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One Eye on the Future: The Toteboard's 2024 Senate Preview

We are now one year away from the 2024 elections, which means it’s time for theToteboard to give its first official preview of the Senate contests. The short version is that the map looks pretty terrible for the democrats, who currently own a wafer-thin 51-49 advantage (counting three independents) but are defending 22 or the 33 seats on the docket this cycle. What’s more, the party in blue has anywhere from three to nine genuinely vulnerable seats, with zero realistic opportunities for pick-ups. The Toteboard cannot overstate just how bad things could end up a year and a day after today. If the democrats lose control of the Senate, and Trump somehow oozes back into office, and with the Supreme Court already under reactionary domination for the next generation or two, we could really be heading for a situation where there won’t be any legitimate institutional checks and balances against the rising tide of fascism. The clock really may be ticking toward doomsday.

That said, where do things stand right now? The trend that has emerged over the last few Senate cycles is one that the Toteboard previously identified as “the splitters have split.” More than a year before the 2022 midterms, the Toteboard opined: “For all the talk of historical patterns, favorable maps, and upside-down mandates, all of this may end up being trumped by the simple fact that because of the country’s hyper-partisan mood, ticket-splitting is at an all-time historical low, and it might just be that voters end up choosing senators in accord with their state’s respective colors.” And that’s pretty much what ended up happening in 2022. Every senate race except one swung in accord with the state’s 2020 presidential preference, and the only exception (Wisconsin) had a two-term incumbent on the ballot who limped over the finish line by a mere percentage point during an ugly, racially charged campaign.

If things follow this trend next year, the democrats will lose three seats, with five more closely contested, and perhaps one more just waiting to get bumped off. Of course, we don’t know what the presidential results will be in 2024, notwithstanding the depressing news in the latest Times/Sienna Poll. Biden could mount yet another comeback, the country’s mood could turn slightly blue, and vulnerable incumbents could survive one more round. Here is a state-by-state breakdown, from least to most imperiled:

Endangered Species: Incumbent Democrats in Red States

It’s actually something of a minor miracle that this category even exists, as very few states are splitting their delegations these days. In fact, apart from Maine and Wisconsin, the three seats up this year are the last remaining holdouts, which doesn’t sound like a very good sign. Nevertheless, these are the power spots that will ultimately determine control of the senate.

West Virginia: If the Senate were not split 50-50 or 51-49, most people outside of West Virginia would likely raise their eyebrows and ask “Joe who?” at the mention of Joe Manchin’s name. But with Congress and the country both divided so evenly, and so contentiously, the wealthy coal magnate has reinvented himself over the last two years as the chronic pain in Joe Biden’s ass, scuttling or diluting key aspects of the democratic legislative agenda, and otherwise making a nuisance of himself. And now, as he dicks the press around while supposedly deciding whether to change parties, run for reelection, or run for president as an independent, the popular governor and former democrat (and former Manchin ally) Jim Justice has announced his plans to challenge Big Joe and complete the republican takeover of the state. Manchin has a sizeable war chest in case he decides to go to the well one last time, and he does have deep connections with lots of important constituencies, but most of the betting markets are already smelling blood. Still, the Cook Political Report kindly still regards it as a tossup, though that may be because Manchin still polls well against Justice’s opponent in the primary, the off-the-deep-end election denier Alex Mooney. Of course, this one’s over if Manchin decides not to run, but it may be over even if he sticks it out.

Ohio: Sherrod Brown has bucked the trend in rapidly reddening Ohio, with fairly impressive victories in all three of his previous elections. A self-described “progressive populist,” Brown has a gruff but polite tell-it-like-it-is demeanor that makes him a comfortable fit with his common-sense fellow midwesterners. Still, republicans believe the red tide may finally overtake him, and a mix of front- and back-benchers have thrown their hats in the ring, with more possibly on the way. The most prominent would-be challengers include Matt Dolan, a somewhat un-Trumpian state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians, Frank LaRose, Ohio’s anti-abortion secretary of state who pushed the failed attempt last summer to futz with the state constitution, and Bernie Moreno, a Trumpian businessman running as a political outsider. Almost every major analyst rates this one a true toss-up, though the iconoclastic (but often accurate) Race to the WH analysts tilt it slightly blue. This one may be the race that decides our future.

