Why the ‘blue wave’ might not save Democrats in the Senate

Here's why Democrats are likely to take back the House, but Republicans could maintain their grip on the Senate.

As the midterms draw near, Democrats are likely to take back the House. The Senate is a different story. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
As the midterms draw near, Democrats are likely to take back the House. The Senate is a different story. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

It’s looking increasingly likely that the House may be hit by a “blue wave” this November, but new analyses have noted Senate Democrats are unlikely to experience the same kind of good fortune.

Right now, FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a four in five chance of taking back the House. Democrats also have an advantage in generic ballot polling, leading the GOP 50.3 percent to 41.6 percent with less than a month to go before the midterm election, and rating reports like Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball have also spent much of the election season predicting a good year for Democratic House candidates.

But the same can’t be said for Democrats in the Senate. In fact, FiveThirtyEight gives the party just a one in five chance of taking back the chamber. There is even a real chance — about 16 percent, the site’s Nate Silver says — that Republicans pick up one seat, and about a 12.5 percent chance they pick up two.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, in a midterm update released last week, pointed to one race in particular where they believe Democrats are likely to falter: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-ND) reelection in North Dakota. Last Thursday, the site changed the race’s rating from a toss-up to “lean Republican,” saying they believe the GOP has an edge in the state.

The rating change in Heitkamp’s race came just a week after Heitkamp announced she would vote against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by several women of sexual assault or predation. Many expected that Heitkamp, an unabashed centrist whom Trump asked to switch parties, would vote in favor of the nominee, especially considering the fact that she’s down against Republican Senate nominee Kevin Cramer by an average of nearly nine points.


As Splinter wrote at the time, it was a vote worth losing a Senate seat over, and it looks increasingly clear that may be the case for Heitkamp. Other Senate Democrats could face the same fate, as an NPR/Marist poll from earlier this month found that, amid the Kavanaugh fight, Republican voter enthusiasm jumped, essentially eliminating Democrats enthusiasm edge.

Heitkamp’s race also highlights another big reason that Democrats seem likely to do well in the House while they stand to lose seats in the Senate. To flip the House, Democrats need to contend in suburban districts, and recent polling shows that suburban voters — especially educated, suburban white women — may be turning their backs on Trump.

The path to taking back the House runs through more diverse districts near big cities, like a cluster of seats in and around Orange County currently held by Republicans but that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

But a number of Senate Democrats — like Heitkamp — have been forced to defend their seats in more rural, whiter areas of the country. Currently, for example, The Cook Political Report rates five Senate seats — Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota — currently held by Democrats as toss-ups.


There is a way Democrats could take back the Senate along with the House, though that would almost certainly, as Sabato wrote last week, require a victory in a state that leans Republican, like North Dakota, Tennessee, or Texas.

But the Democratic nominees in Tennessee and Texas — former Gov. Phil Bredesen and party darling Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), respectively — face similar uphill battles. In Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leads O’Rourke by an average of seven points, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) leads Bredesen by about five and a half points on average.

Of course, it’s important to note that polling is not always predictive, as anyone who lived through 2016 will remember. Heitkamp, in fact, looked to be in a similar bind in 2012, with polls showing her down 50-40 just ahead of the election six years ago.

What polling does do well is take the temperature of voters, and, as New York Times reporter Alex Burns said on the paper’s The Daily podcast Monday, the divergence for Democrats reveals just how differently the Senate and the House represent the country.

The Senate’s explicit purpose, as anyone who’s ever completed an eighth-grade history course knows, is to ensure all states are equally represented. That means smaller, less populated states get an outsized voice and polling subsequently elevates those voices. The House, by contrast, gives pollsters a more accurate reading on the temperature of the country — and by extension, the likelihood that it will lean one way or another, come election time.