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.
Republican Troy Balderson appears to have barely squeaked by Democrat Danny O’Connor in a heavily Republican Ohio congressional district Tuesday, the latest warning sign that the GOP is headed into a brutal fall election season.
Balderson led over O’Connor by 50.1 percent to 49.3 percent, a 1,766-vote lead, with all precincts reporting. That narrow edge came in a district anchored in suburban Columbus, Ohio that President Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016 and hasn’t elected a Democrat in 35 years. While provisional ballots were still outstanding, that’s likely enough for him to avoid a recount.
That the election was close at all is the latest concerning sign for House Republicans as they look ahead to the fall midterm elections. Many top GOP strategists warned what the results suggest about the fall elections:
I’ve worked in Ohio presidential and senate races for Republicans and the idea of #oh12 being a close race is sort of like hearing gravity is a regional phenomena. It’s not how the world is suppose to work. https://t.co/waJPaiJb1S
The final House special election before the midterms became the latest to shift significantly in Democrats’ favor in the Trump era, after victories by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) as well as numerous other wins in legislative special elections and moral victories in other congressional special elections. The combined shift toward Democrats suggest a big surge for the party this fall.
Strategists in both parties admit that both candidates were fairly mediocre, making the Ohio race essentially a test of a generic Democrat versus Republican that didn’t have as many local vagaries as some other special elections.
Midterm elections will have higher turnout and could have slightly different electorates than these special election contests, and Democrats will need to win at least a few seats like this one if they’re going to get to a House majority in November.
Ohio Republicans argued that the race should be taken as a warning, but not a reason to panic.
“Anyone who doesn’t understand there’s increased Democratic enthusiasm isn’t being honest with themselves. There is. The question is, will it be enough? So far the answer has been no. They can make it close, but they can’t get over the hump,” former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Matt Borges texted TPM as the final results rolled in Tuesday night.
But it’s a bad sign for Republicans that they keep having to fight this hard to hold onto seats that are normally slam dunks for their party. And it’s worth remembering that while Democrats ground out wins in a number of hard-fought special elections in 2010, they lost 63 seats that fall.
Republican outside groups spent more than $6 million combined to salvage Balderson’s prospects in the race after he was vastly out-raised by O’Connor.
And even as they celebrated victory, one of those groups warned it can’t be duplicated across the map in three months if some Republicans don’t up their efforts.
“While we won tonight, this remains a very tough political environment and moving forward, we cannot expect to win tough races when our candidate is being outraised,” Corry Bliss, the head of the big-spending Congressional Leadership Fund, warned in a Tuesday night statement. “Any Republican running for Congress getting vastly outraised by an opponent needs to start raising more money.”
The CLF closed with an ad from Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) strongly endorsing the candidate, a move that may have helped shore him up just enough in the more upscale, country club Republican parts of the district (Kasich, a frequent Trump antagonist, plays much better in those parts of the state). Though Trump came in to campaign with Balderson on Saturday, the rural parts of the district didn’t turn out in near the numbers as the suburban areas.
And while Trump claimed credit for the tight victory in a Tuesday night tweet, it’s likely Kasich who deserves the game ball for helping Balderson hang on in enough suburban territory to pull out the win.
These results may not be as good a sign for Senate Democrats, who need to win many heavily rural, downscale states to increase their numbers in the upper chamber. The suburban-rural splits were huge, with O’Connor over-performing normal Democratic numbers near Columbus and Balderson racking up strong margins in the district’s smaller towns and rural areas.
The two candidates aren’t done with one another: They’ll face off once again in November.
If Kansas has a Democratic governor next year, it might be as much former Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) fault as anyone’s.
Brownback had some of the worst poll numbers in the country when he left office to become President Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom late last year, with just 24 percent of voters saying they approved of the job he did.
His policies were so unpopular in the state that, shortly before he left office, many members of his own party joined with Democrats to repeal his signature tax cuts, reversing them by a supermajority vote over his veto. That reversal came after his dramatic tax cuts and corresponding draconian cuts to state government had left the state’s coffers bare and hurt the local economy. He won reelection by just four points — a shocking result especially given how big a wave election 2014 turned out to be for Republicans nationwide.
Democrats are hopeful they can mount a serious effort to flip the seat this fall, especially if firebrand Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), an acolyte of President Trump who’s at least as hard-right as Brownback, wins his primary on Tuesday night. Kobach has pledged to try to reinstate those same tax cuts moderates in his own party repealed last year.
Kansas Democrats have had success pulling together coalitions of Democrats and moderate Republicans to oppose the hardliners — that’s how former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) won election and reelection in 2002 and 2006 — and a Kobach nomination would help them do so.
