There are several major pivot points that will be important indicators of just how favorable the political environment is for Democrats in this year’s midterm elections. From decisions by top candidates on whether to run for office, to early tests at the ballot box, the next few months will offer plenty of important clues to how 2018 will shape up.
1. Will Rick Scott run for Senate? Top political advisers to the Florida governor have insisted to me that he’s still on track to jump into a race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. As the GOP argument goes, his solid standing in the state, aggressive campaign tactics, and immense personal fortune automatically put the race in the competitive column. I’m not so certain.
Florida is the ultimate bellwether these days; the presidential candidate who carried Florida has won the last six elections. Scott won his two governor races—in 2010 and 2014—during the best of times for Republicans. The political environment will be much less favorable for Republicans this year, even if the growing economy narrows the Democratic advantage. Add the migration of Democratic-friendly Puerto Rican voters who moved to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and even the best Republican campaign would face a tough challenge.
The rap on Nelson is that he’s never faced tough opposition, and always has run in Democratic-friendly election years. He’s also been slow to ramp up fundraising, and hasn’t even hired a campaign manager yet. But he may not need to run the smoothest campaign to prevail in this type of environment.
Meanwhile, Scott has a lot to lose by running—and not just his wealth. If he loses badly in a tough political year, his aura of political inevitability is over. Wait six years (or four, if Sen. Marco Rubio doesn’t run for a third term) and the political environment could turn again in his favor. The filing deadline in Florida is May 4.
President Trump has publicly lobbied Scott to run, and his administration even gave Florida an exemption from its controversial offshore-drilling proposal. If Scott decides not to run this year, it would be a clear calculation that the president—despite his full-court-press—is too much of a drag in this swing state.
2. Will the GOP’s anti-Pelosi playbook work (again) in Trump country? Republicans are hoping to replicate their effective anti-Nancy Pelosi strategy from last year’s Georgia special election toward one in an even more favorable House district that has become uncomfortably close. Democrats are hoping to contest a suburban Pittsburgh district that gave Trump 58 percent of the vote and is filled with the type of blue-collar voters Trump champions.
Republicans aren’t taking any chances. The leading House GOP super PAC went up with an early $1.5 million ad buy attacking Democratic nominee Conor Lamb as one of Pelosi’s “sheep.” Lamb is a tough target for Republicans to caricature. He’s a Marine veteran and former federal prosecutor who deliberately hasn’t committed to supporting Pelosi as party leader if he is elected. His GOP opponent, Rick Saccone, is an experienced state lawmaker whose lackluster campaign and weak fundraising are causing some in his party to panic.
The emerging Republican campaign message for the March 13 special election is simple: Tout the tax cut, claim credit for economic growth, and use Pelosi to remind independent voters of the Democratic Party’s progressivism. But if that can’t work in the heart of Trump country, it’s unlikely to be enough to save the House majority. Even an uncomfortably close race would raise the GOP’s panic level.
3. Will Democrats get pulled too far to the left in House primaries? Congressional primaries get underway in less than two months, starting in Texas on March 6. Most Democratic strategists believe the way to win the House is not by dwelling on Trump’s problems but by focusing on bread-and-butter economic issues appealing to independent suburban voters—the constituency that will make or break partisan control of the lower chamber.
It’s an open question whether primary voters will go along with that message. There are so many Democratic candidates running for office that you need a detailed scorecard to keep track of them and their positions. Many are political outsiders whose positions on policy issues aren’t clear. To distinguish themselves in crowded fields, they will have every incentive to sound as strident as possible.
One of those Texas contests will be an early sign of how much clout progressive activists hold. In the race to defeat vulnerable Houston-area Rep. John Culberson, nonprofit executive Alexander Triantaphyllis and attorney Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher have emerged as the early front-runners. But a third candidate, Laura Moser, is running to their left and raising enough money to compete. Moser’s main claim to fame is organizing protests against Trump, a tough sell to swing voters in a district that is traditionally Republican. (The district narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton last year, but it is filled with wealthy, moderate voters who haven’t become born-again members of the Resistance.)
Another upcoming contest worth watching: Liberals are trying to unseat longtime Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, whose opposition to abortion has made him an outlier in the Democratic caucus. Progressive groups have rallied around marketing consultant Marie Newman in the primary, joined by some heavy hitters like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois.
On the positive side for Democrats, there hasn’t been much of a Clinton-Bernie Sanders schism in congressional races as some had predicted. On the negative side, liberal unrest with party leadership is growing over the issue of immigration. If party leaders reach a compromise with the Trump administration over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, there’s a high risk of backlash from the activist base.
4. Can Republicans land a recruit against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp? In what counts as one of the most glaring recruiting failures in recent memory, Republicans are struggling to find a decent candidate to run against Heitkamp in North Dakota—in the second-most pro-Trump state in the country. Rep. Kevin Cramer recently passed on the race, the latest in a long line of Republicans to forgo a Senate campaign against the likable Democrat. The latest potential candidate to draw attention is former state party chair Gary Emineth, a name that doesn’t garner much excitement in Washington GOP circles. State Sen. Tom Campbell is currently running, but he’s not seen as a credible candidate by partisan insiders.
Despite her state’s Republican tilt, Heitkamp is maintaining solid approval ratings back home. A Morning Consult poll, surveying the popularity of all senators, found 50 percent of North Dakotans approving of her performance in office, with just 33 percent viewing her unfavorably. Her +17 net favorability score ranks her as most popular among the five Senate Democrats up in 2018 representing solidly Republican states.
The filing deadline in North Dakota is just over two months away (April 9), still giving Republicans a little time to convince a credible candidate to run. If they miss out on this golden opportunity, it would be clear that the Trump backlash has extended to the most conservative parts of the country.