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A Dozen Days To Go: Ratings Changes in Gubernatorial, House Races

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

Thursday, October 25, 2018

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— The battles for the state governorships are getting more volatile as Election Day nears. We are moving three races, Kansas, Oregon, and South Dakota, to Toss-up.

— Republican odds of holding the Senate are as good as ever.

— The playing field continues to expand in the House.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Table 3: Crystal Ball House ratings

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Map 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

The Governors: Toss-ups abound

We said last week we wanted to limit the number of races we call Toss-ups, because we’re getting so close to the election and because we plan to pick all the races.

But developments, at least in the governor’s races, are making a hash of our plan.

The highlights of this week’s ratings changes come in the gubernatorial races, where we’re moving three additional races into the Toss-up column, giving us a whopping 10 races where we don’t see a favorite with less than two weeks to go. Red states Kansas and South Dakota go from Leans Republican to Toss-up, while Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) moves from Leans Democratic to Toss-up.

Notice that these are all states with decided federal political leans where, nonetheless, the federal minority party may have a chance to steal a governorship. In the case of the minority parties in Oregon and South Dakota, gubernatorial wins would break very long losing streaks: A Republican has not won a governor’s race in the Beaver State since 1982, and a Democrat has not won such a contest in the Mount Rushmore State since 1974. A key ingredient in the potential upset bids of both state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D-SD) and state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-OR) is that they both can point to mainstream (for their respective states) positions on abortion: Sutton does not support abortion rights, Buehler does. Our sense is that both races are very close . Buehler is running against Brown’s management of the state; Sutton is running against Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL) as a Washington insider.

When it comes time to pick these races, as we will, it may be hard to go against the ingrained federal partisanship of each state. But they are very much in play.

The same goes for Kansas, where Democrats have won the governorship recently — for instance, former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS) won in 2002 and 2006 before becoming President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. If this race was just a head-to-head contest between Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) and state Sen. Laura Kelly (D), Kelly probably would have an edge. But the presence of independent former 2014 Senate candidate Greg Orman has pushed this race into something of a tie, although some Republicans believe Kobach is a little bit ahead. Kelly has to hope Orman, who attracts something around 10% support, performs worse than that on Election Day, as often happens to third-party candidates. Kelly has the support of several prominent Kansas Republicans against Kobach, who is from the more conservative wing of the party. One challenge for Kelly: In a socially conservative state, she’s pro-choice on abortion.

One other change this week: Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) has seemed very much in trouble throughout the cycle, but polling has shown her taking a stronger lead against her 2014 opponent, Allan Fung (R), as well as former state Rep. Joe Trillo, an ex-Republican who is running as a pro-Trump independent and splitting the vote in a way helpful to the incumbent. A group backed by the Republican Governors Association recently stopped running ads in the Ocean State, signaling that Raimondo’s path to a second term is clearer. We’re moving Rhode Island from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

So now we’re left with 10 gubernatorial Toss-ups, a situation similar to four years ago, where many gubernatorial races (although fewer) were up in the air at the same point of the cycle.

A quick word on all the current Toss-ups:

Of the three races we just moved to Toss-up, Kansas seems like it might be the likeliest to flip, but we also remember how embattled Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) was left for dead in 2014 but won anyway. However, that year featured a GOP-leaning national environment, whereas this one does not. If one goes by the polls, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers (D) may be a tiny favorite over Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). The same is true of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) in his open-seat Florida race against former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, FL-6), as well as state Attorney General Janet Mills (D) in Maine, where she faces businessman Shawn Moody (R) and a couple of independent candidates who may hurt her more than Moody. We don’t have even a slight lean at this point in Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio. In Georgia, we think a runoff is likelier than not.

One final note: Late last Friday, Gov. Bill Walker (I-AK) dropped out of the Alaska governor’s race. He remains on the ballot but his exit makes former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) position a little less secure against ex-Sen. Mark Begich (D). We moved that race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican , but it remains the GOP’s best opportunity to win a governorship the party currently does not hold.

Overall, Democrats are going to net governorships, and perhaps many, but a lot of the individual races remain up in the air.