If current Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) prevails on Tuesday, Democrats admit their road gets much tougher, even though Colyer loyally served as Brownback’s lieutenant governor during the budget crises Brownback caused. There’s been scant public polling in the race. But one GOP survey found Colyer leading state Sen. Laura Kelly (D), the most likely Democratic nominee, by double digits, while she and Kobach were statistically tied.
Democrats are also bullish that they can pick up one and possibly two congressional seats. They think Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) is especially vulnerable in his district, anchored in Kansas City’s better educated suburbs, where both Trump and Brownback are unpopular. They’re also hopeful that Paul Davis, the man who almost beat Brownback in 2014, can win a more conservative, rural seat held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS).
Independent, self-funding candidate Greg Orman is polling in the double digits and could play a spoiler for Democrats in the gubernatorial contest. But if they can navigate this race and pull off an upset win — and pick up one or two House seats — they’ll partly have Brownback to thank.
Democrats are hoping they can pull off one more big special election upset on Tuesday night, shaving their magic number of seats needed to retake the House down to 22 and further panicking congressional Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.
Democrat Danny O’Connor and Republican Troy Balderson are in a neck-and-neck race to replace former Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) in a suburban and exurban district centered in Columbus, Ohio’s suburbs that no Democrat has held in nearly four decades and Trump carried by 11 percentage points in 2016.
Republicans remain a bit more confident they’ll pull this race off than Democrats, but the mere fact that this race is this competitive isn’t a good sign for the GOP’s chances come the fall. Republican outside groups have had to dump millions of dollars into the race to shore up Balderson, who O’Connor has crushed in the fundraising game. President Trump himself showed up on Saturday to help Balderson gin up GOP base enthusiasm (though it’s unclear whether Balderson actually wanted him there), and gave him one more boost Tuesday morning:
Ohio, vote today for Troy Balderson for Congress. His opponent, controlled by Nancy Pelosi, is weak on Crime, the Border, Military, Vets, your 2nd Amendment – and will end your Tax Cuts. Troy will be a great Congressman. #MAGA
As I wrote last week, neither candidate is exactly an all-star — both have proven to be fine, if imperfect, candidates. Balderson struggled with fundraising and further proved this point by telling voters on election eve that “We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us,” dissing approximately one-third of his district’s voters.
After saying all campaign that he wouldn’t back House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as speaker, O’Connor fumbled a question on MSNBC by admitting he’d support her on the House floor as speaker if she won the Democratic caucus nomination — and he took two weeks off the campaign trail for a trip to Greece right after winning his primary.
That makes this race essentially a generic Democrat-versus-Republican campaign that makes it a better test of where the electorate is in this more upscale, highly educated district. If Democrats are winning here, it’s the latest sign a blue wave might wash across the House map in November. If they just come close, that’s still an ominous result for the GOP, albeit one that gives Republicans hope they can grind out enough close wins in the fall to hang onto House control.
The race isn’t the only interesting one on Tuesday: Kansas will also pick its nominees for governor, an election that could be close this fall if the GOP nominates controversial former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R). Trump endorsed Kobach on Monday, boosting a voting rights opponent and immigration hardliner who has long embraced the president and possibly giving him enough lift to win his hard-fought primary against appointed Gov. Jeff Colyer (R). If that holds, Democrats are hopeful they can seriously compete in the fall election in a state where hardline conservatives’ dominance has turned off a number of suburban Republican voters.
Voters will also pick nominees for Michigan’s gubernatorial election, the GOP opponent for heavily favored Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), nominate candidates in a handful of key House races in Kansas and Michigan, as well as hold elections in Missouri and Washington.
Polls close at 7:30 p.m. EST in Ohio, and 9 p.m. in all of Michigan and Kansas. Washington is vote-by-mail.
President Trump threw his support behind controversial Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s gubernatorial bid on Monday, the latest move from the president that could end up hurting his party’s chances of winning a major 2018 race.
It’s no shock that Trump embraced Kobach, an early and ardent support (and the head of his conspiracy theory-driven “election integrity commission”), with a Monday morning tweet calling him a “fantastic guy.” But a Kobach endorsement could give him the needed boost to win a hard-fought gubernatorial primary on Tuesday — and put the race at risk for the GOP, the latest time Trump has stepped in and made things harder for his party in a key race, following endorsements in Florida and Georgia that undercut his party’s more moderate candidates.
Kobach is in a tight race with Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R), a more establishment candidate who became governor when Sam Brownback was given an ambassadorship in the Trump administration.
