Judge Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s fractious Republican Senate primary has fueled renewed infighting between the GOP’s insurgent and establishment wings that is likely to trigger several additional battles next year.
But it also did something else: It opened a potential path for Democrats to retake the Senate in a year in which the battleground tilts strongly against them. Their path stems from the growing prospect that Republicans may nominate some candidates too far to the right for mainstream voters, just like in 2010 and 2012.
Success is still a long shot. The House remains a better 2018 Democratic target, albeit no sure thing, either. Democratic victories will require a continuation of President Donald Trump’s low job approval, good candidates and some more strategic GOP retirements.
Democrats’ Senate problem is that of 33 seats being contested, 25 are Democratic-held, including 10 in states Trump carried last year. Republicans are only defending eight, seven in states he won.
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With Republicans holding a 52-48 majority, and the vice presidency, Democrats need a net pickup of three seats. That is a tall order, considering there is no guarantee all Democratic incumbents can survive well-financed GOP opposition. For each incumbent who loses, the Democrats would need to win one additional Republican seat.
But Moore’s victory has concerned many Republicans because of his outspoken, radical views: favoring a ban on homosexuality and persisting in the disproved contention that former President Barack Obama was born outside the United States.
Though Alabama last elected a Democratic senator in 1992, the first post-primary poll showed the GOP nominee only 6 points ahead of his Democratic rival, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. Though Moore remains favored, the well-regarded Jones could gain support from some establishment Republicans fearful the twice-removed former state Supreme Court chief justice would embarrass Alabama.
Beyond Alabama, other Republicans, led by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, saw Moore’s victory over appointed Sen. Luther Strange as an invitation to go after GOP incumbents.
Such challenges were launched earlier in the two states with the best 2018 Democratic opportunities. In Arizona, state Sen. Kelli Ward is running against Sen. Jeff Flake, who polls show has been weakened by his criticism of Trump. Last week, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, considered the strongest Democratic candidate, announced her candidacy for his seat.
In Nevada, Danny Tarkanian, the son of legendary University of Nevada at Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, is challenging Sen. Dean Heller. Democrats have a potentially strong candidate in Rep. Jacky Rosen.
Elsewhere, Democrats face higher hurdles. One opportunity may be in Tennessee, where GOP Sen. Bob Corker decided last week against a third term bid in which he might have faced a conservative challenge.
That could set off a contentious GOP primary. The anti-gay record of one possible candidate, state Sen. Mark Green, prompted the Trump administration to drop him as a potential service secretary. With a strong candidate, Democrats would have a chance against someone like Green.
Bannon is also encouraging another Senate bid by Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who narrowly lost to Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014. This time, his target would be Sen. Roger Wicker, who is less established than Cochran. Democrats would face an uphill fight, even against McDaniel.
In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans lost their chance to win the Senate by rejecting centrist candidates in primaries in several states, including Delaware, Colorado and Missouri.
Primary challenges to other GOP incumbents seem unlikely in Republican strongholds like Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Texas, where Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso faces an uphill fight against Sen. Ted Cruz.
Among Democratic incumbents, the GOP’s principal targets are Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. They have an especially strong candidate against McCaskill in 37-year-old state Attorney General Josh Hawley.
But both Heitkamp and Donnelly recently showed political shrewdness by accompanying Trump on visits to their home states, upsetting Republicans who correctly saw these as efforts to strengthen their appeal to Trump voters.
In general, House elections are more likely than Senate contests to reflect prevailing trends like the president’s job approval and the generic national vote. Parties holding the White House generally lose several dozen House seats at midterm elections. But early analyses don’t yet project Democrats ahead or even in enough marginal House seats to win control, though most surveys show them leading the projected popular vote.
History says that may yet happen. But the Democrats will clearly need some GOP help to win the Senate.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News; firstname.lastname@example.org.