The Senate Map Favors GOP. So Why Do Democrats Sound Cocky?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio (L) and Ohio Senate candidate Bernie Moreno, both Republicans, listen as former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Dayton International Airport on March 16, 2024 in Vandalia, Ohio. Credit - Scott Olson—Getty Images

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Two years ago this week, Georgia Republicans nominated a former NFL star with a dodgy history in the state’s immensely ripe Senate race. Pretty soon, every utterance and each discrepancy became its own new scandal for Herschel Walker, until it was almost impossible to figure out where one started and another ended. And it dragged on for months. Walker said he opposed abortion in all cases, only for stories about his girlfriends’ fully-funded abortions to demolish his credibility, which had been in trouble from the start, as Walker was still claiming homestead tax breaks in Texas. Even the candidate’s son became a high-intensity critic of his father, who did his best to keep muzzled as everything fell apart.

It was, frankly, a textbook case of bad candidate vetting, part of a larger candidate-quality crisis for the GOP that year. The Georgia seat should’ve been a gimmie for the party, if only it hadn’t nominated someone whose past didn’t include stories of pointing guns at an ex-wife’s head, among other allegations of domestic violence.

Sitting in Atlanta the night of the primary two years ago today, I couldn’t help but send up my own warning that Republicans were setting themselves up for failure. And yet institutional Republicans signaled defiance; this was President Donald Trump’s favored candidate. Nothing—and I mean nothing—else mattered.

Until it did. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to say Walker’s candidacy cost Republicans a majority in the Senate. But then again, so did their flops in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Arizona.

This is the point in the election cycle where both sides insist they are best positioned to end up with control of the Senate. Democrats have exactly zero margin for error this cycle if they want to hold onto the Senate, and four incumbents in particular—Senators Jon Tester in Montana, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Jacky Rosen of Nevada—are the biggest targets. Each is a talent in the party, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. But much like 2022, it’s not hard to find GOP donors groaning that their team’s strategy of embracing wealthy outsiders (read: amateurs) is setting themselves up for another November looking for a red wave that never shows.

Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, speaks during a rail safety event in Columbus, Ohio, on April 12, 2023.<span class="copyright"> Maddie McGarvey—Bloomberg via Getty Images</span>
Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, speaks during a rail safety event in Columbus, Ohio, on April 12, 2023. Maddie McGarvey—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Candidates with big checkbooks didn’t save Republicans in 2022. Still, the well-funded are back as likely nominees in Montana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. And the leaders in Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are facing varying degrees of real criticism for how long they’ve actually lived in the state they are running to represent. The newcomer transplant attack was a mixed bag for Democrats in 2022; falling short in states like Ohio as often as it worked in places like Pennsylvania.

It sure seems like both parties are re-running some version of their 2022 playbooks. It’s as predictable as it is partisan. Democrats are going all-in on the attacks against carpetbagging robber barons while Republicans are proudly contrasting their outsiders to the four most at-risk Democratic incumbents, who have a combined 60 years of swampy Senate experience among them.

You’ll notice no one here appears to be offering much in the way of an optimistic vision for the country moving forward. It’s enough to remind most armchair political observers why they hate this billion-dollar industry. But negative campaigning works, and the margins are as narrow as they come.

Strategists advising the GOP campaigns, of course, strongly reject worries about untested candidates and insist they’re far stronger than they were in 2022. For one, the carpetbagger indictments—while persistently deployed—are not as clear-cut as they were two years ago. On top of that, Republicans have a two-pronged strategy that they argue is designed to flip some Senate seats: run against a deeply unpopular President Joe Biden while alleging corruption and hypocrisy against incumbent Democrats who may be battle-tested but whose experience could be seen as close enough to the power to seem like cronies. And while recruiting ultra-rich nominees means they can bankroll their own campaigns, Republicans smartly favored candidates this cycle with national security and military ties in this year’s competitive races in Pennsylvania, Montana, Nevada, and Michigan. It’s tough to brand someone moving from domestic base to foreign deployment as a rudderless opportunist. (Just ask John McCain’s opponents how that carpetbagger hit worked.)

