Sabato's Crystal Ball

Open Season in the House

Republicans retirements give Democrats some clear targets, but path to House majority more about beating incumbents

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 18th, 2018



— So far there are 46 House seats where an incumbent won’t be running for reelection in November. That is already above the postwar average, and more open seats are likely.

— The current list of retirees includes 31 Republicans and 15 Democrats. Wave years sometimes but not always feature such a disparity between parties.

— Of the 46, the Crystal Ball rates 18 as competitive. The seats likeliest to flip generally are held by Republicans.

— In order to win the House, Democrats should net a half-dozen or more seats out of the total number of open seats.

— But that’s only a portion of the 24 seats they need to win the House, so in all likelihood they still will need to defeat somewhere around 15-20 GOP House incumbents to win a majority. But that is not that high of a number historically.

— Six ratings changes this week all benefit Democrats. They are explained below.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes


Last week’s retirements by two prominent Southern California House Republicans, Reps. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49) and Ed Royce (R, CA-39), brought attention to a growing exodus by House Republicans from Congress. These retirements likely will make it harder for Republicans to hold the House, although in most instances the retirements should not affect the general election odds because so many districts are safe for one party or the other.

The number of House members who are not seeking reelection to their seats is already high historically, though. As of right now, there are 46 seats that will not have an incumbent on the ballot this year, and 389 where the incumbent is seeking another term. The number of House seats featuring incumbents is already well below the post-World War II average of 397 per election, according to Vital Statistics on Congress, and with filing deadlines still months away in some states, the number of open seats seems almost guaranteed to rise. There is a decent chance that we could see the second-fewest number of House incumbents running in the postwar era: just 382 ran in 1978, so seven fewer than are currently running now. Given the usual pace of House retirements, we could see several more that push 2018 below that total. However, one doubts that 2018 will match or exceed the postwar low, 368, in 1992. Redistricting and the House banking scandal contributed to the high number of members who did not seek reelection. Another factor may also have been the ending of an almost unbelievable perk: 1992 was the last year eligible House incumbents could keep campaign money for personal use following retirement (yes, really, that used to be legal).

Two-thirds of this cycle’s open seats — 31 of 46 — are held by Republicans. A lopsided number of open seats in one party’s direction can sometimes be a sign of trouble, and it stands to reason that House members, who out of necessity are often among the most informed and perceptive analysts of politics around, might sense when things are going south for their party. Members in vulnerable seats may retire so they can leave on their own terms instead of taking the risk of losing; members in safe seats may dread serving in the minority.

Still, there are structural factors at play here, too. One would probably expect Republicans to have more open seats in 2018 regardless of the political environment because the party won 47 more seats than the Democrats last year (241-194), so there are just more Republicans who could opt to not run for another House term than Democrats. Another structural issue that may be driving some retirements is the term limit that the Republican caucus imposes on committee chairmen: eight of the 21 standing committee chairs are retiring and five of them were going to lose their chairmanships next year because of term limits, according to Roll Call’s David Hawkings. Finally, a few of the retirements are directly tied to credible sexual harassment allegations, which have rocked powerful men in many different professions.

One other consideration is that many “retiring” members on both sides are actually seeking other offices as opposed to leaving public life: That’s the case for eight of the 15 departing Democrats (including Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who is already running for president) and 12 of the 31 exiting Republicans. Members who leave the House to run for something else tell us less about their perceptions of the overall political environment because they are remaining in the political game as opposed to calling it quits.

Right now, we have 18 of the 46 open seats rated competitively — meaning something other than a “Safe” rating.

Table 2 shows those seats ranked in the order of vulnerability. So the first seat listed is, to us, likelier to flip than the second, and so on and so forth.

Table 2: Competitively-rated open House seats ranked by likelihood to flip to the other party

Note: See the “P.S.” section below for more details on how we made this list.

Sources: Crystal Ball research; Daily Kos Elections; Almanac of American Politics; Cook Political Report; U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery

Of these 18 seats, 13 are held by Republicans, while just five are held by Democrats. Additionally, the five seats likeliest to flip are all held by Republicans. That includes four GOP-held seats where we now see the Democrats as favored: FL-27 and CA-49, which we moved to the Leans Democratic column after the incumbents retired, as well as AZ-2 and NJ-2, which we are moving as part of this update. Let’s address those first.

Now that Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) is officially running for the U.S. Senate, her very competitive, Hillary Clinton-won swing seat is open. Republicans appear to be rallying around Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Lea Marquez-Peterson (R) as their nominee, while former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), who unsuccessfully ran for Senate last year and then moved to this district from her old seat, AZ-1, is the Democratic leader. But Kirkpatrick faces a competitive primary against a few other candidates, including 2016 McSally challenger Matt Heinz (D). A late primary is a pain for Democrats, but given the likely environment later this year, President Trump is a drag in a district that was decided by razor-thin margins in 2012 and 2014.

It may seem odd that we now list a seat that Trump won by nearly five points, NJ-2, as among the likeliest Democratic pickups. However, the retirement of Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R), a labor-backed Republican who has been effectively untouchable since his first election in 1994, coupled with the candidacy of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D), a moderate who is very popular in his Republican-leaning district, makes holding this seat an uphill battle for Republicans. One rumored GOP candidate, former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian (R), has already passed on running, and some of our New Jersey sources see Van Drew as an early leader in this district despite its turn toward Trump. A GOP candidate did just emerge, former FBI agent Robert Turkavage (R), though he registered hardly any support in an independent bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

While the districts are moving in different directions — AZ-2 went from backing Mitt Romney to voting for Clinton, while NJ-2 supported Barack Obama in 2012 before backing Trump — Democrats have a good chance to flip both. We would be much less bullish on their chances if there was a Democrat as opposed to a Republican in the White House.

The retirement of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL-27) last spring immediately made her South Florida district the top Democratic pickup chance in the whole country, and nothing has happened since then to change that. The Democrats have a big primary field that seems likely to produce a strong nominee, while Republicans have had trouble recruiting a candidate even though the party is historically quite strong in South Florida. However, songwriter Angie Chirino (R) is gearing up to run; she has worked with artists such as Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, and Marc Anthony, and her father, Willy Chirino, is a Cuban pop star. So maybe a nontraditional candidacy can help the GOP in this district. There was already a big Democratic field challenging Rep. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49), and rumors that he might be interested in running in CA-50, a much redder district held by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R), suggest that Issa was skeptical of his own reelection odds after what was by far the closest call of his career in 2016.

