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The Democrats’ 2024 Senate problem

The 2006 class yielded a partisan imbalance that affects future contests

Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania are among the Democrats first elected in years that helped create a Democratic imbalance that has lasted through several election cycles.
Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania are among the Democrats first elected in years that helped create a Democratic imbalance that has lasted through several election cycles. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — While campaign junkies everywhere are focused on the 2022 midterm elections, I’m already thinking about the fight for the Senate in 2024.

Sure, what happens in next year’s congressional elections will impact the future, as will the next presidential contest, the state of the economy and dozens of other unknowns. If you are looking for predictions here about 2024, you are looking in the wrong place.

But we already know that while handicappers’ initial ratings for the Senate class of 2022 suggest a relatively even fight involving only a handful of states, the 2024 map strongly favors the GOP.

At least nine Democratic-held seats in competitive states will be up in 2024 — Arizona (Kyrsten Sinema), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow), Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), Montana (Jon Tester), Nevada (Jacky Rosen), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey), West Virginia (Joe Manchin III) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin).

In addition, the seat of Maine independent Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats and recently turned 77, will be up.

Democrats may eventually hold some, most or all of these seats, of course. Tester, Brown, Casey and Manchin, for example, have shown the ability to attract working-class white voters and to win in a difficult environment.

But those Democrats who won competitive contests during the 2018 midterms did so with a controversial Republican in the White House. Can they hold their seats during a recession or with an unpopular Democratic president seeking (or not seeking) reelection?

Barring dramatic shifts in state partisan preferences over the next few years, Republicans will likely be defending only one or two competitive Senate seats in 2024 — in Florida (Rick Scott) and, possibly, in Texas (Ted Cruz).

The 2024 Senate class’s partisan alignment dates to 2006, when the GOP lost a net of six Senate seats during President George W. Bush’s second midterm election. That Democratic partisan wave created a hugely unbalanced class that continues to this day.

Heading into the 2006 balloting, Democrats were defending 18 Senate seats (including that of Vermont independent Jim Jeffords) to the GOP’s 15. But Republican Senate losses in Missouri (Jim Talent), Montana (Conrad Burns), Ohio (Mike DeWine), Pennsylvania (Rick Santorum), Rhode Island (Lincoln Chafee) and Virginia (George Allen) produced a Senate class that included only nine Republicans and 24 Democrats, including two independents who caucused with them, Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.

Six years later, that class was up during President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection race against GOP challenger Mitt Romney. But instead of Republicans narrowing the partisan gap in the Senate class, Democrats offset a GOP gain in Nebraska with their own gains in Indiana and Massachusetts, which they had lost in a 2010 special election.

They also added a seat in Maine, where King won an open seat and said he would caucus with Democrats. All of those changes added up to a Senate class of 25 Democrats and a mere eight Republicans.

In 2018, during President Donald Trump’s midterm election — which was disastrous for the GOP in the House — Republicans gained a net of two Senate seats, winning 10 to the Democrats’ 23.

Though the Senate map was once again friendly to Republicans, Democrats minimized the damage by retaining seats in Trump-friendly states such as Montana (Tester) and West Virginia (Manchin), defeating a Republican incumbent in Nevada (Rosen over Dean Heller) and winning a GOP open seat in Arizona (Sinema).

All of this explains why the class of 2024 is so different from the other two Senate classes, each of which includes considerably more Republicans than Democrats. Those other classes took advantage of Obama’s two midterms to make huge gains, adding six Senate seats in 2010 and a stunning nine seats in 2014.

Can Democratic strategists overcome the Democrats’ numerical problems in 2024? Possibly, though it is far too early to speculate about individual contests or the cycle as a whole.

But the Senate class of 2006 (and 2012 and 2018) is likely to be a challenge for Democratic strategists when it comes up again in 2024, and it gives Republicans an unusual opportunity to make large gains that could change the arithmetic — and the politics — of Washington dramatically.

And that’s why I’m watching the shape of 2024 Senate races even now.

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