Tuesday, July 17, 2018

BTRTN 2018 Senate Snapshot #3: The Most Complete State-by-State 2018 Senate Election Round-Up

Tom with BTRTN’s third snapshot of the Senate mid-terms. 

OVERVIEW

Our latest 2018 Senate election update continues to show a slew of extremely close elections, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance. In this snapshot, our first in two months, the GOP is in a (very) slightly stronger position than in our last snapshot in May; if the elections were held today, the GOP would end up with 50 seats to the Dems’ 50, which would be just enough to maintain control (by  the skin of Mike Pence’s hand on the gavel).  In May, our snapshot showed the Dems were rather improbably ahead, by a 51-49 margin.  We have flipped ratings in three very close races, two from the Dems to the GOP, and one the other way.

While on the surface this looks reasonably promising for the Dems, the odds continue to be strongly in favor of the GOP maintaining control of the Senate.  There is a path to success for the Dems, and just as Trump found the 78,000 votes he needed to prevail in 2016, so could the Dems in 2018.  But right now we peg those odds at a mere 20%.  Why so low when the races themselves are adding up to 50 to 50?   Basically, there are 12 races “in play,” where the margins are either miniscule (“toss ups”) or close (“leaning”) – and we have the Democrats leading in 8 of these 12.  It is a daunting proposition to pull off such a feat, and the odds are against it.

The Dems’ odds are, of course, far better than they were before Doug Jones upset Roy Moore in Alabama last December, which turned a deep red seat into an unlikely blue one, and narrowed the GOP Senate margin to 51-49 (counting the two Independents with the Dems, with whom they caucus).

Keep in mind, this is just a “snapshot,” not a “prediction.”  We have 111 days to go (or less, see our countdown clock to your right, in the right hand column).  We are about two-thirds of the way through the primaries, so the head-to-head match-ups are not as yet completely set (15 to go).  There are full campaigns to run, world events to reckon with, Trump madness for months on end – much of what will shape these races remains ahead of us.  And that includes a bruising and consequential Supreme Court confirmation process (see below); the Mueller investigation, which might (or might not) wrap up; and perhaps even fallout from the disastrous Trump performance at the Trump-Putin “presser” in Helsinki yesterday.

In reality, thought, not too much has actually changed in the past few months.  The macro environment remains tilted toward the Dems, as measured in two ways.  First, Donald Trump’s approval rating drifted up and then down, and now sits at the same 42% that he has averaged throughout 2018.  And the generic ballot has continued to favor the Dems, and right now is at a gaping +9 for them. 

What has changed, quite simply, is our ratings in eight of the races, as detailed below.  In two of those eight races, we flipped the “lead” from red to blue, and in one from blue to red.  (In the other five, races stayed with the same party, but changed in the degree of margin.)  And thus, overall, we moved from 51/49 in favor of the Dems to 50/50, which keeps control with the GOP.

Details are below. But first, let’s examine the potential impact of the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court.

KAVANAUGH: THE CONFIRMATION AND THE SENATE

The retirement of Anthony Kennedy from the Supreme Court and the nomination of the arch-conservative Brett Kavanaugh to replace him has thrown an external shock into the battle for Senate control.  The confirmation process and ultimate vote will put excruciating pressure on at least three Senators up for re-election, the three Democrats who voted for Robert Gorsuch for the high court last year:  Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.   They are all blue Senators in red states that went for Trump, and their Gorsuch vote reveals the temperament of their electorate.  To oppose Kavanaugh would be incredibly risky for them (assuming no damning new information is revealed in the process that would make a “no” vote easier.

With Senator John McCain sidelined in Arizona in his battle with brain cancer, Mitch McConnell needs to either hold on to the pro-choice GOP Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Linda Murkowsky of Alaska, or, if either or both oppose Kavanaugh, offset those “no” votes with wavering Democrats.  Other Democrats might face pressure as well, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri and John Tester of Montana (who opposed Gorsuch) and Jones in Alabama (who was not in office last year).