The retirement of Rep. Ed Royce (R, CA-39) in a district Clinton won by nearly nine points puts Republicans in a similar predicament as CA-49, although Issa was tested in 2016 in ways Royce was not, so perhaps CA-49 is becoming Democratic down the ballot faster than CA-39. It is worth noting that some California analysts think that Democratic exuberance over these Southern California retirements is overstated because both seats are historically Republican down the ballot.

Even in a wave year, history suggests that the party on the wrong side of the wave will still capture a seat or two from the winning party. True, Republicans failed to win a single Democratic seat in 2006, but that was the first midterm since 1922 where the non-presidential party didn’t see at least one of their seats flip to the other party. If Republicans do pick up at least one Democratic-held seat, their likeliest pickup would be MN-1, which Rep. Tim Walz (D) is leaving to run for governor. Trump carried the district by about 15 points after Obama narrowly won it in 2012.

Two compelling Democratic targets come next, MI-11 and WA-8. The former is more Republican-leaning, but the latter has arguably the best open swing seat Republican recruit in the country, Dino Rossi (R), who lost three very competitive statewide bids for Senate and governor last decade but ran well in this district and had a huge initial fundraising tally.

Up next are two other open Democratic seats, NH-1 and NV-3, both of which Trump won but only narrowly. Democrats probably have the stronger candidates in each so far, and it would ultimately be at least a little surprising if the Republicans could win either. We’re going to hold NH-1 at Toss-up because the Granite State can be so contrarian, but NV-3 moves to Leans Democratic: As a district that is more diverse than the nation as a whole and has slightly higher-than-average levels of educational attainment, it tracks as a district where the president likely will be a drag. Democrats are also favored to hold NV-4, where Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D) is leaving after just one term due to sexual harassment allegations. Republicans liked the candidacy of Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony (R), but he just left the race because of health issues. That could open the door for former Rep. Cresent Hardy (R) to try to win his seat back after losing it in 2016.

Deeply Republican Kansas can be a tease for Democrats, as former state Minority Leader Paul Davis (D) discovered the hard way when he lost to unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in a 2014 surprise. But Davis is taking a crack at the open KS-2, and he may be better-funded than the eventual GOP nominee in a district that nonetheless is heavily Republican. Democrats are circling this seat as one to watch but Republicans are still favored. The Republicans are also favored to hold PA-15, where moderate Rep. Charlie Dent (R) is retiring, but the seat is more competitive than Dent’s strong reelection performances (and Trump’s seven-point districtwide 2016 win) would lead one to believe.

Longer-shot open seat targets make up the rest of the list. One we’re adding to our competitive seat ratings is FL-6, which Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) is leaving in favor of a gubernatorial bid. The seat is very Republican — Trump won it by 17 points — although Democrats have an interesting challenger who has raised legitimate money, former Clinton administration deputy National Security Adviser Nancy Soderberg (D). We thought about listing this seat as Likely Republican before DeSantis left to run for governor, so it stands to reason we’d list it now that it is an open seat even though the eventual Republican nominee will be clearly favored.

Table 3 shows the other 28 seats, which are rated Safe for the incumbent party. These seats are listed in alphabetical order by state (and by district number within states).

Table 3: Open House seats that are rated Safe for the incumbent party

Note: *See the “P.S.” section below for more details on how we made this list, including why the vacant MI-13 seat is listed here but not other vacant seats. We included Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R, OK-1) as a retiring member because he has indicated he will not run for another term even if he is not confirmed as NASA administrator and, if he is confirmed, Oklahoma likely will not hold a special election for the seat, according to the Tulsa World. So OK-1 seems likely to have an open seat next November one way or the other.

Sources: Crystal Ball research; Daily Kos Elections; Almanac of American Politics; Cook Political Report; U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery


Last summer, we looked at how the presidential and non-presidential parties fared in open-seat House races over the past three midterms compared to the preceding presidential year.

All three midterms — 2006, 2010, and 2014 — were backlash elections against the White House, and we found that the performance for the presidential party dropped significantly from the presidential year to the midterm in seats both with and without an incumbent, but the open seats saw a bigger drop. In 46 open seats held by the presidential party, that party lost an average of 22 points in margin from the performance of the incumbent in the previous election, and the non-presidential party flipped 21 of them. In 48 instances where the non-presidential party defended an open seat, the margin for the new candidate hardly changed at all on average from the performance of the incumbent in the previous election, and only one flipped to the presidential party.

These are not large sample sizes, to be clear. But if we applied that 22-point loss in margin to the 31 open Republican seats, the Democrats would win 11 of them. That includes some of the obvious targets on the list of competitively rated seats, but also one of the seats we currently call Safe Republican, TX-6. To be clear, we don’t think this average is going to materialize everywhere. But it does show the potential damage Republicans could take to their majority just in open seats.

Looking ahead, we think it’s fair to say that in order for Democrats to net the 24 seats they need to win the House, they likely need to net at least a half-dozen seats from the group of open seats. As it stands now, we think they’re outright favored to win four open GOP seats, and they have roughly even odds in an additional three. The Republicans, meanwhile, have at least one prime open-seat target, MN-1, and a few others. There are several other mostly-but-not-exclusively Republican open seats that should feature competitive races, and this list of open seats is likely to grow longer, perhaps considerably so.

So open seats are a key part of a potential Democratic House takeover, but the majority of Democratic gains will have to come from beating GOP incumbents. That’s only natural: Remember, even though 46 seats are currently open, that means that the lion’s share of members — 389 — are seeking reelection.

Let’s say Democrats do meet our standard and net a half-dozen seats or so out of the open seats. That means Democrats would need to defeat about 15-20 House Republican incumbents to win the House when combined with their net gains from open seats.

That may sound like a lot, but historically it’s not a very high bar. Going back to 1954, there have been 16 midterms. In nine of those elections, the non-presidential party defeated 15 or more presidential party incumbents, according to Vital Statistics on Congress (the presidential party never did this in any of those midterms).

In any event, the growing number of open Republican seats gives Democrats some appealing targets. But their path to a House majority is much more dependent on beating Republican incumbents.

