In November 2024, alongside the presidential contest, 33 of the 100 US Senate seats will be up for re-election. A 34th seat will be filled via special election to replace former Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who resigned to become president of the University of Florida in January 2023. Lauren Bell writes that while the Senate election map generally favors the Republican incumbents, who are only facing challengers for 11 seats, there is still a great deal that we don’t know about specific races and candidates. Some candidates have defied the odds before and may do so again. We should also not discount the impact of the presidential election, including the elephant in the room – Donald Trump.
- ‘This article is part ‘The 2024 Elections’ series curated by Peter Finn (Kingston University). Ahead of the 2024 election, this series is exploring the US elections at the state and national level. If you are interested in contributing to the series contact Peter Finn (firstname.lastname@example.org).’
When it comes to American politics, it seems it’s never too early to think about the next election. Already, the journalists and pundits are making predictions about the next round of US Senate elections in November 2024, which will happen alongside the presidential election. At some level, of course, this is premature; it’s not even clear who the candidates will be for many of the seats up for election in this cycle! Still, given how closely divided the current Senate is (48 Democrats, 49 Republicans, and 3 independents who caucus with the Democrats), it’s not surprising that the 2024 Senate elections are top of mind for politicos on both sides of the partisan divide.
The 2024 Electoral Map
Regardless of the specifics of each contest, Democrats face a particularly challenging electoral map in 2024. There are nearly twice as many Democratically-held seats up for reelection next fall—20—than there are Republican seats—11. In addition, all three of the chamber’s independents are also up for reelection this cycle. Moreover, three of the seats held by Democrats are in states where Donald Trump won by large margins in 2020: West Virginia (Trump +39 percent), Ohio (Trump +8 percent), and Montana (Trump +16 percent). Several others are in 2020 swing states, where a Democratic Party victory is far from assured: Wisconsin (Biden +0.6 percent), Pennsylvania (Biden +1.2 percent), and Arizona (Biden +0.3 percent).
Worse still for Democrats: if they are to have any hope of keeping control of the Senate, they can afford to lose just one of the twenty seats they’re contesting next year. That number would drop to zero in the event that a Republican were to win the White House, causing the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to become a Republican one.
The 2024 map is much kinder to Republicans; of the ten senators up for reelection, just two—Texas’s Ted Cruz and Florida’s Rick Scott—are considered at all vulnerable. Cruz is deeply unpopular and has struggled to raise money thus far in 2023; Rick Scott has plenty of his own money, but has alienated older voters with proposals to reduce or eliminate Social Security and Medicare payments. Moreover, he has progressively lost ground in statewide races in Florida since 2010 (indeed, he won his last election to the US Senate by 0.2 percent in 2018) even as the state itself has become more reliably Republican over the same time frame.
In short, if I were a betting person, the 2024 electoral map would lead me to go all in on Republicans regaining control of the Senate by a reasonably majority.
But things may not be that simple.
Known Knowns and Known Unknowns
One of the problems with making predictions at this early point is that while there’s much we know, there is also much we know we don’t yet know. Take the 2024 West Virginia Senate race, for example. We know that popular Republican Governor Jim Justice is running for Senate and that he’s the clear frontrunner for the Republican party’s nomination. But we don’t yet know whether sitting West Virginia Senate Democrat Joe Manchin will run for reelection. If he bows out, the seat is almost certain to flip and give the Republicans another seat in the chamber. If Manchin runs again, polls show that Justice is still likely to win, but Manchin might be able to pull off a victory with a coalition of Democratic, independent, and Republican-leaning voters. To do so, Manchin’s campaign would need to make clear that West Virginia benefits tremendously from his presence in a Democratically-controlled Senate in ways that it might not with both seats safely in Republican hands.
“Vote Here sign in Minneapolis, Minnesota.” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0.
Likewise, we know that Florida Senator Rick Scott is potentially vulnerable if the right challenger emerges, but Democrats have yet to identify anyone to run against him. If, as some in the party are encouraging, Democratic primary voters nominate a celebrity athlete like Dwayne Wade or Grant Hill, their chances to capture Scott’s seat would likely increase over a more traditional candidate. But neither Wade nor Hill have indicated that they are running—or even that they are considering it.
On the other hand, as vulnerable as we’d expect a Democrat to be in increasingly red Ohio, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown has defied the odds before, and he is currently considered the favorite to win in 2024, even though it’s not yet clear who the Republican challenger will be.
Even in those places where we know that seats are almost certainly safe Republican or safe Democrat seats, we don’t know what might happen on the campaign trail. Scandals, medical emergencies, and even plane crashes have upended Senate elections in the past. And of course, it’s always possible that an incumbent senator or party who should be safe will end up losing, as was the case in 2020 with Senate elections in Georgia and Arizona. Missouri’s Senate race between deeply unpopular Republican incumbent Josh Hawley and likely Democratic party nominee Lucas Kunce will be a race to watch in that regard.
The Elephant in the Room
The other important known unknown is how the 2024 presidential election will affect races down ballot, including elections for the US Senate. So far, 2024 is shaping up to present a rematch of the 2020 presidential election contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Neither candidate is considered ideal even within their own party: Biden is considered too old and Trump not only lost to Biden in 2020, but he is now under both state and federal indictment, with the possibility of additional criminal charges for his role in efforts to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in both Georgia and at the US Capitol.
Still, most Democrats, including those who wish he wouldn’t run again, intend to vote for Biden in the 2024 general election. And while lackluster candidates often suppress turnout, the presence of either Trump or Ron DeSantis at the top of the Republican ticket would likely spur Democrats to go to the polls—to vote against the Republican nominee, if not for their own incumbent. This is to say nothing of the extent to which Democrats recognize that the winner of the 2024 presidential election is likely to determine whether the US Supreme Court will swing back to the center or move even further rightward following its 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973) and end federal protections for abortion rights, galvanizing women and independent voters in the process. In short, Democrats have huge reasons to turn out; Republicans perhaps less so, particularly if their general election candidate is running from behind bars.
Summarizing the State of Play
With eight months to go before the 2024 primary season even begins, the safe bet right now is that Republicans will regain control of the US Senate. The electoral map overwhelmingly favors Republicans, who have fewer seats to defend and greater opportunities to flip seats currently held by Democratic incumbents. Still, Republicans’ ultimate success will depend on their ability to nominate quality candidates for each race, something they’ve struggled with in recent elections.
And then there is that Trump-sized elephant in the room…
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