at least those who are not extremely old or scandal-damaged, to seek reelection, while simultaneously encouraging the best possible candidates run in open and toss-up races and keeping the weakest candidates out.
Anyone who believes that national party leaders and operatives should take a hands-off approach to who runs where obviously does not appreciate what happened to Republicans in 2022. To be sure, the abortion issue was important. The Supreme Court’s abortion decision mobilized a previously unexcited Democratic base, partially closing the intensity and turnout gap, even though Republican turnout was still higher than that of the Democrats.
A second factor was the onset of Trump fatigue among those voters not living in Trump World. While independents are not exactly excited about the idea of a four-year extension of President Biden’s lease in the White House, they have grown equally weary of former President Trump. More broadly, they are apprehensive about electing those who do not condemn the Jan. 6 attacks and those who do not accept election results that don’t go in their own favor. And they are not excited about electing more people who are far away from the mainstream of American political thought.
But it was the nomination of inexperienced candidates in key races who held rather eccentric—if not exotic—views, as well as a great deal of personal and political baggage, that cost the GOP in key senatorial, gubernatorial, and House races in 2022. That allowed Democrats to come out of what looked to be a typical midterm election with results that weren’t too bad in the House, while losing only one governorship and showing extraordinary success in the Senate by actually gaining a seat.
The Senate is where the retirement and recruiting challenge is most clear today. For 2024, the overall arithmetic alone is difficult for Democrats, who are defending 23 Senate seats to just 11 for Republicans. Making it much more daunting is that seven are in states that have voted for Trump, while three of those—Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia—were carried by Trump in both 2016 and 2020. It is a pretty safe assumption that Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia will have tough reelection campaigns.
Then there is Arizona, which is particularly complicated for both parties. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego said Monday he would run for the seat currently occupied by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who late last year switched from the Democratic Party to become an independent. Presumably that would set up a three-way contest among Sinema, a Democrat, and a Republican. But it seems likely that a Democratic nominee and Sinema would split the non-Republican vote and put the seat into the red column.
A lot depends on the Republican side. If a more traditional Republican wins the nomination, it would be very difficult to see how the seat would not fall into GOP hands. Legacy Republicans still do well in the state. When Doug Ducey was elected governor in 2014 and reelected in 2018, he captured 53.5 and 56 percent, respectively. When John McCain was the presidential nominee in 2008 and sought reelection to the Senate in 2016, he pulled 53.8 and 53.7 percent, respectively.
Then look at Republicans who ran as archconservatives or Trump-backed MAGA candidates. Trump won Arizona in 2016 with just 48.1 percent of the vote, before losing it in 2020 with 49.1 percent. Martha McSally received 47.6 percent of the vote in her 2018 Senate loss to Sinema, running far to the right despite having been a relatively centrist voting record in the House. Last year, two very MAGA-aligned candidates, Kari Lake in the gubernatorial race and Blake Masters in the Senate race, both lost, with Lake winning 49.7 percent of the vote and Masters 46.5 percent.
Outside of Arizona, the biggest risks for Democrats would seem to be if Manchin, 75, or Tester, 66, retire. For that matter, it wouldn’t be that great if Maine’s Angus King, who is 78, decides not to run. Democrats are already having to worry about an open seat in Michigan with Debbie Stabenow’s retirement. How many more headaches can they afford?
Conversely, there is not a single one of the 11 GOP Senate seats up that appears even remotely as endangered as any of those previously mentioned. At this point, it is Democrats on defense, Republicans on offense—full stop.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 23, 2023.
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