P.S. “Special” thoughts and two other ratings changes

Our list of 46 open House seats does not include three vacant seats previously held by former Reps. Trent Franks (R, AZ-8), Pat Tiberi (R, OH-12), and Tim Murphy (R, PA-18). All three seats will be filled by special elections later this year and, presumably, the winners of those special elections, who will be incumbents, will be on the regular November ballot. The list does, however, include the seat that was most recently held by former Rep. John Conyers (D, MI-13), because a special election for the seat is being held concurrently with the 2018 midterm and therefore the regular November election is not currently slated to feature an incumbent.

Late last week, we changed the rating of the PA-18 special from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. Republican outside groups are starting to pump money into the district, and President Trump is visiting on Thursday (today). We still think the GOP is clearly favored to hold a seat that Trump won by 20 points but the attention the party is paying to the seat and the Republicans’ typical underperformance in special elections so far this cycle informs this rating change.

One of the outside GOP groups helping in PA-18, the well-heeled Congressional Leadership Fund, has been opening field offices across the country in vulnerable House districts. Almost all of the districts CLF has targeted for field activity this cycle have been clear battleground seats, but one curious selection was WA-5, held by House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House. The eastern Washington district has been held by Republicans ever since George Nethercutt (R) defeated then-House Speaker Tom Foley (D) as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution, and Trump carried it by about a dozen points. McMorris Rodgers is still a significant favorite but the CLF involvement is telling, as is the presence of a credible Democratic challenger: Lisa Brown, a former state Senate majority leader and university chancellor. We’re moving it on to the competitive board as Likely Republican.

Finally, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17) benefited from a “retirement” of sorts earlier this week: Her top likely opponent, developer Mark Kleine (R), dropped out of the race. Kleine had raised an impressive amount of money and might have pushed Bustos a little bit in a blue collar district that Trump narrowly won (after Obama had comfortably carried it in 2012). With Kleine out of the picture, IL-17 moves to Safe Democratic, even though a district like this could be a Republican opportunity in the future.

The Governors: Judge 2018 by the Big States

Democrats will net governorships, but which ones those are will define November’s true winner

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 11th, 2018



Dear Readers: We realize that our pieces can get quite lengthy sometimes. While we know that all readers read every single word (wink wink), we’re going to start offering brief synopses at the top of our longer articles to allow readers who are in a hurry to get the gist. We will include any ratings changes, and our current ratings map for the group of contests in question, at the top of the article as well.

— The Editors



— Democrats should end the year with more governorships than they hold now. One reasonable way to measure Democrats’ success is whether they get into the 20s — they have 16 governorships now, so that would mean a gain of four or more.

— The Republicans are on the defensive in too many states to realistically expect them to net seats, and they have to deal with the handicap of holding the White House in a midterm. They have 33 now, and staying in the 30s would represent a great cycle for them.

— The one ratings change we’re making this week is moving the open seat in Maine from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. That makes the Democrats favored outright to add at least two net governorships, Maine and New Mexico.

— But these are small states. So are two of the states where Republicans have the best chance to score takeovers, Alaska and Connecticut.

— These small-state races matter, but which party has the better gubernatorial election this year will be determined in the bigger states, mostly in the Rust Belt.

— To really have a strong year, Democrats need to win some of the bigger states, and several major states with Republican governors should be very competitive: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio all qualify. Democrats realistically have only one big-state governorship that might be tricky to defend, Pennsylvania.

— If we consider those five states the true prizes of 2018, then perhaps the better way to measure Democratic success is whether they can net at least two of them, giving them a majority among these five states, all of which rank in the top 10 in population among the states nationally.

See below for the full piece and analysis of all 36 gubernatorial races this year.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings


Democrats had a simple objective in 2017 to keep them on track for gains in 2018: Sweep the two gubernatorial contests being held. They did so, holding Virginia by a bigger-than-expected margin and capturing New Jersey from Republicans. Still, 2017 saw no net change to the number of governorships controlled by the two parties: While Democrats picked up the Garden State, Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia switched parties and is now a Republican. So the Republicans continue to control 33 of the 50 governorships, while Democrats hold 16 and an independent, Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska, holds one.

The GOP gubernatorial roster continues to be the largest the party has enjoyed in the post-World War II era, although the total number of governorships a party controls does not mean much collectively: It’s not as though there is a national legislature made up of governors where the Republicans have outsized control, although obviously a party wants to hold as much power as possible.

By that measure, the Democrats did see their state-level power expand slightly in 2017. They traded the governorship of a small state, West Virginia, for that of a considerably bigger one, New Jersey, and they added the Garden State and Washington state (thanks to a special election victory in a key state Senate race) to their small group of state government “trifectas,” states where one party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature. The Democrats will now have eight trifectas, up from six at the start of 2017, according to Ballotpedia, while the Republicans now have a whopping 26, up from 25 at the start of 2017 (the Republicans also control another key trifecta — the presidency and both houses of Congress).

In assessing 2018’s gubernatorial landscape, the question is not whether the Democrats will add more seats to their gubernatorial stable, but rather how many and which ones.

The Republicans are at such a high-water mark that it will be hard for them to net seats. They are defending 26 of the 36 seats being contested this year, while the Democrats are only defending nine. Add to that challenging map the fact that half of the 26 Republican-held governorships are open seats, as well as the usual midterm trend that breaks against the White House even in non-federal races, and it becomes even harder to imagine a net Republican gain.

Realistically, the Republicans will have had a strong night if they maintain control of 30 governorships, meaning that they only suffer a net loss of three or less. Likewise, Democrats will have had a good night if they can get into the 20s in terms of total seats, or a net gain of at least four. One wrinkle in the math here is that the Republicans’ best takeover opportunity, Alaska, is held by an independent, not a Democrat. So a GOP win there is not really a Democratic loss.

But more broadly, not all governorships are created equal, unlike seats in the House and Senate.

More than half of the United States’ population lives in just the 10 most populous states, and nine of those states have a gubernatorial election this year. Given that these are the states where the identity of the governor and that person’s priorities impacts the most people, perhaps it’s best to judge this year’s results by what happens in those states.

