The Real Battle of 2018: The States

While the media is intently focused on the race for the House and Senate, down-ballot contests such as gubernatorial and state legislature battles have garnered less attention.  But, increasingly, Republicans are worrying the impact of the midterms could sweep them not just out of the halls of power in Congress but also the states.

Republicans were always going to have a tough slog this cycle.  The party is defending 13 governorships in states Obama won twice and even with the benefits of having drawn the lines in 2010 their legislative majorities are also imperiled.

Republican concerns are legion.  Trump has a horrid approval rating, pollsters are seeing signs of massive Democratic turnout and in GOP controlled states like Florida and Arizona that could spell disaster.  Already, the GOP has written off open-seat contests in Nevada and New Mexico due to an anticipated Latino surge and their loss of support in the suburbs.

Worse, of the 26 Governorships the GOP will be defending, fully half are open.  In swing states like Michigan this could prove crucial.  Likewise, some candidates in key states, such as Colorado’s Tom Tancredo, have the potential to turn off key, white, suburban and college educated women the party needs come November.

Admittedly, Republicans were always worried but the recent turn of events towards Democrats have spooked them even more.  Take New York where not a single recruited GOP candidate is challenging Andrew Cuomo for Governor.  It is small comfort the state senate might still be a hold for the party due to many entrenched incumbents roots.

The impact of the Virginia off-year election cannot be stated enough.  Republicans expected to lose New Jersey but to lose in Virginia by such wide margins and lose 15 State Assembly seats has the party running scared.

Republicans certainly cannot be heartened by what happened in a sleepy Wisconsin state senate election this Tuesday.  In Senate District 10, a district that narrowly backed McCain in 2008, Romney by six points in 2012 and Trump by a whopping 20 points swung to the left and elected a progressive Democrat.  Just as occurred in Alabama, a steep drop in turnout (to the tune of 73 percent compared to 2016) resulted in fewer than 22,000 voters electing a Democrat.  The election so shocked Republicans Governor Scott Walker and Speaker Paul Ryan commented on the result.

The saving grace for the GOP might be they still believe they can take Connecticut’s open seat if for no other reason than Governor Dan Malloy’s incompetence.  Incumbents in light blue or dark blue states such as New Hampshire, Maryland and Massachusetts remain popular with voters.  But hopes of flipping a Colorado, Oregon or Rhode Island have largely faded as the GOP acknowledges they will need those dollars to defend embattled incumbents, open seats and state legislatures.

But, despite special election victories, Democratic optimism might be driven more by exuberance than reality.  For example, while Wisconsin looks primed for a sea-change, Scott Walker has won three elections (compared to a open seat state senate district).  Iowa has only twice voted for a Democratic Governor in the last fifty years.  In Georgia, Democrats believe the state is demographically and politically changing in such a way to swing the ever crucial suburbs their way.

Even in deeply red Alabama, Tennessee and Texas, Democrats see a path.  Especially if they can follow Doug Jones path to victory by boosting black turnout, holding down GOP margins among whites and expanding the electorate.  But, they also will need significantly reduced GOP turnout as Alabama showed.  Tennessee might have alternated Democratic and GOP Governors since 1971 but that was before the Democratic Party went so left.

For all their ebullience and excitement Democrats will need to navigate several messy primaries between centrists and progressives.  Similarly, the RGA has hardly been caught with its pants down and has multiple millions to spend.

Vowing to be involved in the midterms the President has made good on his promise to support Republicans he likes.  In Florida and Michigan this has meant he has put his thumb on the scale for AG Bill Schuette and Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Unlike Congressional Republicans the RGA and White House are on solid ground.  Coordination is widely expected throughout the campaign and the hope is Trump can boost turnout among Republican partisans and hopefully bring wayward blue-collar whites back into the fold.

Still, the President’s presence looms large.  Candidates up and down the ballot will have to decide if they want to embrace Trump or tip-toe around him.  For candidates in red or Rust-belt states it might make sense to embrace Trump but for candidates in a Florida or Arizona it probably will not.

Both Republicans and Democrats know the real prize that is at stake this November; who controls the lines in time for the 2020 redistricting process?  If Democrats gain Governorships and fail to take over many state legislatures at least they can serve as a check on said legislatures until the Courts step in.  Indeed, several Democratic pitches to big donors are focused intently on this point.

November is shaping up to be a banner year for Democrats.  The question is whether it filters down to the states.  If so, polls will start showing it and Democrats might be able to even the electoral playing field down ballot starting in 2021.




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