Iowa and Kansas and Pennsylvania, Oh My — Split Midterm Decision Likely I Spy

Predictions? Not from me. But I do have expectations as Election Day approaches, and I am happy to share them.

I expect Republicans to hold on to their Senate majority, quite possibly even adding a seat or two.

In the House, I’d be surprised if Democrats don’t win control Tuesday. I still expect Democratic gains in the chamber to be in the 30- to 40-seat range, though larger gains are possible.

Has there been movement over the past couple of months? Sure, there was a little movement one way, followed by a little movement the other way. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t much net movement from early September to late October.

Of course, there is still almost a week to go, and recent events could have an impact on late deciders. If voters have had enough chaos and disruption for a while and are looking for at least a brief pause, they could turn to the Democrats in the final days of the election cycle. And Republican enthusiasm could wane at the margins as memories of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings fade and President Donald Trump overplays the immigration card.

Don’t dismiss those possibilities out of hand. The map continues to be the main reason why the Democrats aren’t likely to flip the Senate. It’s the worst map for one party I have ever seen.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected two years ago, Republicans would have been poised to hold both Nevada and Arizona, and Democrats would be preparing to lose at least six seats — North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Florida and Montana — and as many as a dozen (New Jersey, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan).

In other words, while Trump has been an asset for Republican nominees in some states, he has been a liability elsewhere — just like in the House.

But unlike the House, where swing congressional districts will determine the chamber’s control, the fate of Senate control rests with very Republican/pro-Trump states.

North Dakota seems like a certain Republican pickup as conservative rural voters stick with their party.

Missouri and Indiana are the Democrats’ next biggest headaches. Even splitting those two races would be a plus for them.

Handicappers generally see Arizona, Nevada and Florida as Toss-ups, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats sweep all three. In fact, I am expecting it.

Democrats also have an edge in West Virginia and Montana, though both states offer a challenging electoral landscape for them. Republicans certainly believe those races are still in play, and Democrats aren’t close to believing that those contests are already in the bag.

Tennessee and Texas both look more competitive than they usually are, but I don’t know a single dispassionate analyst or handicapper who thinks Democrats will win either race. A win by Phil Bredesen or Beto O’Rourke would be a significant upset.

Another wild card is New Jersey, where Democrat Robert Menendez is facing a tougher race than expected from Republican Bob Hugin. The contest looks close, but I still find it difficult to believe Menendez will lose during a midterm election about Trump.

Meanwhile, in the House

Over in the House, Democrats continue to perform well in competitive and even GOP-leaning districts.

If public polls are correct, Democrats could win two of four districts in Kansas and two additional seats in Iowa, giving them three of the Hawkeye State’s four districts.

Just as a reminder, Trump carried Iowa by 10 points and Kansas by 20 points.

Pennsylvania looks like a bloodbath for the GOP, with eye-popping Democratic gains almost certain, and California and New Jersey look equally challenging for Republicans.

Democrats have been able to widen the playing field, forcing the national GOP to play defense in districts where they never expected to devote resources.

That development increases the chances of a late-breaking larger wave.

Few observers expected the Republican-friendly confines of Utah’s 4th (Mia Love), Florida’s 15th (Dennis A. Ross, open), California’s 10th (Jeff Denham) or New Mexico’s 2nd (Steve Pearce, open) to be competitive this late in the cycle. But polls show they are, and veteran handicappers see all of those districts as in play now.

The danger for Republicans is that election waves build right up to Election Day because more casual voters — that is, those who vote only occasionally and more on mood and personality than ideology — make up their minds and opt for “change.”

That tends to produce larger losses for the president’s party on election night, including a true long-shot race or two.

I am not expecting an electoral tsunami close to the magnitude of the elections of 1994 and 2010. But Democratic House gains of at least 30-40 seats surely would constitute an electoral wave and a clear message of dissatisfaction with the president and his party.

I’ll be watching for surprises on election night. I am expecting we’ll have some. Trump continues to disrupt our politics, so the only real surprise on Tuesday would be if we have no surprises.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 1, 2018.

