Labor Day projection: Republicans on track to keep the Senate

    The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 36 – This week:

    • Campaign season is here
    • Our first ratings offer some hope for Republicans
    • Trump’s approval rating looms over races in many states

    Senate 2018 Preview

    Labor Day has come and gone, and with it the beginning of the true campaign season. Let us then sum up again the outlook on the key races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate next year.

    These races are arguably the most important, because they will determine President Trump’s ability to shape the judiciary for the next two years leading up to his re-election. They could determine whether he can make a third or even a fourth Supreme Court nomination.

    Republicans currently hold 50 Senate seats, and will hold 51 after Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appoints a replacement for the late Sen. John McCain.

    By our estimate, if the election were held today, Republicans would gain a net total of one Senate seat, losing two to the Democrats and gaining three others.

    Arizona: Republicans nominated their strongest candidate, Rep. Martha McSally, but she goes into this open-seat race a clear underdog against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D.

    Although President Trump underperformed in Arizona in 2016, his net approval rating there — zero — is both better than the national average and a marked improvement for him over last fall.

    Democrats haven’t won any important statewide races in Arizona for some time. But McSally has a lot of ground to make up before Republicans can have any confidence about keeping this seat. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

    Nevada: Sen. Dean Heller, R, is running in a hostile environment, against a formidable challenger in Rep. Jacky Rosen, D, and below a president who suffers from a negative rating in his state. What little polling there is has him usually leading, but down in the low 40s, which is bad for an incumbent.

    Heller is, however, a survivor, as he proved with his narrow 2012 victory. And depending on how energetic he wants to be, Trump has a natural network of volunteers who powered him to his 2016 primary victory, and who came very close to handing him Nevada’s electoral votes as well. Leaning Democratic Takeover.

    Texas: This race was starting to look pretty exciting. Then the story of Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s 1998 drunken driving highway crash was reported by the Houston Chronicle.

    This isn’t just your garden-variety DWI story, because it involves a high-speed crash, an attempt by O’Rourke  to leave the scene of the crime, and a BAC north of 0.13. Additionally damaging in hindsight is the way O’Rourke (unlike, for example, George W. Bush, who pleaded guilty to DUI) was able to get out from under the charge without consequence. It is hard to see how that happened, given the evidence against  him, unless his family’s political influence played a role.

    O’Rourke has almost validated this view of the incident because he has admitted his guilt now.

    One can never just assume how voters will react to such a thing, especially after 2016. But our early guess is that this sinks Beto and dries up his outside sources of funding as Democrats look for more promising races to bankroll. It will make Ted Cruz’s re-election a somewhat less heart-stopping affair. Leaning Republican Retention.

    Potential Republican Pickups:

    Florida: In the last 18 months, this one went from an apparently easy hold for Democrats to a race they are clearly losing. Everything is going wrong for them  now, including President Trump’s positive net approval rating.

    Indeed, even though Florida is a far less hospitable state for the GOP than most of the others on this list, it is looking like as strong a pickup opportunity for them as any.

    By encouraging his friend and 2016 late endorser Gov. Rick Scott to get into the race, President Trump helped put this one on the map. Indeed, this might be the most important development of 2018, because if Democrats lose this race then their path to a majority becomes nearly impossible.

    Three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s low profile and lifeless campaign have left him dominated in fundraising, drowned out over the airwaves, and trailing in the polls — in fact, he hasn’t led in a non-partisan poll since mid-June. (He did lead in one Republican poll in July.) And Nelson has made his situation much worse with a series of strange comments about the Russians hacking Florida’s election system and a couple of appearances in which he has appeared to be addled and perhaps having a senior moment.

    Meanwhile, Scott is constantly releasing new videos and airing new ads, spending huge amounts of money surprisingly without having to put in too much of his own. Between 2014 and today, he went from being one of America’s least popular governors to one of the most popular ones, and it’s helping him big time in this race. He’s been especially aggressive in trying to court the state’s large Hispanic vote, something Republicans had a lot of success with in the past before the Trump era.

