Senate 2018: Republicans Still Have Plenty of Targets
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley
And Democrats need all the breaks to win a majority
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Republicans have better than 50-50 odds to hold control of the U.S. Senate even in the event of a Democratic wave in November.
— The reason is the map: Including the two independents who caucus with them, the Democrats are defending 26 of the 34 seats being contested this fall, which is the most lopsided Senate map any party has faced in a midterm since 1938. Five of the Democratic seats are in states that Donald Trump won in landslides, and another five are in states he won.
— Because the map is so good for Republicans, it is possible they will add to their majority even if the electoral environment otherwise breaks against them in other elections, such as those for the U.S. House of Representatives.
— That said, the Democrats do have a path to a Senate majority, albeit slim.
— Our current outlook is for a continuing Republican majority but little net change in what is already a closely divided Senate.
— We have two ratings changes this week, both upgrades for Democrats. Appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic as she seeks election to the remainder of former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) term, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) moves from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Map 1 shows our current state-by-state ratings.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes
Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings
The overall picture: Don’t lose sight of how bad of a map this is for Democrats
The victory by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in a special election in December did provide Democrats a potential path to a Senate majority, albeit a narrow one. The Democrats need to defend all 26 of the 34 seats they currently hold, and then flip two of the eight Republican-held seats. Those would most likely be Arizona, an open seat, and Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller (R) is seeking a second term.
We know that the presidential party usually suffers in midterms, especially if the president is unpopular. While President Trump’s approval rating has rebounded slightly in recent weeks, moving from an average in the high 30s to one that’s now in the low 40s, his overall numbers are still weak and could just as easily fall back as the year moves on. The midterm reelection rate for non-presidential party Senate incumbents is 91% in the era of popular elections (since 1913), while it’s just 75% for presidential party incumbents. Democrats are fortunate that they have incumbents running in all 26 seats, although Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) is an appointee.
But it’s hard to understate how Republican this year’s Senate playing field is.
First of all, both the Senate and the House have a similar Republican bias. The median House seat based on 2016 presidential performance, held by Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2), voted for Trump by 3.4 points. Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.1 points, so the median House seat is about 5.5 points right of the nation. The same is true in the Senate. The median Senate seat based on 2016 is an average of North Carolina (Trump by 3.7) and Arizona (Trump by 3.5), which is Trump by about 3.6 — again, about the same as the House (5.7 points to the right of the nation). So the Democrats are just naturally at a bit of a disadvantage in the House and Senate at the moment.
But that natural disadvantage is exacerbated by the roster of seats that Democrats are trying to hold on this year’s Senate map.
Democratic incumbents are defending seats in the following five landslide Trump states: Indiana (Trump +19.0 points), Missouri (+18.5), Montana (+20.2), North Dakota (+35.7), and West Virginia (+41.7). If these states were House seats — two of them, Montana and North Dakota, actually are because both states only have single, statewide at-large seats — all would rank among the top third of Trump’s districts nationally.
Democrats currently hold only a single House seat among the third of districts that voted most heavily for Trump, moderate Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7).
So the danger for Democrats is that all five of these incumbents are living on borrowed time and several of them may be doomed no matter what the national environment is. And remember that whatever Trump’s national approval is, his standing in these states is going to be significantly higher, as demonstrated recently in Gallup’s rundown of Trump’s state by state approval in 2017. Trump’s average 2017 approval in Gallup was 38%, but his two best states — West Virginia (61%) and North Dakota (57%, tied with Wyoming for Trump’s second-highest approval) — both have Democratic senators running for reelection. Trump was also above water in Montana (52%) but below in Missouri (47%) and Indiana (44%), as well as every other state where a Democratic senator is running for reelection. It seems likely Trump’s approval will be positive in North Dakota and West Virginia in November almost no matter what, but the Republicans would have an easier time in other states if they could defeat incumbent Democratic senators by appealing just to Trump approvers alone. However, to beat vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states, the GOP may still need to win at least some voters who disapprove of the president, which strikes us as something of a heavy lift. But that’s also where Trump being in the low 40s nationally in approval as opposed to in the 30s could make a considerable difference in individual states.