The deeply polarizing Kobach has faced a bevy of legal issues stemming from his efforts to curtail voting rights in his state as well as his involvement in the Trump-backed national commission that unsuccessfully sought to confirm Trump’s baseless claims that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.
Democrats are hoping they can pull off one more special election stunner next Tuesday — and further panic House Republicans as they head into the home stretch of the 2018 midterm elections.
Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor (D) has closed hard on Ohio state Sen. Troy Balderson (R), pulling into a virtual tie in recent polling in a Republican-leaning district centered in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio.
The race is the latest special election in a district that’s proven much more competitive for Democrats than it would have been in previous years, and the final beta test for the parties to work out their messaging before November’s crucial midterm elections. President Trump carried the district by 11 percentage points, other Republicans have won it by even wider margins, and it’s long been held by establishment-minded Republicans: Former Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) held the seat for years, and an earlier version of the district was long held by now-Gov. John Kasich (R).
But in the Trump era, seats like this are in play. The district stretches from the edge of Columbus out through rural territory to Zanesville and other parts of central Ohio, and is the highest educated and wealthiest in the state. If O’Connor wins there next Tuesday, it’s the latest sign of a fierce suburban backlash against the president and his party — one that could very well hand Democrats control of the House next year. And even if he falls just short, that’s not a good sign for Republicans heading into November.
“The fact that it’s a close election sends the message: In a solidly Republican district, there are obviously a lot of people that are second-guessing the vision of the current Trump Republican Party,” former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Leland told TPM.
The final significant special election before the 2018 midterms is coming down to the wire, a good sign for Democrats one week out from election day.
Republican Troy Balderson leads Democrat Danny O’Connor by a statistically insignificant 44 percent to 43 percent, according to a new poll conducted by Monmouth University. That represents a nine-point swing towards O’Connor since the university last polled the race a month ago.
Those numbers are in line with other recent public and private polling that has found a close race in the race’s home stretch, in a suburban and exurban district centered in Columbus, Ohio that President Trump carried by an 11-point margin in 2016 and has long been held by Republicans.
Both parties have been spending heavily on the race to replace retired Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), which not only is the last major indicator of where the electorate is heading into the final months of the 2018 midterm election campaign but represents a key seat Democrats hope to flip to net the 23 seats they need for a House majority.
One of the House’s most powerful Republicans had some interesting things to say on domestic violence during a recent event back in his district.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, told a social conservative activist who was pushing him to support the end of no-fault divorce that the way the family court system in Dallas used to process cases had led to some tragic consequences. To illustrate his point that the system had badly needed change, he used a baffling example.
“Dallas County, a few years ago, went through a number of terrible shootings. And I gathered together, they were at the time Republican district judges, and I said ‘guys, men, women, we’ve now had I think four or five shootings.’ One of them was from a big-time guy in Highland Park, who went and killed his wife, just gunned her down. And that was because the judge was unfair, and the woman was unfair. And she demanded something, and he was out. And it was frustration,” Sessions said during a local GOP event earlier this summer. “So now we go through the court system. And unfortunately lives have to be lost and there has to be tragedy — there now is a better system.”
The remarks come at the 1:55 mark in the video.
It’s unclear what specific case Sessions is referring to in the video, filmed by local conservative activist Jeff Morgan at the Greater Garland Republican Organization on June 23. Sessions’ staff declined to name the specific case, though there were a number of domestic violence-related murders in the region around that time.
Sessions is facing his first real reelection battle in years against civil rights attorney and former NFL player Colin Allred, in a traditionally Republican district in suburban Dallas that Hillary Clinton carried with a narrow plurality in 2016.
Sessions’ spokeswoman said that the congressman didn’t mean to suggest any sympathy for the man in the case he cited, before highlighting his work to prevent domestic violence.
“Pete was discussing a terrible situation where an individual felt he had been railroaded by a court and then committed a horrific act of violence. By no means does Pete condone any act such as this,” Sessions Chief of Staff Caroline Boothe told TPM.
“In fact, Pete met with judges and court officials to encourage them to address the frailties in the system and to do more to prevent this kind of tragic family violence from occurring.”
It’s not fully clear what the context is from the video alone, and Sessions is well known around Washington for making difficult-to-decipher comments. Reporters regularly rely on ellipses when quoting him because of his frequent use of tangents and dry, esoteric sense of humor.
The lawmaker also seemed caught off-guard by Morgan’s line of questioning. The activist pushed Sessions to support efforts to curtail no-fault divorce laws that in his eyes has led to the breakdown of the family unit. Sessions at one point said “I’m not prepared for this,” and he later asked Morgan for “a chance to bone up on” the issue.