For Handicapping Midterm Races, Old Rules May No Longer Apply

Political handicapping is more than looking at polls and regurgitating who is ahead. Throughout an election cycle, there are signs political handicappers use to understand what is happening at a given moment and to project how races will play out in the weeks or months ahead.

During the endgame, one of the most reliable rules of handicapping is that for incumbents, “what you see is what you can get.” In other words, incumbents won’t get many undecided voters.

The underlying reasoning for that view is pretty simple: Incumbents tend to be better known than their challengers, in part because of the advantages of incumbency.

They traditionally raise more money and have every opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters, building relationships that will ultimately pay off on Election Day.

Undecided voters late in an election cycle haven’t connected with the incumbent and aren’t even giving him or her the benefit of the doubt. For some reason, those voters are resisting supporting the incumbent.

Of course, some undecideds will be of the same party as the incumbent, and many of them will ultimately support the sitting lawmaker. But undecided voters late in a cycle probably have more reason to vote for the challenger — or not vote at all — than to support the incumbent.

Doing the math

Because undecideds break disproportionately to the challenger, any incumbent who is winning by a point or is in a dead heat in the final 10 days of a campaign ought to be an underdog in the election.

That’s why handicappers view incumbents who are ahead 44 percent to 43 percent or even 46 percent to 45 percent as being in terrible shape politically. (Incumbents who are running even or slightly ahead but are getting 48 or 49 percent of the vote have a better chance to eke out a win.)

So, when I see a New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll showing New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur leading Democratic challenger Andy Kim 45 percent to 44 percent 10 days out from the election, I have to believe that MacArthur is in deep trouble.

That doesn’t mean he can’t win, of course. He could have a financial advantage in the final weeks, or the undecided voters could be disproportionally pro-Trump or Republican, which would improve MacArthur’s prospects. Or, the polls could be inaccurate.

But in the past, most incumbents in MacArthur’s situation would not win unless they had a strong political breeze at their backs.

The same goes even more for Republican incumbents like Peter Roskam of Illinois or Jeff Denham of California, both of whom narrowly trail their Democratic opponents in recent public polls.

Using the old “what you see is what you get” rule of thumb, both Roskam and Denham (and Colorado’s Mike Coffman and Virginia’s Barbara Comstock) are likely toast.

Into the unknown

This year, it’s hard to know whether that handicapping rule of thumb will hold.

President Donald Trump is an unusual political figure who has already violated multiple rules of handicapping, and only a fool would assume that all of the old political rules still apply.

Handicappers also look at mood and use it to project both turnout and voters’ preferences.

Normally, controversial presidents lose support over time and have trouble generating turnout. But Trump’s supporters appear to be unusually loyal to him and enthusiastic about voting in November. That could limit the upside of Democratic gains and the size of any Democratic wave.

On the other hand, unusual turnout patterns in next month’s midterm elections could obliterate the traditional electoral signposts.

Midterm electorates have tended to be more Republican than presidential years, but extraordinary enthusiasm among younger voters, minority voters and suburban women could produce an electorate that produces many more Democratic victories than now expected, turning a modest wave of 30-35 seats to one of 40-45 seats.

Handicappers also look at the electorate’s desire for change to understand how the public’s mood will impact midterm voting. Voters who are unhappy with the way things are going normally vote against the president’s party, especially when that party controls the House, the Senate and the White House, as is now the case.

Recent polls show that more Americans believe the country is headed off on the wrong track rather than in the right direction. But again, we aren’t certain how Trump changes the political equation.

Some “change” voters may take out their dissatisfaction on Trump and the GOP, seeing them as in charge and responsible for the direction of the country. But other “change” voters may be Trump loyalists who believe that the “Deep State” and the “establishment” are still in charge.

To those voters, Trump and his political allies are still agents of change, fighting the media and liberals who are still taking the country off on the wrong track.

