Looking To The Midterms

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Democrats remain stunned by their surprise loss to Donald Trump in the most recent election, but if they want to properly convey their displeasure, the next chance they’ll have is the 2018 midterm elections. The upcoming midterm elections in 2018 are especially important, if not simply because they will be the first chance for liberals to demonstrate their anger with the direction of the country, then because of the potential repercussions down the line. A total of 38 gubernatorial races will be contested in 2017 and 2018. In most states governors have a say in the redistricting process, and nearly every governor elected in the next 2 years will have some influence over the redistricting following the 2020 census. With 67 state legislatures in Republican hands and only 31 state legislatures in Democratic hands plus one nonpartisan unicameral legislature in Nebraska (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nominally non-partisan, but effectively Republican), there is an increased importance in Democrats gaining governorships so that they have a say at the negotiation table come 2020 redistricting. Luckily, for Democrats, at least 16 of the 26 governorships currently held by Republicans up for election in 2018 are open seats, due primarily to term limits, so the incumbency advantage for Republicans is mitigated in a significant number of states.

Although Democrats may have a solid chance of nabbing some open gubernatorial seats in 2018, they face a significant hurdle in any effort to steal senatorial seats due to their position in the senatorial map in 2018. Many of the most competitive Senate seats that will be contested in 2018 are already held by Democrats, meaning Republicans have more opportunities to make additional pickups and pad their majority in the Senate. Of the senatorial races up for election in 2018, Democrats currently hold 10 seats in states that Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election while Republicans currently hold just 1 seat from a state that Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election. Increasingly, Senate races are nationalized and tied to the national partisan dichotomy, resulting in a decline in split-ticket voting for different party candidates at the presidential and senatorial level. Due to the highly nationalized nature of recent elections and the declining number of split-ticket voters, the presidential vote currently serves as a fairly powerful indicator of the Senate vote, meaning that states which President Donald Trump won are certainly more likely to vote for Republican senators.  Given that many of the Senate seats Democrats currently hold are in states Trump won, Democrats will have a difficult time defending their seats.

Despite the hurdles facing Democrats in Congress, Midterm elections have historically proved difficult for the president’s party and allowed voters to express their dissatisfaction with the president’s party. Midterms are typically considered Democrats’ weaker elections due to low voter turnout. This is because many of the voters that don’t turn out in the midterms tend to be part of the Democratic coalition, including minority voters and younger voters. In the coming 2018 midterm, Democrats can certainly aim to rally their base on an anti-Trump platform similar to the Democratic rally against Bush and the Iraq war in 2006 or to the Republican rally against Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and 2014. In all 3 of the most recent midterms, the presidential party suffered significant electoral losses, with Democrats opening a massive 8.0 percentage point gap over Republicans in congressional elections in 2006, and Republicans opening a sizeable 6.8 and 5.7 percentage point gap over Democrats in the congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 respectively. If Democrats can replicate these 5+ percentage point rallies against the presidential party in the 2018 midterm then they might take the House or at the very least, reduce the Republican majorities significantly, but they would still struggle to retake the Senate.

Although there is historical precedent for the non-presidential party flipping significant numbers of congressional seats in the House and Senate in midterm elections, the Democrats’ chances of retaking both the Senate and House in 2018 appear bleaker than normal. Nevada, a state that Clinton carried in 2016, has one Senate seat which Republicans hold, and is likely one of the only states Democrats have much hope of flipping. The only Senate seat held by a Republican up for re-election in 2018 where the presidential vote margin was within five percentage points is in Arizona. Even if Democrats manage to snatch both Nevada and Arizona without losing a single senatorial seat they already hold, Democrats are still short of a majority leaving the Senate split 50-50, with Republican Vice President, Mike Pence, providing the tie-breaking vote.

How can Democrats possibly retake the Senate then? Barring an overwhelming Democratic victory, there are few likely scenarios that lead to Democrats retaking the Senate in 2018. Such an overwhelming Democratic victory would likely require an intense backlash against Trump that would drag down-ballot Republicans underwater. Such a dramatic backlash against the President might prove difficult to attain, given the high loyalty we’ve witnessed among many of Trump’s core supporters. But how significant of a blowout would the Democrats hypothetically need to take the next most competitive state held by a Republican after Nevada and Arizona? The next most competitive state held by a Republican senator after Nevada and Arizona is likely Mississippi or Texas, at least according to the Cook PVI, which measures how much more Republican or Democratic a district or state votes compared to the country as a whole. Both of these states were scored R+10 following the 2012 election, meaning they voted 10 points more Republican than the nation as a whole. In other words, Democrats would need a massive, perhaps double-digit blowout in the 2018 midterm in order to have much chance of taking either the Mississippi or Texas Senate seats. Such an overwhelming victory would be unprecedented in modern times. Basically, this scenario is extraordinarily unlikely.

Even if Democrats highly nationalize the 2018 midterms, they would face extremely long odds of retaking the Senate, so perhaps the best way to take the Senate is to localize the races. Running more conservative Democrats in some deep red states might be enough to pick up an extra seat and push Democrats into the majority. This strategy has worked in states more Republican leaning than Texas or Mississippi. For example, Senator Joe Manchin was comfortably re-elected in 2012 as a Democrat in the state of West Virginia, with roughly 60% of the vote. Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp was elected in 2012 to the heavily Republican state of North Dakota. Of course, it should be noted that both Manchin and Heitkamp were first elected to fill open seats in the Senate that had been held by Democrats to begin with. Furthermore, in order for a more moderate Democrat to even run in one of the senatorial races of 2018, he would first have to win a primary in his state, and it is certainly going to prove challenging for a moderate Democrat to win a primary to begin with.

The gerrymandered House also poses an obstacle to Democratic efforts to retake it in 2018. Democrats could of course take a page out of the Republican play book by starting local. If Democrats worked to retake state legislatures and governorships they can certainly limit much of the Republican agenda given how much power states have in policy decisions and the redistricting process. Republicans have been poaching state legislatures and governorships perhaps even more effectively than House seats in the past few election cycle. This dominance of state legislatures is exactly what allowed Republicans to gerrymander congressional districts to begin with.

All in all, this seems like a perfectly opportune time for Democrats to run up solid vote margins in congressional elections, but it may ultimately not inflict all that much damage on Republicans since Democrats have such poor chances of retaking the Senate. Democrats should focus more funding efforts on the House of Representatives and on local/state elections in the 2018 midterm due to their poor electoral chances in the Senate. Focusing Democratic efforts on local races and gubernatorial races will only serve to further help Democrats in the long run as we approach 2020 redistricting.

Patience truly is the key here for Democrats. Disgruntled Democrats will get their chance to fight Trump and the Republicans’ agenda; however, they may not be able to properly dismantle that agenda until 2020.


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