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Ratings Changes: Senate, House, and Governor

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman

Thursday, January 16, 2020

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— The Kansas Senate race is getting a lot of national buzz, but we still see the GOP as clearly favored to hold the seat.

— The chances of Republicans springing Senate upsets in New Hampshire and Virginia appear to be growing dimmer.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D-CA) decision not to hold a special election for CA-50 makes it likelier for Republicans to hold the seat.

— Vermont is a sleeper Democratic gubernatorial target.

Table 1: Senate ratings changes

Table 2: Governor ratings change

Table 3: House ratings change

Senate: A word of caution on Kansas

We have two ratings changes this week, upgrading the odds of Democratic incumbents in New Hampshire and Virginia. But perhaps the more interesting item to discuss is a rating that we’re not changing, in Kansas.

Despite the threat to Republican fortunes there presented by 2018 gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach (R), we’re sticking with a Likely Republican rating in Kansas for now.

Observers have focused on Kansas in light of recent news that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former U.S. House representative, appears to be passing on running for the seat after flirting with a bid for months. Leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been recruiting Pompeo behind the scenes because of worries that Kobach, a far-right candidate who kicked away the Kansas governorship in 2018, would do the same to the valuable Senate seat this year.

Assuming Pompeo doesn’t parachute into the race later on — the filing deadline is not until June — national Republicans may have to actively work on behalf of other possible candidates, most likely Rep. Roger Marshall (R, KS-1) of the state’s sprawling, western House district. Marshall won the endorsement of Kansas political legend and 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole, leaving little doubt as to who the party establishment sees as the candidate best-positioned to beat Kobach. Other candidates include state Senate President Susan Wagle (R) and former NFL player and businessman Dave Lindstrom (R).

Downgrading the GOP edge in Kansas from Likely Republican to Leans Republican is the kind of move we might make if Kobach actually wins the nomination, but it’s not obvious that he will be the nominee. He only very narrowly beat out then-Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) in the 2018 gubernatorial primary (Colyer ascended to the job after Republican Gov. Sam Brownback resigned to take a diplomatic post).

While Kobach might be favored as of today to be the Senate nominee, there is a long campaign to go. Even if Kobach were to be nominated, he probably would still start as a favorite against the likeliest Democratic nominee, party-switching state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who has impressed national Democrats and is raising good money. The reason is that even if Bollier is a superior candidate to Kobach, the state is still significantly more Republican than the nation. While there are some positive Democratic trends in parts of the state — namely, the Kansas City suburbs, which comfortably elected Sharice Davids (D, KS-3) to the House in 2018 — the state still voted for Donald Trump by about 20 points in 2016, which was only down about a point from Mitt Romney’s 2012 margin in the reliably Republican state.

Democrats point to Kobach’s five percentage point loss to now-Gov. Laura Kelly (D-KS) in the 2018 gubernatorial race as the strongest evidence of his toxicity in a general election scenario. Indeed, in comparing the 2016 presidential result to the 2018 gubernatorial outcome in Kansas, Kobach underperformed Trump in every county — in some, running more than 40 percentage points behind Trump — and in all four of the state’s congressional districts (Map 1).

Map 1: Swing between 2016 and 2018 in Kansas

Notably, Kobach’s most severe underperformance came in the expansive 1st Congressional District. This ruby-red district went to Trump by a nearly three-to-one margin; two years later, Kelly held Kobach to just a bare majority there, as he carried it by a 51%-37% spread. Kelly’s overperformance was certainly impressive, but it highlights the challenge Democrats face in the Sunflower State: with the presidential race at the top of the ticket, a Democratic win would be predicated on Trump voters abandoning Kobach in bulk. This wouldn’t be impossible, but in federal races across the county, voters have proved less willing to make such distinctions.

Gubernatorial races, by contrast, are easier to decouple from the national voting than Senate races, as their focus is often more localized. Aside from the drawing a controversial opponent, a principal factor in Kelly’s 2018 win was the unpopularity of the outgoing leadership in Topeka. Though he departed office a year early, then-Gov. Brownback routinely sported job approval ratings in the 25% range. Brownback’s rocky tenure left voters in a mood for change, which ultimately gave Kelly an assist in overcoming her state’s partisanship.

The difference between federal and local races is borne out through Kansas’ last century of electoral history. The state has elected plenty of Democratic governors over the decades, but it has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932. In fact, the Senate seat held by the now-retiring Pat Roberts (R-KS) is the only seat in the entire chamber that has elected only Republicans since the 17th Amendment established the direct election of senators, in 1913 (a Democrat last won the seat in 1912).

