Election Day is just under three weeks away, and the contours of the political landscape are growing clearer. Democrats are poised to make major gains in the suburbs, putting them in commanding position to retake the House majority. The biggest unknown is whether Democrats will ride a huge anti-Trump tidal wave, or whether late Republican engagement can limit their losses.
In the Senate, the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation nationalized the election in the red-state battlegrounds, significantly boosting the fortunes of several GOP challengers. Last month, Democrats looked like they could cut into the GOP’s razor-thin 51-49 majority in the upper chamber; now Republicans are well-positioned to expand their advantage. But the difference between Republicans netting one seat and picking up three is significant, and will go a long way in determining whether Democrats can win back control of the upper chamber in two years. If Democrats win back the presidency in 2020, having the Senate is crucial to their ability to get anything done.
For a sense of the political temperature, I will be closely watching five House and Senate races to get an early read on which party holds the upper hand. Most are concentrated in the early time zones, but there’s one Western race that will speak volumes about whether the national environment will trump candidate quality.
1. Kentucky-06: Rep. Andy Barr (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)
Last week, President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden held dueling rallies in Kentucky’s most competitive congressional district, which contains the Democratic epicenter of the state (Lexington) along with rural small towns where the president is still popular.
McGrath, a political novice and decorated Marine fighter pilot, stormed out of the gates with a stunning primary upset and began the race against Barr with a double-digit advantage. She’s raised over $6.6 million for the campaign, the third-most of any Democratic House candidate in the country. But an avalanche of GOP attacks, highlighting her liberal positions on abortion and immigration, are coming back to haunt her. She’s also avoided negative attacks on her opponent, an unconventional decision that’s helping him pull ahead.
If Democrats simply surge in the suburbs and don’t make inroads in Trump-friendly districts, they still are well-positioned to win back the House. But if they can’t pick up this longtime bellwether—with one of their most decorated recruits—their gains are likely to be on the lower end of expectations.
2. Indiana Senate: Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) vs. Mike Braun (R)
In September, this race was looking increasingly challenging for Republicans to win. Donnelly’s low-key, pragmatic demeanor had given him a consistently narrow advantage over Republican Braun, while the GOP attacks were all over the map without any coherent theme. Donnelly, who was one of three Democrats to support Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, was seen as a likely supporter of Kavanaugh—a move that would burnish his moderate reputation.
Then, immediately after the contentious Kavanaugh hearings, Donnelly announced his opposition to the nominee. It gave Braun a rallying cry in the race, and boosted his partisan support. The race is still razor-tight, according to operatives in both parties. Polls in Indiana close at 6 p.m. local time; early results will foreshadow which side holds the advantage in the battle for the Senate.
3. Virginia-07: Rep. Dave Brat (R) vs. Abigail Spanberger (D)
The debate between Brat and Spanberger this week showcased the competing political philosophies between the two candidates. Brat, a tea partier swept into office after beating then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary, has continued to run as a hard-liner in a conservative-minded suburban Richmond district where President Trump isn’t particularly popular. Spanberger, a former CIA operative, has touted her moderate positions on trade, immigration, and deficits to woo independent voters to her side.
Brat tied Spanberger to Nancy Pelosi at least 21 times during the debate—an acknowledgment that he needs to make her an unacceptable alternative. But he also risks being seen as out of the mainstream himself by echoing Trump’s restrictionist rhetoric and supporting the president’s tariffs.
If Spanberger’s play for moderate voters prevails in a district that Trump won by 6 points, a lot of other Republican-held suburban seats are poised to fall.
4. Florida-27: Donna Shalala (D) vs. Maria Elvira Salazar (R)
Does partisanship or identity matter more in congressional campaigns? This Miami-based seat, held by retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, once looked like a definite Democratic pickup. The district backed Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016, and is filled with Hispanic voters turned off by the president’s nativist rhetoric.
But after Democrats nominated the 77-year-old Shalala, who would be the second-oldest freshman ever elected to the House of Representatives, the political dynamic changed. Shalala is running against Salazar, a longtime television anchor for Univision who speaks fluent Spanish. Shalala, the Health and Human Services secretary during the Clinton administration, doesn’t speak Spanish at all—a glaring disadvantage in a predominantly Hispanic district. Polls show the race highly competitive.
One of the surprising developments of this election is how underwhelming Democrats are faring in districts with sizable Hispanic populations. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, and Young Kim in California all have strong shots to hold diverse Democratic-friendly seats. Gov. Rick Scott is effectively persuading Hispanic voters for his Senate race in Florida, and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is up double digits against a Democrat seeking to energize his state’s Latino population. If Sen. Dean Heller prevails against the odds in Nevada, it will be because the Hispanic vote didn’t turn out.
A Salazar victory in Miami would signal that the blue wave isn’t occurring in all the Clinton districts, and would temper the likelihood of a Democratic landslide.
5. Arizona Senate: Rep. Martha McSally (R) vs. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D)
By the time Arizona’s results come in, both parties will already have a good sense of how they’re faring nationally. But the race between two members of Congress is testing whether a flawed Democratic candidate—with boatloads of baggage from her days as an antiwar activist—can still prevail in a swing state thanks to a national Democratic tide. McSally, who held a moderate voting record in the House for most of her tenure, has evolved into a reliable Trump booster as she seeks to win conservative-minded voters statewide.
Sinema led McSally throughout most of the race, benefiting from her carefully crafted image as a bipartisan problem solver with a willingness to buck her party. But a steady stream of revelations about her rabble-rousing past have raised questions about her authenticity. Reports of Sinema cohosting a radio show with a 9/11 truther, summoning witches to an anti-war rally, and criticizing her own state for its conservative politics have come back to haunt her, and is costing her support in the closing weeks of the race.
This race looks like it’s going to be one of the closest in the country. The favorable national environment for Democrats, in a suburban state that’s trending their way, should give them an advantage. But if Sinema’s radical past costs them in a swing state, Democrats will be facing the likelihood of a deeper Senate minority.