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Viewpoints: Will 2018 midterms be a 'wave?'

“The only certainty about the 2018 House elections is that Republicans will lose seats. This will not be the rare election like 2002, when Republicans gained eight seats, or 1998, when Democrats picked up five. This will be like the
other 16 midterms since World War II, in which the president’s party
lost seats.” – George W. Bush Campaign Manager Karl Rove

As the midterm campaign ends, there’s been much turmoil, controversy, intensity and division – including charges of racism, sexism, voter fraud, ant-Semitism, corruption, pipe bombs, thousands of undocumented aliens possibly crossing our Southern border, a zillion Trump tweets, much name-calling and allegations involving porn stars and Russian collusion. In short, it’s been a typical election in the Trump Era.

Democrats received much bad news in 2016, but their good news is that voters almost always “rebalance” in the next midterm elections by increasing the power of the opposition. Democrats need to gain 23 House seats to make Nancy Pelosi House Speaker again and two more seats to retake the Senate. Rove is right: the only question is whether Republican losses will be moderate or massive.

Most off-year campaigns are low-intensity races about local issues and personalities. Most incumbents are routinely re-elected. But once every five or so election cycles on average, voter anger washes over the advantages of incumbency and one party loses 30 or more seats known as a “surge.” Over the last 35 years, there have been four great surges – in 1994, 2010 and 2014 for the Republicans and 2006 for Democrats. Will 2018 be another one of those “wave” years?

Before we get to the hottest races, here are some broad trends this season.

1. Higher voter interest: Most midterm elections are low-turnout affairs. But since Trump took office, the turnout of both Democratic and Republican partisans has been noticeably higher. This fall, early voting in Florida, Georgia, Nevada and Texas has set records for nonpresidential years. Michael McDonald’s data on the site electproject.org show that more than 25 million Americans have already voted, more than double in 2014. This year may see the highest midterm turnout since the 1960s.

2. General voter unhappiness: With a few exceptions on the economy, most surveys have shown that solid majorities of Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track. More strikingly, the approval ratings for the nation’s top leaders of both parties are in negative territory – which may be unprecedented. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker was onto something when he asked: “How can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

3. Greater ideological polarization: “Progressive,” even socialist Democrats (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) have upset more standard Democrats in New York, Massachusetts and Florida. Meanwhile, the followers of Trump – with their anti-immigrant, anti-establishment themes – have put their stamp on the Republicans. It’s hard to imagine much bipartisan cooperation next year after numerous Democrats have run on a platform of impeaching Trump and many Republicans want to shut down the government again.

4. A record number of women and minority candidates: Spurred by the opposition to Trump by college-educated women, there has been a nearly 40 percent increase since 2012 in the number of women nominated for the House of Representatives. A 2017 CNN poll showed that 64 percent of voters agreed with the idea that the country would be governed better with more women in office. Voters will certainly get their wish, as the next Congress will see a record number of women serving. More black and Hispanics are also running, with blacks most prominently nominated for governor in Florida and Georgia. Former Rep. Mike Espy could win a Senate race in Mississippi, making him the first black Democratic senator from the South. Although trailing in the polls, Paulette Jordan is seeking to become the nation’s first full-blooded Native American governor, while Christine Hallquist (also trailing) would be the nation’s first transgender governor. David Garcia in Arizona (also behind) is attempting to become the first Democratic Hispanic governor outside of New Mexico. In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis, the founder of the Blue Mountain card company, is slightly ahead in his attempt to become the nation’s first openly gay elected governor, while Democrat Lupe Valdez is running far behind in Texas, seeking to become the first openly lesbian governor. The next Congress should also see a record number of Hispanics elected.

5. Democrats are favored in the House: The Republican majority in the House is endangered for two good reasons: 1) the opposition almost always makes gains in midterm elections; 2) the Republicans simply have many more vulnerable seats. Charlie Cook is the best congressional handicapper around, having correctly called every election in the 21st century. He rates at least 46 Republican-held seats as “toss-up or worse” compared with just three Democrats. Obviously, he sees the political tides moving against the GOP. The website Realclearpolitics.com estimated that Republicans would have to win more than 60 percent of the close House races to retain their majority, a very difficult task. Republicans lost badly in the heavily suburban states of New Jersey and Virginia in 2017. If suburban women continue to trend Democratic, Pelosi will be House speaker in 2019.

6. Republicans are favored in the Senate: While Democratic prospects in the House look solid, the Senate will be much harder for the Democrats to win because they already control a majority (26) of the 35 seats up for grabs this year. Democrats will need to gain two of the nine Republican-held seats, while holding onto to all their own. (Vice President Pence would break a tie in favor of the Republicans). This will be very difficult because Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota has seen consistent double-digit deficits in one of the most Republican states. Also, Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Testor of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia all face tough races in strong Trump states.

