Against the Grain

Blue Wave in the House, Red Dawn in the Senate

Democrats could end up making massive gains in the House, while losing ground in the Senate. Republicans are willing to make that tradeoff.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn and President Trump at an Oct 1 rally in Johnson City, Tenn.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Oct. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

With less than a month before the November midterms, it’s looking inevitable that Democrats will win control of the House because of the Republican Party’s collapse in conservative-minded suburbs where President Trump is toxic. At the same time, Republicans are well-positioned to expand their narrow Senate majority thanks to growing engagement from conservatives in a slew of red-state battlegrounds that Democrats are suddenly struggling to defend.

The battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation turned the midterm elections into an epic cultural clash splitting the country along socioeconomic lines. House Republicans in competitive districts are still struggling to formulate a message that can appeal to white-collar women, who were already drifting away from the party before the Supreme Court fight. But the GOP’s Senate challengers are energized by the nationalized focus on gender politics that reminds socially conservative voters why they’ve drifted away from the Democrats.

For Republicans, the possible tradeoff of the House for an expanded Senate majority and a conservative Supreme Court is worthwhile. Even before Kavanaugh’s nomination, the odds of Republicans holding the House were long. And with House seats up every two years, Republicans are optimistic they’ll be able to win back many of the swing seats lost to Democrats, particularly those in conservative-minded districts.

The stakes in the Senate are higher: If Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh costs the party several valuable red-state Senate seats, it translates into long-term political purgatory. If Democrats hold their own with a tough map, they could sweep back into power in two years.

The latest polling shows Republicans with momentum in three of the most-conservative states being contested: North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. Two recent public polls show Sen. Heidi Heitkamp trailing Rep. Kevin Cramer by double digits. Her opposition to Kavanaugh is a telltale sign she sees the race slipping away, and wanted to vote her conscience over making the politically safe choice.

In Tennessee, the inevitable partisanship of the Senate race is overwhelming former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen’s sterling image in the state. Bredesen’s favorability rating has ticked downwards in the past few weeks as Republicans swarm the airwaves with attacks, a trend that’s likely to continue. Two public polls show GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn holding a growing lead. Bredesen still has a chance, but this race is moving away from Democrats.

And in Texas, Democratic dreams of a Beto O’Rourke upset are fading. A mid-September Quinnipiac poll found Sen. Ted Cruz winning 78 percent of the state’s noncollege white vote, 55 percent of the college-educated white vote, and even 45 percent of the Hispanic vote. All the money O’Rourke is raising won’t be enough to change the state’s conservative fundamentals.

Without Democratic victories in any of these three races, there’s no path for flipping the Senate. That leaves the red-state trifecta of Missouri, Indiana, and Montana as pivotal races to determine whether Republicans can add to their majority.

Sen. Claire McCaskill is a political survivor and is running neck-and-neck with Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri. But her own middling approval rating is a sign that undecided voters will break against the incumbent. Hawley, a former law clerk for Justice John Roberts, is one of two Senate challengers attacking a Democratic opponent on television for opposing Kavanaugh.

In Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly has held a slim lead over Republican businessman Mike Braun, in part because he’s been able to maintain a moderate image back home; a Fox poll conducted this month showed him winning 10 percent of Trump voters. His vote against Kavanaugh could undermine that crossover appeal, but he’s built up enough goodwill that he’s still a slight favorite.

If partisanship reigns supreme, Montana is a sleeper Senate race to watch. Sen. Jon Tester has taken a more combative approach with Trump than his red-state Senate counterparts, opposing both Supreme Court nominees and raising questions about the suitability of failed VA Secretary nominee Ronny Jackson. Democrats acknowledge the race against Republican Auditor Matt Rosendale has gotten a little tighter, but are confident Tester still holds the upper hand.

All told, a realistic best-case scenario for Democrats is a one-seat pickup, with victories in Nevada and Arizona, combined with holding all their seats except North Dakota. A bullish scenario for Republicans is a red-state sweep in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and Montana, combined with a victory in Arizona. That would give them a three-seat pickup, and a healthy majority heading into a tougher 2020 cycle. (That doesn’t include possible GOP pickups in Florida, which still remains competitive; or West Virginia, where Joe Manchin’s vote for Kavanaugh should help him clinch reelection.)

The difference between the two outcomes would be huge. If Democrats can maintain their narrow deficit, they will be in strong position to retake the Senate with a more favorable map in 2020. But if Trump’s army shows up en masse in the conservative battlegrounds, they’ll belatedly learn they can’t simply rely on an impassioned resistance to take back power.

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