The Republicans currently hold six of the governorships in the 10 most populous states. The two most populous states, California and Texas, look like easy holds for, respectively, the Democrats and Republicans. New York, now the fourth-largest state, should be an easy hold for Democrats. North Carolina, the ninth-most populous, is the only one not on the ballot this year (Democrats captured it in 2016), while Georgia, the eighth-biggest, is competitive, but the Republicans are favored to hold it.

That leaves five others: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Republicans hold all but the Keystone State right now. Three are Toss-ups, while Republicans start the year with a modest edge in Ohio and Democrats a modest edge in Pennsylvania.

Whichever party wins a majority of these five governorships probably will have had the better night in November, particularly because all five governors play a key role in congressional redistricting, which is coming after the 2020 census and will be overseen by the governors elected this year in these (and many other) states. (The Supreme Court may place limits on gerrymandering this year, but for the time being let’s set aside that possibility.) Illinois is home to one of the few Democratic gerrymanders in the country, while the maps in the other four states all significantly favor Republicans (even after a court decision somewhat dulled the GOP edge in Florida).

So while the gubernatorial races in every state should matter quite a bit to the voters in those states, for those following the races at the national level, how these five states shake out will play a big part in determining which party did better at the state level this year.

What follows is an assessment of the state of play in all 36 states with gubernatorial races this year.

Across the nation

Let’s start in New England, a Democratic bastion where some moderate Republicans are well-fortified to defend themselves even in a possible Democratic wave year. All six New England states have gubernatorial races this year; the region is also home to the only two states, New Hampshire and Vermont, that elect governors to two-year terms as opposed to four-year ones.

Govs. Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Phil Scott (R-VT) are both considerable favorites next year, as they sport lofty approval ratings and have thus far avoided truly strong Democratic opponents. Both could potentially get swept up in a huge wave, but Democrats do not appear to be prioritizing either race. A key part of Baker and Scott’s electoral success is that they generally support abortion rights in liberal states. So does Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH), who is potentially more vulnerable in November but still starts as a favorite. Democrats hope that their 2016 nominee, former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, takes another run at Sununu.

Republicans currently hold four of the six New England governorships. The Democrats’ best chance to cut into that edge comes in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage (R) is term-limited after winning the governorship twice with a plurality. Both parties seem to see the Democrats with an edge in this seat, particularly after Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) decided against running. State Attorney General Janet Mills (D) may be the Democratic favorite, although she has plenty of competition (her post is elected by the Maine state legislature). A wild card is state Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent and former Democrat. A Republican path to an upset might involve her hurting the eventual Democratic nominee, but at this point a GOP win would be an upset, and we’re moving Maine from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.

It is possible that Republicans could actually sweep the New England governorships this year. That is not likely, but if they can hold Maine and the other aforementioned states, they do have two credible targets in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Connecticut is an open seat after unpopular Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) opted against running for a third term. We get the sense that neither party is all that thrilled with the slew of candidates in the mix, a group that includes several mayors on both sides. One thing that Democrats hope can save them in the Nutmeg State is animus toward the president in a blue state, particularly in Fairfield County, the wealthy, highly-educated southwest satellite of New York City that casts about a quarter of the statewide votes and that a winning Republican gubernatorial candidate likely would need to at least come close to carrying. Malloy narrowly won it in 2014 after losing it in 2010, but President Trump lost it by about 20 points in 2016, the worst showing for a Republican there since 1964. If this county votes the way Northern Virginia, another affluent anti-Trump region, voted in the Virginia gubernatorial race last year, Republicans’ chances of winning Connecticut sharply decrease. Still, Connecticut really is a true Toss-up, at least for now.

Next door in Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has been hit from both left and right, but Republicans may not have a top-tier challenger to exploit her weak approval rating. There could be one or more prominent third-party candidates, including Trump-backing former GOP state Rep. Joe Trillo, whose presence in the race probably helps Raimondo. In both Connecticut and Rhode Island, Republicans likely would benefit from a free-spending outsider in the mold of Govs. Rick Scott (R-FL) or Bruce Rauner (R-IL) emerging, but it’s unclear if one will.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) appears set to seek a third term, and the GOP lacks a credible challenger to him or to other top Democratic statewide officials. Cuomo should be fine regardless but a weak statewide ticket could hurt Republicans down the ballot in several key U.S. House races: Democrats found out the dangers of effectively not challenging incumbent Republican governors in Nevada and Ohio in 2014, when they suffered wipeouts down the ballot because of poor turnout. This is also a good place to break from our otherwise geographic order of races to address California and Texas. The former is an open seat that Democrats are almost certain to hold, and it’s possible two Democrats could advance to the general election because of the state’s top-two primary rules (two Democrats could also advance to the general in the U.S. Senate race). That possibility, and California’s increasing Democratic lean, may also hurt Republicans down ballot and may have contributed to the decisions by Reps. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49) and Ed Royce (R, CA-39) to retire this week, moving Royce’s seat from Leans Republican to Toss-up and Issa’s from Toss-up to Leans Democratic in our ratings.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) seems almost certain to hold the Texas governorship, although Democrats hope that either former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez or businessman Andrew White (son of Mark White, a former Texas governor) can at least run a respectable race to give voters a reason to turn out down the ballot — the Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) may help with turnout, too, even though Cruz is clearly favored (just not by as much as Abbott is). That’s about all we have to say about the three gubernatorial races in megastates that have more than a quarter of the nation’s population but hardly any two-party competition at the top of the ticket.

Back to the Northeast. Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) does not have dynamite approval numbers, but it’s not clear that the Republican candidate will truly be able to push him even in a state that is trending Republican and that Trump narrowly carried. The likely GOP nominee is state Sen. Scott Wagner, businessman Paul Mango, or state House Speaker Mike Turzai. If Republicans are to beat a Democratic incumbent, it would likely either be Wolf in Pennsylvania or Raimondo in Rhode Island. Their field of candidates may be stronger in Pennsylvania, but Wolf has a better approval rating than Raimondo. Both remain Leans Democratic in our ratings.

