Sabatos Crystal Ball

Democrats Seem to Pass the Top-Two Test

Party likely avoids shutouts in key races; plus, ratings changes and other updates from Tuesday night

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 7th, 2018

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— While votes will not be finalized for weeks, Democrats seemingly avoided shutouts in competitive House races in California.

— The initial results, while not necessarily predictive for the fall, show the potential for Democrats to make House gains in the Golden State.

— Republicans, meanwhile, are pleased that they got a gubernatorial candidate through to the fall election, and they also may have discovered a potent issue to use in November as well.

— Other primary results across the country offered few surprises.

— We have three ratings changes, which actually aren’t really related to Tuesday night’s primaries. Two Republican-held governorships, South Dakota and Vermont, swap ratings, and a Trump-district Democrat’s bid for statewide office in New York could put his district in play for Republicans. More details below.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial and House ratings changes

What to make of California (so far)

While final results will not be available for weeks, Democrats appear poised to advance candidates to the general election in all of their targeted races in California. Based on a seat-by-seat analysis of House targets, we have thought the Democrats needed to squeeze an additional five seats or so from California to be on track to win the House. They are still capable, though certainly not guaranteed, of meeting that lofty goal.

We have no House ratings changes in California to announce from the results we have so far. Again, that’s a victory for Democrats: Had they been shut out in one or more races, some current Toss-ups would have gone to the Safe Republican column.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in California House races came in CA-10, held by Rep. Jeff Denham (R). Denham won close races in 2012 and 2016 and his seat is perpetually swingy.

On one hand, CA-10 turned into a surprising Democratic shutout scare: While Denham has received 37.7% of the vote, unheralded veterinarian Ted Howze — the only other Republican on the ballot, and someone who local Democrats thought might be in the race as potential top-two spoiler — has 14.4%, just a little less than a point behind the leading Democrat, venture capitalist Josh Harder, who is at 15.7%. One would expect Harder to hold on, particularly because the late votes in California generally skew Democratic (again, votes will not be finalized for many weeks).

On the other hand, another way to look at the results so far in CA-10 and across most of the competitive California landscape is that in nearly all of the seats we currently rate as competitive, the total Democratic vote share in the primary is up from the party’s averages from 2012-2016 (the first three cycles where California used the top-two primary).

Table 2 shows the 11 districts we rate as competitive. Nine are held by Republicans, and two are held by Democrats. It compares the average Democratic share of the vote from the June primary those years with the incomplete 2018 results so far (results are as of Wednesday afternoon). As is clear, the Democratic share is higher — and in most cases, significantly higher — than the recent average in all but CA-21, where Rep. David Valadao (R) again appears to be in good shape in a heavily Hispanic, low-turnout district that Democratic presidential candidates carry by double digits. But in other districts, the Democratic share is up, and it likely will increase at least slightly in most places as the primary vote is finalized (at least that’s what usually happens in California). This table builds off an analysis of recent California House voting trends that we published a few weeks ago.

Table 2: Comparing California Democratic House two-party primary vote share in 2018 to recent elections

Note: Results are as of Wednesday afternoon and likely are far from final. The fourth column shows the average Democratic House vote share in the top-two primaries in 2012, 2014, and 2016. The fifth shows the current Democratic vote share in the 2018 primary. The sixth column compares the 2018 Democratic vote share with the average Democratic vote share from 2012 through 2016. And, finally, the seventh shows the average growth in the Democratic share from the primary to the November general election in the last three elections. *2012-2014-2016 average column only includes 2012 and 2016 elections because two Republicans advanced to the general election in 2014 in both CA-4 and CA-25.

Source: California Secretary of State’s office

We will revisit this table when the results become final, but there are some encouraging signs for Democrats. For instance, let’s go back to CA-10. The GOP share of the vote (Denham plus Howze) is just 52% right now, down several points from the 2012-2016 average. That might augur well for Harder, assuming he makes the general election. In fact, applying the average Democratic vote share increase from the primary to the general over the past three cycles to the partial 2018 results would suggest Democrats could be in range of netting a half-dozen new seats in California. Now, we are NOT saying that is what will necessarily happen in the fall. But we also couldn’t blame Democrats for looking at these numbers with some degree of optimism.

