Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
The November midterm elections are just weeks away. Fundraising and campaigning are entering a new frenetic high point, as candidates and campaigns prepare to make their final pitches to an American electorate that has become inundated with politics in the last two years under the Trump presidency.
The entire US House of Representatives (435 seats) is up for re-election and a third of the US Senate is running again. Further down the ballot, gubernatorial races will take place for governor’s houses in 36 states and three territories. Americans go to the polls on November 6th to cast their ballots, with Democrats cautiously optimistic of a ‘blue wave’, and Republicans relying on a ‘Brett bounce’ following the protracted confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The tone has been set for these elections for some months now. Confidence has ebbed and flowed between both parties. Donald Trump has already lowered expectations in the event of a major Republican setback in November, announcing at a rally last week that he would not be to blame if Republicans lose the House.
As the midterm election campaigns enter fever pitch, Trump is posting some of the best approval ratings of his presidency. The Republican Party has been firmly reset as the party of Trump, so the key question is whether confidence in the president will push Republicans to turn out and vote? According to Real Clear Politics, the president’s approval rating is currently hovering around 44 per cent. That is the highest it has been since March 2017, but 52 per cent of Americans still disapprove of the job he is doing, and so the upward trend does not represent a cause for Republican overconfidence.
Illustrating that contrast, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats carry a nine point lead in the generic ballot, but Republicans with their largest lead on the economy yet.
In terms of fundraising, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced record-breaking September fundraising totalling nearly $22.2 million. The DCCC has raised nearly $63 million more this cycle than at the same point in 2016. Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee (RNC) raised a record $26.2 million in September, bringing the third quarter total to $56.8 million. Collectively, this year’s midterm election is on track to becoming the costliest congressional election cycle in history.
Candidates across the board are awash with cash, as Republican groups seek to protect the unified Republican majority in Washington and Democrats try to impose a new check on the power of the president.
Four key states to watch
- Nevada – Senator Dean Heller (Republican) is the only Republican incumbent running for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Democrats are targeting Heller with an all star cast of campaigners that include Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Trump has campaigned in the state, which Democrats will almost certainly need to win if they have any hope of winning the Senate or at least stopping Republicans from increasing their current majority. Nevada voted Democrat in the last three presidential elections, but the state has proven harder at Senate level.
- West Virginia: Senator Joe Manchin (Democrat) is politically intriguing. He knows he must strike a delicate balance between the Democratic Party he caucuses with and the reliably red state of West Virginia as a whole. Therefore, his decision to declare support for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination was almost entirely fuelled by his approaching midterm race. He has faced a backlash from progressives, meaning enthusiasm could suffer amongst Democrats in an election whose outcome is widely considered to be dependent on voter turnout.
- North Dakota: Senator Heidi Heitkamp (Democrat) is defending a seat that has increasingly become a target for a Republican gain, with little to split her and challenger Kevin Cramer (Republican). In a recent poll, Kevin Cramer led Heitkamp by 16 points. Despite electing a Democrat, North Dakota is in fact one of the most Republican states in the country, and Trump won the state with 63 per cent of the vote in 2016.
- Texas: Senator Ted Cruz (Republican) is a figure Democrats love to hate. His bitter feud with Trump has gone full circle, with “Lyin’ Ted” becoming “Beautiful Ted”. Democrats are throwing the full weight of the party machine behind challenger Beto O’Rourke, who might be considered a candidate for the 2020 election, irrespective of whether he defeats Senator Cruz. Picking up a Senate seat in Texas is not beyond the realms of possibility, but a win for O’Rourke would signal less of a ‘blue wave’ and more of a ‘blue tsunami’ in November. O’Rourke currently trails Cruz by seven points in the Real Clear Politics average.
Three house districts that could go either way
The Cook Political Report rates 72 Republican seats, and only five for Democrats, as at-risk. These three could be critical indicators of the outcome on November 6th.
- Minnesota 8: For decades Minnesota’s 8th district was Democratic, but it has trended Republican in recent elections. In 2016, Trump carried the district by 15 points, giving Republican challenger Pete Stauber cause for optimism. Incumbent Rick Nolan (D) is retiring and the Cook Political Report rates it as leaning Republican.
- New Mexico 2: New Mexico’s 2nd district has been declared a toss-up by FiveThirtyEight, with Yvette Herrell (Republican) ahead of Xochitl Torres Small (Democrat) by just a few percentage points. Clinton won New Mexico by eight points in 2016.
- Florida 27: In their latest analysis, the Cook Political Report shifted Florida’s 27th district from toss-up to lean Democrat. Incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Democrat) is retiring leaving the seat open. The district voted for Hillary by a majority of 20 per cent, and so the chances of a Republican gain should be smaller than they have started to appear.
The two top governor’s races to watch
The national focus at midterm elections is almost always dominated by the House and Senate races, but governor’s mansions should not be ignored. There are 55 in total – one for each state, four for US territories and the Mayor of Washington DC. This year they matter more than ever, as Governors will oversee redistricting in two years’ time. Republicans currently control 33 out of the 50 state governorships. There are 36 states holding gubernatorial elections in 2018, of which 26 are currently held by Republicans, nine by Democrats, and one Independent.
- New Mexico – Incumbent Governor Susana Martinez (Republican) cannot seek re-election owing to term limits, and so the race in New Mexico is being fought between Steve Pearce (R) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). Nationally the state has trended blue, having voted Democratic in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Like the national trend, polling in this race appears to favour the Democrat.
- Connecticut – In Connecticut, incumbent Governor Dan Malloy’s (Democrat) approval rating is below 30 per cent and he has declined to seek re-election. The race will therefore be fought between Ned Lamont (Democrat) and Bob Stefanowski (Republican). Governor Malloy leaves office as the most unpopular governor in the nation, meaning the Democratic campaign will need to work hard to create clear distance between their new candidate and the departing incumbent.
What could November 6th mean for President Trump?
Democrats are confident of seizing back control of the House of Representatives. Record numbers of Republicans in the House are retiring, and the Democrats only need 23 more seats to take back the majority.
It is, to an extent, already priced in – and so attention is largely turning to the Senate and gubernatorial races. In the Senate, 26 of the 35 seats up for election are held by Democrats, and so it would take an almighty sweep to alter the balance of the current majority, with the victory path having to run through historically Republican states like Texas.
The outcome of the House, Senate and gubernatorial races will all have an important impact on President Trump. With a Democratic majority in the House, the president will face a check on his authority beyond just the factions that exist in his own party. Republican divisions derailed his attempts to overturn Obamacare, but a Democratic majority would represent an ever-bigger, more permanent barrier to his legislative agenda. In the background, the threat of impeachment will loom, as the process is initiated through a vote in the House.