The Senate

We do not have any ratings changes this week, and we are still trying to make sense of the remaining five Toss-ups.

There has been buzz over the past few weeks that not only is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in serious danger, but also Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN). We’ve long been more bullish on Donnelly than McCaskill in large part because he is more of a moderate than McCaskill, on abortion and other issues, but Donnelly may now be trailing too. The president’s approval rating has gotten a little better nationally lately, which probably means in states like Indiana and Missouri his approval is higher than his disapproval. And while pinpointing a specific effect is difficult, we feel confident in saying that the polarizing Brett Kavanaugh fight didn’t help and possibly may have hurt Donnelly and McCaskill, both of whom voted no on his confirmation (Donnelly backed Neil Gorsuch in his confirmation last year, McCaskill did not). More broadly, it may just be that Indiana and Missouri can only elect Democrats statewide anymore in the worst of national conditions for the GOP, and this year doesn’t qualify for Republicans because despite their challenges, the nation isn’t in a recession and is not waging a massively unpopular foreign war, two ingredients that sometimes contribute to big midterm waves. All that said, we’re holding Indiana and Missouri as Toss-ups, so we’re not writing off Donnelly or McCaskill at this point.

If Republicans beat McCaskill and Donnelly, they likely would be netting at least one seat overall, because they also remain in good position against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who has long been trailing, and Democrats still seem to be behind in Tennessee and Texas, one of which they would need to win in order to break even in the Senate if they were otherwise losing three of their current incumbents (Donnelly-Heitkamp-McCaskill, in this scenario). Then there is the open GOP-held seat in Arizona, as well as the difficult reelection bids of Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Dean Heller (R-NV). If Democrats can’t win all three, they likely will be losing multiple seats, allowing Republicans to pad their majority to 53 seats or more, which would insulate them on next cycle’s Senate map.

The bottom line: If Donnelly and McCaskill truly are down, Democrats’ hopes of playing to a draw on this year’s challenging Senate map become much harder. At this point, Republicans are in a better position than Democrats to go into the next Congress holding more seats than they hold now (51), and Democrats’ chances to win the overall majority are tiny.

One other thing about a lot of these key Senate races: As a shrewd Republican source reminded us recently, at least five of the top Senate races — Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Nevada — could be won by pluralities as opposed to majorities.

The House

The battle for the House is uncertain in the sense that many of the districts that have seemed like they would be very competitive many months ago remain so. At the same time, more and more seats seem to be coming into play , with Republican and/or Democratic outside groups expanding their ad buys to districts where the GOP has seemed favored, like FL-15, FL-18, GA-6, NY-24, and VA-5, an open GOP-held seat that covers much of Central Virginia stretching from the outskirts of Northern Virginia all the way to the North Carolina border (it also contains the Center for Politics’ home base of Charlottesville).

VA-5 is not a district that one might think would elect a Democrat under normal circumstances: The president won it by 11 points in 2016, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) carried it by about nine points while losing statewide by about the same margin. And yet the race appears very close: a New York Times /Siena College poll showed it basically tied. National Democrats and Republicans grumble about their respective candidates in the race: author Leslie Cockburn (D) may be too liberal for the district, and veteran and businessman Denver Riggleman (R) may be too eccentric (readers may remember a story about him involving Bigfoot). And yet, one of them has to win, but who? We’re moving VA-5 from Leans Republican to Toss-up for now. Balancing out this change in Virginia is moving Hampton Roads Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2) from Toss-up to Leans Republican. He has led a few recent polls in his race against former Navy commander Elaine Luria (D) and, at the moment, probably is the best-positioned of three vulnerable Republican House incumbents in the state. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) remains an underdog in Northern Virginia, while Rep. Dave Brat (R, VA-7) is locked in a Toss-up race in suburban Richmond/Central Virginia.

One other Toss-up we’re moving to Leans Republican is Rep. Mike Bost (R, IL-12) , who occupies some typically Democratic but GOP-trending turf in southwest Illinois. Bost appears to be holding off a strong Democratic recruit, St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly (D), and he also benefits from the presence of a Green Party candidate. The Green Party candidate in the district has gotten about half a dozen points of support the last three elections, according to Crystal Ball contributor Noah Rudnick, who has written about IL-12 at length.

