2018 Midterms: What To Watch For One Year Out

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on November 9, 2017 1:16 pm

One year out from the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats see light ahead while Republicans are being dragged down by President Trump.

Democrats got a huge boost after big wins in Virginia and other states on Tuesday in a repudiation of Trump's victory just one year ago, finally harnessing the backlash against an unpopular president to wins at the ballot box. Now, they must keep that momentum going.

Republicans have to figure out how to run campaigns in the era of Trump. Can they distance themselves from the president, or are their candidates too inextricably linked? In Virginia, Ed Gillespie tried to run on Trump's controversial policies without fully embracing the president, and failed spectacularly.

There is a lot over the next 12 months that will determine the answers to some big questions: Can Democrats take back control of the House? Can Republicans expand their majority in the Senate so they can govern more easily? And how will the Trump factor play into all of it?

Here's your guide to what to watch for with both parties and the White House over the next year, and an early take on the battles for the House and Senate.

What's at stake for Republicans

Republicans have yet to prove they can be, in the words of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a "governing party" and not just the "opposition party" they became during the Obama era. And that could cost them at the ballot box next November.

Privately, political strategists admit that not passing major tax legislation could be disastrous for their midterm prospects — failing to deliver on yet another one of their campaign promises after several misses earlier this year in efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But the long-term identity of the party could be decided in fractious primary challenges, being amped up by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon. If the ethno-nationalist forces in the GOP triumph in the primaries, it could mean that Trumpism is here to stay far beyond Trump as figures like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake leave and people in the mold of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore enter the stage.

If that happens, leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan could be in serious trouble. Bannon's bark may end up being bigger than his bite, but he will force the establishment to spend to save incumbents or prevent weak candidates from being nominated instead of focusing their fire on Democrats, and that isn't what Republicans wanted to be doing this cycle.

What's at stake for Democrats

Democrats have many advantages this cycle — a heavily unpopular president, historic patterns of losses for the party in power and an apparent enthusiasm edge, given the protests that have popped up with regularity ever since Trump's election and closer special House elections this year.

On Tuesday night, they finally got the big victories they had been salivating over. Now, if wins across Virginia were any indication, Democrats have a lot to be hopeful about come next November. Turnout was higher than it was four years ago, and even while Democrats privately fretted that nominee Ralph Northam had run a lackluster campaign, he easily overperformed Hillary Clinton, with the reality of President Trump now proving more motivating for Democrats than the mere possibility of Trump in office was one year ago.

So Democrats may be inching closer to the type of economic message that vexed them last year, have capitalized on backlash to health care, and appear to be making opposition to the GOP tax plan a salient issue. There is still plenty of resentment lingering among supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders after the bruising presidential primary — hauled back into the open as of late with former interim Democratic National Committee Chairman Donna Brazile's book, which dredged up many of those 2016 wounds. They were able to unite in Virginia, but that will be tested as the cycle goes on.

What's at stake for Trump

The president won his party's nomination — and, as unlikely as it once seemed, ultimately the White House — without the backing of much of the Republican establishment. And since taking office, he has operated largely independent of and sometimes counter to party leaders, constantly looking out for his own best interests, often to the detriment of getting any major legislation passed on Capitol Hill.

For his own re-election prospects, Trump has worked to finesse his own political brand and shift much of the blame for legislative failures to Capitol Hill instead of his own administration. A big question in 2018 is whether he will work to support GOP campaign efforts — or whether candidates in certain places would even want him — and if he might rebuff incumbents who haven't been loyal to him, as Bannon and his allies are pushing for.

However, Republican operatives are quick to point out what Trump allies may be overlooking if they do nominate weaker candidates that ultimately lose — a Democratic House would only deepen investigations into alleged collusion with Russia and could eventually start impeachment proceedings.

Ultimately, midterms are historically a referendum on a president's first few years in office. And if Trump's approval ratings continue to hover in the mid-30s — or worse — Republicans could be headed for historic losses that are typically seen as a rebuke of the incumbent president. Trump may try to deflect, as he did in Virginia, and point to Congress' low approval ratings as the culprit, but he still remains the leader of the GOP.

The battle for the House: control up for grabs

The most consequential 2018 battle will be the fight for the House. Given historical trends and the current standing of both President Trump and the GOP, the House is absolutely in play. But even if a wave develops, it would need to be larger than in past cycles given the advantage Republicans still enjoy thanks to post-2010 redistricting.

