When looking for vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents in 2018, the list invariably starts with Nevada's Dean Heller, the only GOP senator running in a state Donald Trump lost. The trouble for Democrats is, the list also tends to end with Dean Heller, too.
But what if there's another addition to the list who much of the political world assumed would be safe?
Sen. Ted Cruz may be headed for a Texas showdown this November.The Lone Star State Republican is locked in a statistical dead heat with Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke, according to a new Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday. The poll found Cruz leading O'Rourke 47 to 44 percent, within the poll's 3.6 percent margin of error.Democrats have been hopeful that Texas' changing demographics will soon give them a shot at winning a Senate seat in the traditionally red state. And Cruz, a firebrand conservative and 2016 presidential hopeful, is a top target.
The Quinnipiac poll, which is available in its entirety here, found the incumbent senator with a 47% approval rating -- an underwhelming level of support for a high-profile Republican in a red state -- and a favorability rating of 46%.
And while I'd remind Democrats to wait for additional polling before getting too excited, the data follows a report from two weeks ago in which Beto O'Rourke raised $6.7 million in the first quarter of this year, suggesting he'll have the resources to run a real statewide campaign against a controversial incumbent.
What's more, in campaigns, success begets success: with polling showing O'Rourke within striking distance, the Texas Dem will probably find it easier to raise even more money, which will in turn help him compete.
As for the broader landscape, the Lone Star State isn't the only place Democrats have found an unexpected battleground.
In Tennessee, where Sen. Bob Corker (R) is retiring this year, the Republican senator offered some praise yesterday for former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the Democrat running to replace him, whom Corker believes has "crossover appeal" and is likely leading right-wing Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) by six points, in the senator's estimation.
Corker added that he won't campaign against Bredesen during the race.
And then, of course, there's Mississippi, where Thad Cochran (R) recently gave up his Senate seat for health reasons, and where former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (D) appears well positioned to seriously compete.
As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the Republican majority in the 51-49 Senate is clearly narrow, but the 2018 map is daunting for Democrats. Nate Silver had a FiveThirtyEight piece in January that explained, “Just how bad [is the 2018 map for Senate Democrats]? It’s bad enough that it may be the worst Senate map that any party has faced ever, or at least since direct election of senators began in 1913. It’s bad enough that Democrats could conceivably gain 35 or 40 seats in the House … and not pick up the two seats they need in the Senate.”
Many campaign watchers can probably sketch out the dynamic from memory: Dems may be able to flip seats in Nevada and Arizona, but they’d also have to find a way to hold onto a series of seats in states where Donald Trump won, including Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.
With a map like this, Democratic voters hoping to see the chamber switch hands have to hope the party can pull an inside straight.
But that's what makes the news out of Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi so interesting: the map is expanding in ways few expected up until very recently.