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Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
The gubernatorial war is where Democrats have the most opportunities in the 2018 midterms — and could be the most underreported story of the campaign cycle. I ran down what the battle for the House and Senate, both on GOP-leaning maps, are looking like here. The battle for governorships is being waged in much more purple territory, with many more pickup chances.
Happy two weeks from the election! We’re in the home stretch of the campaign. The last few weeks have seen a notable uptick in GOP enthusiasm that’s made the Senate map much tougher for Democrats, and limited their margin for error as they seek a House majority.
There are a ton of margin-of-error races right now across the map, giving either party a real chance at a very big election night with even a minor change in the national mood in the next two weeks (or a minor shift in the electorate from what pollsters are expecting).
If Democrats retake the House and pick up a number of governorships while fighting to a draw in the Senate, that still should be considered a major wave election given the major structural disadvantages they’re dealing with in both the Senate and House maps.
But the combination of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, President Trump and the GOP’s hard turn into polarizing culture war messaging, a slight uptick in Trump’s approval rating and the normal phenomena of voters coming home to the party they normally back has complicated Democrats’ hopes for a midterm bonanza.
Here’s a quick rundown of where we stand with 14 days until the big night. For the governor’s races, where Democrats have the most pickup opportunities, Prime subscribers can click here.
BATTLE FOR THE HOUSE
Strategists in both parties agree that Democrats still have the edge in the fight for the lower chamber, though Republicans feel less dead in the water than they did last month. As the campaign has become increasingly polarized and driven by base politics, some of the redder districts Democrats have been targeting look increasingly out of reach — but they’re seeing some new opportunities in suburban districts the GOP felt good about just weeks ago.
This trend has made Democrats’ hopes to take out underwhelming GOP incumbents in some districts Trump comfortably won significantly harder, and likely has limited the upper bound of a wave election — though it hasn’t dramatically changed the likelihood of the House flipping.
For much of the summer, Democrats appeared to have a strong chance to defeat Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY), Steve Chabot (R-OH) and Mike Bost (R-IL), and hold onto a GOP-leaning open seat in Minnesota’s Iron Range. All four now appear to be likely to go Republican. Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA), left for dead a few weeks ago, has seen an uptick in his numbers that’s brought spending back in from both sides, though he’s still more likely than not to lose.
But Republicans’ position in suburban territory that Trump lost or barely won has continued to erode. Reps. Mike Coffman (R-CO), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Erik Paulsen (R-MN), Keith Rothfus (R-PA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA) all look like dead men (and woman) running, and Democrats are feeling very bullish about defeating Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Jason Lewis (R-MN) as well. Those seats combined with eight open House seats in suburban territory that are leaning Democrats’ way get them to roughly 15 of the 23 seats they need to net for House control.
And a number of other House seats, most in more suburban territory, that appeared tougher nuts to crack over the summer and early fall are looking better for Democrats.
Reps. Jeff Denham (R-CA), Steve Knight (R-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Mimi Walters (R-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Mike Bishop (R-MI), Bruce Poliquin (R-ME), Leonard Lance (R-NJ), John Faso (R-NY), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), John Culberson (R-TX), Pete Sessions (R-TX), Mia Love (R-UT), Scott Taylor (R-VA) and Dave Brat (R-VA) have all been tied or slightly behind in recent public and private polling. Democrats think they have the edge in winning a trio of open GOP-held seats in Kansas, Washington and Michigan, and think they’ll grind out a win in the Democratic-leaning districts of retiring Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in spite of candidate issues those places.
Almost all of these races are margin-of-error contests, according to strategists in both parties, and Republicans think at least half these Republicans have even or better chances of coming back. But Democrats feel bullish about almost all these contests. And some, like Curbelo, Fitzpatrick, and Walters, are incumbents Republicans felt much more confident about just weeks ago.
If Democrats win most of these seats, they’re close to the majority. And there are more than a dozen other races where they think they’re trailing within the margin of error and hope to pick off a few, including Reps. David Young (R-IA), Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), John Katko (R-NY), Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Scott Perry (R-PA) and open seats in central Florida and southern New Mexico.
Most strategists on both sides think the range of Democratic pickups is between 20 and 40 seats — a range that could lead to Democratic heartbreak as Republicans maintain their House majority on election night, or a Democratic romp across the map. Most races tend to break the same way on election night, so even minor changes in the national mood or overall polling could swing this dramatically.
BATTLE FOR THE SENATE
While Democrats continue to feel good about the House, Republicans are increasingly bullish about the upper chamber, as an increasingly polarized environment and growing GOP base enthusiasm has made voters in red states where the Senate fight is being conducted start behaving a bit more like one would expect in a normal campaign year.
