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.

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.

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.

Beware Kavanaugh Narratives, Final-Month Musings Unlikely to Change November Outcomes

During a brief period when I was working for the political unit of CBS News around the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a pre-election meeting run by Sean McManus and Paul Friedman. McManus was then president of CBS News, while Friedman was vice president.

I remember McManus, who made his mark running CBS Sports, saying he had bumped into a friend or acquaintance who told him the alleged Democratic midterm wave had crested and Republican prospects were rebounding.

Having just had conservations with campaign pollsters, party strategists and political consultants, I knew there was little or no evidence of a dramatic change in the trajectory of the election, and I said so in response to McManus’ anecdote. The midterm wave, including a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, was still intact, I observed. (Democrats won control of both chambers that year.)

I recall that my comment didn’t seem to please McManus, but the meeting quickly moved on to other matters. McManus almost certainly had no idea who I was. He never said a word to me.

I relate this memory as a warning about the final month before a national election.

The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.

In some respects, this “last month effect” now happens every day for two years during each election cycle. There are more polls, more airtime to fill on cable TV, and more political and election coverage in general than there ever has been, which has produced more chatter, more speculation and more amateurish analysis.

I’ve warned repeatedly about jumping to conclusions from the latest public poll — my Feb. 12 column “The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!” correctly rebutted the widespread assessment that the 2018 midterm’s trajectory was changing — and I am doing so again.

Over the last week, we have seen a seemingly endless flood of stories about new Republican enthusiasm and how that could affect both turnout and election outcomes next month.

“Democrats’ advantage in recent polls may not bring the ‘blue wave’ they’re hoping for,” warned a piece on from an economics reporter, and plenty of talking heads and reporters warned the Kavanaugh Supreme Court fight was energizing Republicans and undercutting the Democratic midterm surge. Take all such assessments with a grain of salt.

My point is not that any single poll, article or talking head is wrong. It is simply a reminder that Republicans (and their media allies over at Fox News) have an interest in arguing that Kavanaugh has changed the midterm dynamics no matter whether or not it has. And even the major mainstream electronic and print media have an incentive to raise questions about a so-called Republican surge.

President Trump certainly is trying to use wedge issues to energize his supporters, and there may well be an uptick in GOP enthusiasm after the recent Supreme Court fight. But based on the past, I’m skeptical the Kavanaugh fight will fundamentally change next month’s outcomes.

Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.

But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.

First, while Trump turned out his voters two years ago, allowing him to fashion a narrow win while losing the popular vote, Hillary Clinton lost some Democrats and liberals who saw her as equally flawed. Those Democrats voted for the Green nominee or didn’t vote at all, but they are now likely to turn out to vote against Trump and the GOP next month.

Second, Trump and his party have alienated the single most important swing group: college-educated whites in the suburbs. Many of those voters backed Trump because of their general partisan bent, their hope that Trump would bring about change or their dislike of Clinton. But those voters now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.

Third, in addition to differences in base turnout, electoral waves can be produced by dramatic swings among independent voters. Those voters could well be crucial in 2018, as I noted in my May 30 column “Why You Should Focus on Independents.” So far, most polls show independent voters swinging strongly to the Democrats.

Finally, polls taken during the Kavanaugh fight probably don’t reflect what the political situation will be like in November. Veteran pollsters always warn that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion, and dramatic events often produce misleading poll data.

It’s certainly possible that events over the last two weeks have had — or over the next four weeks will have — an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. But rather than relying on Rasmussen and Investor’s Business Daily generic ballot polling, I’d wait to see what the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Gallup and CNN polls show.

Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not. That’s the way things have looked for months.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 9, 2018.