Montana: Just as Sherrod Brown is archetypally midwestern, Jon Tester similarly exudes Montana. A candid family farmer who lost three fingers to a meat-grinder, he was once described by the New York Times, as “truly your grandfather's Democrat—a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916." Montana is unambiguously red in presidential elections, though it has had a history of supporting moderate democrats at the state level. But Tester barely squeaked by his last election, and the question now is whether his political center can still hold. While the republicans see this race as winnable for them, they haven’t really settled yet on an obvious candidate. Word on the wide Montana streets is that the party apparatchiks prefer local businessman and former navy SEAL Tim Sheehy, though former secretary of state and former chair of the Montana Public Service Commission (and frequent electoral loser) Brad Johnson won’t let him grab the nomination without a fight, and Tester’s vanquished opponent from 2018 Matt Rosendale may give it another go as well. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, a bruising republican primary has on the election next year. As with Ohio, most of the analysts label this a toss-up, though Cook tilts it slightly to the incumbent.

At-Risk Populations: Democrats in Purple to Indigo States

Using the language of formal logic, winning all of these races is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the democrats to maintain control of the senate. If they do happen to drop two or three of the unicorns listed above, they still have to limit their losses and keep things close for the 2026 cycle, which is somewhat more favorable for democrats, when they might pick up a seat or two. Of course, it’s worth noting that if the straight-ticket voting trend continues, the republicans could develop a permanent, (or temporarily permanent, if that’s actually a thing) stranglehold on the chamber, simply because there are more reliably red states than blue ones. Just in case you’re wondering, how many states did Biden carry in 2020? Exactly 25, i.e., exactly half the states in the country. But several of those were close, and very few of the Trump states were. From a simple numerical perspective, the democrats are teetering on the edge of disaster. And the races below are the ones they need to win in order to prevent that from happening.

Arizona: Kyrsten Sinema had a pretty good thing going. With her self-consciously ambiguous sexpot persona and center-left but unpredictable positions and voting record, Sinema could have become the enduring face of a rapidly purpling Arizona through several subsequent dye jobs. But then she inexplicably developed Manchin syndrome by proxy, as her unpredictability morphed into instability, and she spent the last two years monkey-wrenching several of the Biden administration’s key pieces of legislation, apparently because all the attention made her feel good. Though she still caucuses with the democrats, the lady and the party really don’t want anything to do with each other. The democrats are now poised to nominate congressman Ruben Gallego, while Sinema (who likely would not have survived a primary challenge) publicly flirts with an independent run, possibly as a spoiler, and possibly just because. But if Sinema comes off like the oddball bohemian next door neighbor who makes earrings out of live mice, she looks positively sane next to the likely republican nominee, Kari Lake, the failed gubernatorial candidate and delusional Trumpian who turned her own party’s primary debate into a clown show. Needless to say, this one promises to get weird, even by contemporary political standards.

Nevada: Harry Reid protégé Jackie Rosen defeated incumbent republican Dean Heller fairly handily six years ago, during what was actually a pretty broad anti-Trump wave. But apart from that, the democratic margin in this indigo state – for Hillary in 2016, for Biden in 2020, and for Senator Catherine Cortes Masto in 2020 – has been consistently just barely over 2%, and they dropped the governor’s chair two years ago too, indicating that the party’s hold on the electorate may be tenuous. Add to that a sizeable transient population, a large and politically complicated Hispanic population, a large proportion of third party voters, and an intermittently engaged electorate, and this one could be up in the air. There’s currently a whole baseball starting lineup of contenders seeking the republican nod, though the early advantage seems to be with Sam Brown, who tried and failed to get the nomination in the previous senate cycle (he also failed to win the nomination for a Texas congressional seat nine years ago), but is drawing a lot of national interest largely based on his personal story (he’s an army veteran who sustained disfiguring burns from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan). However, his opponents may not let him waltz to the nomination, especially conspiracy theorist Jim Marchant, who has the support of the deranged wing of the national party. There’s absolutely no polling at this point, so it’s all conjecture, but the consensus seems to be that it’s Jacky’s race to lose. Let’s all hope she doesn’t.

Michigan: With popular incumbent Debbie Stabenow retiring, the only open seat (so far) among the competitive states has drawn significant interest from both sides. Although it’s early in the game, democrats seem to be coalescing around congressional up-and-comer Elissa Slotkin, while the republicans are described by most analysts as “in disarray,” as a result of in-fighting after the 2020 races, go-nowhere lawsuits seeking to decertify the presidential election, and a reluctant donor base. Slotkin currently leads the polling in a number of hypothetical matchups by high single digits.

