Democrats' best hope of holding the Senate runs through Trump country, experts say

Republicans see a lot more opportunity to win the chamber.

November 24, 2023, 5:07 AM

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin's announcement earlier this month that he won't seek reelection tilted next year's Senate map even further away from Democrats' narrow majority, political analysts say -- and underscored how such a victory hinges on Trump country.

Manchin's seat is one of three that his party is defending in states that Donald Trump won over Joe Biden in 2020. By declaring his retirement, the long-serving moderate West Virginian, who had continued to win even as his state continued to become more conservative, drastically lowered his party's chances of success there next year, according to the analysts and experts who spoke with ABC News.

Whoever controls the Senate can influence not just the government spending and other legislation out of Congress but also which Cabinet secretaries and judges -- and Supreme Court justices -- get approved.

Now, the easiest path for Democrats to maintain their 51-seat majority, the experts said, goes through Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana.

If Democrats hang onto those pair of seats while President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are reelected, with Harris being able to vote in Senate to break 50-50 ties, they will hold the chamber. But that will likely come with a costly and fierce election cycle, according to experts.

"Because West Virginia is a near-certain Republican pickup, the starting point is now a 50-50 Senate rather than a 51-49 Democratic majority," explained Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst for 538.

Democrats could potentially lose in Montana or Ohio, but then "they're going to have to pick off a Republican seat in hostile territory like Florida or Texas, which is going to be an even bigger challenge," Rakich said, referring to Sens. Rick Scott and Ted Cruz.

Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio and chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, speaks during a hearing in Washington, DC, US, on May 16, 2023.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is publicly boastful of its strategy, insisting they "have multiple pathways" to win.

This thinking was detailed in a recent DSCC memo by the group's executive director, Christie Roberts. The assessment is based in part on "flawed" rather than mainstream Republican candidates possibly being nominated while Democrats campaign on issues like abortion access, which have been key for voters in some states, like Michigan, in past elections.

Democrats also signaled they'd reallocate focus and resources on trying to flip Cruz's Texas seat and Scott's Florida one. Both incumbents only narrowly won the last time they were up for election.

"We're going to hold our Democratic seats, put Republicans on defense in places like Texas and Florida, and keep taking nothing for granted - that's the mentality we brought to winning last cycle, and that's what's going to lead us to victory in 2024," the DSCC chair, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, said in a statement to ABC News.

Senate Republicans have indicated they are not drastically changing their own elections strategy despite the presumptive West Virginia pickup.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a news conference alongside Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) at the Capitol Building on Jan. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, FILE

Their focus will continue to be on the fight in Montana and Ohio while also flipping seats in five presidential battleground states: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

They've also said they are seeking to recruit candidates who will be palatable to swing state voters and avoid the type of high-profile, messy primaries that occurred during the 2022 midterm cycle, which saw protracted fights for the party's nomination in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, both places where the GOP candidate went on to lose.

"With Manchin on his way out the door, we like our odds in West Virginia," National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesperson Tate Mitchell told ABC News. "The NRSC is going to keep working hard to recruit candidates who can win primaries and general elections and deliver a lasting majority for Republicans next year."

Republicans see opportunity in Ohio and Montana, too.

"Every statewide official in Montana and Ohio is a Republican except for Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown. It's going to be very difficult for those two to win re-election because they have voted for Joe Biden's policies," NRSC Chairman Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said in a statement to ABC News.

Tester and Brown have acknowledged that their races are likely to be close, releasing a joint fundraising email this week that previewed their pitch to voters.

"We're not the typical politicians you'd expect to see every day in the Senate. One of us is a seven-fingered dirt farmer. The other has been called disheveled, wrinkled, and rumpled ... We're facing the toughest reelection fight of our careers," they wrote.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks about health care for post-9/11 toxic-exposed veterans, Feb., 1, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP, FILE

In Ohio, a three-way Senate primary has been brewing for months on the GOP side, with current Secretary of State Frank LaRose struggling to catch up financially with Bernie Moreno and Matt Dolan, his two independently wealthy primary opponents.

A spokesperson for the Moreno campaign pointed to the candidate's ability to self-fund as a benefit to his election strategy.

"It's vital that Republicans nominate someone like Bernie who has both the financial firepower and the right message to defeat Sherrod Brown. In addition to being personally wealthy, Bernie has raised more money from donors than any non-incumbent GOP Senate candidate in the country this cycle," Conor McGuinness told ABC News.

LaRose entered the GOP primary in July, after Moreno and Dolan. As the state's top elections official, he also spearheaded two high-profile and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at blocking abortion protections from becoming enshrined in the state's constitution.

Still, the former state senator, who has endorsed Trump, has cited his background as a leader in Ohio as his leading attribute.

"This was always going to be a high stakes race and that's why it's vital that we have a battle-tested conservative like Frank LaRose to face Sherrod Brown in November. Frank is the best positioned to take help Republicans retake the Senate and help President Trump retake the White House," LaRose spokesperson Ben Kindel told ABC News.

In Montana, NRSC-endorsed Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL and another independently wealthy business owner, has also campaigned as a Trump ally, though the former president has not yet endorsed.

"The Trump-Sheehy ticket will lead Montana to victory in 2024," a spokesperson for the Sheehy campaign said.

Observers have warned of a potential twist, though: Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale has been urged by some in the party to run again against Tester after losing to him in 2018.

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