But it’s clear that Sessions’ staff wasn’t pleased that these particular comments were made public.
Morgan told TPM that Sessions’ staff had asked him not to post the full video of the event after he filmed it, so he edited a shorter version that he posted online. That version includes some abrupt fades and cuts — but none during these particular remarks. When TPM asked to see the full, unedited video of the event, Morgan passed along that request to Sessions’ staff. He said they responded by asking him to take the video offline.
“I talked to the Sessions people last week and they did not want me to make it [the video] public. In fact, they event want me to take down the other one,” he said. “They just don’t want anything out there prior to the election.”
Sessions’ staff didn’t deny that they’d asked for the video to be pulled down, and refused to share Sessions’ full remarks from the meeting with TPM to offer more clarity on his comments. They also declined to make him available to discuss or explain his remarks.
But Sessions’ staff did connect TPM with Patti Ransone, a Republican and a local activist on the Dallas County Domestic Violence Task Force, who said that the comments didn’t reflect the man she knew, before highlighting Sessions’ earlier work on domestic violence prevention.
That includes the meeting Sessions called that led to the creation of an additional domestic violence court in Dallas County in the early 2000s, as well as his work with local domestic violence shelters, Ransone said. He supported the push for the “Call To Protect” charitable program, which gathered donated cell phones for domestic violence victims so they could call 911 if needed. Sessions, who before politics worked at Southwestern Bell, earned a 2001 award from the CTIA, the wireless communications industry’s trade and lobbying association, for his work supporting that program.
“I worked with him in the late ’90s through the mid-2000s, and he’s done nothing but try to help the community become more aware with domestic violence,” Ransone said of the congressman. She said they met at a local “Call To Protect” event, and he’d agreed to write letters thanking the volunteers in her group that monitored local domestic violence courts.
Sessions’ staff also sent along a statement from Paige Flink, the head of The Family Place — Dallas’ largest domestic violence shelter. In it, she thanked him for “the support and responsiveness he has shown about the issues facing victims of domestic violence,” and said he helped the organization secure renewal of a transitional housing grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that allowed them to maintain 33 housing unites for families fleeing domestic violence.
Sessions did vote against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, joining a majority of Republicans who opposed the bill, ostensibly because of new provisions that would allow Native American tribes to prosecute non-tribal members.
The comments weren’t the only curious ones Sessions makes in the six-minute video.
After mentioning his support of law-and-order Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who in earlier campaigns as Texas attorney general crusaded against “deadbeat dads” who didn’t pay child support, Sessions said that law didn’t always work.
“I remember giving to John Cornyn, and he touted how many deadbeat dads. But I’ll tell you, there’s also at least one example of a deadbeat dad that paid $19,000 a month, because he got railroaded. He had, I think, an aneurysm that precluded him from going to work for seven months. He’d paid $19,000, he was paying everything he could, he had a big job,” he said. “He was a lawyer, he could not go to work and the judge put him in jail. They did not acknowledge loss of income.”
Sessions’ father, William Sessions, is a former judge and FBI director.
The congressman’s staff declined to say whether Sessions had taken a look at no-fault divorce, which is the law of the land in all 50 states — New York was the last to adopt it in 2010, though most others had embraced it in the 1970s. Social conservatives argue that this sea change in law drove a major uptick in the divorce rate, damaging families, while others say that states with no-fault divorce have lower perjury rates during divorce proceedings (since you don’t need to fabricate a reason to get divorced), and one study by liberal economists found that no-fault divorce leads to a drop in domestic violence rates and female suicide rates.
One of Morgan’s arguments was his claim that 26 of the last 28 school shooters came from single-parent homes.
Sessions made an interesting remark about one of those shootings, that took place in Santa Fe High School outside Houston this past May.
“I’ll tell you, the biggest thing we’re learning out of that shooting is, if you go to SantaFe High School now, those parents, they’re going to be held legally responsible for what their son did. And you’re a dad, we’re dads, I’m a dad. I went through, my son, we had a party at the house one night. I get it, where if somebody had a problem leaving there I could be held legally responsible. I mean, I was there. Hoo, I turned gray overnight,” he said.
With just under 100 days until the 2018 midterm elections, the Senate map continues to contain plenty of uncertainty. But Democrats’ optimism (and GOP panic) about the House doesn’t stretch to the other side of Congress.
