The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 44 – October 29, 2018
- The two biggest surprises of Election 2018
- Trump’s rescue mission to Florida
- Early voting offers no hint of a Blue Wave so far
The 2018 election has given rise to two very surprising developments, each coming as an unpleasant shock to one of the two political parties.
(1) First, Republicans have seen their health care efforts backfire. Obamacare was an anchor around Democrats’ necks in 2010 and 2014. But it has become their go-to issue in 2018, and one of the few areas where a majority voters seem to clearly agree with them, even in Red states. And Republicans know that this ploy working, which is why they invariably respond to this attack by running away.
It would have been hard to believe two years ago, but at this late date in Election 2018, Democrats’ strongest attack line against their Republican opponents has proven to be that they oppose forcing insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. And Republicans have nearly all defended themselves by stating that no, they want to do mostly the same thing. (To be fair, in some cases, they have actually offered different ideas about how to protect those with pre-existing conditions.)
One takeaway from this is that Republicans fumbled the health care issue away by failing to agree on an Obamacare replacement. Conservatives had felt certain that an imperfect fix would only further “boil the frog” and leave voters complacent with a subpar insurance situation. Instead, they have let people get used to Obamacare, and they’re mostly okay with it. After all, the most controversial provisions, the high premiums, and the poor coverage don’t affect the vast majority who get their health insurance through work.
(2) Second, Democrats have utterly failed to exploit President Trump’s unpopularity, aside from using it to raise money from the grassroots Left.
Dems had been counting on a boost and a large enthusiasm advantage based solely on Trump being despised. But the advantage they enjoyed earlier has nearly disappeared at this point, as Trump’s favorability has improved. And it’s telling that Trump is running around campaigning, and Republican candidates are almost all unafraid to be seen with him. This cuts a sharp contrast with 2006, for example, when Republicans on the ballot wanted nothing to do with George W. Bush and deliberately absented themselves when he came to their state.
Democrats came into the 2018 cycle still smarting from their 2016 defeat, but they at least had high hopes of using Trump against Republican candidates. They rode angry liberal waves to near-wins (and two important wins, in Alabama and Pennsylvania) in special elections. But since then, their hopes of using an unpopular Trump to gain ground have either fallen flat or proven far less successful than they anticipated.
Republican strategist Brad Todd called this the great unreported story of 2016: “In these districts where Democrats are saying that opposition to the president is why they’re going to win, you don’t see President Trump in their ads.” This illustrates a recognition on the part of Democratic campaigners that attacks on Trump actually risk offending voters they need to turn out in key races — both soft Republicans and Trump Democrats.
Again, this cuts a sharp contrast with 2014 and 2010, when a candidate’s propensity to vote with President Barack Obama (“90 percent of the time!” “99 percent of the time!”) was constantly bombarding voters on TV.
Two critical statewide races in Florida have gotten President Trump’s attention. He and his 2020 election team are concerned that both will be lost, and have lost faith in the once-formidable Florida Republican Party’s ability to carry the day on its own.
Their reaction, however, should give Republicans some heart. If the Sunshine State were a lost cause, Trump would probably not put his credibility on the line as he appears to be planning.
According to Politico, Trump is not only going to Florida himself, but he has launched a “presidential-level” campaign effort in the state. The stated reason is that he doesn’t want to have to run in 2020 with a hostile leftist governor working against him. There will be many other meaningful consequences as well if Republican former Rep. Ron DeSantis defeats Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, because he will be able to create a conservative majority on the Florida Supreme Court for the first time in modern memory. Rick Scott’s race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is not unimportant either — were he to win, Florida would have two Republican senators for the first time since Reconstruction.
Can Trump truly have an effect in his adopted home state? It depends. It’s hard enough for presidents to make meaningful and constructive contributions to their parties’ efforts in midterm elections. But in this case, Trump’s goal is to get or at least get closer to the Holy Grail of midterm elections — the goal seemingly never achieved by either party — to bring out your presidential-year base to vote in a midterm election. If either side were actually capable of this, it would revolutionize U.S. elections and confer an astounding electoral advantage in the medium-term.
So what about in Florida this year? Well, something odd is happening there. It’s not clear what it means, but it’s worth looking at closely.
The Senate and governor races are both very close. Polls are little help in interpreting what’s going on as they straddle the midpoint in both races. But when you look at the early vote, registered Republicans are now leading not only in the vote-by-mail, but also in the in-person early vote. This is unprecedented. And it’s getting a lot less attention than it deserves. And the Republican share of the total 2.6 million early voters (as of Sunday morning) is higher, at 42.52 percent, than in 2014, when the GOP share was 42.41 percent.
Democrats have also improved their share, jumping from 39.57 percent to 39.79. Both parties’ gains in early voting have come at the expense of minor-party and unaffiliated voters. (There do exist models that try to discern who these are — we’ll leave it up to you if you feel like that debate is worth your time.)