In other words, there’s a world in which Democrats win control of the House but lose several net Senate seats. That would be an odd result historically, but it’s not impossible given the unique circumstances of this year’s Senate slate.
Let’s turn to the state of play in individual races.
The Senate, seat by seat
Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the U.S. Senate, so to flip the chamber Democrats must retain all of their current seats and win two Republican-held seats. Let’s start with the Democrats’ two best targets to achieve the latter goal.
Presently, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is probably a little worse than 50-50 to win reelection in a state that Clinton narrowly carried, although his race remains a Toss-up in our ratings. As it stands, Heller may have trouble in his primary against perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian (R), although Heller now seemingly enjoys the support of the White House and Republicans argue he is better-positioned in the GOP contest than before. However, Trump’s backing probably doesn’t help Heller in the general election against Rep. Jacky Rosen (D, NV-3), a first-termer who beat Tarkanian in a very close race in 2016. Rosen was a blank slate in 2016 and even though she now has a federal voting record, she may be something of a generic Democrat in November, which may not be a bad thing in a midterm environment that is something of a referendum on the president’s party. If Democrats don’t win the Nevada Senate seat, they probably are having an underwhelming performance across the board.
The open seat in Arizona is a pure Toss-up. National Republicans hope that Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) fends off fringe opponents Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio in the GOP primary — Ward is a former state senator who challenged Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a 2016 primary and Arpaio was the controversial and long-tenured Maricopa County sheriff who lost reelection decisively in 2016. Arpaio’s campaign, which may be something of a stunt to pay off legal fees, could actually end up helping McSally by splitting what might charitably be called the “anti-establishment vote” with Ward (the non-charitable adjective, as used by a source, would be the “crazy vote”). On the other hand, some Democrats argue that Arpaio’s presence in the primary generates more coverage for a primary that very well could pull McSally to the right, potentially hurting her in much the same way that Heller could be hurt by his primary.
Three-term Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) will likely face the Republican nominee in the general election. She has cultivated a relatively moderate voting record, but Republicans will hope to paint her as a liberal in a state that is probably trending Democratic but still has deep Republican lineage: The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, when Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) won his final term before retiring in 1994.
The other six Republican seats are clearly less viable targets for Democrats. Republican incumbents in Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming should be fine, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney should be a lock to win an open seat in Utah (Republican Senate institution Orrin Hatch is retiring).
That leaves Tennessee and Texas, though those races remain Democratic reaches for the time being.
In the Volunteer State, early polling shows Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) well ahead in the GOP primary field. Her strongest opponent for the nomination is likely ex-Rep. Stephen Fincher (R), who had $3.7 million cash on hand compared to Blackburn’s $4.6 million at the end of 2017. Tennessee does not require a runoff if a candidate falls short of a majority in the primary, and Blackburn benefits from stronger name ID, making her better positioned to win her party’s nomination. The Republican nominee will almost certainly face ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in the general election. Bredesen’s entry led attorney and veteran James Mackler to abandon his bid for the Democratic nomination, and many believe the former governor is the only candidate who could make this deep-red state race competitive. Yet Tennessee has become much more Republican than it was previously. This means that Bredesen is really going to have to find the special electoral sauce to overcome the state’s lean. Granted, Bredesen won 69% in his 2006 reelection, so no one is counting him out. However, neither Blackburn nor Fincher seem likely to throw a Senate race away like some poor GOP candidates in recent past cycles. The Tennessee race remains Likely Republican.
Texas is something of a white whale for Democrats. Believers in the “demographics is destiny” Democratic thesis see it as a state that the party can put into play in the near future. Is 2018 that time? Probably not, but there are at least signs that the Senate race could be competitive. Depending on the pollster, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) has a middling-to-solid approval rating. It is true that Gallup found Trump’s approval at 39% and disapproval at 54% in Texas, findings that caused some to wonder if Cruz might be in trouble. However, one important caveat to the Gallup data (also cited above) is that the firm surveyed all adults, not just registered or likely voters. As Texas has one of the highest population shares of non-citizens in the country and white voters turn out to vote at a much higher rate than Latino voters do, the state’s electorate differs quite a bit from its overall population. Cruz’s likely general election opponent is Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16), who actually outraised the incumbent senator $2.4 million to $1.9 million in the fourth quarter (though Cruz maintains a $7.3 million to $4.6 million cash-on-hand edge). It appears O’Rourke is capable of making the race interesting. Although Trump is almost certainly more popular with Texas voters than among all Texans, the president’s nine-point win there was the smallest margin for any Republican presidential nominee since 1996. And while the electorate may be more GOP-leaning, shifts in turnout have flipped expectations on their head in races like the Alabama special election in December 2017, so a relative voter surge among Democratic-leaning constituencies is not out of the question in November. In fact, given the partisan trends in Tennessee and Texas, it would not be unreasonable to view the Lone Star State as a better Democratic target than the Volunteer State. The Texas race is still Likely Republican but the Crystal Ball remains watchful.