Democrats are facing a historically bad Senate map, playing defense in deep red territory with far fewer options for pickup opportunities than most years. That means in many of the country’s key Senate races, President Trump remains an ace in the hole rather than an albatross for Republicans — and Democrats face a much tougher task at netting the two seats needed for a 51-49 Senate majority than would be expected given the president’s unpopularity nationally.
Democrats began the election cycle expecting to lose some Senate seats and holding zero hope for winning back Senate control. But Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) shocking upset victory over the fatally flawed Roy Moore last winter and Trump’s continued struggles with voters have given them hope of minimizing losses — and an outside shot at winning Senate control if everything breaks their way.
There are at least a dozen Senate seats that could be competitive, and seven races that strategists in both parties view as the toughest fights. Democrats see solid opportunities to pick up seats in a trio of Senate races, and Republicans are bullish about knocking off four Senate Democratic incumbents. The general consensus among numerous Senate campaign strategists TPM talked to in recent days is the most likely outcome is a wash, with net gains of a seat or two for Republicans more likely than Democrats’ hopes of gaining seats — but small changes in the national environment, like a marginal improvement for Trump nationally or his trade war damaging him with GOP-leaning rural voters, could tip all the races one way or the other. And there’s always the chance that a candidate implodes.
“If the election were held today I think we’d win two Democratic seats and they’d win two Republican seats. But I fear things could get worse. You’ve still got to give the edge to Republicans on holding the Senate, but if everything breaks against Republicans together, we could find ourselves in the minority,” one GOP campaign strategist told TPM.
In true wave elections, the party with the advantage tends to win most or all of the close Senate races unless candidates self-immolate a la Moore or Todd Akin — that was true for the GOP in 2014, and for Democrats in 2008 and 2006.
“If there are seven tossup Senate races at the end, someone’s going to win five,” said one senior Democrat.
That could catapult Democrats to an improbable majority in the Senate — or lead to losses of two or more seats for them if things break the other way.
But the usual dynamic may not be quite as true this year. Trump’s numbers are weak enough, and Democrats are fired up enough even in red states, to suggest a wave, but the GOP base remains intensely loyal to the president and fairly excited to vote. That matters, especially since Democrats are defending five states where he won by at least a 20-point margin. Most true wave elections have one side much more enthusiastic to vote than the other, and while Democrats have a clear enthusiasm gap polls suggest the GOP base isn’t as depressed in rural areas as it was the last time Democrats swept to congressional control more than a decade ago.
That means that Democrats are feeling better about their chances in the Senate than they did early last year — but they could very well win the House and still lose seats in the upper chamber.
“I think we’ll see Republicans emerge with a number that is sustainable to hold the [Senate] majority in 2020 and Democrats with a majority in the House that’s big enough to govern but doesn’t put it out of reach for 2020,” said one top GOP strategist. “Every time I look at the Senate I want to expand the map [with resources], and every time I look at the House I want to build the walls higher.”
Party loyalists are unsurprisingly more bullish about their own party’s chances for gains than the other side. But there’s a fair amount of agreement over which states are going to be the closest — and where each party is in the most trouble. Here’s what they have to say.
Democrats have a strong chance of flipping three Senate seats their way, with a two others that are interesting enough to keep tabs on but are unlikely to flip.
In Nevada, strategists in both parties say Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) has a better than even chance at knocking off Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV). The fast-diversifying state has trended blue, and while Heller got lucky when Danny Tarkanian dropped his primary challenge early this year, the senator’s votes to repeal Obamacare and moves to embrace Trump in a state the president lost in 2016 were already on the record by then.
Some Democrats are even more bullish about the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) — one strategist called it a “chip shot” for his party.
Democrats have coalesced behind Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), a bulldog of a candidate who’s posted huge fundraising figures and has carefully burnished her profile as a moderate since winning her seat in Congress after earning a much more liberal reputation in the statehouse.
On the other hand, Republicans are staring down a major primary headache. While they believe Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the establishment favorite, will prevail for the nomination over former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R), a pair of hardline conservatives, she’s had to work hard to woo immigration hardliners in the deeply polarized state in order to be able to stave them off. That makes it much harder for her to swing back to the center should she win her August 28 primary, and has given Sinema a massive fundraising start.
Public and private polls in both states have found Democrats ahead, though Republicans say Heller and McSally have looked better in recent numbers.
Democrats are also bullish about former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s (D) chances against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Bredesen remains popular in the red state from his time in office last decade and has been using his vast personal wealth to self-fund his race, giving him an early advantage on the air.
Bredesen has held a narrow lead in most early public and private polls, though that may not hold up given the state’s strongly conservative tilt and is partly because of his higher name identification.