Another mid-Atlantic incumbent who gets the benefit of the doubt is Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD), whose sky-high approval numbers probably mask his vulnerability when he faces an electorate that loathes the president. Hogan could not have been pleased to see Northern Virginia reject Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie so strongly last year given that so much of Maryland is similar to Northern Virginia. Democrats have to sort out their primary field first, though, and they might be mindful of the fact that Hogan got elected in 2014 as part of what was effectively a tax revolt against then-outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). That may be a reason for the eventual Democratic nominee to tack closer to the middle, if at all possible in a big, competitive primary. The leading candidates are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), who led a recent primary poll by solid Maryland pollster Patrick Gonzales, as well as Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP President Ben Jealous. Gonzales found all three trailing Hogan by double digits, but the incumbent was slightly short of 50%

Now, to the Midwest:

In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) is the likely nominee for this open seat. His union with Secretary of State Jon Husted (R), with Husted taking the lieutenant governor slot, was the first big surprise in Ohio politics over the past couple of months. The second was last week’s decision by state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) to drop out of the U.S. Senate race against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D). Mandel had long sought a rematch of his unsuccessful 2012 challenge to Brown, but exited the Senate race to help his wife with a health issue. In our ratings, the Ohio Senate race remains Leans Democratic as we wait and see who emerges to challenge Brown.

The DeWine-Husted ticket still faces a primary, and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R) is still running (she picked a running mate on Wednesday). But the other GOP gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16), appears likely to switch to the Senate race. In any event, DeWine is a very big primary favorite as he seeks a capstone — winning the governorship — to his long political career.

While the GOP primary field has contracted, the Democratic one is still large. The late entry of former Attorney General Richard Cordray (D)[1], who has been in Washington the past several years as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, seemed to give the race a new favorite. And while he probably is the likeliest nominee given his fundraising potential and likely support from Democratic heavyweights, he is far from dominating and has not really scared off his rivals. Cordray named former Rep. Betty Sutton as his running mate on Wednesday, removing one of the other candidates from the race. But former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D), the two-time presidential candidate who was most recently a Fox News commentator, appears set to enter the race, so one former Northeast Ohio House representative, Kucinich, likely is taking the place of another, Sutton. Also, state Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill — one of only two Democratic statewide officeholders in Ohio, and author of some very piggish comments on his sexual history — also is staying in, and we’ve heard rumors that O’Neill, who possesses a golden last name for Ohio voters (which is why he got elected to the court in a technically nonpartisan race), may be leading at least one private poll, although O’Neill won’t have any money to spend and should be easy to attack if it comes to that. Three other candidates who have been in the race for much longer than the three previously mentioned candidates are Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, and former state Rep. Connie Pillich.

If it is indeed DeWine vs. Cordray for the Ohio governorship, it would be a rematch of their 2010 battle for attorney general, when DeWine beat the then-incumbent Cordray by a little over a percentage point. Despite the AG’s office carrying with it another “AG” moniker — “aspiring governor” — a Cordray-DeWine contest would produce the state’s first governor who was a former attorney general since the 1950s, though many attorneys general have tried for the top job since then.

Even before Trump comfortably won this historic bellwether state by a considerable eight-point margin in 2016, Republicans have largely dominated state politics for the past quarter-century, and DeWine likely would start a general election with a considerable polling edge given his name ID. Those are two reasons why we currently give the Republicans a small general election edge. But this should ultimately be a very competitive race. So Leans Republican for now, but maybe Toss-up by the summer depending on how the primary shakes out and where the national environment is headed.

Michigan, a bluer state that also has an open governorship, is already a Toss-up. While he faces credible primary opposition from Lt. Gov. Brian Calley (R) and others, state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) is the likely GOP nominee. Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D) is the likeliest one to emerge from a crowded Democratic field. Term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder (R) is likely more of a burden than a help for the GOP nominee at this point, and if Democrats can’t win Michigan with an unpopular Republican in the White House, they may regret the decisions by some bigger-name possibilities, like Sen. Gary Peters (D), Rep. Dan Kildee (D, MI-5), and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D), to take a pass on the race.

From the shores of Lake Michigan to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, Illinois features the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the country, first-term Gov. Bruce Rauner. With an approval rating significantly underwater, Rauner seems like a sitting duck, and if the election was today, we’d likely pick against him. But the election is many months away, and the likeliest Democratic nominee, J.B. Pritzker, doesn’t provide much of a contrast with the incumbent: both are uber-wealthy businessmen who are likely to steamroll each other in the most expensive gubernatorial race ever. And, again, incumbent governors do not often lose — in the postwar era, about three-quarters (73%) have won reelection. Losing this race would be a nightmare for Democrats, and if Rauner survives he could force a deal with the Democratic legislature to weaken the state’s Democratic U.S. House gerrymander (which, it should be said, is not as extreme in the Democratic direction as Republican maps in Ohio and Pennsylvania are in the GOP direction).

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R), unburdened by term limits, is seeking a third term and a fourth statewide victory (he won regular elections in 2010 and 2014 and a recall in 2012). His three elections were very similar — he won between 52%-53% in all of them, and the Democrat won between 46%-47%. With the national dynamic now different, and the White House burden now falling on the GOP side instead of the Democratic one, it’s easy to imagine an even closer race. So like Ohio, this may be a Toss-up before too long. But not yet: There is yet another giant Democratic primary field of questionable strength to sort out. The leading candidates are probably state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, 2012 recall lieutenant governor nominee and state firefighters union head Mahlon Mitchell, and state Rep. Dana Wachs. Liberal Madison Mayor Paul Soglin (D) just entered the race earlier this week.

In what is an ongoing theme, the Democratic field is also big and uncertain in Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) should be the GOP nominee after taking over for Terry Branstad (R), now the ambassador to China. One of the emerging trends nationally last year was Democratic overperformance in special elections across the country, with Democrats running significantly ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing in many districts. Some of those strong showings came in a handful of races in Iowa, and that combined with a recent Des Moines Register poll showing Trump at a weak 35% approval in the Hawkeye State makes one wonder if Trump’s strong performance in Iowa is not built to last.

That poll also provided conflicting information about Reynolds herself. On one hand, she had a 51%-30% approval rating; on the other, just 35% said they’d vote for her while 49% thought it was “time for someone new.” We tend to think the approval rating is more important, which is part of the reason we think she’s a small favorite. But if Trump is at 35% (or even in the low 40s) in Iowa, he probably is underwater in every state with a competitive gubernatorial race in the Midwest. If it persists, Trump’s weak standing could erase the small edge we currently give the GOP in Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The final competitive Midwest gubernatorial race is in Minnesota, a swing state where the Democrats are likely to have the stronger gubernatorial nominee. That said, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) could still run for his old job or for the new Senate special election being held this fall. If he ran for governor, we’d move the gubernatorial race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. If he ran for Senate, we would probably still have appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D) as a small favorite because it would be easier for Pawlenty to separate himself from a potential Trump drag in a state-level race.