Roberts’ final race, in 2014, presented Democrats with a rare offensive opportunity in a year where they were largely defending incumbents. His contest against independent businessman Greg Orman seemed close the whole way, but Roberts — who was accused of running an underwhelming campaign effort — ended up winning by a little more than 10 points (though Orman was nominally independent, Democrats coalesced behind him). Even when faced with a weak Republican nominee and a decent non-Republican one, Kansas was, and likely still is, too Republican to veer markedly away from national partisanship in a Senate race.

So we need to see more before looking as Kansas as a top Democratic Senate opportunity. The same is true for Kentucky, where McConnell has poor approval but benefits from federal partisanship (that race, like Kansas, is rated Likely Republican). And West Virginia remains Safe Republican as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito seeks a second term despite the entry of a flashy challenger, former state Sen. Richard Ojeda (D), who briefly ran for president this cycle and attracted national attention for his U.S. House race in 2018, which he ultimately ended up losing to now-Rep. Carol Miller (R, WV-3) by about a dozen points.

There’s a common thread here: We just think these states (Kansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia) are too Republican to elect Democratic senators in an era of waning ticket-splitting.

In other races, we’re upgrading the ratings for Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Mark Warner (D-VA), two well-regarded incumbents who seem well-positioned for reelection. The former moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, and the latter from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. It does not appear that Republicans will produce a top-tier challenger to either incumbent; for instance, the most prominent Republican seeking to challenge Warner, former Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2), switched to run for his old House seat. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (R) also took a pass on running against Shaheen; while establishment Republicans had little interest in Lewandowski running, they don’t necessarily have a clear fallback option among the other contenders. Complicating matters for the GOP is New Hampshire’s late down-ballot primary; while the state boasts the first primary of the presidential nominating season, voters there won’t pick down-ballot nominees until Sept. 8, making it one of the latest primaries. A short general election calendar may make it harder for the eventual nominee to make the case against Shaheen.

As multiple elections since 2016 have shown, it’s rarely wise to bet against nationalization in politics in the Trump era. While we consider Shaheen a clear favorite for reelection, she’d likely win a third term with a coalition different from her previous victory, in 2014. That year, she drew an unusual challenge from former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). Brown moved to the state after losing his Massachusetts Senate seat to now-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Shaheen ultimately held on by three percentage points — becoming the first Democratic senator from the Granite State to win reelection since 1972 — but Brown’s candidacy produced an interesting electoral dynamic: Shaheen tended to overperform most in the towns farthest away from the Massachusetts border.

Shaheen’s best county, Coos, is the northernmost county in the state and gave her a wide 62%-38% vote. More rural and blue collar than the state, Trump’s rhetoric played well there two years later. Down the ballot, in the 2016 Senate race, then-Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) lost the county by 199 votes, or about 1.5 percentage points, in her successful challenge to then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). The nearly 26 percentage point swing here between the elections was the largest of any county.

Conversely, Hassan owed much of her razor-thin 1,017 statewide margin to her improvement in the southern part of the state (as the last image in Map 2 shows). Rockingham County — the only county where Hassan outran Shaheen — is relatively wealthy and is increasingly influenced by the transients from Greater Boston (Granite Staters and other New Englanders have an eight-letter epithet for some of these folks that we will not repeat here).

Map 2: New Hampshire Senate races, 2014-2016

This year, Shaheen will likely post a more comfortable result than either of the state’s last two Senate contests, but we’d expect her to expand on the coalition that Hassan won with, as opposed to repeating her 2014 map. To a large extent, something similar can be said about Warner: despite his frequent overtures to the rural quarters of his state, he was nearly defeated in 2014, but finds himself in a better position now because of national currents. The GOP’s strength in Virginia’s metros has eroded palpably since then.

After the state’s local elections a few months ago, we discussed Warner’s prospects and singled out the blue movement in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County as representative of the state’s suburban communities. Historically favorable turf for Republicans, Warner was the most recent Democrat to lose it — and by just 458 votes out of the over 92,000 it cast that year. Statewide Democratic candidates since then have routinely earned close to 60% of the vote in Loudoun County. It’s hard to envision any Republican candidate getting within single digits, or much less fighting Warner to parity again, there.

Our ratings for Senate in both New Hampshire and Virginia are now more bullish than those states’ respective ratings for president. In the Granite State, the Senate race is Likely Democratic, while the presidential race is Leans Democratic; in the Old Dominion, the Senate race is Safe Democratic, while the presidential rating is Likely Democratic. This is a nod to what we see as the likely abilities of Shaheen and Warner to run at least slightly ahead of the Democratic presidential nominee in their states, owing both to the power of incumbency and the considerable resource edge they likely will hold over their eventual, respective opponents.