While the general range of outcomes from the beginning of the cycle has been anywhere from Democrats netting the three seats for the Senate majority to Republicans picking up four seats, the upper bound of that result for Democrats looks less likely than it did a few weeks ago, and Republicans are increasingly bullish about winning at least one or two seats.
Strategists in both parties agree that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) is all but cooked. Republicans are also increasingly gleeful about — and Democrats are increasingly worried about — Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). Strategists on both sides think she narrowly trails Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), and while Democrats think she still has time to turn things around and think she’s bounced back some from weaker standing post-Kavanaugh, Republicans think the race may be all but done. Generally, if an incumbent trails narrowly at this point in the campaign it’s hard to come back, especially if that incumbent’s party is the minority in their state.
Democrats still think they’re going to pick up a pair of seats out west, though they’re feeling less confident about those races than they did a month ago. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) hasn’t gone away, and while strategists think public polls showing him opening up a lead aren’t right, both sides still see a path to victory there. Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) has landed some tough blows on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in recent weeks as well, getting the Republican back in the game after a tough GOP primary. Public polls have shown a tightening race there as well, though Democrats feel better than Republicans on the whole about winning the race.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) has also seen his race tighten up in the last month, and strategists in both parties think his contest against businessman Mike Braun (R) might be the closest in the country right now. Both parties express cautious optimism there.
In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has led Gov. Rick Scott (R) in most recent public polling. Strategists on both sides think this is much closer than public polls suggest and is going to come down to the wire, but Democrats have felt more confident about the race for weeks now.
Tennessee is still competitive as well, but Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) appears to have the edge over former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). She’s led in more recent public polls and strategists in both parties think she’s likely to hang on to win. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has led Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) by four to seven points in most recent public and private polls, likely putting that race out of reach for Democrats. And strategists say Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) race has tightened as well in the last month, though most agree he still has an edge.
If Democrats win in Arizona and Nevada, Republicans pick up seats in North Dakota and Missouri and Democrats hold onto the rest of their seats, that leaves the GOP with the same 51-49 margin it currently holds. That could grow to a three-seat pickup and 54 seats if things break the GOP’s way in Indiana, Florida and Montana. If Democrats can hang onto those three seats as well as Indiana and Missouri and pull off an upset in Tennessee or a bigger upset in Texas, they could manage the barest of majorities — but that’s looking much less likely than it did in September.
President Trump has promised the 2018 midterms “will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense.” With two weeks until Election Day, Republican candidates and groups in key races are increasingly putting their money where Trump’s mouth is.
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) are in a dead heat in their high-stakes Senate battle, according to a pair of new polls from Vanderbilt University and Reuters-Ipsos, numbers that conflict with some other recent public polling, but that are closer to private polls from both sides.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said his party might take another whack at Obamacare if they hold onto their congressional majorities in November’s elections.
“If we had the votes to completely start over, we’d do it. But that depends on what happens in a couple weeks,” he told reporters Wednesday, according to Reuters. “We’re not satisfied with the way Obamacare is working.”
The GOP’s Obamacare repeal efforts failed by just one vote last year. And with a number of red-state targets this fall, there’s a good chance Senate Republicans can grow their majority by a few seats if things break their way in the closing weeks of the election.
The House appears more likely than not to flip to Democrats, but it’s no sure thing. House Republicans will almost certainly have a smaller majority next year if they do hold the chamber, but they’re most likely to lose their more moderate members, meaning it might not be as hard for them to get on the same page with a repeal effort.
It seems highly unlikely this will happen. But as McConnell points out, there’s a chance.
Democrats have campaigned hard on protecting Obamacare this election cycle.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) have two things in common (besides living not too far from Chicago): Their parties aren’t popular where they’re running. As they fight to win tough reelection battles they’re looking to tout their bipartisan credentials.
That both men are key players in the fight for congressional control shows how divergent the House and Senate maps are this election cycle — and why even if Democrats have a great night nationally they might get some disappointing Senate results.
I visited both last weekend in greater Chicagoland. I wrote stories on Donnelly and Roskam, including the broader context for why their races matter so much. But the races are also a useful point of comparison. I wrote more than a year ago about how Democrats would need to win both of these divergent types of territory for a big win in 2018, and how the House and Senate diverged. These races illustrate how that’s come true.
While the southeastern tip of Roskam’s district is only about 30 miles from the Indiana border and both are grappling with how to handle a president Roskam described as “mercurial,” they couldn’t be dealing with different political circumstances.
Roskam, a former member of House GOP leadership, represents the kind of upscale, suburban territory that’s shifted hard against his party in the Trump era, while Donnelly (the Democrat) is in a more rural, red state where populist rhetoric has an appeal. Trump dominated here, and Indiana has become harder for state-level Democrats to win in recent years.