The current political landscape is very different to the one we saw before 2015-2016. Voters are behaving differently (just look at the early voting), and the amount of money being spent in the midterms is astronomical. And, of course, the president is unlike other American presidents.

In a week, we’ll know whether any of the midterm and late cycle rules of political handicapping still apply.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 30, 2018.

House Midterm Outlook: Look for a Democratic Flip

Are we still headed for a Democratic wave in the House next month? That all depends on how you define a wave. But one thing is clear: Democrats are still likely to flip the chamber even after all the buzz about a post-Kavanaugh Republican bounce.

A wave occurs when a large number of one party’s seats flip to the other party, invariably because of a national political figure (the president, usually) or a national issue. Many competitive seats change hands, and at least a few entrenched incumbents suddenly find themselves in trouble.

How many seats need to flip to constitute a wave? 20 seats? 30? 50?

The best way to answer that unanswerable question is to look at history.

During the 17 midterm elections that have occurred since 1950, five have produced single-digit changes, while another four have been in the teens and low double digits. Three elections have produced net changes from 26 to 30 seats, while five more have produced gains of 48 to 63 seats.

The single-digit changes — in 1962, 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — clearly were not waves. One party cherry-picked enough seats to make a net gain, but there was no sign of national political momentum.

The teens/low double-digit change elections — in 1954, 1970, 1978 and 2014 — may have reflected one party’s advantage, but for me, the net changes don’t constitute a substantial enough surge for one side to be defined as a wave election.

Not a science

I’ve always used 20 seats or even 25 seats as the minimum number of seats that a party needs to gain before calling an election a wave, though I don’t think there is a magic number.

In part, the number of seats that need to switch depends on where the two parties start.

Moreover, not all waves are alike. There are smaller waves (20-30 seats) and larger ones (48 seats each in 1958, 1966 and 1974) — and there are tsunamis, including 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats, and 2010, when they gained 63 seats.

This cycle, a modest wave has been developing for months. President Donald Trump’s job approval has been low, and voters have told pollsters they want a Democratic Congress as a check on him.

Trump’s job approval climbed in the Oct. 14-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but that survey also gave Democrats a 9-point advantage (50 percent to 41 percent) in the generic ballot among likely midterm voters. And while Republican enthusiasm has grown over the last month, it fails to match Democratic enthusiasm.

Women and college-educated whites have moved strongly toward the Democrats, and younger and minority voters appear unusually energized.

More important at this point of the election cycle, surveys in individual congressional districts show GOP-held suburban districts like Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), New Jersey’s 11th (retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen’s open seat) and Kansas’ 3rd (Kevin Yoder) poised to flip.

Incumbents in these and similar districts have proved that they can win even in difficult political environments, but a wave is an entirely different matter since it makes the election about someone else (in this case, Trump and Republican control of the House), not the individual Republican nominee or member of Congress.

Of course, not all seats behave the same way even during a political wave. Not even all suburban seats behave the same way.

Candidates and their campaigns matter. Strategists from both parties have very different views of the current House playing field and how it has changed.

GOP strategists generally express confidence that the party’s “worst case” scenario has been avoided, thanks to the confirmation fight surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

They once feared losses of 40 to 50 seats, but now generally expect somewhat fewer losses, probably in the 30-40 seat range.

A veteran Democrat I spoke with laughed at the prospect that Democrats were ever going to win 50 seats, insisting that 30 or 35 seats was always a more reasonable number.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has projected Democratic gains of 25-35 seats, a “Category 1” hurricane that would produce a wave that would cost Republicans the House but wouldn’t produce anything close to a 1994 or 2010 tsunami.

Holding steady

In an early September column, I found Democrats heading for a gain of about 30 seats, with larger gains very possible, though I have generally been saying that I expect Democratic gains in the 30-40 seat range. I see no reason to alter that expectation.

Others, of course, have suggested that Democratic prospects in the House were much greater a month ago and have dimmed of late.

Some districts do look worse for Democrats, while others suddenly look intriguing, but that is the nature of campaigns — and of political handicapping.

