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Control of the Senate for the Rest of the Decade?

Control of the Senate for the Rest of the Decade?

January 2024

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

Control of the Senate next year is on the line in 2024, but what about control of the Senate for the rest of the decade? That’s what one top party strategist suggested recently, raising the stakes for the down-ballot elections this November.

“There are three red states held by Democrats that are up in 2024 — West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio. But there are zero red states held by Democrats that are up in 2026 and 2028,” Jason Thielman, Executive Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Washington Post at the beginning of the month. “Maine is the only blue state held by a Republican that is up before 2030.”

Is he right?

At the outset, we should stipulate that the “red state” and “blue state” labels are being applied based on how a state voted in the most recent presidential election. And one of the linchpins of Thielman’s argument is the strong correlation between how a state votes for Senate and how it votes for president.

In 2020, Maine was the only state that split its ticket by voting for Democrat Joe Biden for president and Republican incumbent Susan Collins for the Senate. Overall, just five senators represent states that voted for the other party’s presidential nominee in 2020: Collins, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

The latter three are up for reelection in 2024. Manchin declined to run again, effectively ceding the seat to Republicans. Tester and Brown are in races rated as Toss-up by Inside Elections.

Before looking years down the line, Republicans have a great opportunity to win control this year. They need a net gain of just two seats for a majority, but they can control the chamber by winning West Virginia, holding all of their own seats, and winning the White House, because the new vice president breaks tie votes.

If they lose the presidential race, Republicans will need to gain a second seat. Tester and Brown are the prime targets, considering Trump, the overwhelming favorite for the GOP nomination, is likely to carry their states even if he loses the race overall. But it will depend, in part, on the strength of the Republican challenger and Biden’s ability to keep the race competitive at the top of the ticket.

If Republicans do gain control of the Senate this cycle, how likely are they to keep it for years to come?

The first step is to look at the class of senators. If the 2024 race for the White House comes down to the same two nominees as in 2020 and results in a similar finish, then Collins would be the only senator up for reelection in 2026 in a state carried by the other party’s nominee. Democrats Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Gary Peters of Michigan would be up for reelection in states Biden won narrowly, and Republican Thom Tillis of North Carolina would be up for reelection in a competitive state Trump won.

But the lists of “red states” and “blue states” could change based on the outcome of the presidential races in 2024 and 2028.

If 2024 ends up being a resounding Biden victory, then Tillis and fellow Republican John Cornyn of Texas might be up for reelection in Biden states in 2026. On the flip side, if there’s a decisive Trump win, then Democrats Ossoff, Peters, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Mark Warner of Virginia could be up for reelection in Trump states.

But even if Trump wins in 2024 by a large margin, that doesn’t mean Republicans would expand their Senate majority. It could actually jeopardize it.

It’s not hard to imagine a second Trump term plagued by score-settling, legal problems and executive overreach, leading to a backlash from voters who end up using the midterms as a correction. If voters are looking to send more Democrats to Washington to balance out Trump’s GOP, then senators such as Collins and Tillis would be vulnerable. The battleground could even expand to Cornyn, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, depending on the size of the wave.

And if Biden wins reelection this year and Democrats manage to maintain control of the Senate, they aren’t guaranteed the majority in 2026. Republicans could enjoy a big midterm if Biden looks incompetent or incapable of handling his second term. Incumbents such as Jeff Merkley of Oregon, where Republicans haven’t won a Senate race in more than two decades, could get interesting if voters are intent on punishing Democrats.

Without clarity on the 2024 presidential race, it’s even harder to imagine projecting the 2028 presidential race. We know it will likely be a wide-open contest on both sides since it’s unlikely the incumbent will be eligible to run again. But the political health of the president at the time, the presidential race and corresponding political environment will all factor into the fight for the Senate. It will be the same class of senators just elected in 2022.

While controlling the Senate for more than half a decade sounds like a reach when control seems to always be hinging on a seat or two, it’s not unusual. Republicans controlled the Senate from 2015 through 2020, and Democrats had control from 2007 through 2012.

So what does it all mean? Control of the Senate is absolutely on the line in 2024, and it could be the beginning of a political dynasty on Capitol Hill. But the 2026 midterms could produce a wave in either direction, sparking a voter base that is energized by being in the minority.

For now, the best thing for the parties to do is focus on winning as many races as possible and brace for the uncertainty ahead.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. You can also hear more on the Inside Elections Podcast. His email address is [email protected].

But even if Trump wins in 2024 by a large margin, that doesn’t mean Republicans would expand their Senate majority. It could actually jeopardize it.

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