Republicans should be fine in defending Gov. Pete Ricketts (R-NE) and open seats in Idaho, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Kansas is a harder GOP hold, although Republicans might have gotten a break recently with the entrance of Greg Orman into the governor’s race. Orman, an independent, was the de facto Democratic nominee against Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) in 2014, and any votes he might get for governor might be likelier to be Democratic rather than Republican votes. It may be that despite Kansas’ dislike for outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback (R), they might replace him with someone as equally or even more conservative: Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, last seen leading the president’s now-defunct election integrity commission. Brownback seemed certain to leave the governorship early to take an appointment from the president, giving Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) a weak form of incumbency to use in the primary, but Brownback’s nomination has stalled. Democrats should have a credible nominee: likely one of state Sen. Laura Kelly, state House Minority Leader Jim Ward, former state Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty, or former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

Oklahoma is a longer-shot Democratic target, although Democrats have also put up some strong special election performances there and outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has weak numbers. Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb is probably the likeliest Republican nominee, and former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, who narrowly lost a gubernatorial primary in 2010, probably leads the Democratic field. Democrats might have a better shot here if Edmondson did not support abortion rights — remember, as noted above, Republicans have successfully won some dark blue states in part by finding candidates who fit their states on social issues like abortion. Democrats might want to follow suit in some places — just look at red state Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA), who is anti-abortion. Then again, nominating such candidates even in red states can be a challenge: Svaty, one of the Kansas Democrats mentioned above who could potentially be the party’s strongest nominee, had an anti-abortion voting record when he served in the state legislature, which could hurt him in the primary.

That observation on abortion extends to a group of southern races where Republicans are clearly favored but where Democrats could potentially spring an upset, particularly if they can find nominees who fit these conservative states. The only elected incumbent running in the South is Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR), whose breezy path to reelection faces an annoyance in the form of a very hard-right primary challenger. Govs. Kay Ivey (R-AL) and Henry McMaster (R-SC) took over after the departure of their predecessors mid-term; both are favorites to win their nominations in competitive primaries. Democrats see slivers of hope in both states but we have both as Safe Republican. Open seats in Georgia and Tennessee seem more two-party competitive but Republicans start clearly favored in both.

The main event in the South, and arguably the nation, is Florida, where Democrats are trying to win the governorship for the first time since 1994.

The Republican primary field received a jolt when Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, FL-6) entered the open-seat race with President Trump’s endorsement in hand. DeSantis complicates the path for favorite Adam Putnam, a former congressman who has been the state Agriculture Commissioner since 2011 and has been preparing his gubernatorial bid for years. On the Democratic side, former Rep. Gwen Graham (D) is a soft favorite, though she is being pushed by Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, and others. The primary is not until late August, so this race will take a long time to develop, but it will feature a very expensive 10-week sprint in the fall. A wild card is the influx of as many as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to Florida following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island. Democrats could reap benefits if they can get some of these American citizens to register and go to the polls later this year.

Out west, Democrats in Nevada are also trying to win the governorship for the first time since 1994. State Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), a somewhat accidental winner in 2014 who was aided by a collapse in Democratic turnout, is the likely Republican nominee, and he may be a little too hard-right for the electorate here. But Nevada expert Jon Ralston sees him with a possible general election edge because of the possibility that a strong Democratic candidate, Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, could get tripped up in the primary by his commission colleague, the more liberal Chris Giunchigliani. We expect another Toss-up open-seat race in a Toss-up state.

Both parties agree that New Mexico is a top Democratic pickup opportunity in a likely open-seat battle between two U.S. House members: Michelle Lujan Grisham (D, NM-1) vs. Steve Pearce (R, NM-2). In a state that is getting bluer, Pearce probably needs more crossover appeal than he possesses.

Colorado is another place where the Democrats are more bullish after Virginia, given the similarities between the two states in terms of education level and diversity (although Virginia is much more African American while Colorado is more Hispanic). Rep. Jared Polis (D, CO-2) is probably the Democratic primary leader, although former state Sen. Mike Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne are credible candidates, too. The Republican field is also strong, with Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton (a Bush family relative) and businessman Doug Robinson, nephew of Mitt Romney, all running. So too is former Rep. Tom Tancredo, the anti-immigration bomb-thrower who Democrats hope gets nominated as they attempt to win the governorship in the Centennial State for the fourth-straight time.

Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial race in Oregon since 1982, but they see this year’s contest as a dark horse pickup opportunity. Gov. Kate Brown (D) is seeking a full term after winning a special election in 2016 by a somewhat unimpressive seven points, and state Rep. Knute Buehler (R) is a potentially impressive opponent who has caught the eye of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who gave Buehler a $500,000 contribution. A Brown-Buehler contest would actually be a rematch: She defeated him in Oregon’s 2012 secretary of state election.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) should be fine, although heavy Democratic investment in the state’s U.S. Senate race and a few House races combined with potentially heavy Hispanic turnout keeps this on our radar as a deep sleeper. In Hawaii, Democrats seem like a lock to hold the governorship, but there should be a very competitive Democratic primary between Gov. David Ige and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D, HI-1).

We conclude with probably the most confounding race of them all: Alaska, where independent Gov. Bill Walker is running for a second term. The state is facing economic problems tied to the low price of oil, and several Republicans are aiming to win back the governorship. Complicating matters is the possibility that Walker could be nominated in the Democratic primary, or there could be a three-way race featuring former Sen. Mark Begich (D), who hasn’t ruled out a bid. We would think a split vote would benefit the eventual GOP nominee, but this is a strange race that is probably the best Republican pickup opportunity in the country.

Given their liabilities elsewhere, a Republican takeover in Alaska is probably needed to keep them over 30 governors. But the real winners and losers of the national gubernatorial battle will be decided elsewhere — in the interior west, the heartland and, of course, Florida.