Moreover, it is quite possible that some of those who once expected greater Republican losses were overly optimistic about Democratic prospects.

Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey continue to be prime Democratic targets, but there are many races that are still competitive, including Kansas’ 2nd District, Maine’s 2nd, Kentucky’s 6th, Florida’s 15th and 26th, New Mexico’s 2nd, Virginia’s 2nd and Iowa’s 3rd.

Republicans, on the other hand, will win a Pennsylvania open seat and are likely to swipe one or two pro-Trump districts in Minnesota.

Although I have watched House campaigns and elections closely for almost four decades, I’m less confident I know how this cycle will end.

Trump, after all, is an untraditional figure, and that makes his impact uncertain. But for now, just two weeks before Election Day, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections haven’t changed dramatically in the House.

The focus remains primarily on suburban districts, college-educated whites, younger voters and minorities, not on rural and evangelical voters or whites without a college education. The House is still poised to flip party control.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 23, 2018.

Breaking the Midterm Mode: Both Parties Make it About Trump

For decades, the rule of thumb for campaigns during midterm elections has been the same: When the president is popular, the president’s party tries to nationalize the election, and the opposition attempts to localize it. On the other hand, when the president is unpopular, his party’s nominees try to localize while the opposition tries to make the election a national referendum on his performance. Perhaps not surprisingly, 2018 has broken that mold.

Both sides are trying to nationalize the November election.

President Donald Trump’s job approval rating sits somewhere between 38 percent and 42 percent, a level that in the past would have kept him locked up in the White House or doing private fundraising events throughout the election year. And yet, the president continues to fly around the country to attend rally after rally.

True, the rallies tend to be in pro-Trump areas, but the coverage of those events and the president’s public schedule make him the center of attention nationally.

Moreover, Trump goes out of his way to argue that the midterms are about him, that voting for Republican candidates is the same thing as voting for him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised that Trump wants to make the 2018 elections about him. He seems to think that everything is about him.

Anyway, this odd situation whereby both parties are trying to make the upcoming election about Trump obviously follows from the polarization in the country.

Both approval and disapproval of the president are stunningly intense.

Three out of four respondents in a Sept. 16-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll either strongly approved or strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Because of that — and because of the Senate map, which includes a number of pro-Trump, pro-Republican states with Democratic incumbents — both national parties essentially are trying to nationalize the election.

For years now, party strategists have been obsessed with base turnout. While Trump lost the popular vote two years ago, his Electoral College victory and his reliance on higher turnout voters (e.g., white voters and older voters) have fueled GOP optimism about 2018.

Many Republican strategists have argued that if they can get their voters to turn out, as they did in 2016, the party can hold the House and expand its Senate majority.

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that weaker-than-anticipated base turnout last time cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, and the party needs only to boost its numbers among younger voters, minority voters and progressives to produce a blue wave — particularly if college-educated, suburban women are fleeing GOP candidates this year.

Given strategists’ assumptions, nationalizing the midterms seems to accomplish what both parties want — to encourage turnout among base voters.

But the nationalizing strategy has also made it much more difficult for party officeholders in the political center and who need to localize their races if they are going to have any chance of winning.

Republican incumbents in non-Trump districts, such as Virginia’s Barbara Comstock and Colorado’s Mike Coffman, have no chance of surviving a nationalized election next month.

They — and two-dozen other House Republicans seeking re-election or open seats — need to run on their own accomplishments and personal connections to district voters, but they can’t do that if the entire midterms are about Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already run a TV spot mocking Coffman’s promise to “stand up to Trump,” as well as a spot that labels Comstock “Barbara Trumpstock” because of her support for the president’s agenda.

DCCC ads in two Twin Cities districts, held by Republicans Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, specifically link those two incumbents to the president. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Trump has essentially thrown pragmatic incumbent House members under the bus by making himself the focus of the midterms.

At the same time, of course, Trump has made it more difficult for Democratic senators seeking re-election in GOP-friendly states such as North Dakota and Missouri.

