Against the Grain

Democrats’ Biggest Enemy? Out-of-Control Expectations

The party is poised to ride a huge suburban wave to a House majority and win big-state governorships, but will likely lose seats in the Senate. That’s a good night for Democrats, but will it be enough to satisfy their restive base?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leads other House Democrats to call for passage of the Keep Families Together Act at the Capitol on June 20.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Oct. 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

Two weeks before Election Day, Democrats are well-positioned to retake control of the House but could easily lose a couple seats in the Senate. They’re poised to win back some of the biggest gubernatorial prizes in the country, in battlegrounds like Michigan, Florida, and Illinois, even though they may lose governor’s races in some of the bluest states on the map. In the House, they’ll be electing a huge freshman class of up-and-coming statewide prospects, even though some of their biggest national superstars (like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Stacey Abrams in Georgia) may end up falling short.

All told, that would be a very good night for Democrats, one that would qualify as a blue wave. But the biggest problem for Democrats is that it could fall short of their sky-high expectations a month ago. Back then, headlines were hyping the prospects of a Democratic Senate majority (even though that was always a long-shot) and the potential for historic House gains (even in the Trumpiest of districts). Progressives were so convinced of the righteousness of their causes that they failed to appreciate how their activism would play in the center-right states and districts that make up the crucial midterm battlegrounds.

So, even though Democrats are in an enviable position just before November, many party leaders will express some disappointment with the results—absent a clean sweep.

In the Senate, Republicans are likely to net between one and three seats, which would give them between 52 and 54 members in the next Congress. They hold late momentum in the Missouri and Indiana races, are looking competitive in Montana, and are in commanding position in North Dakota. Sen. Dean Heller still looks like an underdog in Nevada despite some decent polls, but GOP Rep. Martha McSally is gaining ground on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in a bellwether Arizona race. Florida is the ultimate wild card, especially with hurricane politics playing an unpredictable role, but the overall Democratic environment should help Sen. Bill Nelson against Gov. Rick Scott. Sen. Joe Manchin, with just enough support from conservatives, is favored to win another term in West Virginia.

If there’s a Democratic Senate surprise, it would be in Tennessee, where former Gov. Phil Bredesen is still within striking distance and spending more of his own money on the race. But the fact this race is becoming a reach shows how the best-case Democratic scenario is deteriorating. In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke is raising historic sums of money, but never showcased a plan for winning over enough moderate Republicans—one that was always necessary to topple Sen. Ted Cruz.

The exact number of GOP Senate seats is pivotal for the party’s future. If the GOP’s fortunes turn south in 2020, building a healthy Senate majority (of 53 seats or more) would likely protect their majority for the long haul. In addition, winning at least two more seats would make it easier to pass legislation without worrying about the mood of several of the party’s mavericks and vulnerable members up in 2020. Simply picking up one seat would mean the GOP’s majority is deeply endangered in two years time, with Democratic opportunities in GOP-held Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina. Republicans’ main pickup opportunity will be in Alabama, where operatives believe it’s likely the GOP will win back the seat of Sen. Doug Jones.

So if Democrats only lose one Senate seat next month, that should be reason for celebration. They began the cycle defending 10 seats in states that Trump carried, and shut off Republican opportunities in the Midwest early on. But that result would mean Democratic stalwarts like Sen. Claire McCaskill and hyped recruits like Bredesen end up losing, making it easier for disappointed Democrats to view any GOP gain as a setback.

The House outlook is still looking awfully rosy for Democrats, who are benefiting from a suburban wave throughout the country. That hasn’t changed much at all since the polarizing Kavanaugh hearings; if anything, it benefited the Democratic challengers in swing districts. Democrats need to net 23 seats, and are already close to putting away around 16 GOP-held ones, including five held by battle-tested members of Congress. And with 21 of the 29 Toss-Up seats (according to The Cook Political Report’s ratings) being fought in the Trump-skeptical suburbs, it’s awfully hard to see how Republicans protect their increasingly tenuous majority.

The other factor favoring House Democrats is the sheer number of potentially competitive races on the map, thanks to sky-high liberal enthusiasm across the country. Even in solidly Republican districts, an apathetic GOP campaign combined with record Democratic engagement could put unlikely races in play. It’s why Cook rates a whopping 98 Republican seats as potentially competitive, including contests in Alaska, Montana, and Oklahoma. Add just a couple of upsets to the list of Democratic pickups, and it would put them over the top.

That said, the GOP’s ability to rally its base with the reemergence of culturally polarizing issues will stunt the magnitude of Democratic gains. There are still plenty of GOP-friendly suburban seats where Democrats are rallying, but the blue-collar Trump districts are looking tougher to crack. Vulnerable members such as Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois, Andy Barr of Kentucky, and even John Faso of New York are looking in much better position because of Trump’s recent political rebound.

Another Democratic bright spot will be in governor’s races. Democrats are in strong shape to win back control in a majority of states, with the vote-rich states of Illinois, Michigan, Florida, and Ohio among their strongest pickup opportunities. That will help them gain influence with the redistricting process in two years, and allow them to protect some of the vulnerable freshman representatives in tough districts. The party’s biggest prize would be winning in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is struggling against Democrat Tony Evers. Andrew Gillum would be an overnight star if he hangs onto a lead in Florida. And a huge Democratic night would mean extending victories into Georgia, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas—red states where Democratic candidates are running competitively.

Right now, it’s easier to see Democrats winning governorships in Kansas and South Dakota than it is for them to prevail in Tennessee's and Missouri's Senate races. That’s a reminder that governor’s races still are largely about individuals, in sharp contrast to the rampant polarization of our congressional campaigns.

To that end, Republicans are heavily favored to keep governorships in deep-blue Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont. And Gov. Doug Ducey is in commanding position in battleground Arizona, thanks to a Democratic opponent (David Garcia) running well to the left of the average statewide voter.

If you told Democratic officials last year that they’d win back the House, pick off many of the biggest governorships and lose just a couple Senate seats, they’d probably take that deal in a heartbeat. That’s basically where things stand today.

But President Trump’s October surge is making Democrats anxious, and the prospect of a long-term GOP Senate advantage is unnerving to liberal activists looking to advance a progressive revolution. The days of Obama sweeping in a Senate supermajority and huge House majorities for Democrats are long gone.

In the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump’s job approval hit 45 percent with likely voters—the highest mark of his presidency and a notch higher than Obama held before his first midterm election. Even in a fruitful year for Democrats, that’s enough to give them some pause heading into the 2020 presidential election.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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