The Republicans’ best pickup opportunity is the Toss-up race in Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) very well could be trailing against state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), the likeliest Republican nominee. Two recent polls gave some indicators as to the dynamic. A Republican pollster, Remington Research, polled the state for the publication Missouri Scout and found Hawley up 49%-45%, while Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found McCaskill up 45%-44%. The PPP poll’s question order — it asked several questions before getting to the Senate horse race — might have primed respondents in McCaskill’s favor, which is why we look at the two polls (and some other things we’ve heard) to suggest McCaskill might be starting from behind. But McCaskill also is a strong campaigner who has won tough races in the past even as Missouri has become more and more Republican. McCaskill was also heartened by four special state legislative elections in Missouri on Tuesday where Democrats ran significantly ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance, capturing one of the seats. This continues a strong positive trend for Democrats in special elections across the country this cycle, although those races are not necessarily predictive for the future, particular because they typically feature turnouts much lower than even midterm turnouts.
Hawley has had some troubles lately, such as some controversial comments about how the 1960s sexual revolution led to the nation’s human trafficking problem. McCaskill is hoping Hawley’s comments are a redux of Todd Akin’s infamous comments on rape from 2012, but we don’t really see this as a game-changing comment in and of itself. Additionally, Rep. Ann Wagner (R, MO-2) is rumored to be taking another look at the race after she surprisingly decided not to run several months ago. One never knows what might happen but Wagner certainly isn’t fundraising like someone seeking a Senate seat: She raised just a little over $100,000 last quarter, although the former Republican National Committee co-chair is sitting on an impressive $3.2 million war chest. Hawley’s fundraising total was a little bit under $1 million, which was OK but not great for one of the GOP’s elite Senate recruits, and some Missouri Republicans are getting a little antsy about Hawley’s campaign. Hawley, who was just elected as attorney general in 2016, is now running a major office while also running against a cagey incumbent for Senate: That’s a lot to juggle.
Another Toss-up race is Indiana, where Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) is running for a second term after a 2012 victory against a flawed GOP opponent. Republicans concede that Donnelly is popular but they argue his numbers are soft and that the GOP nominee can eventually overwhelm the incumbent. Democrats point to a divisive primary that could go to any of three candidates: Reps. Luke Messer (R, IN-6), Todd Rokita (R, IN-4), or Mike Braun (R), a wealthy businessman and former state legislator. There’s every reason to expect this to be a top GOP pickup opportunity, but until the primary gets sorted out it’s hard to say much more about it.
Our final Democratic-held Toss-up is Florida, which is based on the strong possibility that term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R) will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Scott, who possesses immense personal wealth, is typically a late-starter when it comes to campaigns. That’s fine for him, but potentially not for Republicans if he decides against a bid. We would upgrade Nelson’s standing if Scott passes, and the GOP likely would need to find another self-funder to enter the race. Assuming Scott runs, he has better personal favorability and approval than when he won very close races in 2010 and 2014. Then again, 2018 is not going to be as Republican a cycle nationally as those elections were.
We list five other states as Leans Democratic in deference to Democratic incumbents: Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. These combined with Florida, Indiana, and Missouri round out what we see as the true Republican targets.
Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) are both seemingly good fits for their Republican-leaning states, and neither faces a top-tier GOP recruit. Republicans believe Heitkamp is more vulnerable because North Dakota is just fundamentally more Republican. For instance, Montana has a Democratic governor and two-fifths of its state legislators are Democrats; North Dakota hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1988 and only about a sixth of its state legislators are Democrats. The Democratic fear is that North Dakota is just so Republican that even a popular Heitkamp can’t win there, although they are confident that she has the right profile to win. Fortunately for the incumbent, her potential challengers are unproven: state Sen. Tom Campbell (R) or former state GOP Chairman Gary Emineth (R).