Pennsylvania: Three-term incumbent Bob Casey may be as boring as William Shatner on quaaludes, but he has deep pockets, longstanding connections to organized labor, and a surname that has been linked with Pennsylvania state politics for sixty years. As such, it could require some serious Casey fatigue to turn him out, and most analysts think that’s not impossible but unlikely. The only “big” name expressing interest in taking him on has been Dave McCormick, the straight-arrow businessman and Bush 43 administration alum who narrowly lost the primary two years ago to the not so great and powerful Dr. Oz, probably because he refused to parrot the Trumpian line. Polls look pretty good for Casey so far.

Wisconsin: Although this state has seen some pretty tight elections in recent history, Tammy Baldwin has notched decisive victories in her two senate elections, the latter by double digits. That may be why the A-list members of the republican bench all seem to be taking a pass. The three stooges who have currently declared include an obscure county supervisor, an obscure retired army major, and an obscure (do you see a trend developing here?) former nurse and current, get this, chair of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College Republicans. The seat may not exactly fall into the “safe” column just yet, but it will probably take a big republican tide to wash her out of office.

Courting Disaster: Democrats in Blue States Who Do Stupid Things

Theoretically, there shouldn’t be any more democratic seats at risk, but hey, if Scott Brown can win (albeit briefly) Ted Kennedy’s seat, the law of averages says anything will happen that can. And it’s only fair to mention the worst-case possibility.

New Jersey: This one should be a no-brainer, a multi-term incumbent in a deep-blue-and-getting-bluer state, but Bob Menendez and his mattresses full of money might yet figure out a way to bungle this one. A few democrats are making noise about primary-ing him, the most interesting so far being congressman and former diplomat Andy Kim, who has already secured endorsements from some progressive organizations, and interjects an interesting ethnic wild-cardinto the race. The folks stirring on the other side of the aisle are all back- or non-benchers, but that may change if the Menendez scandals sprout legs and start walking around. If this ends up being the race that loses the senate, the Toteboard is going to be pissed!

Emerging New Species: Democratic Targets in Red States

Wait, you may say, didn’t the Toteboard say the democrats don’t have any “realistic opportunities for pick-ups?” Well, yes, but at least some of the analysts are holding out a thin ray of hope in a pair of states, so hey, why not? If the democrats pull off a miracle, these are the waters that have to part:

Texas: Ted Cruz may be the biggest prick with ears in the entire state of Texas – and remember, everything is bigger there – but he’s still a loud-mouthed republican in a state dominated by loud-mouthed republicans. The democrats have a large, mostly back-bench pool eyeing a shot at him, but the likely nominee so far is Colin Allred, a congressman, lawyer, and former NFL linebacker (!). How likely is it that Allred can make a contest of it? Well, Cook Political, Larry Sabato, and Inside Elections all rate it “likely” for Cruz rather than “safe” or “solid,” while Race to the WH gives Allred a 27% chance. Hey, we’ve seen worse. It will be interesting to see if Allred makes it interesting. One variable: Texas is a huge and expensive market. The democrats likely won’t have the options to put that much money into advertising, but it would be helpful if they could at least force the republicans to do so.

Florida: At one time, the desiccated Rick Scott looked beatable on paper, as he squeaked past Bill Nelson five years ago by the quintessential eyelash, and has voiced policy preferences that amount to unforced political errors. But Florida’s apparent right-angle right turn has left the democrats afraid of mounting more than token opposition, at least at this point. Race to the WH gives the most promising of the Lilliputians a 13% chance, and Sabato is nice enough to keep this one in the “likely” column, which is, again, better than nothing. A drowning man will grab the point of a sword.

Interim Summary

So, looking at the races from a year in advance, we can see that there is a tremendous range of possible outcomes. Will "candidate quality” influence a handful of specific races, as it did last time in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania? Or will a slight shift in the national mood turn a half-dozen or more races all in the same direction? Or will the states simply vote in accord with their current political colors? And will Trump’s head explode on the witness stand sometime between now and next November? Whatever happens, make sure to continue reading all about it at Herman’s Toteboard, the loud voice of thoughtful snark!


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