7. State legislators looking forward to 2020: In most states, the Legislature draws the maps for new House of Representatives districts every 10 years. So the big GOP victory of 2010 was perfectly timed to allow Republicans to draw seats most favorable to their party (“gerrymandering”). For example, in 2012, the Democrats received more votes nationally for the House, but Republicans remained in control due to gerrymandered districts. During the Obama years, Democrats lost roughly 1,000 state legislative seats. They began to win a few back in 2017 and should gain 300 to 400 this year. Combined with the likely election of Democratic governors in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, the maps after 2020 should be more balanced.

8. Will there be any surprises? Even in “wave” years when one party sweeps almost everywhere, there are some exceptions such as 1958, when Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York in a Democratic landslide. The biggest surprise would be a few Democratic senators losing, possibly Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who is facing corruption charges. Another possible surprise: Republicans holding the House by a few seats.
Republicans have the economic recovery going for them while Democrats are counting on anti-Trump sentiment, especially among college-educated women, to carry the day for them.

The hot spots

Beyond the broad trends, here (in no particular order) are the nation’s top political hot spots for 2018:

1.& 2. California and Pennsylvania will be the key states that determine control of the House. The Golden State has five House seats that were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 but that still re-elected their Republican representative. All are being targeted by Democrats. In Pennsylvania, courts undid a GOP gerrymander, which could shift at least three seats to the Democrats. These two states could get Democrats about one-third of the seats needed for a new majority.

3. Ohio is almost always a hot spot because it has the best track record of picking presidents in the last 120 years. In 2018, it is important because Sen. Sherrod Brown is cruising to re-election and could run as a “populist” presidential candidate in 2020. Ohio’s gubernatorial race – in which Democrat Richard Cordray and former Sen. Mike Dewine are locked in a typically tight Buckeye State race – is also vital because of redistricting. Also, a popular governor of either party could influence the presidential race.

4. Nevada has emerged as a swing state recently due to its vast number of Asian and Hispanic immigrants – plus East Coast transplants. Former Sen. Harry Reid and the Culinary Workers Union developed an efficient get-out-the-vote operation that excels in bringing casino workers to the polls. Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Jacky Rosen are fighting a race too close to call. Nevada should keep everyone up late at night – and may decide control of the Senate.

5. As could Arizona … gone are the days when wealthy newcomers supported conservative icon Barry Goldwater. Arizona is changing for the same reasons as Nevada, but at a slower pace. Arizona will get its first female senator as Republican Rep. Martha McSally and Krysten Sinema have been essentially even in the polls for months. This race could also determine the balance of the Senate. Arizona is also a social hot spot: That caravan of refugees that Trump keeps referring to could be on Arizona’s border within a few weeks.

6. Georgia may have the most dramatic race: If Democrat Stacey Abrams wins, she’ll become the first black woman governor and first black Democratic governor in the Deep South. She is slightly behind Republican Brian Kemp (no relation to Jack) in late polls and counting on a massive black turnout.

7. If Georgia is dramatic, then Florida is clutch as the ultimate battleground state. The Sunshine State has two crucial races. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott are in a race that will go down to the wire in a battle of two heavyweights. It’s obviously too close to call. The gubernatorial campaign features Democratic Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum against Jacksonville Rep. Ron DeSantis and has been hard-fought all the way. Gillum was slightly ahead in mid-October, but an ethical flap involving alleged free tickets to the Broadway play “Hamilton” broke his momentum. Gillum is being touted as potentially the next Obama – young, black, charismatic – and a Florida win would instantly make him a national figure.

8. As would a Democrat winning in Texas. The Lone Star State has the nation’s most flamboyant race where conservative standard-bearer Sen. Ted Cruz is being severely challenged by Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso. O’Rourke has raised more than $75 million from a national network. Neither has reached out to the center. In 2016, Trump called Cruz “Lying Ted” and even implied that his father was involved in the JFK assassination. But the president now calls him “beautiful Ted” and stumped vigorously for him. Texas is, by far, the most Republican big state. Advantage Cruz, but O’Rourke has stayed within striking range and can win if the minority turnout sets records. If he upsets Cruz, O’Rourke will surely go on the national Democratic ticket soon.

Abrams, Gillum and O’Rourke are below 50 percent in late polling averages and therefore vulnerable, as undecided older voters often break against minority candidates. (O’Rourke is a true minority: an unabashed liberal in Texas!) To win, they need to do three things: 1) inspire a record black and Hispanic turnout; 2) win some support from moderate white voters; and 3) benefit from a late Democratic national wave. This is the exact formula Obama successfully used in 2008, but will be harder this year. Of the three, Gillum has the best chance: Florida has a large slice of moderate whites and was the biggest Southern state carried by Obama.

It should be a fun election night. Most signs point to a modest Democratic victory in 2018. With a little luck, they will win the House and a majority of governorships, but it will take a lot of luck to win the Senate.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and author of the forthcoming “21st Century America.”

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