Unlike some of his red-state colleagues, Tester has not really moderated his voting record in the Trump era. He is likely banking on the weakness of his opponents, and it’s unclear as of yet who will face him: state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), Air Force veteran Troy Downing (R), and former Judge Russell Fagg (R) are the likeliest candidates.
Ohio is not as red as the five aforementioned Trump states with Democratic incumbents, but Trump’s eight-point win in 2016 suggested that Ohio might be headed in that direction. Certainly if populist Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) loses reelection, the Democrats in Ohio are through, at least for the time being. Brown was set to face a rematch with state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), but Mandel dropped out last month to take care of his wife, who is dealing with a health issue. Replacing Mandel as the likeliest GOP nominee is Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16), who switched from the gubernatorial primary after Mandel’s exit and also after it had become apparent that state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) was locking up the gubernatorial nomination. Trump has essentially endorsed Renacci, although the congressman first has to get past businessman Mike Gibbons (R), who was pushing Mandel in the primary a little bit before the state treasurer got out. One example: The Franklin County (Columbus) Republican Party actually endorsed Gibbons over Mandel, although the Franklin County party is effectively an arm of outgoing Gov. John Kasich (R), who does not get along with Mandel, and some former Kasich staffers are working for Gibbons. A Republican businessman winning a statewide primary would be far from surprising, but Renacci is the favorite. One other wrinkle: Gibbons is squishy (for a Republican) on the abortion question, which could cause him trouble in the primary if Renacci feels the need to attack.
In the general election, Brown will have to restore some Democratic strength in the predominately Appalachian part of the state east and south of Greater Cleveland. Renacci represents some of that territory in the House, and if a pro-Trump voting record ends up being an asset in the fall, Renacci has it. That said, we’re not sure Trump is going to be an asset here (or in many other states, even ones that voted for him). All in all, the Mandel for Renacci swap has not really changed our outlook in Ohio: Brown is a modest favorite but he should face a very competitive challenge.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) may be a bit rattled these days. He is running again in a state that Trump won by more than 40 points and his fellow Democrats are disappearing. Former Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV-3) lost a southern West Virginia House seat in 2014 and was replaced by Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3), who is seeking the nomination to challenge Manchin against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R). The turf Jenkins represents backed Trump by 50 points last year, and Manchin likely needs to win that district decisively to win reelection (WV-3 was Manchin’s strongest district in his 2012 reelection win). Manchin helped Gov. Jim Justice win the governorship in 2016, but Justice switched parties from Democrat to Republican last year. Manchin apparently had second thoughts about even running for reelection, which likely would have forfeited the seat to Republicans, and he’s been circulating a proposal in which sitting senators would agree not to campaign against one another. The White House also seems set to run hard against Manchin after it seemed possible the administration would give him a pass. The GOP nomination is very much worth having even though it’s possible that Manchin retains enough of a unique appeal to survive and even thrive.
One perplexing wild card in the Mountain State is the candidacy of a third Republican, disgraced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (R), who was convicted of conspiring to circumvent federal mine safety rules following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that left 29 dead in 2010.
Finally, in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (R) should also face a strong challenge but her opponent is unclear, and there is a late primary (August 14). Veteran Kevin Nicholson (R) has the support of outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth as well as GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, but the state’s powerful GOP party apparatus seems to prefer state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R), and party bigwigs like former Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (R) back her. Businessman Eric Hovde (R), the 2012 GOP primary runner-up, may also get in. Baldwin, a liberal from Madison, presents a textbook target for Gov. Scott Walker (R) and state Republicans, who have turned Wisconsin politics into a battle of Madison and Milwaukee versus everywhere else (a calculus that can break in favor of everywhere else, if only barely in the case of Trump in 2016). But with Trump in the White House, Wisconsin could easily snap back to the left in reaction, which would help Baldwin and potentially imperil Walker, who will also be on the ballot as he seeks a third term as governor.
