Against the Grain

Betting on the Biggest Election-Night Surprises

Wave elections sweep out a few safe members of Congress. Here are the leading contenders in 2018 to face a shocking upset.

Kansas Democratic governor candidate Laura Kelly walks with supporters during the Overland Park fall-festival parade in Overland Park, Kan. on Sept. 29.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Nov. 4, 2018, 6 a.m.

In every election year, there are always a number of downballot surprises that shock the political establishment. In 2016, Sen. Ron Johnson improbably won reelection in Wisconsin even though all the public polling showed him behind. Two years earlier in Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner survived an unanticipated scare, hanging on by a thread against Republican Ed Gillespie. Few pundits took Al Franken very seriously until he won a Senate seat in 2008 by the narrowest of margins.

In wave years, many not-ready-for-prime-time House candidates get promoted to Congress: In the GOP landslide of 2010, Texas Republicans elected a shock jock who was famously pictured wearing ducky pajamas with a scantily clad model. That congressman, Blake Farenthold, resigned in April amid accusations of sexual misconduct against several of his staffers. In New York, Democrats elected a loose-lipped Navy veteran who won a conservative upstate district on the back of Obama’s historic 2008 victory. That congressman, Eric Massa, admitted on national television to having tickle fights with a staffer—and soon thereafter resigned the seat in disgrace.

That doesn’t mean every unexpected victor is destined to face an embarrassing scandal. But it proves that wave elections bring in unlikely members of Congress. Simply expecting the more prepared, more qualified candidate to win is foolhardy in an election where voters are casting their ballots for a party—to express their feelings towards President Trump—more than an individual.

So, without further ado, here are my nominees for the races with the biggest upset potential on election night:

Montana Senate—Sen. Jon Tester (D) vs. Matt Rosendale (R)

This is one of the few Senate races where there hasn’t been much quality public polling, leaving analysts to rely on shoe-leather reporting and red-state political fundamentals. Montana is a solidly Republican state with a proud libertarian streak, and Tester has won a critical share of crossover votes by assiduously showcasing his legislative work for military veterans. Political operatives on both sides agree that Tester is narrowly ahead, but with enough undecided voters to make it uncomfortably close. In his two successful Senate races, Tester won just 49 percent of the vote.

With so much partisan polarization—and many red-state Democratic senators losing ground in the final weeks—it’s not hard to see how Tester could fall short. Trump has a clear interest in this race, given the senator’s role as a thorn in his side. Tester voted against both of the president’s Supreme Court picks and helped scuttle the nomination of Admiral Ronny Jackson, Trump’s failed choice to head the Veterans Affairs Department.

Trump held a rally Saturday for Tester’s GOP opponent—Rosendale, the state auditor who has benefited from the national attention. He’s far from the Republicans’ strongest recruit, but in this polarized environment, a generic challenger may be all they need in a state that Trump won by 20 points.

Kansas governor—Kris Kobach (R) vs. Laura Kelly (D)

This shouldn’t be considered that much of an upset, given that polls have the race neck and neck. But for a Democrat to win in Kansas—even embattled former Gov. Sam Brownback prevailed in 2014—everything needs to go right.

Kelly, a low-key state senator, is the type of Democrat who can pull off the upset. Running as a pragmatist, her campaign offers a sharp contrast from Kobach, a fervent foe of immigration who often campaigns on national issues in the governor’s race.

Kelly, by contrast, focuses her message on restoring education funding for the financially starved state public school system. “I consider myself pretty pragmatic. I’m a no-nonsense person who focuses on getting the job done. I don’t deal with ideologies one way or another,” Kelly told National Journal in October.

Kelly has racked up endorsements from a handful of moderate Republicans, including former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves and former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. She’s statistically tied with Kobach in the polls. Her campaign is worried about the candidacy of independent Greg Orman, who’s nearing double-digits in public polling. But if he fades as voters decide not to waste their vote, Kelly will be the beneficiary.

Alaska At-Large—Rep. Don Young (R) vs. Alyse Galvin (D)

One of the biggest upsets in the 2008 Democratic wave was when one of the longest-serving members of Congress, then-Sen. Ted Stevens, lost under an ethical cloud. Young, the most senior House Republican, is at risk of facing that same fate in another blue-wave election. He’s facing Alyse Galvin, an education activist who downplays her Democratic affiliation and has won support for her efforts ending budget cuts to the state’s public school system.

Young has plenty of reasons to be concerned. A newly-released poll showed him trailing Galvin by one point, 49 to 48 percent, among likely Alaska voters. He only won 50 percent of the vote in 2016, benefiting from independent candidates siphoning off some of the anti-Young vote. This year, it’s a one-on-one contest. And in a political environment favoring outsiders from both parties, Young’s seniority and bring-home-the-bacon mantra is losing its punch. (And if Democrats retake the House, his clout would wane in the minority.)

Young’s saving grace: Alaska is still a solidly Republican state. But it’s not particularly Trump-friendly, either. He lost the state’s Republican caucus to Ted Cruz, and only won 51 percent of the statewide vote in 2016.

Georgia-07Rep. Rob Woodall (R) vs. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D)

If the high-stakes 2017 special election between Rep. Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff (remember him?) drew record sums of money, the neighboring suburban Atlanta showdown between Woodall and Bourdeaux has largely gone overlooked. But Trump only won 51 percent of the vote here—just three points more than in the Handel seat—and the expected boom in African-American turnout for the governor race (because of Stacey Abrams’ base-motivating efforts) will have a trickle-down effect in this House contest.

Adding to the upset potential: Woodall is running like he has nothing to worry about. He hasn’t yet aired a single campaign ad, and Bourdeaux has outspent him by nearly 2-to-1 (as of mid-October). Adding insult to injury, a Michael Bloomberg-affiliated super PAC is dumping big money against Woodall in the race’s closing week. Bourdeaux, a former university professor and Georgia budget analyst, fits the profile of a candidate who can win this diverse suburban seat. It’s almost tempting to call her the favorite.

Arizona-06—Rep. David Schweikert (R) vs. Anita Malik (D)

I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Arizona will end up being more favorable for Democrats than the polls suggest. A Republican operative flagged an Arizona-themed statistic that has stuck in my head: In the deeply conservative district now held by GOP Rep. Debbie Lesko, Republicans held a whopping 21-point advantage in party registration of early voters (49-28 percent) during the May special election. But Lesko only won by 5 points (52-47 percent) in suburban Phoenix, suggesting that most independents and even some moderate Republicans defected to vote for the Democrat.

While Lesko is favored to win a rematch in a R+13 district, the neighboring Scottsdale-based seat held by Schweikert is a more intriguing Democratic opportunity. It’s an affluent suburban district, the type where President Trump is struggling across-the-board. Trump underperformed Mitt Romney by 8 points in the district in 2016, a sign there are a lot of disillusioned Republican voters abound.

Schweikert is a down-the-line conservative under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for alleged campaign finance violations, while Malik is a businesswoman who is adopting a pragmatic posture. A mid-October New York Times/Siena poll showed Schweikert leading by 14 points (50-36 percent), but with the incumbent barely winning an outright majority. Malik’s glaring weakness: She hasn’t benefited from the fundraising wave that so many of her Democratic counterparts have enjoyed.

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

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