Democrats are entering the dangerous 2024 Senate landscape

Joe Manchin can either retire or face a really tough fight.
Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

The Democratic Party’s outperformance in the midterm Senate election, resulting in a one-seat net gain, came as a mild surprise. If Democrats maintain their tenuous control of the chamber in 2024, it will be truly amazing.

The Senate’s six-year term means that senators are divided into “classes” of 33 or 34 lawmakers who face voters in the same year. And that means the landscape can vary significantly from cycle to cycle, regardless of what else is going on politically. Class 1 is up for re-election next year when the landscape is going to be very, very difficult for Democrats. For one, they are defending 23 seats while Republicans are defending 11 (including a seat in Nebraska that was just filled by an appointment that will only last until a special election in 2024). But worse, some of those 23 Democratic seats are in tricky territory, as Sabato’s crystal ball explains in her original Senate forecast:

Democrats are defending all three seats they hold in states Donald Trump held as a 2020 presidential nominee — Montana, Ohio and West Virginia. In addition, they are defending 5 more in states President Biden has carried, but by a margin smaller than his national lead (roughly 4.5 points). These are Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

It tells you everything you need to know about the Republican Senate’s weak spots in 2024 that probably the two most promising food stalls for the Democrats are in Florida and Texas. The other eight states (Nebraska has two races) whose Senate seats the GOP holds are indeed very red (Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming).

The exact danger Democrats face will depend on some potential retirements. When Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin run again, they’ll be underdogs from the start, but they’ll have a chance. If they retire instead, their seats will very likely tip over. Manchin is arguably the most vulnerable Democrat in 2024 (with the possible exception of his Arizona girlfriend, Kyrsten Sinema, who actually no longer identifies as a Democrat), given his state’s strong GOP bias during the presidential years (Donald Trump won the state with a lead of 42 points). 2016 and 39 points in 2020) and the crowd of impressive Republicans already lining up to challenge him. Manchin will be 77 years old in 2024.

The Arizona race shows that even in states that Joe Biden carried in 2020 and where the party did well in 2022, Democrats will not have an easy road to victory. Early polls show Sinema may have simply worn off her reception among Democrats, angered by her heresies, and Republicans, who appreciate her defense of the filibuster but an openly bisexual former Democrat who twice voted to impeach Trump has, will not support. But any remaining Democratic support Sinema and her flush campaign account can retain will likely hurt Democratic candidate Ruben Gallego — even if the GOP nominee is (as entirely possible) a failed 2022 gubernatorial candidate and MAGA Ultra Kari Lake.

Certainly there are potential bright spots for the Democrats. One of the incumbents running for office in a red state, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, is a strong activist with “populist” street faith who has a history of repeatedly opposing conservative tendencies in his state. And given the relatively strong performance of Democratic Senate nominees in Florida and Texas six years ago (albeit in a very good Democratic year), Republican incumbents Rick Scott and Ted Cruz are hardly safe at home, and one or both of them might instead go for that run for president.

All things considered, however, Sabato’s crystal ball suggests the Senate landscape for Democrats is reminiscent of the one they faced in 2014, which didn’t end well:

It’s not necessarily an exaggeration to say that Democrats are defending the top 8 Senate seats most likely to fall. This level of exposure may feel unusually significant at the start of a cycle, although Democrats were also heavily exposed ahead of the 2014 Senate election – in our first update of the cycle, we proposed that at least the 7 most vulnerable seats be filled by Democrats. Democrats eventually lost all 7 of those seats, plus 2 more for a total of 9, when Republicans flipped the Senate.

Of course, 2014 saw midterm elections with different national dynamics and turnout patterns than presidential elections. But of course we don’t know how the presidential race will affect the Senate elections in this era of relatively high direct voting. We know that five of the last six presidential elections have been Scheunenbrenner, reflecting the relatively even division of parties, which voters have once again confirmed in 2022. There’s no particular reason to think 2024 will be a landslide either way.

There are obviously other variables affecting Senate races that we cannot predict at this time. Hard-fought Senate primaries in blue or red states like California and Indiana could either offer rare opportunities for the minority party or simply soak up campaign funds that are better spent elsewhere.

But for now, Democrats have their work cut out to hold the Senate past January 3, 2025. That’s very important if Biden wins a second term and the Senate has to confirm his nominees — or if Trump or someone worse wins the presidency and the Republicans stay in the House.