Democrats’ Quest for Senate Is Hard, But Not Impossible

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The Republican mood has become more churlish since 2006. Democrats scored their pivotal 51st seat when Republican incumbent George Allen lost his Virginia race by one half of one percent; his defeat was blamed on an incident when he’d singled out an apparent immigrant in his audience and said: “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is…Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” The word “macaca” is widely considered a racial slur against African immigrants. Allen’s target turned out to be a native-born Virginian whose parents came to America from India. It’s questionable, in many red states today, whether a Trump Republican would be similarly doomed for impugning immigrants.

Today, Trump’s strategy is to use the immigration issue to squeeze red-state Democratic senators running for re-election. It already appears to be working in Trump-friendly Indiana, where Joe Donnelly is trying to save himself. In 2012 he had the good fortune of drawing a flawed Republican opponent – Richard Murdock, who publicly declared that any woman impregnated by a rapist was carrying “a gift from God” – but now Donnelly is being hit with advertising that depicts scary figures pouring over the border and says he has “waffled” on building a wall. Donnelly has thus hastened to insist that he’s “fine” with more funding for a wall.

Trump, who is prominently featured in that anti-Donnelly ad, won by double digits two years ago in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. He won by single digits in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democratic senators are on the ballot in all 10 states. Many seem well-poised to win in November – most notably, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sherrold Brown in Ohio, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Jon Tester in Montana, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia – but Democrats need to save virtually all of them, including Donnelly, if they are to have any hopes of netting the necessary two seats for a Senate flip.

To pull off that minor miracle, they’ll also need to win at least two of the three targeted red seats: Tennessee (where Bob Corker is departing), Arizona (where Jeff Flake is departing), and Nevada (a blue-tilting state where incumbent Republican Dean Heller is imperiled). Trump in ‘16 won Tennessee by double digits; Arizona, by single digits. His hot-button immigration emphasis may be potent enough to mobilize base turnout, particularly among white seniors who vote heavily in midterms.

The Democrats’ current counter-strategy, to stoke their own turnout among young people and minorities who usually skip midterms, worked well in Alabama to derail conservative Roy Moore, but it has yet to be tested in red states spanning the national map. Moore was fatally hampered by child molestation accusations; this fall, with no Moores on the ballot, numerous red-state Democrats may be forced to play defense because of Trump’s culture war. The last thing they want, on Trump-friendly turf, is to play defense on immigration and diversity.

Such are the known knowns. But be prepared for the unexpected. The Democrats of 2006 took the Senate despite conventional wisdom which decreed that flipping six seats was implausible. The current wisdom is that flipping two seats is implausible. Perhaps we’ll wake up on Nov. 7 with the urge to invoke Red Smith, the renowned sportswriter who opined, after one miracle baseball climax, that “only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”

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