It’s amazing to write, and there’s time for our outlook to change, but here goes: A Democrat is now a narrow favorite to win a Senate special election in Alabama. We’re changing our rating of the Dec. 12 special election from Likely Republican all the way to Leans Democratic.
Tuesday represented the best non-presidential election night Democrats have had since 2006. They swept the statewide ticket in Virginia for the second election in a row, and they picked up the New Jersey governorship. They also won a crucial, majority-making state Senate election in Washington state, so they won complete control of state government in two states (New Jersey and Washington).
In an off-year long on election commentary but short on actual elections, the two main events on a Spartan political calendar are now upon us: New Jersey and Virginia will elect new governors next week, and the stakes are high, particularly for Democrats.
If President Trump actively campaigned against incumbents of his own party in primaries next year, it would be an unusual political occurrence. But it would not be without precedent. In fact, he wouldn’t even be the first ideologically flexible, wealthy New Yorker who occupied the Oval Office to do so.
The U.S. Senate is a curious, unique legislative body for a lot of reasons. It has arcane rules, such as the filibuster, which limits the passage of most legislative items unless 60 members vote yes. Representation in the Senate is not based on population; instead, each state gets two and only two senators, meaning that California (the most populous state) and Wyoming (the least populous) have equal say in the Senate. Each get 2% of the Senate’s membership — two out of 100 senators — even though California has 12% of the nation’s people while Wyoming only has 0.2%. And unlike the House, where the entire membership is on the ballot every two years, only a third of the Senate’s membership is on the ballot each federal election cycle.
The dominant theme in next year’s Senate elections is the confluence of two competing forces: The huge number of seats the Democrats are defending versus the usual boost that the non-presidential party, in this case the Democrats, enjoys in midterm elections.
Throughout the first 200-plus days of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s been common for analysts to say he is struggling through sub-40% approval ratings despite not having to reckon with a major non-scandal crisis. Whether that was true before last weekend is debatable -- do North Korea’s provocations count? -- but it’s almost certainly not true now after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and southeast Texas.
Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency, 2018’s race for the Senate seemed to pit two powerful, competing forces against one another: the Republicans’ long and enticing list of Democratic targets, several of which are in some of Trump’s best states, versus the longstanding tendency of the president’s party to struggle to make gains in midterm elections.
A couple of weeks ago, Crystal Ball senior columnist Alan Abramowitz unveiled a model for predicting party change in next year’s gubernatorial elections. The results were rosy for Democrats: The model suggested Democrats should gain somewhere between six to nine governorships depending on the Democratic lead in House generic ballot polling. The Democratic advantage is in large part simply because: 1.) There is a Republican in the White House, and the presidential party often loses ground in midterm elections up and down the ballot; and 2.) Republicans are defending 26 of the 36 governorships up for election next year, meaning that they have a lot of ground to defend while the Democrats have relatively little.
If Democrats do have a chance to win the House next year, it might be because they translated a currently big field of announced candidates into credible opportunities to flip not just some of the top seats on their list of targets, but also some seats that, on paper, might not seem like they should be competitive. If that’s what happens — a big if at such an early point in the cycle despite President Trump’s unpopularity and the usual midterm trends that favor the party that does not hold the White House — it would mirror what happened when the Democrats last won the House from Republican control in 2006.