Republicans scoff at the idea that they’ll blow an open race in a state this red — “We’re going to hang onto Tennessee unless she botches things royally,” one Republican who knows the state well told TPM.
Democrats hope they get lucky and can win in ruby-red Mississippi if Republicans nominate hardliner Chris McDaniel over appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) in the all-party November election. But even if that happens, the runoff election will occur after the rest of the Senate. If that seat will determine Senate control, it will make it much harder for former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D) to make the race about McDaniel and much easier for Republicans to nationalize the race, so it’s unlikely that this seat can get Democrats to victory.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) has also been printing money against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), but few strategists in either party think there’s a real chance he can pull off a win in the Lone Star state.
That’s the good news for Democrats. But they’re on defense in more places than they’re playing offense.
Democrats on defense: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Florida
Democrats believe they’ve been able to shrink the map since early last year. Ten incumbents sit in states Trump won, including five in states Trump won handily, but most strategists think just four are in real trouble: Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Republicans believe they’re almost certain to beat Heitkamp after seeing months of polling showing her trailing Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND). Democrats believe the race is tied and she could grind out a win driven by her strong personal brand and missteps from loose cannon Cramer, but admit she’s their most vulnerable incumbent given the state’s deep red hue. She won her last race by less than 2,000 votes, and that might be the best-case scenario for her this time around.
Two other red-state Democrats are in for bloody battles, though strategists believe they’re in better shape. There’s some debate about whether McCaskill or Donnelly is in more trouble, but most Democrats believe both are in coin-flip races at best, while many Republicans think they’ll beat one or both of them.
“There’s significant differences between North Dakota and the next-toughest states,” one top Senate Democratic strategist told TPM.
McCaskill is a dogged campaigner and has a major cash advantage over her opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). But after a rough spring, Republicans believe he’s turned the corner — and she’s faced a spate of tough headlines in recent weeks. On top of that, McCaskill has done little to break with her party compared to the other red-state Democrats, making it harder for her to win cross-party support.
Many Republicans admit that Hawley is a lackluster, stiff campaigner, and worry he will get outworked in the race’s closing months and could still fall short in a year where the Democratic base is more ginned up to vote in spite of Trump’s strong numbers in the state. The race is tied right now, with Republicans more confident than Democrats that they’ll pull this seat out.
Donnelly has done more to woo independents and Republicans than McCaskill, but he’s not in as good financial shape (it’s a lot harder to woo Democratic donors when you’re splitting with them on key issues like backing Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch).
Democrats are hopeful that they can sufficiently tar businessman Mike Braun (R) as a fat cat out for himself, and have leaned heavily into attacks on his record of selling imported goods and accusations that he mistreated his workers. Republicans think they can neutralize or win this fight by slamming “Mexico Joe” for his stake in a family company that outsourced jobs.
Strategists in both parties think their guy can win this seat, but most expect it’ll be a tight race through the finish.
Republicans are also bullish about Florida. Wealthy Gov. Rick Scott (R) is pouring in huge sums and will vastly outspend Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). Democrats worry the longtime senator hasn’t shaken off the rust fast enough and is facing a much more aggressive candidate.
Scott’s approval ratings are near the highest in his eight years as governor and has led in some recent public polling, though pollsters in both parties think the race is unlikely to be won on either side by more than a point or two (it is Florida, after all). The diverse swing state is a lot easier than a lot of Democrats’ other defensive terrain, and Trump’s weak standing could hurt Scott, who has tied himself to the president, more than other GOP candidates. But strategists in both parties think the race could go either way.
“I’m worried about Florida,” said one Senate Democratic strategist. “It’d be terrible if we hold onto these really tough seats but lose Florida.”
Republicans are also hopeful they might be able to put another seat seriously into play, most likely against red-state Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) or Joe Manchin (D-WV). Both have posted strong polling numbers and face flawed opponents, but are running on very tough terrain. Some Republicans still hope they could force a tough race against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) or potentially even Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) or appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), but none of those races appear particularly close right now.
With just over 100 days until the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats are increasingly optimistic that they’ll win control of the House — while Republicans are growing more and more alarmed about their party’s tenuous grip on their majority.
In more than a dozen interviews with top strategists in both parties conducted by TPM this week, every Democrat and all but one Republican said that the Democrats have the upper hand heading into the homestretch of the campaign. But there’s plenty of disagreement about how sure a bet that is. Different plugged-in Democrats guesstimated their chances of winning control as between 55 percent and 80 percent. Two Republicans put their party’s chances of control as low as one in three, while one optimist put it at 60 percent likelihood.