Chuck Schumer and the Democrats could try to slow the Kavanaugh hearings to a crawl (through requests for documents and excruciating review of them – this is why McConnell advised Trump not to pick Kavanaugh, who easily has the most relevant documents among the “final four”) to push the confirmation process past Election Day.   That would ease the pressure on the Dem Senators in opposing Kavanaugh (Collins and Murkowsky are not up for reelection this year).  With an election behind them and six years in office ahead, the Dems might be more likely to vote their conscience without regard to election considerations.

SETTING THE STAGE

Let’s review the basic math.  As stated, the GOP holds a slim lead in the current Senate, 51-49.  The election map in 2018 wildly favors the GOP – there are 35 races this November, with only 9 GOP seats up for re-election, while the Dems have to defend a whopping 26.  And out of those 26, ten are in states won by Trump in 2016, putting pressure on the Dems’ ability to hold those states. 

We are more than halfway through the primary season, and thus far the Republicans have not stubbed their toe and put forward any disastrous candidates, as they famously did in 2010 and 2012 in Delaware, Missouri, Indiana and Nevada.  In doing so then, the GOP tossed away four seats that better candidates could surely have won, not to mention the most notorious of them all, the aforementioned Roy Moore of Alabama in 2017.

SNAPSHOT

It is too early to “predict” the outcome of the 35 races on Election Day, but we can take a current reading of the races and see where we are – we call it a “snapshot.”  We still have many primaries to go to establish the match-ups. Then there are the full campaigns, all the attendant noise of Trumpworld, plus an unpredictable world that can provide plenty of unexpected election shocks.  Much of what will shape the outcomes of these races lies ahead. The Dems now only need to net +2 seats to take over the Senate, and there are multiple reasonable paths to do so.  Not easy at all, but within reason.  Basically, the Democrats have to:

·         Successfully defend all of their seats and flip any two of the current GOP seats in Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas, all of which are now “in play”, or…

·         Lose some of their incumbent seats but offset those setbacks by flipping more than two of those five “in play” GOP states

The headline is, for this BTRTN “snapshot” – not a prediction, but rather if Election Day was today – the Republicans would maintain control of the Senate by a 50/50 margin, losing a net of -1 seat, but maintain Senate control by virtue of Mike Pence’s tie-breaker voting power. 

Using the chart on the left below, you can see how the Dems are faring at this point in time, and how our snapshots have changed over time.  There are 23 Dem Senators not up for reelection, to which they add 19 “solid” races (such as Kirsten Gillebrand in New York or Ben Cardin in Maryland) to get to 42.  Then they appear to be “leaning” ahead in four more races – up to 46.  And they are just a hair’s breadth ahead in four of the five toss-up races, which gets them to 50.  

There are fully 12 races “in play” at this time, either leaning or toss-ups for either party.  And several of the “solids” could tighten enough to become contested.  But for now, 12 is plenty to keep an eye on, and we will summarize the state of each of them below.  The chart on the right summarizes the eight BTRTN rating changes since our last snapshot in May. 

BTRTN SENATE RACK-UP

BTRTN RATING CHANGES

May 8, 2018
July 17, 2018


May 8, 2018
July 17, 2018
DEM TOTAL
51
50

Florida
D Lean
D Toss Up
Dem Holdover
23
23

Indiana
D Toss Up
R Toss Up
Dem Solid
15
19

Maine
D Lean
D Solid
Dem Lean
8
4

N. Dakota
D Toss Up
R Toss Up
Dem Toss-up
5
4

Nevada
R Toss Up
D Toss Up
GOP Toss-up
1
2

Ohio
D Lean
D Solid
GOP Lean
2
2

Pennsylvania
D Lean
D Solid
GOP Solid
4
4

W. Virginia
D Toss Up
D Lean
GOP Holdover
42
42

Wisconsin
D Lean
D Solid
GOP TOTAL
49
50






The chart below ranks each of the 35 races from the most solid for the Dems on down to the most solid for the GOP, using a combination of the data in the columns: the victory margin the last time the seat was up for election in 2012; the margin of the presidential election in 2016; and polling information (only for the states in play, those between the two solid black lines, and the polls are basically the average of polls conducted in June and July).  The last column displays the BTRTN rating for each race right now.