The Senate map is stacked in most election years against modern Democrats because of the GOP’s strength in smaller, more rural states. But that’s especially severe this year, with 10 Democrats running in states Trump won and just one Republican running in a state he lost. Hillary Clinton didn’t get higher than 37 percent of the vote in five of those states.
That includes Indiana, where Donnelly is in a dogfight with businessman Mike Braun and where he needs to win large numbers of blue-collar voters with more populist political leanings.
Donnelly’s latest ad quotes Ronald Reagan and attacks “the radical left.” He’s been on air touting his support for Trump’s wall and vote for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Roskam has similarly tacked to the center in a district that once leaned Republican, breaking with Trump on some high-profile issues and touting his few bipartisan accomplishments while mostly trying to disqualify his opponent as a tax-and-spend cog in the Chicago Democratic machine.
The House map isn’t an even playing field either, due to Republican gerrymandering as well as Democratic voters’ tendency to cluster together in more densely populated areas. But there are roughly two dozen House Republican-held seats Clinton carried — about enough for the party to win a majority.
Democrats need to win the popular vote by roughly seven points to have a good shot at winning House control. But they have a lot more suburban territory to target.
Democratic and GOP strategists think Roskam is fighting an uphill battle for reelection, while Donnelly is essentially tied in his race.
Across the country, strategists have found races settling back to what you might expect as the electorate appears increasingly polarized. If Trump won a district or state by more than a few points, chances are it’s looking tough for Democrats, and if he barely won or lost a district, Republicans are sweating bullets. That’s much more helpful for House than Senate Democrats.
There are a ton of margin-of-error races in both the House and Senate right now, and even small changes in the national mood could turn this into a huge Democratic wave or completely gut Democrats on election night. But right now it looks like voters are simply coming home to their parties, with Democrats continuing to hold an enthusiasm edge. And while that’s good news for House Democrats and Senate Republicans, it’s not for Donnelly or Roskam.
LAKE IN THE HILLS, IL — Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) has predicted for months that the GOP tax plan he helped craft would play a major role in his reelection campaign. But with November fast approaching, it’s his opponent who seems more interested in talking about the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called on Congress to rein in major government programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in order to slow America’s spiraling national debt on Tuesday, ignoring the fact the tax plan he recently passed has further grown that number.
INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence strode to the stage Saturday morning with a clear message for his home-state GOP comrades.
“They keep talking about this blue wave across America,” Pence said during a rally for businessman Mike Braun, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) opponent. “But if Indiana does our part, the red wall starts here.”
Donnelly is one of a number of red-state Democrats whose personal likability and independent brands kept them ahead of their GOP Senate opponents for much of the summer and gave Democrats hope they could win enough red states to seize the Senate. But then came the unexpected confirmation saga of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While surveys indicate a majority of Americans opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it seems to have sparked an intense level of polarization on both sides just as campaign season arrived in earnest.
That’s a problem for red-state Senate Democratic candidates who opposed Kavanaugh like Donnelly, Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), the only one in the group who supported Kavanaugh. Democrats likely need to win three of these four races to win back the Senate, a prospect that looks increasingly difficult, and pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona that don’t look as much like slam dunks as they did weeks ago. If most lose, Democrats will lose ground in the Senate — a real possibility.
Standing athwart this polarization is Donnelly, a folksy Democrat who prides himself on his independence and “Hoosier values.”
Recent surrogate visits to the state show how important the race is. Pence’s return home came the same weekend that former Vice President Joe Biden rallied for Donnelly in northwest Indiana, a union-heavy region in suburban Chicago that’s one of Democrats’ few strongholds around the state.
Biden was careful to stress Donnelly’s bipartisan bona fides even as he revved up the partisan Democratic crowd.
“Joe understands that it’s not weakness to reach across the aisle and reach compromise without giving up on any of your principles. Joe understands our system cannot function without consensus,” Biden declared.
How Donnelly defends his vote against Kavanaugh is telling.
“I voted for Justice Gorsuch and I would vote for Justice Gorsuch today. But I was very concerned about the way [Kavanaugh] conducted himself,” the senator told TPM Sunday after rallying the troops at a local Democratic headquarters in Merrillville. “I stood strong with President Trump to say look, I would be more than happy to find you another nominee who can serve.”
Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote was brought up unprompted by voters at both his rally and Braun’s.
Rhea Arthur attended the Pence-Braun rally in Indianapolis Saturday morning, and said she’d been leaning towards voting for Donnelly — until the Kavanaugh vote.
“I did like Donnelly. But he’s not thinking about Indiana people. He’s thinking about his [party] leaders,” she said.