One other important caveat before one just assumes big Democratic gains in California: Many of the districts the Democrats are targeting in California are not ones they have targeted in the past. Orange County districts like CA-39, CA-45, and CA-48 did not seem like Democratic targets in recent years, but Hillary Clinton carried all three, which put them on the board. The very fact that Democrats had competitive candidates and primaries in these districts surely drove extra turnout in these districts, and so one can’t confidently say that the Democratic vote share in these districts is guaranteed to grow in the fall by the same level as it might have in the past. But the Democratic share certainly could grow, which could allow Democrats to flip one or more of these districts. Meanwhile, Democrats already almost won CA-49 in 2016, the open seat that Rep. Darrell Issa (R) is leaving behind, and the fact that Democrats have apparently outvoted Republicans there is another signal justifying our Leans Democratic rating. While the Democratic field is still uncertain, lawyer Mike Levin (D) is leading among the Democrats and could face state Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey (R) in the fall.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are happy that they advanced a nominee, businessman John Cox (R), to the gubernatorial general election, which they hope will help with turnout in the fall. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is a huge favorite to be the next governor, though. Republicans also have taken note of a state Senate recall election where a Democratic state senator who provided the key vote for a gas tax increase was handily defeated and will be replaced by a Republican, knocking out a Democratic supermajority in the state Senate. A proposition to repeal a gas tax increase likely will be on the statewide ballot in the fall, and Republicans hope that this too juices their turnout.

So, in other words, nothing is guaranteed for Democrats in their quest to add to their already large 39-14 edge in the Golden State’s House delegation. But Democrats have apparently avoided the top-two shutouts that they so feared, and thus they survived what was their most important primary election of the cycle.

Ratings changes in a couple of gubernatorial races

South Dakota and Vermont are two of the most sparsely-populated states, and two of the seven that only have a single member of the U.S. House of Representatives (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming are the others). Politically, they are polar opposites, at least at the federal level: Hillary Clinton won Vermont by about 26 points in 2016, and Donald Trump won South Dakota by about 30 points. Yet both seem likely to elect Republican governors this fall, although the redder state is where a Democratic upset, strangely, seems slightly more plausible.

In the Green Mountain State, first-term Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT) won a comfortable initial victory in 2016, winning by about nine points in an open seat battle to succeed now-former Gov. Peter Shumlin (D). Scott is on the ballot again: Vermont, along with New Hampshire, still has two-year gubernatorial terms. His likeliest November opponent might be former Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist (D), who if elected would be the nation’s first transgender governor. But we do not get the sense that national Democrats are focused on this race, and Scott hasn’t done anything to indicate that he is in danger of losing his bid for a second term. Scott joins Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) as a New England Republican governor rated by the Crystal Ball as Safe Republican.

South Dakota, home to Mount Rushmore, has the longest streak of voting for Republican governors of any state in the country — four decades. The last Democrat to win a gubernatorial race there was Dick Kneip, who won a second term in 1974. Yet we are somewhat intrigued by the candidacy of state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D), a former rodeo cowboy who was disabled from the waist down after a riding accident in 2007. Following Tuesday’s primary, Sutton will face Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL), who decisively defeated state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) in a competitive primary. Noem is unquestionably the favorite, but this is also an open-seat race in a year where Democrats might have some national momentum and where Sutton might be a stronger candidate than South Dakota Democrats typically have, and some of our sources have taken notice of his potential. We’re moving this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. Again, that still means Noem is a clear favorite, and this move is only a precaution based on the fact that this is an open governorship where the Democratic candidate might have some potential. It’s not intended to indicate that we think Noem is a weaker nominee than Jackley would have been (we planned to make this change before we knew the primary winner).

To reiterate, one would expect both South Dakota and Vermont to elect Republican governors this year. Yet we’re flagging South Dakota as a place where there may be a little bit of upset potential, while we don’t really see that in Vermont.

