Sen. Al Franken’s resignation puts another Democratic seat into the 2018 mix, but it’s still unclear whether his departure provides Republicans with a legitimate takeover opportunity.
To handicap a race, it’s helpful to know where the contest will take place and who is running. In this case, we know the place is Minnesota, where, despite Donald Trump’s surge in the Midwest, Hillary Clinton narrowly prevailed in 2016, 46-45 percent, and where Republicans haven’t won a Senate race since Norm Coleman’s 2-point victory in 2002.
But we don’t know whom Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint, if that person would seek election to fill the remainder of the term, and who the eventual GOP nominee will be. Those are all key components to understanding the contours of the race.
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We’ll add the seat to the 2018 class as Likely Democratic until some of those outstanding questions have answers. Minnesota’s other Senate seat, held by DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is already on the 2018 docket (and rated Solid Democratic), which means both seats will be on the ballot next year.
If Republicans have their hearts set on picking off Franken’s old seat, they’ll be running against the partisan lean of Minnesota and history.
Over the last 70 years, there have been 27 times when both of a state’s Senate seats were up for election. In 24 of those instances (89 percent of the time), one party won both seats.
Most recently, Republicans won regular and special Senate elections in Oklahoma and South Carolina in 2014. Republicans did the same thing in 2008 in Wyoming and Mississippi, even though Democrats had high hopes at one point for former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, before he lost to appointed GOP Sen. Roger Wicker, 55-45 percent.
In two of the three instances in which candidates from different parties won concurrent Senate races, the split results maintained the partisan status quo before the election, which wouldn’t help Republicans in Minnesota.
In Idaho in 1962, Democratic Sen. Frank Church won re-election while appointed GOP Sen. Len Jordan’s victory retained the Republican seat. And in South Carolina in 1966, Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond won re-election, just as Democrat Fritz Hollings held the Democratic seat after defeating the incumbent in the primary.
The third case of a split result was in New Hampshire in 1962, when Republican Sen. Norris Cotton won re-election, while his party lost the state’s other Senate seat. The senator who had been appointed to fill that vacancy and who ran to fill the rest of the unexpired term, Maurice Murphy Jr., lost in the Republican primary, and Democrat Thomas McIntyre defeated GOP Rep. Perkins Bass in the general election.
An appointed senator and potential open seat gives Republicans an opportunity in a seat that wasn’t even part of the 2018 class. But the GOP will need a solid candidate, and the quality of the field will likely be determined by the perceived strength of the Democratic nominee.