1. In the interest of full disclosure, I worked for Cordray while he was Ohio attorney general from 2009-2010. Any analysis of the Ohio gubernatorial race, such as here, is circulated among the entire Crystal Ball team to insure fairness.

For New Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a Lesser Form of Incumbency

Appointed senators have worse electoral records than elected ones in both primaries and general elections

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 4th, 2018


On Tuesday, now-former Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) officially resigned from the U.S. Senate following allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women. As we discussed in our last newsletter for 2017, Franken’s resignation means that Minnesota will hold a special election for Senate this coming November, which will take place at the same time as the regular election for the state’s other Senate seat (a “double-barrel” election). Franken’s exit paved the way for Gov. Mark Dayton (D) to officially appoint now-Sen. Tina Smith (D), previously Minnesota’s lieutenant governor. This makes Smith the 195th appointed senator since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in April 1913 initiated the era of popular elections for Senate. Smith intends to run in the special election in November 2018 to complete the remainder of Franken’s term in office, with the next regular election for the seat scheduled for 2020. Should she run as expected, Smith will be 126th appointed incumbent to seek election while in the Senate. Of those 125 previous appointed Senate incumbents, 117 sought election for a full or partial term that went beyond the end of the current Congress.[1]

Senate incumbents and party nominations

Unsurprisingly, appointed incumbents have a worse track record than elected incumbents, in both contests for renomination and in general elections. Since 1913, 1,405 elected incumbents have run again. Of those, 1,392 sought renomination as Democrats or Republicans, and just 85 lost renomination. That is, only 6% of elected incumbents lost their nomination fight in their party’s primary or at a party convention. (Note that these data do not include incumbents who won renomination but then died prior to the general election.) Conversely, 117 appointed incumbents have sought their party’s nomination for an election to go beyond the current Congress (in eight other cases, appointed incumbents ran in a special election to serve the few remaining months of a term and did not seek election beyond the current Congress — see footnote 1). However, of those 117, 11 were actually appointed to the Senate after winning their party’s nomination and another three ran in all-party special election formats that did not have a party nomination process. So of the remaining 103 appointed incumbents who sought their party’s nomination, 24 (23%) lost their party’s primary or convention. This figure includes the most recent appointed incumbent to lose in a primary, ex-Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), in Alabama’s recent special election. While the sample size is far smaller for appointed incumbents, elected incumbents have won renomination at a much higher rate, 94% versus 77%, than appointed incumbents who took office prior to seeking their party’s nomination. Table 1 lays out nomination data for elected and appointed incumbents.

Table 1: Nomination success data for elected and appointed incumbents

Notes: Elected incumbent data do not include those who won renomination but then died prior to the general election. Appointed incumbent data only include those who were seeking their party nomination after being appointed to office. Appointed incumbent data do not include cases where an appointed senator ran in a special election to serve the few remaining months of a term and did not seek election beyond the current Congress — see footnote 1.

While Smith seems to have the backing of most major players in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, history suggests that we shouldn’t entirely discount a notable intraparty challenge to Smith. If she does encounter serious opposition, it will almost certainly precipitate a contested primary for the seat. Minnesota’s parties can endorse candidates at their party conventions, and many candidates choose to abide by the party’s decision. However, candidates can opt to run in the primary with or without the party’s endorsement. Previous appointed incumbents who ran in primaries have found success more often than not, though not at a very high rate. Of the 103 appointed incumbents who were installed in office prior to seeking their party nomination, 86 have run in primaries, and 62 have faced primary opposition. Overall, 38 of the senators who faced primary opposition won their party primary (61%). Perhaps fortunately for Smith, there is no runoff statute in Minnesota — all six appointed incumbents who went to a primary runoff met defeat, including Strange.

While we can’t know how things will shake out in Minnesota’s special election, the early showings of support for Smith suggest that she’s probably not going to challenge for the worst primary performance in appointed Senate incumbent history. Table 1 shows the 10 worst primary performances by appointed incumbents.

Table 2: 10 worst primary performances by appointed incumbents

Notes: An “*” signifies that the primary was for a special general election and an “N” signifies that the special general election did not take place on the first Tuesday in November. These primary data do not include cases where an appointed incumbent lost a primary for an election to finish off the term for the remainder of the current Congress but did not run in the primary for the general election for the next term.

Strange, the most recent appointed incumbent to lose a nomination contest, had the ninth-worst primary percentage ever, but he did far better than Sen. Herbert Hitchcock (D-SD), who was appointed right at the end of 1936. Hitchcock finished a distant third in his party primary in 1938, losing by about 50 points to former Gov. Tom Berry (D). Ironically, Berry had appointed Hitchcock to the Senate just prior to leaving office as governor following a reelection loss in November 1936. Berry went on to lose in the 1938 general election, one of eight Republican pickups that year. The second- and third-worst primary performances by an appointed incumbent both took place in Montana, which is one of eight states to never have an appointed incumbent make it to a general election. In 1933, Montana Gov. John Erickson (D) had just been reelected to his third term when Sen. Thomas Walsh (D) died, creating a vacancy for his seat. Erickson resigned the governorship and had his lieutenant governor appoint him to the seat. Erickson ran for his party’s nomination in 1934, but clearly he wasn’t as popular as he seemed because Erickson only won 22% of a heavily fragmented primary vote, losing to James Murray, who won 25%. More recently, Paul Hatfield (D) was appointed in January 1978 to take the place of the deceased Sen. Lee Metcalf (D). But Hatfield was crushed in the Democratic primary by Rep. Max Baucus (D, MT-1), who won the 1978 general election and held the seat until he resigned in 2014 to become ambassador to China.

Senate incumbents and general elections

What about appointed incumbents versus elected ones in general elections? Here, too, elected incumbents have a far stronger record than appointees. Including third-party incumbents and a few instances where an incumbent ran in the general election after losing renomination in a party primary, elected incumbents have won 1,095 of 1,326 elections, an 83% win percentage, in the popular election era. Meanwhile, appointed incumbents have won 62 of 93 elections, a 67% success rate. The appointed incumbent data include those who were appointed after being nominated by their party. Looking at overall success — running and then winning a general election — 1,095 elected incumbents have successfully sought reelection (78%) while only 62 of 117 appointed incumbents seeking election beyond the current Congress have managed to win in the general election (53%).

