The once-safe Republican Senate majority is starting to look vulnerable. A Democrat takeover of the Senate would almost certainly have to go through the Tennessee seat of the retiring Bob Corker. Although Tennessee is normally a red state, the race for Corker’s seat is shaping up to be a fight.
The Tennessee race is competitive at this early stage largely because the Democrats nominated Phil Bredesen, a popular former governor with widespread name recognition as their candidate. Bredesen is among the Southern Democrats who have not fully embraced the party’s leftward lurches, which helps make him palatable in the conservative South.
Republicans nominated Marsha Blackburn, currently the congressional representative for the state’s seventh district, which encompasses the suburbs of Nashville to the rural areas east of Memphis. Blackburn has served in the House since 2003 and is a frequent guest on Fox News.
Perhaps unexpectedly, current polling shows Bredesen in the lead. Every poll since March has put Bredesen out front with margins from eight to 20 percent. Ms. Blackburn led in only one poll that was taken last January.
Sen. Corker, who has been no stranger to confrontation with President Trump, doesn’t seem to be doing much to help. Corker has praised Bredesen, a longtime friend and political ally, saying he was “a very good mayor, a very good governor, a very good business person.” Corker said he plans to vote for Blackburn, but won’t campaign against Bredesen.
“I think he’s got real appeal — I don’t think it, I know it,” Corker told the Christian Science Monitor. “The question is, in a state like ours that is still a red state, is it enough? I don’t know the answer to that.”
The Tennessee seat is almost a must-win for Democrats if they hope to take control of the Senate. Democrats need a net gain of two seats to win a majority. This is a taller order than it seems since Democrats are defending 26 seats while only nine Republican seats are being contested.
Nevertheless, two Republican seats in addition to Tennessee are considered toss ups by the Cook Political Report. Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada and Jeff Flake’s seat in Arizona, both critics of President Trump, are too close to call. Recent polling shows Heller in a dead heat at 40 percent with Democrat Jacky Rosen while Democrat Kyrsten Sinema leads all potential Republican candidates ahead of the Arizona primary. Both races seem to be likely possibilities for another Democrat pickup.
Cook has also moved another three Republican seats into competitive territory. The seats of Cindy Hyde-Smith (who faces both Democrat Mike Espy and Republican Chris McDaniel in a three-way special election) in Mississippi, Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Ted Cruz in Texas have all been downgraded to “likely” Republican from “safe” Republican.
For their part, the Democrats also have several vulnerable seats. Six Democrat seats (Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia) are rated as toss ups. Another two (Minnesota and Ohio) are considered to lean Democrat.
If, as Democrats hope, the race hinges on Mr. Trump, Republicans could be in for a long night. Of the nine toss up states, Trump’s net approval is at or below zero in all but Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia. A key question is whether voters will separate Mr. Trump’s personality from his increasingly popular policies.
It is more likely that these close races will hinge on local factors and the quality of the individual candidates. In some cases, primary battles have yet to be waged to determine the nominee. In many cases, polling is sparse and unreliable for the state-level elections.
Like many of the individual races, control of the Senate is a tossup at this early date, but Republican chances in some individual races appear to be slipping. Democrat control of the Senate is still a long shot given the dynamics of the election, but the party has made gains over the past month. If the expected blue wave emerges, it could conceivably cause the Senate to change hands as well as the House.