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The 2 Senate Democrats fighting for reelection in states where Trump dominates

Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are the last two Senate Democrats running for reelection this year in states President Donald Trump won.
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Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are the last two Senate Democrats running for reelection this year in states President Donald Trump won.

In order to win reelection, Montana Democrat Jon Tester needs to defy recent history. "Montanans pride themselves in splitting tickets, but you have to give them a reason to do that," he told NPR.

Americans are finding fewer reasons to do just that. In 2016, every competitive Senate race tipped to the party that won the presidential race. And in 2020, just one senator — Maine Republican Susan Collins — won reelection in a state where the opposing party won the presidential race. In other words, split-ticket voting is at all-time lows in modern politics.

Tester and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown are the two Democratic incumbents running for reelection in states where the Republican nominee, likely former President Donald Trump, is favored to win again, and by wide margins. Trump won Montana 57% to 41% and Ohio 53% to 45%.

If either Tester or Brown loses, that alone could cost the majority. With that map, Republican campaign operatives like Steven Law, who runs the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, are bullish about a GOP takeover.

"It will be hard for any of these senators in those states, these Democrats, to cobble together enough swing voters to put them over the top as long as we've got a credible candidate and we run an effective campaign," Law said.

Democrats hope to defy the trends

Credible candidates and effective campaigns have eluded Senate Republicans in their quest for the majority in recent elections, costing the party seats it was favored to win in states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia.

Poor candidate quality is one reason Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who is running the 2024 campaign operation for a second time, believes the party can hold its narrow majority. "Normally the most extreme candidate gets out of a Republican primary. After the primary, they're also damaged in many ways, and their flaws are quite apparent to the voters, and when given that contrast, we win," he said.

But there are few bright spots for Democrats. Joe Manchin's decision to retire means West Virginia is all but certain to flip to Republicans. Democrats could then maintain control of their remaining seven competitive seats and still lose control of a 50-50 Senate if President Biden loses reelection because the vice president breaks the tie in a split Senate. "Democrats have to pitch a perfect game. There is no room for error," said Jessica Taylor, an election analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Meanwhile, Republicans are almost entirely on offense. Democrats will make runs at defeating incumbents Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida, but they are, for now, long shot bids in states Trump will also be favored to win.

That means operatives like Law, who is a close ally of Mitch McConnell, will have millions more to spend attacking Democrats than protecting Republicans. "With relatively little risk, it just means that the cycle is almost entirely upside," he said.

Banking on advantages

The red state Democratic duo isn't without advantages. Tester and Brown are established, well-funded and remain pretty popular back home. A recent Morning Consult poll had Tester with an eye-popping 61% approval rating. But being likable and getting reelected aren't the same thing.

"I think that as a result of just our increasingly polarized electorate, voters are no longer looking at a vote for Senate as a vote for the person," said Taylor. "They're looking at it as a vote for who they want to control Congress."

Brown says his record as a progressive populist, with his support for unions and worker rights, still resonates in Ohio. He rejects the conventional wisdom that Democrats in states like his need to move to the middle to win. "Voters don't think in those terms. Pundits do, and maybe some reporters do, and maybe some of my colleagues do. But to me, it's 'Whose side are you on?'"

With Biden's sagging popularity and a sour national mood on the economy, Democrats want to make the "Whose side are you on?" question central to all of their campaigns when it comes to abortion. "It shouldn't be the United States Senate telling a woman how to make their other health care decisions. This is a little thing called freedom, the Montanans value in a big, big way," said Tester, previewing how he will frame the debate as a matter of personal liberty.

All of the Republicans running in the Ohio primary support a national abortion ban, which if enacted, could supersede Ohio's recent referendum protecting abortion access. "Ohioans won't stand for [that]. We voted for this, and these politicians want to go off to Washington and are going to repeal it," said Brown.

Sean Trende, nonpartisan senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, said the country is still roiling from the 2022 Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. "I think the question of how the demise of [Roe v. Wade] plays into our politics, and how long it continues to upend it, is still very much an open question," he said.

Law concedes that Republican candidates have to do better articulating their views on abortion, or risk alienating swing voters. "They can't just put out a press release. They're going to have to spend campaign money to talk about it. They're going to have to deflect attacks and explain where they are. If they do, that, I think will be fine," he said.

Senate primary elections to determine GOP candidates begin in March.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.

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