That’s a wide range of opinions held by people with access to a lot of private polling and modeling information, as well as the opposition research and TV ads that have yet to air, though the majority of strategists in both parties put Democrats’ chances of winning at between 50 and 60 percent. The one thing all strategists, granted anonymity so they could speak candidly, agree on: Democrats’ chances of winning the 23 House seats needed for control look significantly better than they did even one month ago.
Since then, President Trump’s family separation fiasco damaged him with voters, his shocking meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin further weakened him, and the effects of his trade wars began alarming GOP-leaning downscale voters in farming- and manufacturing-heavy parts of the country that rely on exporting products.
After a dip during the late spring, Democrats’ lead in most recent generic congressional polls has climbed back above the 7-point threshold that strategists in both parties see as the likely break-point where Democrats will win the House. And the more Trump talks, the more Republicans cringe.
“It’s hard, and has gotten harder through the summer. … It’s really hard to get out from underneath what’s going on in the White House with this president,” said one veteran GOP strategist. “I’m very scared.”
Democrats’ enthusiasm gap advantage remains large. Independents are breaking for Democrats by double-digit margins nationally and in most districts. The map of true tossup races seems to keep shifting Democrats’ way. With Sunday marking 100 days until the election, the unofficial start of the campaign’s homestretch, professional Democrats are a lot cheerier than their Republican counterparts as they look to get their clients to Congress.
“The polling data we’re getting back, it’s so good that it seems hard to believe. Obviously a lot can happen, and the Democratic enthusiasm gap needs to stay where it’s at, but it’s pretty rare the trajectory of an election can be upended this late in the game,” one senior House Democratic campaign strategist told TPM.
A number of Republicans glumly agree that the Democrats’ tidal wave looks big enough right now to wash over the seawall they’ve built with gerrymandered districts and some battle-tested incumbents.
“I’m deeply skeptical that all the pieces will come together just right to hold the House,” one Republican strategist working on a number of House races told TPM. “In the summer, things always look race-by-race like you can use financial muscle to save enough seats. But at some point in the fall, the dam tends to break against the party in power. That’s the worry.”
Democrats are seeing some very promising polls for their candidates in surprising districts, numbers that are largely in line with what Republican strategists are seeing themselves. A few Democratic challengers are already leading GOP incumbents in head-to-head polls, something that rarely happens in polling this early, except in wave election years. In a number of other districts they’re already close to a tie — numbers that Democrats see as a sign they’ll eventually carry many of those districts. A tied race this early usually signals that the lesser-known challenger has more room to grow and is more likely to win, though some Republicans argue that it just shows the fired-up Democratic base has already coalesced and that the GOP has more opportunity to turn out less enthusiastic voters.
To do so, Republicans have promised to run on their tax cuts — but haven’t been doing that so much in the special elections so far. GOP strategists concede the issue isn’t as much of a winner as they’d hoped, especially in states like New Jersey and California where the law hurt as many wealthier suburban voters as it helped, and are hoping to message more broadly about a strong economy. Democrats plan to lean hard into discussing health care, protecting Medicare and Social Security, and economic opportunities, letting Trump’s scandals of the week stand for themselves. Both parties say Trump’s impact is massive — but largely baked in at this point, and outside their control.
Democrats are most confident about winning 10 open seats held by retiring GOP members. They’re also very bullish about defeating Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), a congresswoman in a Democratic-leaning district that many Republicans concede is a lost cause, and Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA), who holds a traditionally Democratic blue-collar district that Trump won comfortably. From there, things get a bit harder, but some surprising polls in other places have them feeling good.
Democrats are doing especially well with female voters — a number of strategists predicted a record-setting gender gap in this election, with even GOP-leaning college-educated women going the other direction. That’s a major problem for Republicans in the suburban, Democratic-trending districts where Trump is deeply unpopular. They’re also seeing surprisingly strong numbers in the more downscale and more rural “snap-back” districts where Trump did much better than Republicans historically did. The one area that’s concerning Democrats and exciting Republicans is suburban territory where Democrats are relying on big turnout from Hispanic voters. That doesn’t seem like it’s materializing yet, a factor that could make it much harder for them to win districts from California to Texas that they’re banking on for the majority.
