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.
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.
We’ve got less than four weeks until Election Day — but while the broad parameters of the midterm battlefield are set, how these races break are still anyone’s guess.
Republicans in red states and districts are clearly feeling better about their chances following the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and Democrats are seeing numbers in those places that are making them sweat. But it’s unclear if the GOP’s Kavanaugh bump is helping anyone in swing states — polling has been conflicted on this. And there’s no way to tell right now whether this fight will prove an ephemeral boost for red-state Republican candidates that feels like a long-forgotten memory by Election Day, or whether the moment helped them nationalize races against tough opponents and turn the tide in key Senate battles.
The impossible question to answer right now: What will we be talking about the last week of the election?
I often said heading into 2016 that whichever candidate we were talking about the last week was going to lose. Today, that may be true again: If President Trump is once again dominating the headlines with a bad news cycle, that could spell doom for his party.
Reporters and voters tend to overreact to whatever’s in the headlines at the moment, expecting a lasting effect. But especially now, with Trump turning over the news cycle with whirlwind-like speed, a month remains an eternity in politics. We’re not even a month removed from Paul Manafort turning state’s evidence, and folks can barely remember that happened.
So I honestly doubt that Kavanaugh will be the main fuel in most races. But the fight over his nomination did coincide with Republicans evening the spending in some key races and their base starting to come home. It’s hard to untangle the three things from one another, but my guess is some if not all of that will have some staying power.
The Kavanaugh impact has been most pronounced in the red states that Democrats must win to have any shot at Senate control: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee. If they get wiped out in those states, they will head into 2019 with fewer Senate seats than they have today.
But the key thing to remember is the Senate map is vastly different than the House map, which is vastly different from the governors’ map.
Control of the Senate is mostly being fought out in deep red territory that’s much more rural than the nation as a whole, so anything that riles up both sides is helpful to the GOP. Trump is most focused on the Senate, it seems, or at least is inadvertently helping his party the most in those races.
The House field of battle is GOP-leaning overall but is much more suburban — that means, in House races, Trump’s antics hurt his incumbents more than they help them.
And the governors’ map this year most closely mirrors where the 2020 presidential battlefield will be. It includes many midwestern battlegrounds — Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio — where Trump did much better than previous GOP nominees but which are swingy and where Dems hope to do very well this fall. There are also a lot of close battles in the Sun Belt: Florida, Georgia and Nevada.
Republicans hold almost all of these governor seats in both the midwestern battlegrounds and the Sun Belt right now.
State-level issues obviously matter more in governors’ races — that’s why Oregon, Connecticut, Oklahoma and South Dakota all look somewhat competitive. But governors’ races will provide the best test of what a true swing state looks like this year.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s (R) office is blocking 53,000 people from registering to vote, according to records obtained by the Associated Press, a huge number that could sway his gubernatorial race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
As TPM laid out this morning, Kemp has used a controversial “exact match” program to approve or block voter registrations that disproportionately impacts minority voters.
Now we know exactly how many people that might affect this election. According to the AP, fully 70 percent of the voter applications that are being held up by Kemp’s office are from black people.
It’s unclear how many of these voters will be able to get on the rolls by Election Day.
People whose registrations are still pending have 26 months to correct the problem, and get one notice by mail advising them of the issue. They can still vote in-person provided they present a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, something that minorities are less likely to have, or cast a provisional vote and return within three days with valid proof of identification.
The secretary of state has waged a years-long battle against voting rights groups in the state, regularly going after minority voter registration efforts, while purging voting rolls and making it harder for many people to vote.
This figure shows how much impact that could have. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s (R) 8-point reelection margin in 2014 was just 200,000 votes total. Abrams and Kemp have been statistically tied in most public and private polls. Whether or not these voters get on the rolls could determine who wins the election.
This story was updated at 9:20 p.m. to more fully explain the state’s exact match law.
Voters in three key states can officially cast their ballots as of Wednesday, a key moment in the battle for Congress.