Table 3: General election and overall success data for elected and appointed incumbents

Notes: Elected incumbent data do not include those who won renomination but then died prior to the general election. Appointed incumbent data only include those who were seeking their party nomination after being appointed to office. Appointed incumbent data do not include eight cases where an appointed senator sought election to finish off the term for the remainder of the current Congress but did not seek office for the next term. Appointed incumbent data for general election success do not include the case of Sen. Frank Graham (D-NC), who lost in North Carolina’s 1950 Democratic Party primary runoff but won 0.4% as a write-in candidate in the general election.

The evidence showing appointed incumbents are weaker than elected ones corresponds to what we intuitively know about electoral politics. Some of the electoral strength that comes with incumbency is derived from the fact that incumbents have previously gone before the electorate and won more votes than anyone else. Appointed incumbents don’t have that same strength because they haven’t been elected to the office they hold. An analog to appointed Senate incumbents are successor gubernatorial incumbents, a subject the Crystal Ball examined in May 2017. At least going back to World War II, successor governors — defined as those who took office because of the death or resignation of the previous governor — won at a rate of 63%. That compares favorably to the all-time appointed Senate incumbent success rate of 53% and also to the post-World War II success rate of 48% for appointed Senate incumbents, if we make an apples-to-apples time comparison.

With an overall success rate of just above 50%, the history of appointed incumbents shows that Smith’s certainty of holding her seat is far from a sure thing. Placing Smith’s position in context, we only rate her chances as Leans Democratic to start with. She may be aided by the presence of her popular colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), on the ballot as well as what may be a positive national Democratic environment. However, Smith has not run for office on her own before — she was elected lieutenant governor as a part of Dayton’s 2014 ticket — making her an unproven choice in that respect. It’s also possible that the Minnesota GOP will pick a strong nominee — a favorite rumored choice is former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — who can make the race competitive. Minnesota is a state that has been trending Republican at the presidential level for some time, the GOP flipped the state senate in 2016, and Minnesotans showed a willingness to split tickets in 2016 House races, though more to the benefit of Democrats than Republicans. However, it’s also possible that Minnesota Republicans could err in their nominee choice: former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) is reportedly thinking about a run, and she barely won reelection in 2012 in what is arguably Minnesota’s most Republican House district.

Appointed Senate incumbent miscellanea

To close out, we’ll add a few more fun facts and figures about appointed Senate incumbents going back to 1913.

The state with the most appointed incumbents seeking election in their own right — including those appointed after they were nominated — is North Carolina, which has had seven. Six of those came between the 1948 and 1958 elections! The Tar Heel State also has the most primary losers among appointed incumbents — all four of the appointees who sought their party’s nomination after being appointed lost in primaries or in primary runoffs. (The only other one to run in a primary, Republican Sen. James Broyhill, was appointed in July 1986 after winning his party’s nomination in May. The other two appointed incumbents were nominated by state party committees, not by primaries.)

While Luther Strange was the most recent appointed incumbent to engage in an election, the first was Sen. Johnson Camden Jr. (D-KY) in 1914. However, Camden only ran in a special election to finish off the term for his seat and did not run in the concurrent election that November for the next term. Camden won to complete the term while John Beckham (D) won the open-seat race for the subsequent term. Thomas Taggart (D-IN) was the first appointed incumbent to seek election for a term lasting beyond the current Congress. Appointed in March 1916 and nominated at his party’s convention in April for the ensuing special election, Taggart narrowly lost 48%-46% to former Rep. James Watson (R, IN-6) in November.

The year with the most elections featuring appointed incumbents was 1946, when nine sought to retain their seats (this includes one non-November special election and excludes candidacies to only complete a few months of an expiring term). Of those, seven made it to the general election, with two having been appointed after winning their party’s nomination. The second-most took place in 1954 (six). At the moment, 2018 only has one such election in Minnesota, but that number might increase. Because of health ailments, it’s possible that Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and/or Thad Cochran (R-MS) might step aside, and with the national focus on sexual harassment, it’s not impossible to imagine someone else coming under fire and resigning as a result à la Franken. In any of these potential situations, a freshly appointed senator might try to hold onto his or her new office.[2]

In the meantime, we will wait and see how the Minnesota candidate field develops and whether Smith has a glide path to her party’s nomination or a tougher time, which would be similar to some of her appointed predecessors.


1. The eight cases that were excluded are as follows: Sen. David Baird (R-NJ), who ran in a 1918 primary for a special election to complete a term ending in March 1919 but not in the primary for the concurrent regular general election for the next term; Sen. Christie Benet (D-SC), who ran in a 1918 primary for a special election to complete a term ending in March 1919 but not in the primary for the concurrent regular general election for the next term; Sen. William Brock (D-TN), who ran in a 1930 primary for a special election to complete a term ending in March 1931 but not in the primary for the concurrent regular general election for the next term; Sen. Johnson Camden Jr. (D-KY), who ran in a 1914 primary for a special election to complete a term ending in March 1915 but not in the primary for the concurrent regular general election for the next term; Sen. Joseph Rosier (D-WV), who ran in a 1942 primary for a special election to a complete a term ending in January 1943 but not in the primary for the concurrent regular general election for the next term; Sen. David Stewart (R-IA), who was nominated at a party convention to be the GOP nominee for a special election to fill a vacancy for a term ending in March 1927 and was subsequently appointed to the Senate; Sen. Walter Walker (D-CO) who was nominated by the Democratic state executive committee to be the nominee for a special election to fill a vacancy for a term ending in March 1933; and Sen. Rose Long (D-LA), who was nominated by the Democratic state central committee to be the nominee for a special election to fill a vacancy ending in January 1937. It should be noted that Sen. Gerald Nye (R-ND) was included in the data although he was nominated by a GOP convention to be a candidate for the June 30, 1926, special election to complete a term ending in March 1927. However, Nye also ran in (and won) the Republican primary for the regular general election that November, which also took place on June 30, signifying that he was seeking to be elected beyond the current Congress.

2. A prior version of this story included the possible departure of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who has been mentioned as a possible future CIA director, as another potential instance where an appointed senator could end up on the ballot later this year. But according to the Arkansas constitution, an appointee would be ineligible to run for reelection. So we removed the reference to Cotton because his replacement apparently would be barred from running.