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How November midterm elections could change the state of play

On. Nov. 6, voters head to the ballot box for the first midterm elections under President Trump. Both parties are billing them as crucial for the direction of the country. At stake: the Republican legislative agenda and the stability of the Trump administration.  

John Minchillo/AP
A voter cast their ballot in a polling station at Quest Community Church, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, in Westerville, Ohio.

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This fall marks the first midterm elections under President Trump, some of the most critical political contests since Mr. Trump was elected. Democrats and Republicans are billing the Nov. 6 midterms as crucial for the direction of the country. Republicans currently hold a 236-to-193 advantage in the House and a 51-to-49 majority in the Senate. History shows that the incumbent president’s party tends to lose out during midterm elections. “[T]he battle for the Republicans to keep the House is very real,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said at a recent Monitor Breakfast. Among the biggest talking points is the record number of women running for office this year: 476 women have filed for candidacy in the House, 54 in the Senate, and 62 for governor. They include the first transgender candidate to be nominated for governorship by a major party, the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress, and potentially the first black female governor. “It’s historic,” California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo told Politico. “This year a lot of unspoken but tough walls, I think, have come tumbling down.” 

In about three months, voters will head to the ballot box for the first midterm elections under President Trump – midterms both parties are billing as crucial for the direction of the country. Here’s a refresher on what to keep in mind ahead of Nov. 6.

Q: What’s at stake in the 2018 midterms?

This vote represents the first nationwide referendum on the Trump administration, where voters can collectively send a message about how satisfied they are with the direction of the government, and whether they want a change in course. If Democrats gain control of either chamber of Congress, it would effectively shut down the Republican legislative agenda, since any legislation would need Democratic votes to pass. A Democratic majority would also present a much stronger counterweight to Mr. Trump. 

Republicans currently hold a 236-to-193 advantage in the House (six House seats are vacant) and a 51-to-49 majority in the Senate. That edge gives the GOP the power to pass legislation like last year’s $1.5 trillion tax cut and to confirm Supreme Court nominees without Democratic support.

If Democrats gain control of the Senate, in addition to potential legislative gridlock, future Supreme Court picks and other judicial appointees could run into a similar challenge. If they take the House, Democratic leadership could feel empowered to start impeachment proceedings against the president. Committee chairmanships would also flip, which would likely mean more investigations into the Trump administration.

Q: At this point, how likely is it that a “blue wave” will take place?

The latest from political analysts suggests that things are looking good for Democrats, at least in the House. The party has held a consistent lead on the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they’d vote for without naming specific candidates and is considered a good predictor of the popular vote. Democrats are also doing better in the money department, with challengers eclipsing Republican incumbents in 56 House districts during second-quarter fundraising.

Recent special elections – from Democrat Conor Lamb’s victory in Pennsylvania earlier this year to the whisker-close race in Ohio’s solidly red 12th district this month – also bode well for Democrats’ chances in November, political analysts say.

History shows that the incumbent president’s party tends to lose seats during midterm elections. Since 1934, the president’s party has given up an average of 28 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate during midterms. With the GOP defending more than 40 open seats in November, “the battle for the Republicans to keep the House is very real,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said at a recent Monitor Breakfast.

It’s more of an uphill climb in the Senate this year, where Democrats need to hold 10 seats in states that Mr. Trump won in 2016, plus take two more from Republicans. If a “wave” is coming – and there’s no consensus yet on the definition of a wave election – it’s more likely to happen in the House.

But even that could change by Nov. 6.

“Democrats capturing the majority is not a slam dunk,” Kyle Klondik writes for the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball, a top election forecaster.

Q: Which races should we be watching?

With all 435 seats in the House up for election, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of close contests to keep an eye on. Axios identified five House races – in Iowa, Florida, Texas, California, and Maine – that are tighter than most. All five seats are currently held by Republicans but have begun inching toward Democrats. The reasons range from diversifying populations and declining Republican voter registrations, as in California’s 48th, to a strong union tradition that could be leveraged by a Conor Lamb-style candidate, as in Maine’s 2nd district.  

As for the Senate, political analysts are keeping close tabs on Arizona, where the departure of Sen. Jeff Flake (R) could serve as a test for whether demographic changes might swing the state to the left. Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is facing a tough road to retain his seat against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, in what Bloomberg columnist Albert Hunt has dubbed “the mother of all Senate races.” In Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, is proving an unexpectedly strong competitor against Sen. Ted Cruz, consistently outraising the Republican – but the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office in 25 years.

Other notable contests include Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, where Democratic incumbents are facing tough reelection prospects; Tennessee, where a popular former governor might have a shot at becoming the state’s first Democratic senator since 1990; and Nevada, where Republican Sen. Dean Heller is considered the most vulnerable incumbent among both parties. 

Q: What about governors’ mansions and state legislatures?

Huge Republican gains in state legislatures and governors’ mansions in 2010 and 2014 allowed the GOP to enact policies at the state level when they couldn’t in Washington. They also gave the party an opportunity to lead redistricting efforts following the 2010 Census, since state lawmakers draw redistricting maps and governors approve them.

Today, Republicans control both chambers of Congress, 33 governors’ mansions, and 56 percent of all state legislative seats. Democrats will have to make a dent in those seats if they want to have any say in redistricting after the 2020 Census and rebuild a base of power for elections over the next decade.

The midterms could give them that chance: Republicans are defending 26 of the 36 gubernatorial seats up for grabs. More than 80 percent of state legislative seats across the country are also in play – and here, as in Congress, seats held by the incumbent president’s party are more vulnerable.

“We are playing heavy defense,” Jon Thompson, communications director with the Republican Governors Association, told The Washington Post, “but there are a strong handful of states that we plan to play offense in.”

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about first-time candidates, especially among women, this cycle. What other notable firsts have we seen so far?

Among the biggest talking points ahead of the November midterms is the record number of women running for office this year. According to the Center for American Women and Politics:

  • 476 filed for candidacy in the House;
  • 54 filed to run in the Senate;
  • 62 filed to run for governor;
  • 119 filed for candidacy in other statewide offices;
  • and more than 2,600 filed to run in their state legislatures.  

Though there are plenty of Republicans among their ranks, the majority of these new candidates are running as Democrats – spurred, analysts say, by the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement, among other things.

But the firsts go beyond women running for office.

Last week, Democrats in Vermont nominated Christine Hallquist in their gubernatorial primary, making her the first transgender candidate to be nominated for the governorship by a major party. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams could potentially become the country’s first black female governor. Former Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez became the first Latina and open lesbian to top the Democratic ticket in the Texas gubernatorial race.

Michigan Democrats – who have nominated women for every statewide office on the November ballot – also chose former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib as the unopposed candidate to represent the state’s 13th district. She will be the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress.

“It’s historic,” California Rep. Anna Eshoo (D), who was elected to the House in 1992 – the original “Year of the Woman” – told Politico. “This year a lot of unspoken but tough walls, I think, have come tumbling down.”

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