Other races

This is not intended as a recap of everything that happened on Tuesday night, but here are some other observations:

— In New Jersey, national Democrats got the candidates they preferred in three prime pickup targets: moderate/conservative state Sen. Jeff Van Drew in the open NJ-2, former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill in the open NJ-11, and former State Department official Tom Malinowski against Rep. Leonard Lance (R, NJ-7). The two open seats narrowly voted for Trump, but they represent strong pickup opportunities for Democrats. Republicans nominated attorney Seth Grossman in NJ-2, a surprising winner who has very little money in the bank and only took 8% against then-Gov. Chris Christie (R) in the 2013 gubernatorial primary, and Assemblyman Jay Webber (R) in NJ-11. NJ-2 is already rated Leans Democratic and NJ-11 also may eventually have the same rating given Sherrill’s towering money advantage over Webber. The Lance/Malinowski race in NJ-7 is also a Toss-up, but probably ranks behind NJ-2 and NJ-11 as a Democratic opportunity because of Lance’s power of incumbency even though Clinton narrowly carried NJ-7. Netting at least two seats from New Jersey is likely a must for Democrats. They also hope to push well-heeled Rep. Tom MacArthur (R, NJ-3), who we have rated as Likely Republican, and also defend first-term Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5), rated as Likely Democratic. Meanwhile, in the Senate race, embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who survived serious corruption charges thanks to a hung jury in a 2017 trial, barely cleared 60% against a no-name Democratic primary opponent. A better Democrat probably could have beaten him, but New Jersey’s machine-dominated Democratic Party closed ranks, perhaps foolishly, around the two-term incumbent. He starts the general election favored against wealthy former pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin (R), but a deep blue state Senate incumbent running for reelection in a favorable environment should be rated Safe Democratic, as opposed to Likely Democratic, which is where we have his race now and where we’re keeping it.

— Wealthy businessman Fred Hubbell (D) blew open a crowded primary in the Iowa gubernatorial race, winning over 50% to easily avoid a nominating convention (if no one gets 35% or more in an Iowa primary, the party picks a nominee at a convention). He’ll face Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA), who ended up being unopposed for the GOP nomination after taking over for now-Ambassador to China Terry Branstad (R) last year. Reynolds starts with a small edge.

— As expected, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D, NM-1) advanced to face Rep. Steve Pearce (R, NM-2) in the Land of Enchantment’s gubernatorial race. Fatigue with outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez (R-NM) and a likely Democratic-leaning environment in a Democratic-leaning state makes Grisham a favorite to start.

— Montana state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R) seemed like the likeliest GOP Senate nominee against Sen. Jon Tester (D), and he came through in his primary. Tester remains a small favorite but he has yet to clear 50% in Senate elections (he won close plurality victories in 2006 and 2012) and depending on how Rosendale performs as a general election candidate, Tester could be in trouble.

— Historically, more than 98% of House members who have sought renomination by their party since World War II have won it, but even such a lofty average winning percentage still suggests we should expect a few House primary losers each cycle. So far there has only been one, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R, NC-9), but Rep. Martha Roby (R, AL-2) will have to win her primary in a runoff against former Rep. Bobby Bright (R), who Roby defeated in 2010 when Bright was then a first-term Democrat. Roby, who is hardly a moderate, said she would not vote for then-candidate Donald Trump after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood audio in October 2016. Roby ended up performing weakly that November, and she still faces lingering doubts from a Trump-loving primary electorate. That said, Bright is a former Democrat who supported Nancy Pelosi (D) for House speaker in 2009, so Roby will have ammunition to use against him.

One more thing

The fall of now-former New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), who recently resigned after several women accused him of assault, could have a ripple effect on the U.S. House. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18) announced that he will be running in the Democratic primary for the open Attorney General’s office, and he will face other credible candidates. Because of a federal court order and an inability to compromise on one new date, New York operates a staggered primary system: Federal primaries are June 26, while state race nominations are not decided until Sept. 13 (the state primary is on a Thursday this year because the standard Tuesday date is Sept. 11, both a day of remembrance and part of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah). Maloney is unopposed in the NY-18 primary, so he will be renominated, but it’s unclear whether he can seek both positions at the same time (the New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher has a good rundown of the confusing state of play). If Maloney wins the AG nomination, it would open his seat with less than two months to go before the November election, leaving party leaders to replace him on the House ballot. NY-18 is a competitive seat that Trump won by about two points, although Maloney won reelection in 2016 by about a dozen points. James O’Donnell (R), a county legislator, could benefit from this chaotic situation.

For the time being, we’re going to move NY-18 from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic, and it could get more (or less) competitive later on depending on what happens to Maloney. If Maloney did win the AG nomination, that would mean that six of the 13 Trump-won, Democratic-held House seats would be open in the fall. That does give the Republicans some credible targets while they are otherwise playing defense nationally.