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A Labor Day Status Report - Plus, Updates From Tuesday Night

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

We’ve been starting Crystal Ball pieces with a few “key points” summing up the article. As we head into Labor Day weekend and the start of the sprint to Election Day, we thought we’d do something different. Instead of key points from this article, here are some key points about this election so far:

Pluses for Republicans: The economy is good and we’re not in the midst of an unpopular foreign war, two sometimes-predictors of poor midterm performance for the White House party. The map benefits Republicans in both the battle for the House and the Senate: The median House seat by presidential performance (NE-2) voted for President Donald Trump by two percentage points, while Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by two, making the median House seat about four points to the right of the nation, which is a good shorthand for the generic GOP edge in the House. In the Senate, Democrats are defending 26 of the 35 seats being contested, one of the worst maps any party has had to defend in a midterm. The president’s approval rating, while poor, has not gotten worse in recent months; the House generic ballot, generally showing a Democratic lead of between six-to-eight points, is bad enough to indicate Republicans could lose the House, but not bad enough for that to feel like a certain outcome. Several Democrat-held Senate seats in red states remain very much in play, and Republicans are still very much in the game in Arizona and Nevada, their two hardest Senate seats to defend.

Pluses for Democrats: Trump’s approval rating is perpetually low, and more than the whiff of scandal — one other factor that has hurt the presidential party in past midterms — helps keep it low. Additionally, strong disapproval of the president is routinely much higher than strong approval of the president in polls. The presidential out party usually has an advantage in midterms. The House generic ballot shows a Democratic lead of sufficient size to allow for a House takeover. None of Democrats’ red state Senate incumbents appear to be certain or near-certain losers, although several are endangered. They have a huge number of credible candidates running credible campaigns across the House landscape. Polling generally shows that Democrats are more excited about the election than Republicans, a statistic that is backed up by the bulk of elections conducted since the 2016 election, where Democrats have often run ahead of what one might expect based on recent performance. Republicans are defending far more open House seats than Democrats (42 GOP seats will not have an incumbent on the ballot this fall, compared to just 22 for Democrats). These seats are generally easier to flip. The gubernatorial map favors Democrats, as they are defending only nine of the 36 seats in play, and many of their best targets are open seats.

The unknowns: Future developments in Robert Mueller’s investigation; the impact of tariffs and trade policy, particularly in agriculture-heavy states that otherwise might lean Republican; campaign developments, such as debate mistakes or new opposition research (a big unknown for many Democratic candidates, a good number of whom have not run before); events for which we cannot account even now.

Our best guess in the House right now: Democrats are soft favorites to capture the House majority, but there is a wide range of possible outcomes including both the GOP retaining control with a narrow majority as well as the Democrats winning significantly more than the 23 seats they need to gain control.

Our best guess in the Senate right now: Republicans remain clear favorites to retain the Senate majority, and they continue to have a path to start next year with more seats than they hold now (51, once the late John McCain is replaced by a Republican appointee). Democrats do have a path to win the Senate majority, particularly if they can eventually pull off upsets in a state or two where we currently favor Republicans, like Tennessee or Texas.

Our best guess in the gubernatorial races right now: Democrats will control more governorships at the start of next year than they control now (only 16), and probably more than just a couple more.

The picture should get clearer as we turn the calendar to September. Keep tabs on the race at the Crystal Ball and also at the new Political Atlas we’ve just launched in partnership with the international polling and research firm Ipsos.


— The so-called party establishment in both parties struck out in the Florida gubernatorial primary, setting up a battle of strong contrasts in the nation’s most competitive megastate.

— The Oklahoma governor’s race is a sleeper for the fall after businessman Kevin Stitt (R) captured the GOP nomination.

— Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) got through the Arizona Senate primary comfortably, setting up a very competitive battle with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9).

— Unrelated to Tuesday’s primaries, now that Rep.-elect Troy Balderson (R, OH-12) has officially won his hotly contested special election, he enters the fall as a small favorite.

Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Crystal Ball House ratings change

In Florida, both parties picked gubernatorial nominees that would have seemed very surprising a year ago, but only one picked a nominee whose victory would’ve been surprising a week ago. Republicans selected Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, FL-6), who rode support from President Trump to a big win over one-time clear frontrunner Adam Putnam (R), the state agriculture commissioner and a former U.S. House member. Nothing about DeSantis’ edge was surprising, and his win gives the president another primary victory (Trump’s record is not perfect in primaries, but it’s not far off). Meanwhile, Democrats eschewed seeming favorite Gwen Graham (D), a former House member herself and daughter of former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham (D), in favor of Andrew Gillum (D), the African-American mayor of Tallahassee who ran to Graham’s left with the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Basically, what happened in Florida is that the political professionals who run both party campaigns did NOT get what they wanted there on Tuesday night. Democratic operatives preferred Graham, and non-Trump Republicans generally preferred Putnam even though they were resigned to DeSantis winning long ago. This sets up a real choice for voters in the fall — a Sanders progressive versus a Trump conservative. The stakes are high: Democrats have not won the Florida governorship since 1994, an embarrassing dry spell in a state that leans right, but not as strongly right as Republicans’ dominance of state government in recent years would indicate. DeSantis is as about as closely tied to Trump as one can be, a dangerous place to be in a swingy state (although Trump’s approval generally seems to be a little bit better in Florida than it is nationally). Term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) barely won in 2010 and 2014, two good years for Republicans; the national environment will be better for Democrats this year. DeSantis did not kickoff his general election campaign with flying colors, telling Fox News on Wednesday that Florida shouldn’t “monkey this up” by supporting Gillum. Democrats immediately attacked DeSantis for making such a statement in reference to a black candidate. Meanwhile, Gillum too will have to pivot to facing a general electorate, and an FBI investigation of Tallahassee city government still hangs over his campaign, making Gillum a potentially very risky choice for Democrats.

Had this been Graham versus DeSantis, it might have been tempting to move this race to Leans Democratic. Had it been Gillum versus Putnam, it might have been tempting to move it to Leans Republican. But now the race remains firmly in the Toss-up category, along with the state’s Senate clash between Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Scott.

In Oklahoma, businessman Kevin Stitt (R) defeated former Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (R) 55%-45% in the Sooner State’s Republican primary runoff for governor. Stitt will now face former four-term state Attorney General Drew Edmondson (D) in the general election. There is little to go on polling-wise, but a mid-July SoonerPoll found Edmondson and Stitt neck and neck, 40%-39% in favor of Edmondson. Notably, the now-eliminated Cornett led Edmondson 43%-35% in the same poll. It’s just one survey, but the long-time mayor of the state’s biggest city seemed like a safer bet for the GOP as it attempts to retain the Oklahoma governorship. Although the state has a strong Republican lean, outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is one of the most unpopular governors in the country — Morning Consult’s second quarter data for 2018 pegged her with the highest disapproval (74%) among all 50 governors — and the state has seen a number of favorable special election results for Democrats in the past year and a half. Edmondson certainly has a tough path to victory in this conservative state, but Stitt’s nomination on the GOP side probably cracked the door open a bit wider for Democrats, so we are moving the Oklahoma gubernatorial rating from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

Further west, in Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) ended up winning a decisive victory in her primary against two fringe right-wing candidates, setting up a marquee open seat Senate race with Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9). This is a must-win race for Democrats if they want to win a Senate majority; in fact, if they don’t win Arizona, they may end up losing ground in the Senate given the other states they have to defend. Down the ballot, both national parties breathed a sigh of relief about the primary outcomes in AZ-2 as ex-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1, now running in AZ-2) and Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Lea Márquez Peterson (R) won their respective nominations. But neither had an easy time: Kirkpatrick won by about 11 points over 2016 AZ-2 nominee Matt Heinz (D), and had to work to do that, while Márquez Peterson only won by about 4.5 points against no-name opposition. Kirkpatrick enters the fall as a favorite in an open, Clinton-won seat that also is something of a must-win for Democrats (probably no individual House seat is actually must-win for either side, but if Democrats can’t win this seat it would lead one to question how well they are doing elsewhere).

Finally, Rep.-elect Troy Balderson (R, OH-12) officially won his race against Franklin County (Columbus) Recorder Danny O’Connor (D), besting O’Connor by about a percentage point after all the votes were counted late last week. Turnout, while good for a summer special election, should be higher in the fall, which might mitigate the Democratic enthusiasm advantage on display earlier this month and help Balderson, who now possesses a (very weak) form of incumbency. We’re moving the race from Toss-up to Leans Republican for the fall — it should be close again, but if Balderson could win in August he’s probably better than 50-50 to win in November as well.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley.

See Other Political Commentary.


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