These ratings changes also narrow the focus of offensive Senate targets for the Republicans. Realistically, there are only two, unless the Democrats as a party go haywire across the board in November. Alabama remains the likeliest seat to flip on either side, as Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) will be hard-pressed to create the distance required between him and the Democratic presidential nominee to prevail in a dark red state. The second legitimate Republican target is Michigan, where our ratings continue to favor Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) as he seeks a second term. However, Republicans are enthusiastic about the campaign of 2018 nominee John James (R), who outraised Peters in 2019’s fourth quarter (though in all likelihood neither will be hurting for resources). Peters has no obvious problems but he’s also something of a generic Democrat; it may be that the Senate race tracks closely with the presidential race. We’re somewhat bullish on Democrats clawing back Michigan from Donald Trump, which also helps inform our Senate rating (we have Michigan rated as Leans Democratic for both Senate and president). However, if the presidential race slides back into true Toss-up territory, the Senate race might too. Republicans have not won a Senate race in Michigan since 1994, but the state is also changing in ways that are making it more competitive than in the past at the federal level, as Trump’s surprising 2016 victory made clear.

Democrats have paths to a Senate majority without Alabama. They probably do not without Michigan. So one can see the appeal for Republicans in strongly challenging Peters.

Vermont Governor: GOP Edge Tested by Partisanship

The 2019 gubernatorial races showed that federal partisanship is not always determinative in state-level races. Democrats won Kentucky and Louisiana and came relatively close in Mississippi despite the strong Republican lean of those states at the federal level.

Along the same lines, Republicans hold the governorships of some of the most Democratic states in the country: Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont. The last state on that list, Vermont, is one of two states –- New Hampshire is the other –- that elects governors to two-year terms, instead of four.

Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT), a moderate, well-liked incumbent, appears set to seek reelection. He won by about nine points in 2016 and 15 in 2018, but he may face a stronger opponent this time. The state’s lieutenant governor, David Zuckerman, announced earlier this week that he would run for governor. Zuckerman is a member of the state’s Progressive Party, although he also ran in the state’s Democratic primary when first nominated for his current job in 2016 and again in 2018, when he won reelection. Scott was Zuckerman’s predecessor as lieutenant governor.

Scott may very well be fine, but he once again will need to attract a ton of crossover support this November, as the Democratic presidential nominee will win Vermont in a landslide (that will be particularly true if home-state Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democratic standard-bearer). Given his past statewide success, Zuckerman may be better-situated to convert Democratic presidential voters into votes for himself. So we’re moving this race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

CA-50 to Safe Republican

After pleading guilty to a corruption charge, Duncan Hunter (R, CA-50) finally resigned from the House of Representatives earlier this week. The delay allowed Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) to forgo a special election for the district, which is one of the few remaining Republican redoubts in California.

In 2018, Ammar Campa-Najjar came within about 3.5 points of unseating Hunter, but of course Hunter had considerable baggage that hurt his campaign. With Hunter out of the picture, a number of prominent Republicans are seeking the seat: former Rep. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49), who retired from a Democratic-trending seat in 2018; former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R), who lost very competitive races for mayor and Congress in recent years; and state Sen. Brian Jones (R). In all likelihood, Campa-Najjar and one of the Republicans will advance to the November top-two general election.

Once that happens, the Democratic challenge becomes apparent. Donald Trump carried the district by about 15 points in 2016, and Campa-Najjar is going to have a hard time attracting the crossover support he won last time against a non-toxic GOP opponent. A San Diego Union-Tribune/10News poll conducted by SurveyUSA released earlier this week showed Campa-Najjar leading the all-party primary with 26%, with Issa (21%), DeMaio (20%), and Jones (12%) as the top Republicans. But looking at the combined Republican versus Democratic vote showed a lopsided 54%-29% Republican edge.

The possibility that a special election could coincide with the March 3 presidential primary gave Democrats some hope of scoring an upset in the seat because of the likelihood of much higher Democratic than Republican turnout thanks to the contested Democratic presidential race. But now that it appears there will not be a special election, we’re moving the race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

(For more on the district, see this Crystal Ball piece from J. Miles Coleman from October.)

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.

J. Miles Coleman is an elections analyst for Decision Desk HQ and a political cartographer. Follow him on Twitter @jmilescoleman.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.

See Other Political Commentary.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

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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