Arthur voted for Republican Richard Mourdock in 2012 even after he made a major gaffe about rape and abortion. Donnelly won that race by a six-point margin.
Republicans think Kavanaugh has helped them in Indiana, where early voting started Oct. 10. One Braun ally said it was the “first mistake” the savvy Donnelly had made all campaign. But they don’t seem to see it as a silver bullet.
Pence went after Donnelly’s Kavanaugh vote in his speech at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis Saturday, but only as part of a litany of slights towards Trump including his votes against the GOP tax cuts and defunding Planned Parenthood.
“Joe voted no,” he intoned time after each example, a line he’s also used against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) — and would likely use against any Democrat named Joe.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest ad, featuring Pence, hits Donnelly on the vote as well, as does a spot from the National Rifle Association.
Braun himself hasn’t been leaning that hard into Kavanaugh on the trail and in his paid advertising. He didn’t even mention the vote during a quick stump speech morning as he introduced Pence. His latest ad mentions Donnelly’s vote against confirming the justice only briefly, before pivoting into an attack on Donnelly’s past support for Hillary Clinton.
His campaign has focused less on specific policy issues and more on hammering home the point that he’ll be a stalwart supporter of Trump.
“Sleepin’ Joe has got a record, you know, that doesn’t line up with Hoosiers,” Braun said, using Trump’s nickname for Donnelly. “He calls himself the hired help. … He looks like the tired help. And with his performance, I think it ought to be the fired help.”
Donnelly has highlighted his work across the aisle with Trump, while hammering Braun over health care and his business record. His latest ad spotlights his vote to confirm Gorsuch, his support for Trump’s border wall, and Trump praising him for his work on a bipartisan “right to try” bill that allows terminally ill people to try experimental drug treatments.
There’s still plenty of time until the election for voters’ focus to shift. Less than a month ago, headlines were focused on Paul Manafort’s guilty plea.
“The Kavanaugh matter has energized people. I’ve certainly heard that. What I’ve said to several people is we’re still 24 days away,” Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) told TPM at the Pence-Braun rally. “We still have light years to go in many ways before this election’s over.”
And Brooks conceded that Donnelly’s folksy appeal is giving him a shot.
“Everyone acknowledges that he is a nice man and he is an incredibly hard worker,” she said, after highlighting areas where she thought Donnelly was out of step with the state’s voters.
The one policy area where Donnelly has been aggressive is health care. He’s hammered Braun for having high health insurance premiums for his workers and for supporting a lawsuit that would end the ban on preexisting conditions. Donnelly routinely highlights his vote against repealing Obamacare.
“We were able to win [in 2012] because of your hard work, all of you. And because of that we were able to save health care by one vote,” he told volunteers at the Merrillville event.
Donnelly will need a strong showing both with the blue-collar, populist voters who fled his party last election and with GOP-leaning suburban women turned off by Trump.
“What Joe’s doing is painting himself as someone who’ll work with Trump when he can and be an independent voice from Trump when he thinks it’s necessary. Braun has done the exact opposite, he’s attached Trump to his hip and is trying to ride him across the finish line,” said former Rep. Baron Hill (D-IN). “And I think that’s a mistake here, people want an independent voice as opposed to a lapdog for Trump.”
When Obama pulled off an improbable victory in the state in 2008, he carried 15 of the state’s 92 counties. Donnelly won 26 when he upset Mourdock in 2012, posting huge margins in the counties near Chicago. He over-performed in the donut counties around Indianapolis, and carried chunks of suburban and exurban territory near Louisville, Cincinnati and Evansville. Clinton carried just four counties statewide last election.
Jerome Davidson, who works for the United Steelworkers, said the difference between Clinton’s approach and Donnelly’s was night and day.
“The reason why he won is what he’s doing right there,” he said, pointing to Donnelly as the senator greeted local supporters with hearty handshakes at one of his whistle-stop events in Northwest Indiana Saturday. “She didn’t come to the Rust Belt and do that, right there — talking to people and shaking hands. This is why he’ll win again.”
Even as the GOP base appears to be shaking awake, it’s clear that Democrats’ white-hot fury hasn’t dimmed. That includes in red states like Indiana that still have plenty of pockets of blue voters. And there are plenty of moderate Republicans and independents who remain open to backing someone who’s split with the president.
Bob Roach, an electrical engineer at a Northwest Indiana steel plant who attended the Donnelly-Biden rally, had been so turned off by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that he skipped the top of the ticket in 2016.
He said he’d “never, ever voted straight-party” in his life.
But Roach said this year was different — that voting down the line for Democrats will be “the easiest vote I ever made.” Backing Donnelly was a no-brainer for him.
It remains to be seen whether there are enough Bob Roaches out there to send Donnelly back to the Senate.