Heidi Heitkamp won election narrowly six-years ago by portraying herself as a “North Dakota Democrat,” not a “national Democrat,” but that is a much heavier lift this year, when everything is about Trump and the two parties.

I recently wrote that this election will rob the GOP of many of its more moderate and pragmatic members, making the party more conservative and less willing to compromise. The Democrats may become a more diverse group because the party will add both suburban pragmatists and progressives who embrace “social democracy.”

But the election will do something else. It will pull the two bodies of Congress further apart. The Senate majority will be even more the chamber of Trump, while the House will lead the opposition to him. In a system of checks and balances, that is not a prescription for getting legislation enacted.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on October 15, 2018.

Two Elections: Democrats’ Chance of Taking the Senate Fading, House Likely to Flip

The Democrats’ chances of netting at least two Senate seats always seemed like a long shot. But a month ago, the stars looked to be aligning for them. Today, those stars tell a different story.

With the Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, opening up a clear lead over Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Senate race looks all but over now, according to multiple insiders. That means Democrats will need to swipe at least three GOP seats to take back the Senate — an outcome that currently appears somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

Democratic prospects have also faded over the past couple of weeks in two important states, Tennessee and Arizona. And in Nevada, a state that went for Hillary Clinton two years ago, Republican incumbent Dean Heller is running even or slightly ahead of Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen. In Texas, where Democratic enthusiasm for Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s Senate bid is off the charts, GOP incumbent Ted Cruz continues to hold a clear and consistent advantage, with no sign that Lone Star state voters are going to fire him.

To make matters worse for Democrats, Republicans continue to threaten their incumbents in Senate races in Missouri, Indiana, Florida and Montana. (Four other states that Donald Trump carried in 2016 — Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are not competitive.)

The Democratic scenario for capturing the Senate always depended on swiping at least two — and probably three — Republican seats. That is now not happening.

It’s possible that events over the next few weeks will change that arithmetic, but for now, net gains for Senate Republicans seem more likely than Democratic ones.

This year’s Senate results are crucial, in part, because they will help determine the parties’ Senate prospects for the 2020 election. A GOP gain of two or three Senate seats this cycle will make it very difficult for Democrats to win the Senate in 2020, when two vulnerable Democratic Senate seats are up — Alabama and New Hampshire — along with four vulnerable GOP seats — Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina.

While the Senate outlook is increasingly bright for Republicans, the House looks almost guaranteed to flip to the Democrats next month. Republican strategists I talked with recently privately predicted Democratic House gains ranging from 25 to 50 seats.

The GOP’s problem in the House is the same as the Democrats’ problem in the Senate — the map.

Republicans sitting in upscale suburban districts — incumbents such as Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, California’s Mimi Walters and Colorado’s Mike Coffman — are counting down their final days in office, and “tribalism” is even endangering popular Republican incumbents in Democratic districts, like California’s David Valadao.

While some GOP strategists say they see suburban men who have been on the sidelines returning to the Republican column, others say there has been only a slight bump for the party in recent weeks.

One Republican observer said he thought as many as 20 or 21 of the 25 Clinton-supporting GOP districts could well flip, producing a large Democratic House wave.

Another Republican who believes the landscape is improving for his party agrees that the House will flip because there are simply too many strong, well-funded Democratic challengers in upscale districts.

For months, it has looked as if Democrats would capture the House and Republicans would retain the Senate. That remains the likely outcomes because there are essentially two different elections going on — one, in the Senate, in mostly pro-Trump, conservative, rural states; and one, in the House, in upscale, diverse, suburban congressional districts.

One of those groups of voters is electing the Senate, while the other group is electing the House. Given the deep division in the country and the very different outlooks of pro-Trump and anti-Trump voters, that should not come as a shock to anyone.

Both parties will try to improve their prospects in the final few weeks of the campaign. With Democratic voters and particularly better educated women engaged and energetic, it is up to GOP strategists to make sure their voters turn out.

This article appeared initially in Roll Call on October 12, 2018.