(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series on ‘Politics in the Trump Era’)
Two weeks from now, we hold mid-term elections which will determine control of the Senate and House of Representatives. Traditionally, the party that holds the Presidency loses seats in the mid-term elections and, in some recent cases, loses a large number of seats and control flips to the other party. This year’s elections shape up to be similar in many ways, yet different in a number of others.
The first thing that has to be asked is if traditional political thinking is different this time around. The last presidential election and the election of Donald Trump upended conventional politics and went contrary to almost every pre-election poll and the predictions of political observers. Will this year be radically different in the same way?
The Republicans have the majority in both the House and the Senate. Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives and 3 seats to have the majority in the Senate.
House of Representatives
Much of the polarization in US politics results from ‘gerrymandering’, the practice where parties in control draw election districts that are as safe as possible for their party to win. Over time, and as computers and data mining have made voter information both more detailed and more available, this has made an increasing number of districts ‘safe’ for one party or another. As a result, there is less and less need to moderate views or to be open to compromise. However, this may be changing. Lawsuits in several states are forcing changes to electoral maps. Courts in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, for example, have required changes to congressional districts. Combined with other circumstances, this has made a larger number of districts competitive. One pundit website listed 69 seats that are considered competitive. Of those, 63 are currently held by Republicans, meaning that Democrats have a huge opportunity to make gains. Although Republicans point to the fact that in most of those districts a majority voted for Trump in the last election so they hope that their losses can be minimized.
Complicating things for Republicans is that there 43 Republican members of the House not seeking re-election-about 10% of the total makeup of the House of Representatives-an unusually large number. This compares to 18 Democrats that aren’t running again. Although there are always individual circumstances at play, it’s very unusual for members of the majority party not to run again, and usually politicians are more likely to leave when they are in the minority and, thus, have less influence and power. Even more strange, those 43 not running for re-election include the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who holds probably the second most powerful position in the federal government. Also included in that number are 7 committee chairs, including the powerful Appropriations, Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees.
The majority party having 7 committee chairs AND the Speaker of the House deciding not to run for re-election is without precedent going back at least to the Civil War. It can be put down to the state of politics and, in large part to President Trump. More than one retiring Representative has said they are not running again because of the bitter and highly partisan state of politics. Several also have clashed with the President and his style. House Speaker Ryan, with a reputation as a tempered conservative, often clashed with the President and some insiders suggest that he got tired that has Speaker, he had to answer for and make excuses for Trump’s statements and behavior.
Yes, that will grate on the President’s fans and they will likely call Ryan and others RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) but that is obviously hardly the case when you are talking about 8 party leaders who currently chair Congressional Committees and the Speaker who is elected by all Republican members of the House. Trump retains high approval ratings from self-described Republican voters. The real question will be if Trump can help win election of Republicans more closely aligned to him to replace those not seeking re-election.
In the Senate, Republicans currently hold a two-seat majority (52-48), if you include the seat formerly held by John McCain. However, the situation is fundamentally different in one key way. Because Senators serve for 6 years, only a third of the Senate is up for election every 2 years. So this time around, there are 33 Senate seats being elected and of those, 23 are currently held by Democrats and 10 by Republicans. Because six years ago, Democrats rolled to victory in the Senate, that means this time around they have more than twice as many seats to defend than Republicans. That would tend to say there is more opportunity for Republicans to make gains, even though normally that would not be the case. And of those Democratic seats up for election, several are in states carried by Trump in the last election and which tend Republican: states such as Indiana, North Dakota and Montana. This should bode well for Republicans.
Yet, there are headwinds in the Senate for Republicans, as well. Among those GOP incumbents, 3 GOP Senators are not running for re-election while all Democratic Senators are running. Of the 3 Republicans retiring, 2 have had well publicized and repeated disagreements with President Trump: Sen. Jeff Flake of AZ and Sen. Bob Corker of TN. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that both are leaving politics now because of their frustration. In both cases, strong Trump supporters are running for the Republicans to replace Flake and Corker and so Trump’s effect will be gauged based on the outcomes.
Based on current polls, it’s very possible that Democrats could win and pick up a seat in the AZ Senate election. In TN, Democrats nominated a popular former governor who initially ran well but appears to be fading as election day draws closer and so it appears increasing likely that Republicans will hold onto that seat. However, Republicans should pick up a seat in North Dakota where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is running for re-election but is far behind in polls. They also could defeat Claire MacCaskill in Missouri, who was an early backer of Hillary Clinton, but the race is very close.
The Kavanaugh Effect
The Supreme Court hearings for Brett Kavanaugh seemed to energize both Democratic and Republican voters. Until then, polling had shown that Democrats appeared to be much more energized than Republicans but the ardent debate over Kavanaugh’s nomination appears to have energized Republicans much more than they had been.
While you rarely can say just one thing caused a change, polling in at least a handful of races seemed to change about the time of the Kavanaugh hearings came to a conclusion and he was confirmed after a bitter fight. In TN, what had been a pretty competitive race has turned noticeably toward the Republican candidate, Marsha Blackburn. Nevada’s race also seemed to turn slightly toward incumbent Republican Dean Heller who had been trailing in most polls until late September. Until that time, Democrats looked like they might overcome the odds of having to defend twice as many Senate seats. Polls showed that they could very realistically pick up seats and at least have a tie in the Senate and, if things broke right actually gain the majority. That seems unlikely now.
Two weeks out, there are a large number of close races that could break either way. The passionate dislike of President Trump has Democratic voters motivated like they haven’t been in some time and turnout is expected to be high.
Republican voters tend to turnout in higher numbers during mid-term elections but did not have the same level of ‘passion’ according to polls, until recently. The ‘enthusiasm gap’ has all but disappeared and both party’s base is motivated. Early voting results in several states is reported to be high and interviews by Thinking Man with election officials in his home state agree with that assessment.
The outcome of mid-terms may come down to voters who say they dislike both political parties, who make up roughly 10% of the electorate. These are the voters who are most ‘fed up’. In the presidential election, that group favored Republicans by 17%. In polling last week, that group now favors Democrats by almost the same margin-15%. That’s a large swing.
So how does it look?
In the House of Representatives, Democrats will likely make large gains but not as large as once was hoped. The number of districts that are competitive that are currently held by Republicans is so large that Democrats can’t help but make gains. They are likely to take control of the House, but Thinking Man expects that it will not be by a large margin and may be only in the single digits.
In the Senate, Republicans look to gain 1-2 seats for the same reason-Democrats just have to defend too many more than Republicans. They should easily pick up North Dakota and possibly Missouri and other states would be an outside chance but reasonably possible. They also may lose a seat in AZ, where Jeff Flake is retiring. A loss of only 1 or 2 seats will be a moral victory for Democrats. That would mean they held onto Senate seats in Indiana and Montana, both states that are usually reliably Republican in addition to the larger number of others that they had to defend. At the end of the day, however, it may be Senate Democrats that lost the Senate for their party. Polls show a handful of races that moved at least toward Republicans in polls after the Kavanaugh hearings. If that passion from those hearings holds until election day remains to be seen.
The outstanding feature of this election will be the large number of members of Congress who decided not to run for re-election, especially the large number of powerful and influential members who almost certainly would have walked to victory had they run again. The first installment of what may be a trend for Republicans will be seen in two weeks.