Democrats, meanwhile, are confident that their incumbents are known and trusted by their constituents. In many cases, the latest GOP attacks date back decades, which could weaken their effectiveness, as many voters will ask why ancient-history allegations should matter for someone who’s been in office for some voters’ entire lives.

Yet Senate Democrats have, to varying degrees of intensity, undercut some of their original arguments for power. Take Pennsylvania, where Casey won his first campaign in 2006 by linking his opponent to super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but now counts his brother as a lobbyist and his sister as a half-million-dollar campaign vendor. Similarly, Senators who initially ran anti-insider campaigns in Montana and Wisconsin now have powerful pals in the upper-echelons of power. And while Brown has long burnished a populist crusader image in Ohio, his partisan critics argue that some tax-bill errors have exposed him as a creature of the swamp.

But here’s the thing: every campaign cycle is in some ways a rehash of the last one, and both parties typically keep running the old strategy—at least until it doesn’t work. And this time around, Republicans seem to have learned one of the most glaring lessons of 2022: ignoring abortion isn’t a winning strategy.

Take, for instance, Maryland, where optimistic GOP donors think the Senate race could be in play thanks to Larry Hogan’s nomination. The popular former Governor developed a national brand over his ambivalence toward Trump, and carries a good deal of goodwill from Democrats. Using his first general-election ad to address abortion rights, he is following national Republicans’ advice to come out as pro-IVF and supportive of exceptions to abortion bans in cases of rape, incest, and to protect the life of the pregnant person. National Republicans quickly note that Hogan is going further than most fellow candidates are—or will—when he says he would support a law codifying a national right to abortion, but those strategists also recognize that that’s likely the only way true-blue Maryland is going to be in play for Team Red.

Democrats are still counting on abortion as a silver bullet against Republicans, which may prove overly optimistic. They also haven’t fully appreciated that Biden is a drag on their candidates, whether they keep the President at a distance or not. Democratic strategists are most worried about Casey, whose sterling bipartisan appeal in Pennsylvania—buoyed for years by the best family brand in Keystone State politics and his last-in-class status as a “pro-life Democrat”—has been frittered away, leaving him more vulnerable to being painted as just another lackey for the abortion rights crowd.

But both sides have reasons to worry. Republicans may have the more fertile field, but that was also true in 2022. Candidate quality matters, and while the developing attack lines appear less egregious than two years ago, they’re still out there. In Ohio, especially, GOP nominee Bernie Moreno faces a clear narrative problem around his personal story. And for Democrats, high-profile problem incumbents like Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas are hardly helping as they face their own criminal corruption indictments. Their alleged corruption blurs together as Republicans make allegations against other Democrats in play this cycle. A pox on all!

For their part, the national Democratic strategists tasked with holding the Senate are trusting the incumbents in Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada—for the most part—to handle their own races. No one is prescribing a one-size-fits-all engagement for them, and Biden has been happy to stay away when necessary. The President spent 36 years in the Senate and eight as Vice President; he knows that the stiff-arm treatment isn’t personal, it’s a matter of survival. Plus, the four incumbents—along with the candidates in Florida and Texas seen as possible pick-ups—are hardly party yes-men who need the insiders’ blessing for campaign cash. In fact, national cash might actually hurt.

Read more: Why Democrats Are Excited About Florida

Here, we return to Georgia. That was not the case two years ago. Walker was a known liability who had zero natural fundraising base. But he was a shiny figure, and Georgia and national Republicans (wrongly) assumed voters would look past that and give him their blessing. As one person told me two years ago during the primary, it was Walker’s to lose. “He’s an African-American football player in this state. There are a lot of folks who will support a football player over a preacher. In this state, football is everything,” a 66-year-old actor from Dunwoody told me. He then added the all-important caveat: “Unless he steps in it.”

This time around, there are so far no GOP recruits with as many warning signs. But the campaign arm didn’t do itself many favors for Senate candidates beyond checkbooks. Hoping no one steps in it isn’t a strategy; it is a gamble. Democrats have proven their luck and head into the summer with some points on the board, while the Republicans are starting from zero. That could make the GOP climb all the more satisfying if they reach the top, and all the more crushing if they stumble once again.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

Write to Philip Elliott at