The candidates are identified in races that have already held primaries.  When a name appears in italics, that signifies the presumed (pre-primary) leader for the challenging party. 


SENATE SNAPSHOT
State
Inc. Party
Incumbent
Democrat Candidate
GOP Candidate
2012 Margin
2016  Pres Margin
2018 Polls (Avg J/J)
BTRTN
CAL
D
Feinstein
Feinstein
de Leon (D)
D + 24
D + 30

D Solid
VER
I
Sanders
Sanders

D + 46
D + 26

 D/I Solid
NY
D
Gillebrand
Gillebrand
Farley
D + 45
D + 23

D Solid
AW
D
Hirono
Hirono

D + 26
D + 32

D Solid
MARY
D
Cardin
Cardin
Campbell
D + 28
D + 26

D Solid
RI
D
Whitehouse
Whitehouse

D + 30
D + 16

D Solid
DEL
D
Carper
Carper

D + 37
D + 11

D Solid
MASS
D
Warren
Warren

D + 8
D + 27

D Solid
WASH
D
Cantwell
Cantwell

D + 20
D + 16

D Solid
NJ
D
Menendez
Menendez
Hugin
D + 18
D + 14

D Solid
MN
D
Klobuchar
Klobuchar

D + 34
D + 2

D Solid
CONN
D
Murphy
Murphy

D + 12
D + 14

D Solid
MAINE
I
King
King (I)
Ringelstein (D), Brakey (R)
D + 22
D + 3

 D/I Solid
MICH
D
Stabenow
Stabenow

D + 21
R + 0.2

D Solid
NMEX
D
Heinrich
Heinrich
Rich
D + 6
D + 8

D Solid
VA
D
Kaine
Kaine
Stewart
D + 6
D + 5

D Solid
PA
D
Casey
Casey
Barletta
D + 9
R + 1

D Solid
WISC
D
Baldwin
Baldwin

D + 5
R + 1

D Solid
OHIO
D
Brown
Brown
Renacci
D + 5
R + 8

D Solid









MN (SP)
D
T. Smith*
T. Smith
Housley
D + 10
D + 2
D + 14
D Lean
WV
D
Manchin
Manchin
Morrisey
D + 25
R + 42
D + 10
D Lean
MONT
D
Tester
Tester
Rosendale
D + 4
R + 20
D + 8
D Lean
ARIZ
R
Flake (ret.)
Sinema
McSally
R + 4
R + 4
D + 7
D Lean
NEV
R
Heller
Rosen
Heller
R + 1
D + 2
D + 4
D TU
TENN
R
Corker (ret.)
Bredesen
Blackburn
R + 35
R + 26
D + 4
D TU
MO
D
McCaskill
McCaskill
Hawley
D + 16
R + 19
Even
D TU
FLA
D
Nelson
Nelson
Scott
D + 13
R + 1
Even
D TU
IND
D
Donnelley
Donnelley
Braun
D + 6
R + 19
R + 2
R TU
NDAK
D
Heitkamp
Heitkamp
Cramer
D + 1
R + 36
R + 5
R TU
TEXAS
R
Cruz
O'Rourke
Cruz
R + 17
R + 9
R + 8
R Lean
MS (SP)
R
Hyde-Smith*
Espy
Hyde-Smith
R + 22
R + 18
R + 2
R Lean









MS
R
Wicker
Baria
Wicker
R + 17
R + 18

R Solid
NEB
R
Fischer
Raybould
Fischer
R + 16
R + 25

R Solid
UTAH
R
Hatch (ret.)
Wilson
Romney
R + 35
R + 18

R Solid
WYO
R
Barrasso
Trauner
Barrasso
R + 54
R + 46

R Solid
* Tina Smith replaced Al Franken, who resigned in 2018
** Cindy Hyde-Smith replaced Cochran, who resigned in 2018


GOP Incumbent Seats In Play (5)

There are five GOP seats that have the potential to be “flipped.”

