If Democrats want to take control of the Senate after the midterm elections – and they very much want to – they’re going to need to defend nearly all of their current seats, knock off at least two vulnerable Republicans and maybe strike deep into red territory.
What they can’t afford is to play defense in blue states.
But that’s exactly the position of trial-tainted Sen. Robert Menendez, who survived federal corruption charges in New Jersey with a mistrial and now wants to hold onto his job in the Senate.
A number of factors conspired to make CNN slide the New Jersey Senate race from Likely Democrat to Lean Democrat on Monday.
Read the full report from Dan Merica and Terence Burlij. Polling in New Jersey has suggested the race is incredibly tight – between two and six percentage points between Menendez and his deep-pocketed challenger Bob Hugin in recent weeks.
Democrats need to pick up two seats to win the Senate majority. That might not sound like a lot of seats in a midterm election year when the anti-Trump winds are undeniably helping them, particularly in House races.
But the map this year, with numerous red state Senate Democrats up for re-election, favors Republicans.
New Jersey should be a gimme for Democrats. Trump lost New Jersey by 14 percentage points in 2016. It’s deep blue territory. But now Menendez finds himself in the Lean Democratic column, alongside contested Senate races in Ohio, Montana, West Virginia and Wisconsin, all states President Donald Trump won.
A tight race for Menendez bucks the perception of a Trump backlash that has propelled Democrats this midterm. They’re on offense in key suburban House districts around the country and seem very close to knocking Republicans out of the majority in the House. While the Senate is a much different story, there’s reason for Democrats to be excited about their Senate chances too. Democrat Beto O’Rourke has vaulted into unlikely contention for the Senate seat in Texas held by Sen. Ted Cruz. But while O’Rourke and his supporters are feeding off the moment, Menendez is finding difficulty despite the moment.
Just like Texas hasn’t had a Democrat elected as a senator since Lloyd Bentsen won re-election in 1988, New Jersey hasn’t had a Republican elected senator since Clifford Case won re-election in 1972. (Texas did have a Democrat appointee, temporarily, to fill a vacancy, and New Jersey had two Republican senators appointed, temporarily, to fill vacancies).
But while demographers and politics watchers have long wondered if Texas, with its status as one of a handful of majority-minority states, would start to turn toward Democrats, no such turn long-term turn toward Republicans has been predicted for New Jersey.
Arizona, another state that has seemed to move toward Democrats but has not voted Democratic yet, could elect its first Democratic senator since 1988, as Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema squares off against Republican Rep. Martha McSally for the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. That seems more likely than either New Jersey or Texas flipping.
The Arizona race, along with Tennessee, is one of two Toss Up open races being vacated by Republicans that Democrats will have to win to realize their slim chances of winning the Senate. The only incumbent Republican incumbent in the Toss Up column is Nevada’s Dean Heller. If Democrats swept those three key Toss Up Republican seats, they could gain a slim majority. But their quest will be complicated by the fact that there are three Democratic incumbents who are also in Toss Up races in states Trump won. There’s also a Democratic incumbent, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, whose race is rated by CNN as Lean Republican. If Democrats lose the race in North Dakota and lose just one of the Toss Up races, their chances of taking the Senate majority go from slim to nearly shut.
Each of these races is unique, as Menendez and his troubles prove, but if Democrats are going to make a play for the majority, a tight New Jersey race, even if it still leans toward Menendez, is the last thing party leaders want to worry about if it provides an unexpected opportunity for Republicans.