Midterms preview: the race to a majority

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As voters head to the polls for early voting, the landscape of the midterms remains far from secure for either party. Although the odds of Democrats taking the House has stayed relatively high, control of the Senate remains a guessing game. Fundraising numbers have skyrocketed in the election’s homestretch, giving candidates on the left and right a last-ditch effort to inundate airwaves and staff get-out-the-vote efforts. Whether or not a “blue wave” will surge on November 6th remains to be seen, but the shift in demographics and disapproval of President Trump have put traditionally red seats in their most competitive positions in over a decade.

The path to a Democratic majority in the Senate is rocky: Democrats are defending 26 of the 35 seats up for election, and of those 26, Trump won ten of their states in the 2016 election—five by 19% or higher. That’s a daunting statistic for Democratic candidates in those states, but there is a glimmer of hope: with Trump’s low approval numbers and large Democratic grassroots efforts, Democratic candidates have been able to stay ahead in polling, or maintain statistical ties.

The fact that Texas is considered a Toss Up race shows just how energized and mobilized Democratic voters are in this election. Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1993, but changing demographics and a widely popular Democratic candidate have turned Texas into a real battleground. Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke has become a rockstar for Democrats—he has taken strong positions on issues like racial inequality, women’s rights, and campaign finance in a state where Democrats have traditionally shied away from the label of “progressive.” He raked in a record $38 million in Q3 alone, breaking the record previously held by Rick Lazio by over $16 million, all while taking no money from corporate PACs or party committees.

Tennessee, a state that hasn’t seen a Democratic senator since Al Gore’s election in 1986, has turned into a surprisingly competitive race this year as well. The Volunteer State overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016—by a margin of 26%—suggesting early on that the seat would be easily maintained by Republicans in the midterms. But Senator Bob Corker decided to retire and has left an open race, in which Trump loyalist Rep. Marsha Blackburn is pitted against the popular former Governor Phil Bredesen. Bredesen’s popularity from his eight years as governor, coupled with Republicans wariness over Trump’s combative politics, has given an edge to the Democratic party that has struggled in the deep red state.

While Democrats have seized on opportunities to expand into traditionally red states, incumbent red-state Democrats are facing an uphill battle. These senators have attempted to tread carefully, focusing on local issues and shying away from highly divisive, partisan issues. North Dakota’s junior senator, Heidi Heitkamp, has lagged in the polls against her challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, and her race is now rated as “Lean Republican,” according to the Cook Political Report. Other red-state senators have had to launch a hard fight in their bid for reelection, but now maintain a slight lead in polling like Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

To gain a majority in the Senate, Democrats would need to defend all seats up for election and win three seats that are currently held by Republicans. The prospect of a Democratic Senate is waning, and Charlie Cook gives the Democrats a 1 in 5 chance at retaking the chamber. Odds are much better in the House, however, where Democrats only need to pick up 23 Republican-held seats. The large number of open Republican seats coupled with the high rate of Democratic enthusiasm make this a real possibility.

The Cook Political Report currently rates thirty House seats as Toss Ups. Of those races, twenty-nine are Republican-held, and six are open seats. Incumbents, bolstered by name recognition and fundraising ability, typically win elections, and so these openings create an opportunity for Democrats. Forty-five Republican representatives are not seeking reelection, and eight of those seats are already considered to probably or likely flip Democrat.

Twenty-three of the Republican representatives leaving behind an open seat are leaving politics altogether in a wave of GOP retirements. The representatives who are retiring are a mixed bag—some are Trump loyalists, while others have voiced opposition to the president—indicating that approval of Trump is not the only factor driving retirements. Most Republicans retiring are in districts where the race is far more competitive than an average Republican district, meaning that they would have faced a tough reelection campaign if they decided to stay in the House. Another factor driving retirements is the term limits set in place for GOP committee leadership. Unlike Democrats, Republicans set a limit of six years for how long a member can chair a committee, and six of the retiring Republicans will reach that limit at the end of this Congress.

The tactics on this year’s campaign trail reflect how competitive the landscape has become in both the House and Senate. General polling suggests that the most important concerns among registered voters for the midterms are health care and the economy, with 22% of registered voters prioritizing health care and 19% of voters prioritizing the economy. That being said, breaking down voters by party identification shows a drastic divergence in priorities. The environment, education, and health care top the Democrats’ list of priorities, while terrorism, the economy, and the military top the Republicans’ list. These polls suggest that Democrats may have an advantage in campaign strategy, because Democratic voters’ priorities align more closely to that of general voters. Republicans, on the other hand, face a sharp divide between their voters’ focus on terrorism and the military, while general voters are more focused on health care.

In the next week, the political landscape may change even more. President Trump has hit the campaign trail in an attempt to reverse or minimize the forecasted Republican losses in the House, but his rallies have the potential to create negative headlines and shift the attention more on himself, while many of the at-risk candidates are attempting to appear independent. Democrats are also energized, but it remains to be seen how much they can mobilize their voters in a midterm election year.

For more information on the upcoming election, watch the replay of National Journal’s “Midterm Election Preview” and download the corresponding deck.