Our other changes generally make a number of other Republican seats more vulnerable in our ratings, but do not push any additional races to Toss-up besides VA-5. Moving from Likely Republican to Leans Republican are Reps. Scott Tipton (R, CO-3), Brian Mast (R, FL-18), Karen Handel (R, GA-6), Fred Upton (R, MI-6), and John Katko (R, NY-24), as well as an open seat, FL-6 , which DeSantis left behind to run for governor. Many of these districts are seeing significant outside investment, a sign of competitiveness. We are adding CO-3 to the Leans Republican column mostly as a nod to our friends in the quantitative House modeling world; this is a seat where they have been more bullish on Democratic chances than traditional handicappers. The seat, which covers Colorado’s Western Slope, has been held by Democrats in various iterations at several points over the last several decades. The president won it 52%-40%, an improvement from Mitt Romney’s 52%-46% win in 2012, and the district doesn’t have demographic characteristics that make it scream out as a top Democratic target, but it’s a decent place to be on the lookout for a close result or maybe even an upset. Another one from this group to watch is NY-24, where Katko has long looked like one of the best-positioned Republicans in a district Hillary Clinton won but where outside money is flowing in. One GOP incumbent whose position seems to be improved is Rep. Vern Buchanan (R, FL-16), who moves from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. Democrats may have better Florida opportunities in FL-6, an open seat, as well as against Mast, a first-term member who holds the GOP-leaning seat former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) left behind in his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2016.

Our Leans Republican column is now bloated with 34 total seats. Based on our latest intel, some of the shakiest GOP seats/members include another open seat in Florida, FL-15, as well as Reps. Carlos Curbelo (R, FL-26), Randy Hultgren (R, IL-14), Troy Balderson (R, OH-12), Scott Perry (R, PA-10), and Mia Love (R, UT-4).

Moving from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, just as a hedge against longshot upsets, are five other Republicans: Reps. Debbie Lesko (R, AZ-8), Peter King (R, NY-2), Elise Stefanik (R, NY-21), Justin Amash (R, MI-3), and Bill Huizenga (R, MI-2) . Michigan, in particularly, seems like a state worth watching for deep sleeper upsets at the House level. Democrats appear to be in good shape in the state’s Senate and gubernatorial races, and that may bleed down to some GOP-held House seats.

One Democratic member reappearing on our ratings this week at Likely Democratic is Rep. Jim Costa (D, CA-16) , who should be fine but is a chronic underperformer in a heavily Hispanic district where midterm turnout might be weak.

Our new Crystal Ball House ratings reflect 212 seats rated Safe, Likely, or Leaning Democratic, 202 Safe, Likely, or Leaning Republican, and 21 Toss-ups. Democrats would need to win everything at least leaning to them and six of the remaining Toss-ups to win a majority. As we assess the Toss-ups right now, we’d probably pick half or more to go Republican, and some of our Leans Democratic rated races may very well be too bullishly rated for Democrats. Combine those two factors, and one can see why we have not shut the door on the Republicans’ chances of narrowly holding the House. On the flip side, the Democratic path is easier , and the long Leans Republican column, in addition to Democrats only needing about a third of the Toss-ups, gives Democrats a lot of different avenues to the majority.

Conclusion

There has been a term in widespread use this year — we’re sure you’ve heard it — where the second word is wave and the first word is a color typically associated with the Democratic Party. Just to double-check, we searched our archives and found that the term has never been used in the Crystal Ball . The reason is that, setting aside the House and the governorships (where Democrats will make gains, and probably substantial ones), the Senate was always going to look different because of the playing field. The term we’re referring to signals, intentionally or not, an across-the-board phenomenon that was always unlikely this cycle because of the GOP-leaning configuration of the Senate map, and that’s true even if the dam breaks for Republicans in the House and the gubernatorial races and their losses end up on the high side.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.

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