·         Arizona:  Trump nemesis Jeff Flake is retiring in Arizona, and the Dems have their sights set on flipping this one.  The field will be set at the August 28 primary.  On the GOP side, Representative Martha McSally is leading a doozie of a three-way race, ahead of former State Senator Kelli Ward, with the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio a poor third.  The likely Dem nominee is Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who leads all three GOP contenders in the polls, including the front running McSally by +4.  We have kept this one as a Lean D FLIP.


·         Mississippi Special Election:  GOP Senator Thad Cochran stepped down earlier this year for health reasons, and was replaced by Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was the state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce.  Under Mississippi law, there will be a special election on Election Day in November.  On that day, Hyde-Smith and many others, from any party, will all appear, without party designation, on a so-called “jungle ballot.”  If no one gets 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will participate in a run-off election on November 27 – possibly with control of the Senate hanging in the balance.  There are four declared candidates, Republicans Hyde-Smith and attorney Chris McDaniel, and Democrats Mike Espy, the for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and an unknown, Toby Bartee.  McDaniel is making life tougher for Hyde-Smith by potentially splitting the GOP vote, and Espy is a high profile Dem who is turning this into a contested race (Bartee is a non-factor).  There has been no polling since April, and even then it was all over the map, on balance with a slight edge to Hyde-Smith.  We have kept this one as Lean R. (Keep in mind that Republican Senator Roger Wicker is also up for re-election this November in what we see as a Solid R seat.)


·         Nevada:  GOP incumbent Dean Heller is one of the most beleaguered incumbents, tortured by his flip-flop voting in the Obamacare “repeal and replace” wars.  Even before that, he won only by a point in 2012, and Hillary Clinton took Nevada by +2 in 2016.  The Dems smell blood here as well.  Representative Jacky Rosen is his Democratic challenger, and she now has a modest lead in the most recent polls over Heller. We have thus changed this from a Toss Up R to a Toss Up D FLIP. 


·         Tennessee: Another Trump nemesis, Bob Corker, decided to retire, providing the Dems with an unlikely opening in a state that Corker won by +35 in 2012 and Trump took by +26 in 2016.  The Dems have managed the most favorable match-up imaginable, as mentioned, with popular former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen likely taking on Representative Marsha Blackburn, a flame-throwing, hard hard-right conservative.  Polling has consistently had Bredesen comfortably ahead (with the exception of a Survey Monkey poll that we discount heavily).  We’ve kept this one as a Toss Up D FLIP.


·         Texas:  Texas demographics are changing, relentlessly, from red to blue.  Trump won here by +9 in 2016, but Texas was one of only five states where he did worse than Romney in 2012, who won it by +16.  Ted Cruz won his Senate seat by +17 in 2012, but he is in for a tougher battle this year, given those demographics, the unpopularity of Trump, and the strength of the Democratic nominee, Representative Beto O’Rourke.  O’Rourke has a bit of RFK in him, right on down to the swooping, unruly swatch of hair crossing his forehead, and he has also been a strong fundraiser.   Cruz has recovered in the polls a bit and now has a roughly +5 to +10 lead, still much closer than one might have thought.  We’ve kept this one as Lean R.


Democratic Incumbent Seats in Play (7)

Before thinking about “offense” and trying to flip GOP seats, the Dems have a challenging task defending their own seats, with seven of them currently in play.  Note that, based on polling, we have changed four incumbent races from Lean D to Solid D, as all four have comfortable double-digit leads now:  Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Independent Angus King of Maine.  We’ll keep an eye on these races, of course, to see if they tighten up and revert to “in play” status. 