Democrats have serious pickup opportunities in places they haven’t been able to compete in for years without incumbents. They’ve seen polls showing their candidate narrowly leading in an open coal county district in West Virginia, even though Trump won it by a three-to-one margin. Navy Veteran Amy McGrath leads Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) in both Democratic and GOP polling in another Appalachian district that Trump won by 15 points. They’re competitive in typically Republican seats in rural Kansas, GOP-leaning downstate Illinois and Salt Lake City, Utah. They’re also seeing some strong numbers in the Northeast and in suburban districts throughout the Midwest they haven’t been able to win for years. They’re confident they can beat some incumbents in GOP-leaning seats who haven’t had truly tough races in years (or never have), like Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL), Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and Mike Bishop (R-MI).
They’re also feeling better than in past cycles about defeating some of the GOP’s best candidates, battle-tested incumbents like Reps. Mike Coffman (R-CO), Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) who’ve won tough races in the past but haven’t had to face wave elections in their swing districts.
Some Republicans agree.
“I’m scared for them. They’ll run better than textbook campaign, they’ll do everything right, but in these situations you can only outperform by so much,” said one strategist.
A bigger frustration for Republicans has been the incumbents in normally safe seats who haven’t had tough races in the past that they worry have been caught sleeping. Those incumbents either haven’t done enough to prepare financially or continue to talk like safe-district Republicans, like Reps. Dave Brat (R-VA), Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and John Culberson (R-TX).
“The majority isn’t going to be won or lost on the candidates in tough seats who are working hard and doing everything right. It’s going to be won or lost on the candidates in the marginal seats who don’t realize this is going to be a historically tough year,” said another House GOP strategist.
A huge and expanding map with candidates ready to pounce is a reality partly because House Democratic candidates are basically printing money.
It used to be true that a half-million dollar fundraising quarter was an impressive number for a House challenger. But the 2018 election cycle is throwing that out the window. In the last three months, nearly two dozen House Democratic challengers topped $1 million (!), including Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill, who hauled in an incredible $1.9 million for the seat held by retiring Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). More than 50 House Democratic challengers out-raised the GOP incumbents they’ll face this fall, another rarity. More than a dozen sitting House Republicans have less cash on hand than their Democratic challengers at this point, something that’s almost unheard of. Democrats also have the cash edge in nearly all of the the two dozen competitive open House seats, most of them currently held by retiring GOP members.
That’s the most concrete sign of strong Democratic campaigns — and shows in most cases they will have the money they need for a much bigger battlefield map than in past cycles, even in the expensive media markets many of their suburban seats sit in. For the first time since Citizens United opened the outside spending floodgates a decade ago, House Democrats may have the fundraising advantage, or at least parity.
Outside money could undo some of that advantage — the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund already has $71 million in the bank to spend on House races this fall, far more than Democratic outside groups. But former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to spend $80 million this fall, mostly to help Democrats retake the House, could neutralize the GOP’s outside money edge. And outside money doesn’t go nearly as far as candidates’ own cash, because they can get much lower advertising rates and more tightly control their own campaign message.
Democrats have also over-performed in most special elections throughout the year. There’s just one more big test before the general election — a GOP-leaning open House seat based in Columbus, Ohio, where Republicans are viewed as having the slight edge as the Democratic candidate has made some late missteps. But however that race turns out, the fact that it’s competitive shows how big the 2018 electoral map is.
“The playing field is so large, it’s hard to predict success,” said one Republican.
President Trump’s approval ratings are in the toilet in a trio of key upper Midwestern states, according to new polling conducted for NBC News by Marist College.
Voters disapprove of the the job Trump is doing in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states he won in 2016, by double-digit margins. That’s true as well as in Minnesota, where he fell just short of winning less than two years ago.
In Michigan, 54 percent of voters disapprove of his job performance, with just 36 percent approving. Those numbers are similar in Wisconsin, with 52 percent disapproving to just 36 percent approving. In Minnesota, Trump’s disapproval rate is at 51 percent, with 38 percent approving.
Democrats lead in the generic ballot question of which party voters want to control Congress by eight points in Michigan, nine points in Wisconsin and twelve points in Minnesota.
Those are dismal numbers for Trump as he prepares for his 2020 reelection fight. And they’re even worse for down-ticket Republicans, who have a number of key races across the three states.
Republicans are staring down tough battles to hold onto the governorships of Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker (R) is seeking a third term, and Michigan, which has an open seat. They still hope to seriously contest at least one Senate seat across the three states, most likely against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). And they are defending more than a half-dozen key House seats across the trio of states — not to mention their two best (and possibly only) House pickup opportunities, in Minnesota.
These polls were conducted mostly right after Trump’s disastrous meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last week, so he could see some improvement as that fades and the next near-daily controversy arises. But for now, Trump and Republicans should feel panicked about their standing in this trio of key states.