    Other vulnerable Democrats are subtly questioning the use of further resources to save Nelson — after all, Florida is a very expensive state to advertise in, and the Senate seats in much cheaper states are worth just as much as Nelson’s. A million dollars goes a lot further in, say, Montana. Leaning Republican Takeover.

    North Dakota: It was hard to imagine Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D, winning her race in 2012. But with the national tide sucking out away from the GOP, she managed to do it.

    It’s a lesson to avoid Republican overconfidence in a race where everything on paper says that Rep. Kevin Cramer, R, should win.

    Yes, President Trump won easily here, but strange things happen. Until very recently, four Democratic senators represented the Dakotas.

    Cramer has been quick to hit Heitkamp for her opposition to Trump’s tariff-related farm bailouts. It earned her some kudos from the Koch Brothers and other conservatives who believe in free trade, but she was forced to reverse course and endorse a (cosmetically different) bailout of her own. All in all, it’s just a tough state and a tough environment for her to survive. The odds do not favor her. Leaning Republican takeover.

    Missouri: This race is way too close for an incumbent like Sen. Claire McCaskill to find much comfort. With disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens now in the rearview mirror, one has to like Attorney General Josh Hawley’s odds in a state where Republicans ran the table and Trump tromped in 2016. McCaskill is far to the left of her state, and the drip-drip of local news stories pointing to her personal wealth and her husband’s enormous profiteering from government continue to hurt her image. So will her anticipated vote against Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court next month. Leaning Republican Takeover.

    Indiana: Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, is definitely in danger, and is in worse trouble for the fact that President Trump’s popularity in the Hoosier State is quite strong. His opponent, businessman and state Sen. Mike Braun, comes from that sort of unpredictable Trump-like background that nowadays can never be written off entirely.

    Braun has yet to prove he can bring this one home, but it would not be the biggest shock if he did. Leaning Democratic Retention.

    Montana: Here’s a race that wasn’t expected to get interesting — at least not until Democratic Sen. Jon Tester decided to get a bit aggressive in disparaging Trump’s Veterans Affairs nominee. Trump responded by picking a public fight with him over Twitter, and now we have what looks like it’s going to be a close race with a low single-digit margin.  

    You can tell that Republicans like their chances here by the fact that President Trump planned a second trip there to trash Tester at a rally. State Auditor Matt Rosendale will benefit a lot from Trump’s involvement, even if he isn’t on paper the strongest candidate in history. He was probably the best one they could have nominated.

    Tester never got to 50 percent in either the two statewide races he won. That means his position is always precarious. This is definitely one to watch. Leaning Democratic retention.

    West Virginia: So far, Republicans haven’t gotten the traction one might expect in the most pro-Trump state in America. That’s probably the result of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s residual popularity from his time as a moderate Democratic governor. His recent vote to protect government funding for Planned Parenthood might hurt him in what polling suggests is the most pro-life state in the union.

    Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, R, dodged a bullet when the state Supreme Court kept wild man Don Blankenship off the ballot. And he can expect more help from Trump as time goes on. But he still has a long way to go before he can knock off the last important Democrat in West Virginia. Leaning Democratic Retention.

    Wisconsin: Based on the very Marquette University Law School poll — the best poll for judging Wisconsin politics — Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir has a serious chance against Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

    Vukmir’s insurgent campaign to win the GOP nomination was impressive and organic, and one cannot put anything beyond her. But it’s just one poll hinting at her competitiveness so far. Likely Democratic retention.

    New Jersey: This race was on nobody’s radar until a poll came out suggesting that Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s corruption problems are not being forgiven and forgotten. In a race with many undecideds, a lot of voters who would normally just pick the Democrat out of habit are now telling pollsters they’re undecided. Republican Bob Hugin polls no better than the low 40s, but neither does Menendez, whose trial for taking bribes ended with a hung mistrial.

    Could this race break the Republicans’ 40-year drought of Senate victories in New Jersey? It’s a longshot. Don’t place your bet here unless you can handle long odds. Likely Democratic Retention.