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Larry Sabato: 2018 could be a bloodbath for Democrats

Vice president-elect Mike Pence waves during a meeting with Senate Minority Leader-elect Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Nov. 17 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Longtime political prognosticator Larry Sabato is warning that 2018 could be a disastrous year for Democrats at the ballot box — and believes that the Republican Party has the opportunity to reach heights of power it has not seen since the days Reconstruction.

Democrats were widely expected to pick up several congressional seats in the 2016 election and perhaps even take control of the Senate. However, they wildly underperformed and now face a probable 52-48 deficit going into the next Congressional session. Factor in the real possibility that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) could be tapped by President-elect Donald Trump for a position in his administration and replaced by a Republican, as well as rumors that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will either switch parties before the next election or accept a job in an incoming Trump administration, and Republicans could wind up with 54 seats in the Senate before 2017 is over.

After that, things are likely to get worse for Democrats.

Sabato notes that only eight Republican senators are up for re-election in 2018, and almost all of them are in deep-red states that Trump won easily. Republicans have to defend seats in Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah — states where Democrats are not even expected to field competitive candidates. The only two Republican seats even marginally at risk are those held by Arizona's Jeff Flake and Nevada's Dean Heller.

Democrats, on the contrary, have to defend an astounding 25 Senate seats, including nine seats in states won by Trump. Democrats will be defending seats in comfortably red states like Montana, West Virginia and North Dakota (assuming Heitkamp does not bail the Senate for an administration job), as well as a whole slew of seats in "lean red" states like Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. Additionally, Democrats will be defending a number of seats in battleground states that Trump carried, including Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Add it all up, and it's a recipe for potential disaster for Democrats. Worse, there's virtually no hope for them to retake the Senate majority, from the word "go." Sabato notes:

The last time a party was as exposed as Democrats are in 2018 was in the 1970 cycle. At the end of 1968, 25 Democratic-held seats were up in the 1970 midterm. There are some similarities between the position of Democrats in 1970 and 2018. First, Class I Senate seats were up in 1970, just as they are in 2018. Second, a sizable number of Democratic-held 1970 Senate seats (13) were up in states that Republican Richard Nixon had just carried in the closely-contested 1968 presidential election, compared to the 10 Democrats are defending in 2018 in Trump states. Perhaps endangered Democrats up in 2018 can feel a little bolstered by the fact that Democrats only lost three net seats in the 1970 midterm despite having to defend numerous seats, many in states that backed the most recent GOP presidential nominee. Overall, 11 of the 12 Democratic incumbents running in states won by Nixon in 1968 won reelection in 1970 (though Harry Byrd Jr. of Virginia ran as an independent that cycle, eschewing his previous party label).

As Sabato notes, the key determining factor in whether Democrats are able to essentially hold serve is whether Donald Trump is successful in office. The fate of the GOP is now inextricably tied to Trump, and if his presidency is perceived poorly, then Senate Republicans will likely suffer, as voters will want to send some "checks and balances" to Washington to blunt his power. If, however, Trump is even relatively successful and popular in 2018, the GOP has an opportunity to sweep the board to an extent many previously considered unimaginable.

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