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In the 2018 midterms, the Senate map may be expanding in unexpected ways

The odds are probably against a Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate -- but the 2018 map is starting to change in unexpected ways.
A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (Photo by David Goldman/AP)
A voter marks a ballot for the New Hampshire primary inside a voting booth at a polling place, Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.

At first glance, Republican control of the Senate appears fragile. After all, the GOP majority is currently down to 51 seats, which means the party has little margin for error. With signs of a possible "blue" wave building, a net gain of two Senate seats for Democrats hardly seems outrageous.

The challenge, of course, is this year's map -- one in which Republicans have practically every possible advantage, the prevailing political winds notwithstanding. 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 what if there were a way to expand the map a bit, turning seats that looked like safe Republican victories into competitive contests? The Tennessean, for example, had this report this morning out of the Volunteer State.

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen has a 10-point lead over U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn in the race to succeed U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, according to a new poll from Middle Tennessee State University.The poll, released Thursday, found 45 percent of 600 registered Tennessee voters said they would choose Bredesen, a Democrat and former Nashville mayor, if the election were immediately held. Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican, netted 35 percent, with another 17 percent of respondents saying they were not sure.

To be sure, all of the usual caveats apply: this is only one poll; campaigning is still getting underway; the election is still seven months away, etc.

But the point is, up until very recently, neither party looked at Tennessee -- a state Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2016 -- as a state that could host a competitive Senate contest. And yet, there's at least some evidence to suggest that's exactly what's happening.

What's more, it's not just Tennessee. In Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) was thought to be a shoo-in for a second term, right up until Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) 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.

Even in Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran (R) has given up his seat for health reasons, there are some observers in both parties who believe the race is winnable for Democrats, and some high-profile Dems are launching candidacies.

This isn't to say that Democrats are going to take back the Senate. In fact, the odds are still against it. But what's interesting to me is the fact that many of us -- including me -- were too quick to assume that this year's map was settled. There's some fluidity to these contests, which should probably be the source for some Republican anxiety.