As for those seven that are in play:

·         Florida.  Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson is facing a stiff challenge from Governor Rick Scott (the presumed GOP nominee pending the late August primary) in a battle of titans in this quintessential swing state.  Nelson won by +13 in 2012 but it won’t be so easy with Scott in the race, who has a 55% approval rating to Nelson’s 47%.  Polling has been back and forth, but has favored Nelson by relatively narrow margins of late.  We have changed this one from a Lean D to a Toss Up D.


·         Indiana:  This was another seat the GOP threw away in 2012, when Democrat Joe Donnelly was lucky to oppose Tea Party crazy Richard Mourdock, who said that “…when life begins in that horrible situation of rape…that is something God intended to happen.”  Donnelly beat him by +6.  Trump won the state by +16 in 2016.  Former state Rep Mike Braun won a slugfest of a GOP primary.  This is a close one as well, but the recent polling has Braun taking a narrow lead.  Accordingly, we have changed this from a Toss Up D to a Toss Up R FLIP.


·         Minnesota (special election):  Al Franken resigned in January, 2018 in the wake of various sexual harassment charges.   Lt. Governor Tina Smith was named to replace him until the special election, which, as in Mississippi, will be held on Election Day in November.  Unlike Mississippi, there will be traditional primaries to select the nominees, in August.  Smith will face opposition within her party; GOP state senator Karin Housley is the frontrunner in the GOP primary.  At this point, absent any head-to-head polling, given Franken’s +10 win in 2014 and Hillary Clinton’s narrow +2 win here in 2016, we have kept this one as a Lean D.  (Keep in mind that Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar is also up for re-election this November in what we see as a “Solid D” seat.)


·         Missouri.  This was another seat the GOP threw away in 2012, when vulnerable Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill confounded the odds, keeping her seat in a +16 point win, aided greatly by her inept opponent, Todd “Intentional Rape” Akin (that gaffe that drew even more derision than that of Indiana’s Mourdock).  The GOP scene in Missouri has not improved much, with the resignation of Governor Eric Greitens in a sex scandal. This trauma cast a cloud over be Greitens-appointed Attorney General, Joe Hawley, the presumed GOP Senate nominee (the primary is in early August). Polling indicates this is the closest race of them all at this time, a true dead heat.  Because McCaskill is the incumbent and because of the long shadow of the Greitens affair, we have kept this a Toss Up D.


·         Montana:  Second-termer Montana Democrat John Tester also won a close race in 2012, by +4, and four years later Trump won here by +20.  But Tester is very popular – as of April he had a 56% approval rating and a +23 net.  But…but…Trump hates Tester for leading the charge against Dr. Randy Jackson, the disgraced Trump physician who was the president’s initial nominee to replace David Shulkin in Veteran Affairs, and will likely campaign hard against him.  Tester is opposed by State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and comfortably leads him in the polls as of now, Trump notwithstanding. We’ve kept this as a Lean D.


·         North Dakota.  First-term Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota won a nail-biter in this deep red state in 2012, by +1.  Trump won the state by +36 in 2016.  Needless to say, this will be a difficult one for Heitkamp to hold.  Representative Kevin Cramer, the GOP nominee, is up in recent polls by roughly +5, and we have thus changed our rating from Toss Up D to Toss Up R FLIP.


·         West Virginia:  Incumbent Joe Manchin III is a classic “Blue Dog,” as right as they come among Senate Democrats.  However, he has been a reliable Dem vote on health care and many other issues.  He won by +25 in 2012 in a deep red state that Trump took by +42 in 2016 (Hillary Clinton was a particularly evil villain in coal-driven West Virginia).  GOP State Attorney General Patrick Morrissey won a bruising primary over Representative Evan Jenkins and businessman Don Blankenship.  Blankenship served a year in jail for his role, as CEO of Massey Energy, in the worst mining disaster in decades, and has been threatening a third-party run (potentially in violation of the state’s “sore loser” laws that are supposed to prevent such shenanigans).  Regardless, Manchin has been running well ahead (double digits) of Morrissey and consequently we have changed this from a Toss Up D to a Lean D.

Please note one final time:  that is NOT a prediction, rather just a point-in-time assessment.  We have more than three months to go.