So what does it all mean? We have a net swing of about one tenth of one percent toward Democrats from 2014. And in 2014, Scott (rebounding from great depths of unpopularity won re-election by one point, and the rest of the Republican ticket won by ten points or more. So a near-repeat of 2014 would be a good thing for the GOP. But it would also make for a very, very close finish in both the governor and Senate races this time around.
Also, there is a danger that the Republicans aren’t expanding the midterm electorate — that they are merely cannibalizing their Election Day vote by encouraging the die-hards to vote early. But all other things being equal, there at least does not appear to be any enormous deficiency in turnout on the Republican side, nor any enormous surge on the Democratic side, that would portend a “Blue Wave” election.
And so in summary, the evidence from Florida tells us that if Democrats do well next Tuesday, it will not be because they did a better job turning out their base. Rather, will have done so by winning over independent and unaffiliated (and perhaps even Republican) voters by a wide enough margin. The last time Democrats decisively won the center in a midterm was 2006. Before that … 1990.
Given the polarized political landscape, the greater likelihood is it’s going to be very close in Florida. Although the stakes are high for Trump in 2020 terms, the stakes in the shorter run are a lot higher for Democrats, for whom a loss in either the governor or Senate race would badly mar even an otherwise decent election night.
Forecast: Republican net gain of three seats. No updates for Montana and West Virginia, which still lean Democratic this week, or Tennessee and Texas, which still lean Republican.
The race between Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, D, and Martha McSally, R, is simply too close to call. Given the lean of the state, apparent Republican success in the early vote, and the fact that Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is going to crush his too-far-left opponent, you have to like McSally’s chances better, all other things being equal.
Beyond that, there’s no special formula for predicting the outcome of any race this close. Tilt Republican Retention.
Scott’s race against Nelson, as noted above, is also too close for an educated guess to mean much. Give Nelson a slight edge for incumbency’s sake. Tilt Democratic Retention.
Here’s another state where early voting looks excellent for Republicans, and where the polls are finally turning in favor of the Republican Senate challenger. Republican Mike Braun has taken the lead in this race and is headed toward a win.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, who voted against Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, is taking to the airwaves with ads in which he all but disavows his party. This is telling, and shows the degree to which he is running scared.
Moreover, even recent polls showing Donnelly with a small lead have his numbers in the low 40s — even as low as 40 percent — and that’s another sign that he’s going to lose. A strong-performing Libertarian Party candidate could prove a spoiler, but more likely she will cover a substantial gap between Braun and Donnelly. Leaning Republican Takeover.
This one didn’t look like much of a race until recently. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow is still favored to win, but her margin has shrunk into single-digit territory. Retired Army Ranger and helicopter pilot John James is at least on track to give Stabenow her toughest re-elect challenge since she won her seat in 2000.
Republicans have to date appeared weak in Michigan this year all around. The late closing of this gap suggests that there’s still an outside chance they could swoop in, ala Trump 2016, and win a few races they had been expected to lose. Still, it’s an “outside” chance for a reason. Likely Democratic Retention.
With DNC vice chairman Keith Ellison headed for defeat in the race for attorney general, it’s fair to ask whether the state’s special Senate election, between appointed Sen. Tina Smith and Karin Housley, might not have become competitive as well.
The state of political polling in Minnesota is quite poor, such that Trump’s near miss in the Gopher State came as a huge surprise to everyone. So Smith’s six-point lead in the Star Tribune poll — one of the most consistently wrong polls in the country — could portend a much stronger finish for Housley. But we’ll believe it when we see it. Leaning Democratic Retention.
The clearest evidence that Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is losing is not the polling showing her behind, but the ads she’s running, calling the urban voters she needs to turn out “crazy Democrats.” (The phrase they’re using to describe voting for her, incidentally, is “force down vomit.”)
Even more telling is the scorched-earth negative ad that Senate Majority PAC is now airing on her behalf. Its charge is too horrible by half, and more likely than not to backfire in 2014 war-on-women fashion. Unless voters are actually persuaded en masse that Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley blames sex-trafficking victims for their predicament (yes, that’s what the ad says), he should be able to overcome the Democrats’ spending advantage and go over the top next Tuesday. Leaning Republican Takeover.
Sen. Dean Heller, R, is nothing if not a survivor. As we noted last time, Republicans feel increasingly confident that he can win, but it’s going to be very close. Registered Democrats lead in the early vote (which is normal in Nevada) but it’s close enough that polls showing both Heller and GOP gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt winning close races are indeed plausible. Tilt Republican Retention.
Yes indeed, folks, this is actually happening. Democrats are in a complete panic and have been forced to spend more than $6 million in New Jersey in the last two weeks to save the recently indicted and reprimanded Sen. Bob Menendez from Republican businessman Bob Hugin. Hugin, meanwhile, has committed even more of his own personal fortune to finishing this race as strongly as he can.
You can’t really call any race in New Jersey for a Republican, but this one will be way, way too close for comfort. And yes, the Republican might actually win, this is not a drill. Tilt Democratic Retention.
The near-certainty of Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer‘s lead has been reinforced by multiple polls showing him ahead of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp by double digits. This one should be done. Likely Republican Takeover.