The Democrats’ Senate Map of Doom
Michigan Senator Gary Peters didn’t want to serve as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) again. Perhaps it’s because he can see the 2024 Senate map.
Even though almost every competitive race went the way Senate Democrats needed them to last fall, in the 118th Congress, they enjoy only a fragile 51-49 majority. Further, they had three big things going for them in the midterms: a favorable map, a shockingly poor batch of low-quality GOP opponents, and a Supreme Court decision that revved up left-leaning activists across the country.
As important as all three of these factors were in Democratic Senate victories, the most significant one was the map—and that will look drastically different next cycle.
In 2024, nearly half of the Democratic caucus—23 senators—is up for re-election. Of those, 8 are considered vulnerable: 5 in battleground states (Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia) and the other 3 in solidly red states (Ohio, Montana, West Virginia). Republicans, on the other hand, have only 11 senators up for re-election in the 2024 cycle, and all of them represent states Trump won in 2020.
Retirements could also be ahead for Dem incumbents. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey revealed his prostate cancer diagnosis earlier this month, and he has since refused to comment on his 2024 plans before “get[ting] through” treatment. The Washington Post’s Liz Goodwin noted, “Ten of the senators who caucus with Democrats who are up for re-election in two years are over 70 years old.” Some of those senators, such as California’s Dianne Feinstein and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, do represent solidly Democratic states, but that won’t protect the party from damaging intraparty chaos and turmoil should one of their seats become open.
So even though it’s early and elections are unpredictable, the map math is hard to deny: Republicans stand a much better shot of taking control of the Senate than Democrats do of keeping it in 2024.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Peters was candid about how the Democrats won in 2022. In addition to repeating conventional wisdom about hard work, fundraising, and a strong ground game, he also shared what he considers his party’s secret weapon.
“The No. 1 factor for us holding and expanding the majority was the quality of our candidates, especially vis-à-vis the quality of the opposition,” Peters said. Implicit in the assessment is former President Donald Trump’s role in boosting losing GOP Senate candidates, a key factor that Peters and Senate Minority Leader Mitch “Candidate Quality” McConnell agree upon. Peters also said Dobbs v. Jackson, the decision overturning Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court handed down four and a half months before the election, was “incredibly important” because it “made people angry,” and “anger is a powerful motivator.”
But those conditions can’t be replicated in 2024. Anyone looking for lessons in 2022 that Senate Democrats could reasonably apply to 2024—lessons, that is, beyond the boilerplate about hard work, fundraising, and the ground game—is likely to come up short.
Candidates who led some of the worst 2022 GOP campaigns in purple states—Herschel Walker in Georgia, Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, and Blake Masters in Arizona—would probably win if they ran those same campaigns in the red states that Democrats have to defend in 2024. And the Supreme Court isn’t going to make any decisions comparable to reversing fifty years of reproductive rights laws anytime soon.
So what can Democrats do to improve their chances? They need some kind of rising tide. Relatively soon, too. Democrats’ prospects for 2024 look much better on the House side. If they retake control in the House but lose the Senate, Inside Elections guru Stuart Rothenberg flagged, it would be the first time ever that the House and Senate both simultaneously flipped, “putting the ‘out’ party back in control in each chamber.”
But the marquee race of 2024 will not be among any of these House or Senate races. It will be the 2024 presidential election. A great presidential campaign can lift Senate races; a bad one may sink both House and Senate contests. (See: the Trump effect.)
However, the swarm of questions buzzing around Joe Biden’s candidacy—is he ready, willing, and able to run for re-election? what happens if he doesn’t?—makes it nearly impossible to handicap 2024 at this time.
Maybe that’s why Sen. Peters changed his mind and decided to serve as chairman of the DSCC for another term. The possibilities for 2024 are wide open, and the American electorate loves to defy conventional wisdom.