Notes on the State of Politics

Mirror images of vulnerability; two statewide Democrats get upgrades; electoral consequences from #MeToo

— The partisan structure of the races for governorships and Senate seats are now exact mirror opposites .

— Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) get ratings upgrades .

— Rep. Elizabeth Esty’s (D, CT-5) retirement gives Republicans an upset opportunity and is another example of how #MeToo is contributing to a high number of open House seats this cycle .

With Mississippi now hosting two Senate races this year, 2018’s Senate and gubernatorial races have achieved something of a mirror-image symmetry.

On the Senate front, Democrats are defending 26 seats (including two independents who caucus with Democrats from Maine and Vermont) while the Republicans, even with the addition of a special election in Mississippi, are still only defending nine.

In the gubernatorial races, it is the Republicans defending 26 seats while the Democrats are defending just nine. There is one other governorship on the ballot not included here — Alaska — but an independent, Bill Walker, is seeking reelection. He defeated a Republican incumbent in 2014 and has a Democratic running mate, but Walker himself is not a Democrat, and because there isn’t a “caucus” of governors the way there is in the House and the Senate, Walker effectively doesn’t have to pick a party the way that independents in Congress do.

This imbalance, which disadvantages Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the gubernatorial races, could lead to an election where Democrats make significant gains in governorships but struggle to make up any net ground in the Senate, where Republicans hold a razor-thin 51-49 majority.

In the Senate, Democrats do have some Republican targets. Both Arizona, an open seat, and Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller (R) is seeking reelection, are 50-50 races. Heller benefited recently from President Donald Trump pushing perennial Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian to seek an open House seat. Tarkanian was previously challenging Heller for the Senate nomination and could have won. Additional contests in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas could provide Democrats with other pickup opportunities, though all are relative long shots. In the Volunteer State, Sen. Bob Corker’s (R) retirement has set up a likely battle between Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) and former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in the general. In the Lone Star State, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) faces Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16), who just announced an impressive $6.7 million fundraising haul in the first quarter of 2018. Lastly, the resignation of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) due to health problems has precipitated a special election this November that could become very interesting because of the candidates and the electoral format. Cochran’s appointed replacement is soon-to-be Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), and she will compete in a blanket primary on Election Day against candidates from both parties, with a runoff on Nov. 27 — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving — likely to follow. State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R), who nearly beat Cochran in a Senate primary runoff in 2014, is running against Hyde-Smith, as are at least two prominent Democrats: Mike Espy (D), a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary, and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton (D). The Crystal Ball rates the three races in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas as Likely Republican.

Democrats, meanwhile, are defending four Toss-up races involving Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Nelson’s inclusion in the Toss-up category is predicated on Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) challenging him, and Scott is widely expected to enter the race on Monday (April 9). The typical midterm trends that work in favor of the non-presidential party benefit all of these incumbents, but one or more could easily lose even in a bad environment for Republicans. McCaskill has appeared to be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat for much of the cycle, but likely Republican nominee Josh Hawley, the state attorney general, has had to deal with the fallout surrounding the indictment of Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO) over accusations the governor tried to blackmail a mistress. It’s an ugly story from which Hawley can only keep so much distance because he’s the state’s top law enforcement official. To be clear though, McCaskill remains at best 50-50 to win . Donnelly awaits the winner of a three-way GOP primary that is as of now impossible to handicap, while Heitkamp will face Rep. Kevin Cramer (R, ND-AL).

Despite polling from SurveyMonkey showing both Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) lagging behind generic Republican opponents, we still perceive both as narrow favorites in states that aren’t quite as Republican as Trump’s landslide victories in each made them seem. The identities of their eventual general election opponents remain up in the air, and Republicans are worried that disgraced former coal baron Don Blankenship (R) might actually win the Mountain State’s GOP nomination over state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) or Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3). Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, served prison time for conspiring to violate mine federal mining safety standards in connection with a mining disaster that killed 29 in 2010. Then again, Democrats who might prefer Manchin to face Blankenship should be careful what they wish for — given West Virginia’s Republican turn and the state’s complicated relationship with its one-time signature industry (coal), we hesitate to completely rule out anything there.

Many Republicans seem to regard Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) as one of the party’s top Senate targets, more appealing even than Tester or Manchin according to some even though Wisconsin is a 50-50 state politically. Immense outside spending by conservative groups confirms the chatter. That said, we still see Baldwin as a favorite . For one thing, it’s not clear that whichever Republican emerges from an August primary will be a top-tier candidate. Any of Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson (R), state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R), or businessman Eric Hovde (R), the 2012 GOP Senate primary runner-up who is still mulling a run, could give Baldwin a real race, but all three are unproven at the statewide level. Also, Wisconsin Republicans have been blindsided by two lopsided recent losses: The party lost a state Senate special election in a red district in January and a technically nonpartisan statewide Supreme Court race on Tuesday, both by double digits. Those results are not necessarily predictive of the future, but one also would not look at those results and conclude they suggest the state’s incumbent Democratic senator is unusually threatened — remember, non-presidential party Senate incumbents have an…

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