IN A year that has seen huge numbers of women and minority candidates step forward for the Democrats, the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate may rest on the shoulders of a 74-year-old white man in a pinstripe suit. Phil Bredesen (pictured above, right) served two terms each as Tennessee’s governor and Nashville’s mayor; he is running against Marsha Blackburn, a staunchly conservative eight-term congresswoman, for the seat that Bob Corker’s retirement has left open. Although Donald Trump won Tennessee by 26 points, and the state last elected a Democrat (Al Gore) to the Senate in 1990, polls have shown a surprisingly close race.
During an evening spent answering questions submitted by an overwhelmingly supportive audience, progressive worries rose like balloons—and Mr Bredesen wielded the pins. What would he do about health-insurance firms who deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions? The problem is not with insurance companies, said Mr Bredesen (a former health-insurance company boss); they have a business to run. How would he protect DREAMers? Both parties bore responsibility for their plight. Did he believe that black lives matter? Of course, but being a police officer was also a dangerous job. Since he said he would work with the president when he did something good, could he name one thing? Deregulation sounded good, and by the way, he was sorry America had withdrawn from the TPP.
To win a majority in the Senate, Democrats need a net gain of two seats (because the vice-president breaks Senate ties, a 50-50 split leaves Republicans in control). The party has no right to be even contemplating such an outcome. Every two years a third of the Senate is elected. The way the calendar falls, in 2018 Democrats ought to be in the brace position. The party is defending 26 seats—including those of Angus King and Bernie Sanders, two independents who caucus with the Democrats—compared with the Republicans’ nine. The strong economy ought to be helping the president’s party. And yet Mr Trump is so unpopular that Democrats have a chance of winning their majority.
A handful of Democrats are in the Bredesen mould: candidates who look competitive despite the fact that Mr Trump won their states comfortably. Mr Bredesen describes the strategy in states like Tennessee thus: “If this is a race between Marsha Blackburn and me, I’ll win it. If this is a race between a Democrat and a Republican…I’ll lose that race.” Asked how he keeps national attention to a minimum, he looks across the table at your correspondent, not quite smiling: “By spending a minimum amount of time talking to you.”
Apart from Tennessee, the Democrats’ best hopes of making gains are probably in Arizona and Nevada. In Arizona, Martha McSally had to tack right to win the Republican primary occasioned by Jeff Flake’s retirement; her opponent, Kyrsten Sinema, grabbed the centre. And in Nevada, Dean Heller is among the least popular incumbent Republican senators.
If November brings not just a wave but a tsunami, other gains are possible. In Texas Beto O’Rourke’s preternatural political gifts and hard work have forced Ted Cruz into a tougher campaign than he probably expected. Unfortunately for the upstart, there are a lot more Republicans than Democrats in Texas. Unfortunately for Mr Cruz, he has appeared craven in begging for the president’s support (Mr Cruz once called Mr Trump “a pathological liar”). There is even a narrow path to victory for Mike Espy in Mississippi. First, increase turnout from African-Americans. Then hope his opponent is Chris McDaniel, a divisive neo-Confederate who might just disgust enough white voters, as Roy Moore did in Alabama late last year.
It is not hard to see how Democrats could win two seats from this selection. Their greater difficulty lies in holding on to what they have already.
Democrats will retain most of the seats they have in states Hillary Clinton won. Only New Jersey and New Mexico could give them a nasty surprise. Mr Trump lost New Jersey, which last elected a Republican to the Senate in 1972, by 14 points. But Bob Menendez, running for his third full term, was indicted on federal corruption charges three years ago. His trial ended in a hung jury. He lost nearly 40% of the vote to an obscure opponent in this year’s primary. Mr Menendez’s Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, has been close in some polls. In New Mexico, which Mr Trump lost by eight points, Gary Johnson—a Libertarian candidate and a popular ex-governor—could win by attracting Republicans and a critical mass of moderate Democrats disenchanted with Martin Heinrich, the Democratic incumbent. The other 14 seats in this category look fairly safe.
There are plenty of other ways for the party to drop a seat or two, however. The most likely losses are where Democratic incumbents are running in states that Mr Trump won in 2016.
Mr Trump took the bellwether states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, but Bob Casey, Sherrod Brown and Debbie Stabenow, the states’ respective Democratic incumbents, all enjoy comfortable polling leads. Tammy Baldwin’s lead in Wisconsin is slightly shakier, but still solid. Mr Trump won Montana and West Virginia by wide margins, but the Democratic incumbents there, Jon Tester and Joe Manchin respectively, are farther ahead than either demography or their states’ political leanings suggest they should be.
In North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp is running headlong into Mr Trump’s high approval rating in her state, though that could falter if manufacturers and soyabean farmers feel pain from tariffs. Joe Donnelly clings to a slim lead in Indiana and Claire McCaskill is tied in Missouri, both states which supported Mr Trump by wide margins. It is fairly likely that the Democrats will lose at least one of these, offsetting possible gains elsewhere.
And then, in a category all by itself, there is Florida. Mr Trump won the Sunshine State narrowly. Rick Scott, a two-term Republican governor with deep pockets, is trying to unseat Bill Nelson, the uninspiring Democratic incumbent, in what may become the most expensive Senate race in history. Democrats could hold what they have already and pick up a seat in Trump country yet, if Florida again has the final say, still fall short of their majority.