Arizona, Indiana and Ohio all began early voting on Wednesday. All three feature marquee statewide elections.
In Arizona, Reps. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ) are locked in a tight Senate battle. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) is working hard to hold off businessman Mike Braun (R) in Indiana. And Ohio features a very close gubernatorial race, as well as a pair of potentially competitive races for GOP-held House seats (Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is expected to cruise to reelection.)
Montana, which has another competitive Senate race, started earlier this week. Nebraska’s early voting started Tuesday as well, where Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) is looking to hang onto his seat.
Minnesota and New Jersey, which have eight close House races between them, began all the way back on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22. Illinois and Iowa, which each have a handful of competitive House races, have also begun early voting.
Tennessee begins in a week, and Texas is just a few days later, beginning the fight for arguably Democrats’ two best chances to open up a real path to win Senate control.
Georgia, with its marquee governor’s race, begins mail-in absentee voting next Monday.
That means in many key spots in the country, the battle for Congress is no longer an abstraction. Campaigns are pushing their voters to turn out and send in absentee ballots now. This stretch will likely prove crucial in a number of races.
When I pushed Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams a few weeks ago for information on what her campaign’s internal poll numbers were, she pushed back.
“The difference isn’t how closely we’re polling. It’s who turns out their voters,” she said.
That’s one of the biggest underlying questions facing Abrams as she dukes it out against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) in the state’s gubernatorial election.
Abrams and Kemp have been neck-and-neck in nearly every public poll of the race. Private polling from both parties have them just as close. And while the old saw “it all comes down to turnout” might predate the republic, in this hotly contested campaign it actually might be true.
Georgia’s minority population growth has been booming the last two decades. The state’s population is now just 53 percent non-Hispanic white, down nearly ten percentage points since 2000.
That leaves the big question: Will Abrams’ efforts to boost minority turnout actually work well enough to put her over the top?
Strategists from both parties say that if Georgia’s electorate ends up looking like it did during the 2014 midterms, she probably can’t win. But if she can get black turnout to Obama-like highs in terms of proportion of the overall vote, with the current larger population, she should pull off a victory.
That means if Georgia’s vote is 28 to 29 percent black, the low end of what campaign strategists are modeling, Abrams is in trouble. If it’s 32 to 33 percent black, she should win. A number in the middle: Outlook murky. Similar margins for the state’s small but fast-growing Hispanic and Asian-American populations could make big differences too.
If neither candidate wins an outright victory, they head to a December 4 runoff.
Abrams is hoping to capitalize on the state’s major demographic and cultural shift.
She has spent the last few years trying to expand the electorate by registering minority and young voters through her organization the New Georgia Project. Kemp, as my story today details, doesn’t seem as keen on expanding Georgia’s voting populace.
Abrams is also running as a true progressive, predicating her campaign on a huge turnout from minority and younger voters that scrambles what the old turnout model looks like.
That’s a different playbook than past Georgia Democrats, who’ve hugged the middle hoping they can win over enough GOP-leaning independents and trusting that black turnout would be enough to carry them across the finish line. That hasn’t worked statewide since 1998, the last time a Democrat won a gubernatorial or Senate race, and hasn’t worked for a Democrat in a tough district since Blue Dog Reps. John Barrow (D-GA) and Jim Marshall (D-GA) finally went down in conservative districts earlier this decade.
Conversely, Kemp ran hard to the right during the primary, and has done little to move back to the middle since.
Early signs are looking encouraging for Abrams: African American voters have requested early ballots already at almost double the rate they did in 2014. That’s a potential sign of a big enthusiasm jump — though it could partly be because of concerted efforts by Abrams’ campaign to boost early voting.
Both candidates are now making strong efforts to woo the state’s independent voters, especially white women in the Atlanta suburbs. But the campaign’s biggest question comes down to whether the electorate will look more like the new Georgia Abrams has dreamed of and worked for, or whether Georgia will continue to prove to be just out of reach for her and her party.