The remaining Democratic seats, including two in states Trump narrowly carried (Michigan and Pennsylvania), seem like much harder lifts for Republicans. If Republicans somehow win any of the seats that follow, they are likely having a historically strong cycle.
Minnesota has two Senate races to keep an eye on in 2018. The resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D) led to the appointment of now-Sen. Tina Smith (D) to replace him and precipitated a special election that Smith is running in. That contest will coincide with the regularly-scheduled election for Minnesota’s other seat, held by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D). We have rated Klobuchar’s seat as Safe Democratic since May 2017 as the incumbent won very comfortably in 2012 and has only token opposition in 2018. The real action seemed more likely to happen in the special election for Franken’s old seat, where Smith could be vulnerable as an appointed Senate incumbent. However, the GOP’s strongest-possible recruit, ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), passed on the race in January, though he still might run for his old job in St. Paul — in March, Pawlenty will leave his post as CEO of Financial Services Roundtable, seemingly a first step toward a gubernatorial bid (the state filing deadline is June 5). We would move the governor’s race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up if Pawlenty ran, although we suspect his time as a big-time DC association head would provide plenty of fodder for Democratic opposition researchers.
In Minnesota’s special election, ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN-6) — a much less attractive statewide GOP option — also considered the race, but she decided against a bid. Smith’s leading general election opponent now appears to be state Sen. Karin Housley (R), and with Pawlenty and Bachmann out, it is unclear if any other notable Republicans will run. (Fun fact: Housley is married to NHL Hall of Famer Phil Housley.) Minnesota Democrats have largely rallied around Smith, and while she does have at least one intraparty opponent, she may avoid the type of serious primary challenge that has sometimes hampered past appointed incumbents. In light of the environment, Klobuchar’s popularity and potential coattails, and Pawlenty’s choice to stay out, Smith looks like a stronger bet to win the seat in her own right. As a result, we are moving the special election from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.
The Michigan GOP thought it had a decent recruit to challenge incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in a state that Trump won in a squeaker in 2016. However, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young (R) exited the race in early January because of fundraising challenges. With Rep. Fred Upton (R, MI-6) having opted to run for reelection, the Republican nomination appears to be a battle between businessman Sandy Pensler (R) and businessman and veteran John James (R). Pensler can self-fund, having already seeded his campaign with $5 million, so perhaps he can make some noise if he wins the GOP nod. James raised about $700,000 in the fourth quarter, which is not a lot for a Senate race but also is not too shabby for an otherwise unproven candidate. Nonetheless, lacking an A-List opponent in what should be at least a Democratic-leaning environment, Stabenow is in a solid position to win reelection. This race continues to be Likely Democratic.
In New Jersey, recent events have slightly altered the picture for Sen. Bob Menendez (D). In November 2017, the judge in his federal corruption trial declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict. Then last week, federal prosecutors opted against retrying Menendez, who was accused of exchanging political favors for gifts and campaign contributions. These developments have made it far more likely that Menendez will successfully run for reelection. New Jersey is a solidly blue state at the federal level — it last elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 1972 — and Menendez should benefit from the midterm political environment. If Hillary Clinton were president, we would view this race differently. Still, we cannot completely rule out the possibility of a Menendez loss. The stench of corruption will hang over the incumbent throughout the campaign and it already shows in his underwater approval ratings. It seems he will first face at least some intraparty opposition, most notably attorney Michael Starr Hopkins (D), who worked for the past two Democratic presidential campaigns and is a cable news commentator. Nonetheless, most institutional parts of the Garden State Democratic Party remained solidly behind Menendez during his trial, so a primary loss seems unlikely in a state where county and state parties hold a lot of sway. The GOP field is still developing, but perhaps the name garnering the most buzz is recently retired pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin (R), who is reportedly “definitely running” and has self-funding potential. We will keep an eye on this race to see if the GOP can truly put it into play, but for now it remains Likely Democratic.
