Three Elections

Perhaps the best way to think about the 2018 Midterms is to see them as three distinct elections—for control of the Senate, the House, and state governments—taking place in three different electorates, where Republicans enjoy three different sets of institutional or electoral advantages, and where three different but equally profound outcomes hang in the balance. The race for control of the Senate is taking place on rural and conservative turf skewed heavily toward Republicans. The race for control of the House is taking place on suburban turf where Republicans once thrived, against the backdrop of a heavily gerrymandered Republican map. The race for control of state governments is spread throughout the country and in some states will be influenced by voter ID laws, voter purges, and other nefarious activities that disproportionately hurt Democratic constituencies.

Here is a handy overview of what’s in play, the state of play, and what’s at stake in the three 2018 midterm elections:

The Senate

  • What’s in play? One-third of the senate (35 seats, including two special elections)
  • What’s really in play? A host of blue seats in red states like like Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Indiana and West Virginia.
  • What’s the magic number? 2—the number of seats Democrats need to net for majority control.
  • How is the playing field tilted? Toward the Republicans. All year long, it has been apparent that Republicans would have the easiest time in the Senate contests, even though the chamber is narrowly divided 51-49 in their favor. This is because the luck of the draw produced a brutal electoral map for Democrats. Every two years, one-third of the Senate is up for re-election to six-year terms. This year’s class is composed of a disproportionate number of Democrats from red states who narrowly won their seats in 2012, when the country was returning Barack Obama to the White House and they could count on high presidential-year turnout from base voters. Even if most or all of them survive, Democratic pick-up opportunities are few.
  • What is the biggest Democratic advantage? Being out of power. Midterm elections strongly advantage the party that doesn’t control the White House. With a map this lopsided, we would be looking at potentially 60+ Republican senators if Hillary Clinton was president.
  • What is the biggest Republican advantage? The map—without question. If the 2016 or 2020 Senate class was in cycle, Democrats would be overwhelming favorites given the national climate.
  • What’s at stake? Judicial and executive appointments. A Democratic majority could halt the feverish march toward filling the judiciary with Trump appointees, put the brakes on future Supreme Court nominees, and make it difficult for Trump to jeopardize the Mueller investigation by installing cronies in the Justice Department.
  • What is the state of play? Conventional wisdom says Republicans will hold the Senate or increase their majority by a seat or two. This view is driven by the math. Democrats will have to pick up seats to net the two they need for control, and there are few realistic ways to do this. Nevada and Arizona always looked to be their best possibilities, but if a single Democratic incumbent goes down it will take more than that to get them to 51, requiring a win in unfriendly territory like Tennessee or a Texas-sized upset by Beto O’Rourke, the rockstar of the 2018 cycle. The country is polarized into two political camps, and the blue wave will have to reach deep into red territory for Democrats to have a chance at majority control.

The House:

  • What’s in play? All 435 House seats
  • What’s really in play? Even in what should be a high-turnout year, roughly three-quarters of these seats are not competitive. Control of the House will be determined by the outcome of about 100 competitive or potentially competitive contests—a tiny fragment of the entire chamber but an outrageously high number by contemporary standards. Gotta love democracy.
  • What’s the magic number? 23—the number of seats Democrats need to net for majority control.
  • How is the playing field tilted? Toward the Democrats. Republicans currently control 25 districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and a record-shattering 39 Republicans are not seeking re-election. Democratic exposure in open seats is minimal, and almost all the competitive races are on Republican turf, especially in suburban districts where public opinion has turned sharply against the president.
  • What is the biggest Democratic advantage? Enthusiasm. With a brief exception at the height of the Kavanaugh hearings, Democrats have outpaced Republicans in their desire to vote, and Democratic turnout in special elections has surged. Suburban women and women of color are especially animated to vote. It remains to be seen if Democratic enthusiasm will extend to traditionally low-turnout constituencies like young people and Latino voters.
  • What is the biggest Republican advantage? Gerrymandering. In the 2010 Tea Party election, Republicans swept governorships and state legislatures in a host of states—just in time to exercise total control over post-2010 redistricting. They engineered maps that for the remainder of the decade sent far more Republicans to Washington than their share of the House vote warranted. Without the gerrymander, Democratic control of the House next year would be a lock.
  • What’s at stake? Subpoena power. A Democratic majority will conduct oversight of the personal and policy abuses of the president and the administration, and restore a key constitutional check that’s been missing since the start of the Trump administration.
  • What is the state of play? Congressional Republicans privately expect Democrats to take control of the House. Democrats are outwardly cautious but privately measuring the drapes. The administration is gaming out what it will mean to face a non-stop barrage of subpoenas. But it’s not a done deal.

The States:

  • What’s in play? Governorships in 36 states and 87 of 99 state legislative chambers (yes, 99—Nebraska has a unicameral legislature).
  • What’s really in play? Control of states with electoral significance in 2020 and beyond, including a bunch of key states that Trump won in 2016 and would need again: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and Florida.
  • What’s the magic number? 7—if Democrats net seven governorships it will qualify as a wave election according to one comprehensive analysis of past election cycles.
  • How is the playing field tilted? Toward the Democrats. Republicans control 26 of the 36 governorships in play and half of these are open seats. They are vulnerable in contests from Maine to Nevada, including swingy states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Florida, and in a few unlikely places like Georgia, Kansas and Oklahoma.
  • What is the biggest Democratic advantage? Enthusiasm. See the House, above.
  • What is the biggest Republican advantage? Policies aimed at suppressing the vote of Democratic constituencies, in force in several states under Republican control, including reduced early voting, voter ID laws, and voter purges. In some instances these efforts are taking place in broad daylight, such as a Supreme Court sanctioned North Dakota law that takes aim at Native Americans who do not have street addresses on their ID cards and a technical hold on the registrations of mostly African American voters in Georgia by the Republican gubernatorial candidate who doubles as secretary of state.
  • What’s at stake? Gerrymandering. Most of the governors and legislators elected next month will serve through the 2020 census and subsequent redrawing of federal and state legislative maps. Heavy Republican losses will curtail their ability to retain the advantage they have enjoyed for the better part of the last decade.
  • What is the state of play? Democrats will pick up governorships and legislative seats, but the number will depend on the size of the wave—and a lot of contests are tossups. Democrats are poised to win big across the Midwest, where Trump’s approval has belly-flopped. Watch Wisconsin, where Democrats would like to oust two-term incumbent Scott Walker, who survived a recall election several years ago. Pennsylvania looks safe for the incumbent Democrat and Michigan is almost certainly a Democratic pick-up. Ohio and Florida would be huge prizes, as would Georgia—which is close. But Republicans are almost certain to hold on to governorships in the blue strongholds of Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland. Go figure.

The outcome of these three elections will determine which of three political possibilities I discussed previously will come to pass on November 7. If the blue wave is massive enough to give Democrats the Senate, they will certainly also win the House and clean up down ballot, creating a nightmare total annihilation scenario for Republicans. If the wave falls short in the Senate but washes away House Republicans—essentially, if the conventional wisdom about this election holds—Democrats will walk away with subpoena power and a new, more politically balanced phase of the Trump era will be unleashed. But should Democrats fall short of a House majority, it won’t matter how many governorships they win. An unbridled, vindictive president will seek vengeance on his enemies after a great victory, Republicans will realize they can support Trump without consequence, and democracy itself will be imperiled.

There are now 21 days left until the election, and 22 days before the start of the 2020 presidential campaign.