reporter's notebook

Two Races Just Miles Apart Are Emblematic Of Democrats’ Divergent Chances In House, Senate

October 17, 2018 3:13 p.m.

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.

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