Clinton Can Play It Safe—But That Won’t Help Her Party

A brutal Senate landscape looms on the horizon, meaning Democrats need to go big now

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters at a rally at John Marshall High School August 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters at a rally at John Marshall High School August 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

With Hillary Clinton heading into the fall with a clear lead in the election, Democrats are now debating whether she should simply focus on the states she needs to secure at least 270 electoral votes or “go big” and try to expand the map.

Those who want to play it safe and consolidate the key swing states do have a point. They want to make sure Clinton crosses the finish line, which means concentrating strictly on the states that would normally be up for grabs and not bothering with shiny, distracting objects like Arizona or Georgia. Whether Clinton wins by two electoral votes or by 200 is irrelevant to whether she becomes president. She won’t be any less president if she secures the minimum 270 electoral votes than she would if she secures 370.

But there is another aspect to all of this, and that is the down ballot races, where—as noted in this space last week—Democratic candidates for Congress are not polling as well as Clinton. If Clinton can expand the map into places where Democrats normally struggle, it is possible that she could help bring in representatives and senators in locales where Team Blue does not normally prevail. That, in turn, could provide her party a cushion two years from now—when Republicans are likely to make notable gains, especially in the Senate.

It is understandable that few people involved in this year’s elections are concerning themselves much with the 2018 midterms. The most pressing need right now is to ensure victory in the election a little more than two months down the road. But a quick peek at the midterm landscape means that even if the Democrats squeak out a small Senate majority this fall, the Republicans are set to win a big majority in 2018. This would snuff out the Democratic agenda for the entire second half of the next presidential term, thereby possibly endangering Democrats’ hopes of winning the 2020 elections.

The 2018 Senate landscape is absolutely brutal for the Democrats.

The Senate is divided into three groups of seats, roughly one third of which are up for election every two years. The group up for election this year is comprised of the same seats that were up in 2010 and 2004. Similarly, the seats that will be coming up in 2018 are the same seats that were on the ballot in 2012 and 2006, both years in which Democrats made gains in the Senate.

As a result of Democratic Senate victories in 2006 and 2012, the group of seats coming up two years from now is disproportionately held by Team Blue. The 2018 Senate landscape is absolutely brutal for the Democrats. They will have to defend 25 seats, while the Republicans will only need to defend eight. 

Of the eight seats the GOP must defend in 2018, only two look even remotely competitive. Freshman Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, representing Arizona and Nevada respectively, look like potential targets, but with the Democrats playing defense all over the map, one wonders how many resources they’ll pump into playing offense.

On the flip side, the Democrats will have their hands full in every part of the country but particularly in normally Republican states or swing states that currently have Democratic senators. Five Democrats up for reelection in 2018 will face battles in Republican-heavy states: Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin.

Additionally, three more Democratic Senate seats are going to be up for election in very closely divided states: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Beyond that, there are a number of seats held by Team Blue that will be contested in states which normally vote Democratic in presidential years but often go Republican during midterms, including Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Very different electorates show up in these states during midterm elections than during presidential elections, which is why Republicans won Senate races in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2010.

Right there you have a dozen Senate seats that Democrats are going to be hard pressed to hold onto in 2018. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility that additional close races could develop in unexpected places. That is why, from the Democratic perspective, it is imperative for them to take as many Senate seats as possible this year—to provide a cushion for Senate losses that could approach or exceed double digits in two years.

For Democrats to make those kinds of gains, they’re going to have to not only win Senate races in traditional swing states this year, but also prevail in states that would be considered luxuries at the presidential level—like Arizona, Indiana and Missouri. To that end, a push by the Clinton campaign to win these states could boost Democratic turnout and help her party’s Senate candidates.

In Indiana, former Gov. and Sen. Evan Bayh may be all right without a robust effort by Clinton, but no Democrat can take anything for granted in the Hoosier State, as Bayh’s father, Sen. Birch Bayh, learned in his 1980 loss to Dan Quayle. The younger Bayh—who hasn’t lost a statewide race in five tries since 1986—is making a comeback bid after retiring from the Senate in 2010. That said, Indiana is a strongly Republican state, and Bayh faces a formidable GOP opponent, an up-and-coming congressman named Todd Young. Without a strong Democratic effort in the state, Bayh could find himself in a tussle.

In Arizona and Missouri, incumbent Republican Sens. John McCain and Roy Blunt are both vulnerable to challenges from strong Democratic foes as well.

The bottom line is this: Democrats currently trail 54-46 in the Senate and probably need to pick up at least eight seats this cycle to have even a ghost of a chance to hold the chamber in 2018. Even if they sweep Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, they can’t get to eight pickups without winning in states like Arizona, Indiana and Missouri. And nothing gets out the vote in a state like a competitive presidential contest.

So the Democrats have a choice. Do they play it safe and focus on just the states they need to win the White House, or do they go for broke and possibly win up and down the ticket? If they want more than just a couple years of a friendly Senate, they’re going to have to expand the map and go big now.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic Representative in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter (@ClistonBrown) and visit his website at Clinton Can Play It Safe—But That Won’t Help Her Party