What Defcon Are Senate Democrats at Now?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 2 2013 7:09 PM

Defcon for Democrats

How doomed are the Democrats in the Senate?

Rep. Thomas B. "Tom" Cotton, R-AK., Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-SC., and Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK.
Rep. Thomas B. "Tom" Cotton is favored to steal an Arkansas Senate seat from the Democrats

Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Michael Bennet’s timing was almost perfect. At 1 p.m., he was supposed to meet with reporters in the Escher-esque Maryland Avenue house that Democratic senators use for political work. Bennet, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was tasked with explaining how his party would “hold the majority.” A few hours earlier, Associated Press reporters in Arkansas broke news that Republican Rep. Tom Cotton would run against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Pryor’s resume: son of a senator turned fairly unremarkable senator in a state Barack Obama lost by 24 points. Cotton’s résumé: 34-year-old Harvard Law–educated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Club for Growth had been on the air in Arkansas since February with ads condemning “Obama’s senator” and with polls showing Cotton (who’d been elected just months earlier) up by 8 points in a hypothetical race.

This was what Bennet had to deal with when he took his seat in front of the press corps. To his left, an LED screen displayed the map of 2014 Senate races, under the ominous slogan “Hand We Were Dealt.” To hold onto the Senate, Bennet’s party could only afford to lose five races. It took nine minutes for Bennet to address Arkansas.

“There are a number of Washington groups that were instrumental in recruiting Tom Cotton into this race,” he said in his calming monotone, somewhere on the tone scale between family doctor and late-night public radio host. “I think they’re going to regret somebody so ideological, [who was] just elected last year and thinks he deserves a promotion.” Later that day, Cotton would “likely” oppose a student loan compromise “because he doesn’t think students deserve support when they go to college.”

Pretty thin, but what else could he say? Anyone with a map handy can see how fragile the Democrats’ eight-seat Senate majority actually is. (In two months, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker most likely becomes a Democratic senator from New Jersey, it’ll be a 10-vote margin. For now it’s eight.) In the 2008 Democratic rout, the party managed to scare off challengers in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, and Arkansas, to defeat a scandalized incumbent in Alaska, and to upset Republican incumbents in Oregon, Minnesota, and North Carolina.

The map will never look like that again. In West Virginia, Montana, and South Dakota which haven’t voted for a Democratic president since 1996, 1992, and 1964, long-time Democratic incumbents are retiring.* In the first two, Republicans have already recruited Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and former Gov. Mike Rounds, candidates with moderate profiles and avert-your-eyes poll leads. Democrats haven’t recruited anyone, though according to Bennet they’re still doing so “aggressively.” In Montana, Democrats expected to run former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, until he surprised everyone and said “no.” That decision inspired a Nate Silver post about how “Senate control in 2014 increasingly looks like a tossup,” which in turn inspired a wave of that most renewable resource: Democratic panic.

Let’s categorize the forms of panic. Using the defense readiness condition preferred by the armed forces, here they are.

Defcon 5: This is a happier place than the one Democrats currently live in. At the briefing, Bennet insisted that control of the Senate would come down to six states: Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Kentucky, and Georgia. Four Democrats, four Republicans, all in “red America.” He moved right passed Montana and West Virginia, where the local Democratic parties lost ground in 2012 but held onto a decent bench of candidates.

So: What if they come off the bench? Democrats failed to bring Montana’s state auditor into the race, and they’ve failed more dramatically to recruit West Virginia Democratic players. State Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis didn’t just opt out; she added that her party had “no leadership and no vision.” And it sort of doesn’t, being one of the last redoubts of white conservative Democrats. On a reporting trip to that state in 2010, I saw sign after sign, white letters on black paper, telling voters that [name of Democrat in the area] = OBAMA. It almost worked!

In a dream scenario, the Democrats manage to pull candidates into these races. Guy Cecil, the DSCC’s political director, kept reminding reporters at the briefing that now–North Dakota Sen. Heidi Keitkamp wasn’t even recruited until 11 months before her election. This is true, but human cloning is still illegal.

Defcon 4: That’s where Democrats are now. The smart money in Washington is for a hung Senate—maybe the party loses West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, Montana, and Alaska. But Democrats aren’t actually down in the polls in Alaska.

That state, which hadn’t previously elected a Democratic senator since Mike Gravel (yes, him), is a test case of whether Democrats can help a lousy candidate navigate the Republican primary to face the DSCC on the killing field. Begich is four points ahead of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who’s running, but he’d be 12 points ahead of Sarah Palin if she ran, and he’d be doing even better if failed (and Palin-endorsed) 2010 GOP candidate Joe Miller won the primary. Knowing this, Begich has aggressively trolled Palin, and gotten the predictable angry response in the form of Facebook posts.

This is a playbook Democrats haven’t snapped shut yet. In 2012, Guy Cecil helped shape Sen. Claire McCaskill’s strategy of elevating Todd Akin by attacking him as the “most conservative” candidate in TV ads that, obviously, thrilled conservatives. In 2014, they could try that in Georgia, where two of the most right-wing members of the House are trying to make the runoff. “They’ve never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” said Bennet. Would the DSCC help them in that effort? “If we did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Defcon 3: This is where the recruiting fails, Sen. Mitch McConnell discredits everyone running against him, and control of the Senate comes down to saving North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. Both of them ran ahead of Barack Obama in 2008, but both benefited from higher turnout with the black voters who made up, respectively, 29 percent and 19 percent of the electorate. In 2010, when that turnout fell, Democrats were vaporized in both states.

If things get desperate, Democratic survival will depend on getting that turnout up—maybe not to presidential levels, but 2 to 3 points higher than 2010. White conservative voters will turn out anyway. “I’m sure Republicans will suggest Barack Obama is on the ballot in 2014,” said Bennet. “He’s not on the ballot.”

Defcon 2: It’s fantasy for now, but what would happen to the Democrats if the rest of their open seats got competitive? Their current map includes open seats in Michigan and Iowa, newly won seats in Colorado and New Mexico, and seats in purple territory like New Hampshire, Oregon, and Minnesota. None of these races are competitive right now. “We’re going to win Michigan,” Bennet predicted, deriding Republicans for trying to coax another candidate into the race months after the Democrats settled on theirs. (Yes, the Democrats are in the exact same position in West Virginia, but don’t point that out, thanks.) If one or a few of these seats opens up, real panic begins.

Defcon 1: Total chaos, otherwise normal citizens cracking each others’ skulls open to feast on the goo inside. This was where Democrats found themselves in the final stretch of 2010, when even Sen. Barbara Boxer temporarily looked like she could go down. They’re not there yet. They might lose the Senate in far kinder circumstances.

Correction, Aug. 5, 2013: This article incorrectly stated that a Democratic presidential candidate had not won the state of Montana since 1964. In fact, Bill Clinton won Montana in 1992. (Return.)