Democrats hoping to hold their slim Senate majority after November are looking for upsets in two unlikely places, Texas and Florida, to help neutralize potential setbacks elsewhere.
But that means President Joe Biden's party's top opportunities to play political offense in Senate races are coming in America’s largest reliably red state and a onetime quintessential battleground that has moved decidedly to the right in recent years.
Still, with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin not seeking reelection, his seat is likely to flip Republican. Retaining their 51-49 Senate advantage likely means Democrats must defend their other 22 seats on the 2024 ballot — including party incumbents and independents who caucus with them — while also gaining seats, and they say Texas and Florida are their best shot.
Democrats nationwide have championed abortion rights and are looking to build on gains among suburban women and other key swing voters since the Supreme Court's overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in 2022. The party thinks many Texas and Florida voters are with them in believing Republicans have gone too far in restricting reproductive freedom.
The United States Capitol is seen on Capitol Hill on August 6, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)
Dallas mother Kate Cox made national headlines when she was recently forced to leave Texas to terminate a non-viable pregnancy after Republican officials argued she didn't qualify for an exception to its near total abortion ban.
In Florida, activists secured enough signatures to put on November’s ballot a referendum cementing access to abortion in the state constitution — following statewide votes defending abortion access in Republican-leaning Ohio and even more solidly red Kansas and Kentucky.
Democrats are also encouraged by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz eking out reelection in 2018 by less than 3 percentage points over Democrat Beto O'Rourke. In Florida, meanwhile, Republican Sen. Rick Scott won his seat that year by around 10,000 votes out of 8.1-plus million cast.
"I think they are winnable states with the right Democratic candidate and the right Republican candidate," said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "And I think we’re going to have both."
Running for Senate in Florida is Democratic former congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who upset two-term Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo in 2018 but lost her seat representing part of Miami and the Florida keys in 2020. In Texas, Democratic Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas will have to overcome primary challenger Roland Gutierrez, a state senator from San Antonio, before he can take on Cruz.
Texas last voted Democratic for president in 1976. The party hasn't won any of the 28 statewide offices there for 30 years. O'Rourke, after nearly toppling Cruz and unsuccessfully running for president in 2020, lost the 2022 governor's race.
"Just 'cause they’re the best options they have doesn’t mean they're winnable, doesn't mean they're competitive," said Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
Peters, though, points to the most recent midterms, when Democrats defied Biden's low approval ratings and historical precedent by gaining a Senate seat and only narrowly losing the House majority.
"Having folks say, ’Well, the deck is stacked against you going into the election,′ it’s the exact same thing that happened last cycle," he said.
Republicans only have to defend 10 seats and are looking to flip as many as eight held by Democrats, including West Virginia.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm, said "the Democrats, we know, are going to dump millions of dollars (in) out-of-state money to buy those two seats" in Florida and Texas, but he believes Scott and Cruz are strong incumbents.
National Republicans are eying Ohio, where Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown was first elected in 2006, and Montana's Jon Tester, also a three-term Democratic incumbent. Both states are expected to vote Republican for president.
"This team is not over-confident," Daines said. "We know we also have a great map, but you can’t fall in love with the map."
He said strong candidates and messaging will make the difference, as well as a renewed push to encourage early voting and mail-balloting after Trump discouraged them in 2020.
Biden's approval ratings remain soft, which could hurt Democrats in Senate races, though Trump also appears to be his party's likely presidential nominee and would bring his own top-of-the-GOP-ticket negatives.
Only three of the six Senate candidates Trump endorsed won in 2022. Still, Daines said his party was "learning from ‘22," and that he speaks with Trump and his team "frequently" while "working closely with the president to make sure that we are gonna be behind candidates that can win both the general election as well as the primary."
Democrats have tried to characterize Republicans who are both allied with Trump and more moderate as extreme on abortion, arguing that the GOP is looking to take away access.
"We don’t like government telling us what to do. That’s part of our personality," said Mucarsel-Powell, who helped collect signatures for Florida's abortion referendum.
Allred said the Cox case makes the consequences of tough abortion limits "very real for Texans. It is not theoretical anymore."
"I think it’s going to have a huge political impact," he said. "I think it also has an enormous impact on the psyche of so many Texans. I’ve had so many people reach out to me about this because this is something that could happen to anybody and it’s just an example of the most extreme policy taken to its end point."
Another key issue for Mucarsel-Powell is Scott unveiling a 2022 proposal calling for all federal legislation to expire in five years. That would force Congress to pass again what it deemed worthy, including Social Security and Medicare — issues of outsized importance to elderly Floridians.
"Rick Scott is the most vulnerable senator that there is," Mucarsel-Powell said.
Scott has since revised the plan to include exceptions for Social Security, Medicare and things like veterans benefits. Biden nonetheless long decryied the original, which was also used as a line of political attack during 2022 races Democrats won in six swing House districts in Illinois, Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
"Debbie Mucarsel-Powell clearly doesn’t want Floridians to know that she fully supports the Biden agenda that’s devastating Florida families," Scott campaign spokesman Jonathan Turcotte said, referring to issues including inflation and an influx of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. "That’s why Florida rejected her once and will reject her again in November."
Asked about Biden's potential vulnerabilities, Mucarsel-Powell said she was running her own race. She immigrated from Ecuador at 14 and is seeking to be the second Hispanic woman elected to the Senate, joining Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. She makes frequent appearances on Spanish-language radio and answers questions without translation — potentially limiting some of Scott's 2018 success in Hispanic advertising and outreach.
Allred, meanwhile, recalled Cruz leaving for a Mexico vacation during a deadly 2021 Texas ice storm. He called the senator, who relished his role as a conservative troublemaker when he arrived in Washington in 2012 and now is closely aligned with Trump, "the most divisive senator in the country."
"Some folks say a Democrat can’t win in Texas and I say, 'Well someone like me was never supposed to make it this far anyway," said Allred who was raised by a single mother, played linebacker in the NFL and was a civil rights attorney before flipping a Republican congressional seat in 2018.
The Democrats’ Senate campaign arm is including Texas and Florida in an investment worth at least $1 million on research and communications staffers across nine total states tasked with highlighting potential weaknesses of the GOP candidates.
Trump’s margin of victory in Texas declined from 9 percentage points to less than 6 percentage points between 2016 and 2020, but Cruz has worked on bipartisan legislation that plays well in his state, increasing investment in space and boosting protections for women in the military. When he announced his reelection bid, Cruz said, "never before has our country needed strong, conservative leaders more to fight against encroaching leftist ideas and politicians."
Republicans like his chances now.
"The nominee is not going to be Beto," MacKowiak said, "and the year is not going to be 2018."