Next door in Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) also holds one of the 10 Senate seats up for election in states that Trump carried in 2016. However, much like Stabenow in Michigan, there is not much reason to think Casey is in great danger at this point. The Keystone State only narrowly went for Trump and the midterm environment should boost Casey to some degree. On top of that, Casey’s likeliest general election opponent, Rep. Lou Barletta (R, PA-11), is now getting heat from some Republicans over how he’s running his campaign. According to the Washington Examiner, some in the Pennsylvania GOP worry that Barletta’s hard-edged immigration rhetoric will play poorly in the Philadelphia suburbs and hurt down-ballot Republicans. In addition to these concerns, Barletta raised only $500,000 in the last quarter of 2017, leaving him with about one-eighth of Casey’s campaign war chest to start 2018. We still rate this race as Likely Democratic.
In Maine, Sen. Angus King (I) remains on track to win a second term, particularly because Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) seems unlikely to follow through on his repeated threats to challenge the incumbent (and it seems unlikely LePage could beat King even if the outgoing governor did run). The Pine Tree State remains Likely Independent/Democratic.
There’s one other race we want to mention in detail: In the Crystal Ball’s home state of Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) is seeking reelection in the aftermath of his defeat as part of the Democrats’ failed 2016 presidential ticket. Kaine appears to be in good shape for reelection: He has $9.2 million cash on hand, one of the highest figures among incumbents up for reelection in 2018; the Old Dominion should be Democratic-leaning in 2018 if its 2016 and 2017 election results are any indication; and the incumbent lacks a top-level GOP challenger, to the chagrin of Virginia Republicans. The most notable GOP candidates are Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart (R), state Del. Nick Freitas (R), and minister E.W. Jackson (R). Stewart made waves in the 2017 gubernatorial contest when he nearly upset Ed Gillespie for the GOP nomination while running as a neo-Confederate and immigration hardliner. Jackson ran a distant fourth in the 2012 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, but came to greater prominence as his party’s nominee in the 2013 lieutenant governor’s race, which he lost to now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The minister opened his 2018 campaign by attacking primary rival Stewart for supposedly having had “dealings” with the Muslim Brotherhood, rhetoric reminiscent in tone to some of Jackson’s previous comments. Freitas, a conservative member of the House of Delegates who has received backing from Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), may wind up being the establishment’s de facto choice against Stewart and Jackson. Stewart starts as the GOP favorite because of his performance in last year’s gubernatorial primary and the campaign network he has already built. Still, it is possible that Freitas and Jackson could take away parts of the anti-establishment primary vote from Stewart while Freitas garners enough support from more-establishment Republicans to win the nomination. However, it seems there is not much chance of a GOP win in 2018, so we are moving the Virginia race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic.
One other lurking problem for the Virginia GOP is the margin in the Senate contest, which will be at the top of the ballot. If Kaine wins by as much or more than Northam won the gubernatorial race (nine percentage points), his coattails could help down-ballot Democrats and endanger Republicans running for reelection to the House of Representatives, perhaps most notably Reps. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) and Scott Taylor (R, VA-2). And if Kaine were to win by what amounts to a landslide in this day and age, that could even threaten GOP House incumbents in redder seats, such as Reps. Dave Brat (R, VA-7) and Tom Garrett (R, VA-5). Fear of a blowout at the top of the ticket is one reason why many establishment Republicans are worried about Stewart, whose rhetoric might play very poorly in some parts of the commonwealth with competitive or potentially competitive House races.
Democrats are in no danger of losing a number of other seats they already hold: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is also a safe bet to win reelection.
Generally speaking, Democratic Senate fundraising was a lot more impressive than Republican fundraising in the fourth quarter. Money isn’t everything, but it is helpful. Republicans argue that the passage of tax cuts late last year has reengaged donors and that 2018’s first quarter will be better for their candidates. We’ll see.
Overall, Democrats point to the fact that none of their vulnerable incumbents have retired and that Republicans have not gained a clear advantage in any of the red states defended by Democrats thus far. They also believe, and we tend to agree in some instances, that Republicans have not produced obviously top-tier challengers in several states, such as Montana and North Dakota. Republicans believe the internal politics of many of these states will eventually push at least some of these states into their column, particularly after primaries sort themselves out. Don’t be surprised if many of the races we’ve described are hotly contested all the way until Election Day — and in particular if the environment is only a little bit Democratic-leaning as opposed to a lot.
1. Two independents who caucus with the Democrats and who are seeking reelection this cycle are included as Democrats in this total: Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
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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