Going back to World War II, the president's party loses an average of 28 seats in his first midterm election — and none of those were under someone with approval ratings like Trump's a year out, which just hit a new 33 percent low in last week's Gallup Poll. Democrats need 24 seats to take back the majority. And, while it's early, the generic ballot test is in the range it needs to be for Democrats to have widespread successes. In the Washington Post/ABC News survey released this past weekend, voters said they prefer a Democratic representative over a GOP one by an 11-point margin — the widest edge for Democrats since just ahead of 2006, the last time they took back the House.

Early retirements from GOP moderates signal there is unrest in the party. Eleven Republicans so far have announced they won't run for re-election outright, and many of them are moderates whose exit now puts their seat in jeopardy for the GOP. And after the bloodbath in Virginia, there could be more to jump ship.

The top Democratic targets for the 24 seats they need to flip are, naturally, Republicans who sit in the 23 GOP House districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many of those members are from suburban districts that rejected Trump, and Democrats hope they'll now vote out GOP members in a referendum on the president.

But also on that list are some Republicans who have proved their mettle in tough contests before and significantly outperformed Trump in 2016 on the ballot, like Florida's Carlos Curbelo, California's David Valadao and New York's John Katko.

Democrats can't focus on just flipping those Clinton seats, though, especially given that they'll be playing defense in places Trump won, too. To have a prayer of getting the 24 seats they need, they're looking to expand the battleground map. They've been successful in recruitment, and many challengers have posted impressive early fundraising totals, including outraising nearly three dozen GOP incumbents. But many of those candidates still face primaries, and that's where Democrats' own intraparty squabbles and the pull between the progressive and more establishment wings will be put to the test.

Republicans have their sights set on places where Trump outperformed and they hope Democratic struggles will continue. There are 12 seats currently held by Democrats in districts that Trump carried in 2018, and they must defend those too in some that have become increasingly hostile to national Democrats.

Fight for the Senate: Can Republicans take advantage of a golden map?

Democrats started off the cycle knowing they would be playing almost entirely defense in Senate races, while Republicans were salivating at the chance to take on the 10 Democratic incumbents who sit in states Trump carried last year.

Ultimately, how successful Republicans can be in challenging those red state Democrats won't be fully known until after some potentially divisive primaries. And given the political environment, some top-flight recruits in several states passed early on even running in deep red territory.

Democrats need to win three seats to win back the majority, a feat that initially looked impossible given the map. But with Republican infighting, there is the narrowest of paths.

Nevada's Dean Heller is really the only vulnerable GOP incumbent — and maybe the most endangered overall. He has a primary to worry about first, and then is the only Republican running in a state that Clinton carried. The Arizona open seat also puts Republicans on defense.

But the Democrats' map still remains grim, with at least eight incumbents in competitive races. Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Indiana's Joe Donnelly are probably the top two endangered incumbents after both drawing flawed opponents last time.

Rust Belt Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania are running for re-election in states Trump carried. And Florida's Bill Nelson will be in for a tough fight if, as expected, Republican Gov. Rick Scott runs against him, dipping into his own deep pockets in the expensive Sunshine State that Trump also won in 2016.

But Democratic incumbents in states that Trump won by wide margins may have easier paths to victory than once thought. Republicans privately admit that taking on Montana's Jon Tester won't be as easy as they had hoped, and the GOP field to oppose North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp is still very unsettled. And West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who remains popular, has long vexed Republicans.

In the states: Republicans try to hold on to power

Democrats have the opposite fortune from their Senate colleagues when it comes to the gubernatorial map. Republicans may have reached an all-time high with 34 governorships this year (thanks to the switch of West Virginia's Jim Justice to the GOP), but they face a tough test in keeping many of those governor's mansions in the red column come 2018.

Of the 36 contests up next year, Republicans are on defense in 26 states, compared with just nine for Democrats (in addition to Alaska's independent governor). And many of the key battles in places like Florida, Ohio and Michigan could have a major impact on post-2020 redistricting.

New Mexico is Democrats' best shot outright, where Republican Susana Martinez is term-limited and that GOP strategists concede will be increasingly tough to hold.

Illinois Republican Bruce Rauner, who has seen his approval ratings plummet, is the most vulnerable incumbent. Democrats also have prime chances in open GOP-held seats in Michigan, Florida and Ohio. Maine is another top pickup opportunity, and Republicans lost their best recruit when Sen. Susan Collins opted to remain in the Senate. Meanwhile, Democrats will be on defense in open seats in Minnesota, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Other GOP incumbents who sit in deep blue territory may not be as vulnerable as they seem on paper, however. In Maryland, Larry Hogan remains popular. Democrats admit a race against Hogan, who successfully completed treatment for lymphoma, starts as an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Massachusetts — a state Clinton won by 27 points — is probably off the table, with GOP Gov. Charlie Baker having high approval ratings absent a strong challenger.

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