As the White House lurches from one self-inflicted crisis to the next — “chaos is the new normal,” as the Columbia Journalism Review put it in a Tuesday morning headline — Senate Republicans have to be worried that President Donald Trump’s difficulties will imperil their opportunity to make gains next year despite a very favorable map.
While Republicans can and probably will suffer at least some erosion in their House majority next year, with significant losses possible but far from guaranteed, the GOP could end up netting Senate seats next year even in a bad environment (and could net several in a good one). A new model from RealClearPolitics suggests that even with President Trump at a weak 40% approval — his current average approval rating according to the poll aggregators — the likeliest projection would be for no net change in the Senate.
As noted previously in the Crystal Ball, Republicans are only defending nine seats this cycle (including a special election in Alabama later this year), while Democrats are defending 25 seats (including two held by independents who caucus with the Democrats). The Democrats hold 11 Senate seats in states that Trump won in the presidential race last year, and all but one of those is on the ballot this year (the exception is Michigan Sen. Gary Peters). Republicans, meanwhile, only hold three Senate seats in states Hillary Clinton won, and only one is on the ballot next year (Nevada Sen. Dean Heller).
So Republicans have many more targets than Democrats do this cycle, but invariably some of those targets will develop better for them than others. Two states where Republican prospects, never particularly strong, seem to be fading are Maine and Minnesota, where we’re making ratings changes this week. Despite Trump’s near wins in both states — Hillary Clinton only carried Maine by three points and Minnesota by just half that — incumbent Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, both appear to be in good position to win next year.
Klobuchar appears unlikely to face a credible opponent as Republicans focus more on the open governors’ race, and she has a significant amount of crossover appeal: A Star Tribune poll found her with a 72% approval rating (Morning Consult had her at a less impressive but still strong 63%). Klobuchar moves from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic, and assuming she wins reelection she could very well be a presidential contender when the Democratic nomination contest begins in earnest following next year’s midterm.
In Maine, King got welcome news last week when term-limited Gov. Paul LePage (R) decided not to run. King probably would have been favored over the combustible LePage, but facing a challenge from an often underestimated sitting governor would have made the incumbent’s life much harder. State Sen. Eric Brakey (R) is running, but with credible Democrats likely to take a pass on the race, Brakey’s task is difficult against the popular King. Moreover, Maine hasn’t voted out an incumbent senator in nearly four decades (Bill Hathaway, a Democrat, was the last incumbent to lose, back in 1978). We’re moving this race from Leans Independent/Democratic to Likely Independent/Democratic.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes
We have a few other updates to gubernatorial and House races this week:
Little has changed on the gubernatorial front since we announced our initial ratings last month. However, there is an additional dark horse, red state Democratic target that may be emerging.
Oklahoma, despite being one of a handful of states that have not voted Democratic for president since 1964, has had Democratic governors more often than Republican ones over the last half-century. Term-limited Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is very unpopular: A recent Sooner Poll found just 31% viewed her favorably, and the Republican-controlled legislature fared similarly. The state is facing budget troubles and many school districts are cutting back to four-day weeks. Last week, a Democrat lost a special election for a state House seat by just a 50%-48% margin in a district Trump carried by 50 points and that the previous Republican incumbent won 67%-33% just last November. So local dissatisfaction with ruling Republicans could crack the door open slightly for Democrats next year, and state House Minority Leader Scott Inman and former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, among others, are seeking the Democratic nomination. Among the Republican possibilities are Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb and state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.
Oklahoma’s gubernatorial race moves from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change
Just last week, we argued that close to two-thirds of the 435 House districts are essentially either too Republican or too Democratic to be credibly targeted by the other party. But there are a few exceptions: Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), for instance, holds a seat that Donald Trump won by 31 points — a seat that is significantly more Republican than any other held by Democrats.
Now there could be another exception: a competitive race in a seat that was Trump’s 13th-best district by margin of victory in the entire country.
Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3), a former Democrat who defeated longtime incumbent Nick Rahall (D) in 2014, is running against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). That creates an open-seat race in his southern West Virginia seat, which backed Trump by 49 points in 2016, better than his 42-point statewide margin. However, many voters in this ancestrally Democratic, depopulating coal country district split their tickets: Gov. Jim Justice (D) won the district by 17 points in 2016, 10 points better than his seven-point statewide margin. If he wins reelection next year, Manchin almost certainly needs to carry WV-3, and probably by more than just a few points.
The open seat has attracted a credible Democratic candidate: newly-elected state Sen. Richard Ojeda. Ojeda, an Army veteran who unsuccessfully challenged Rahall in the 2014 primary, defeated a sitting Democratic state senator in a primary last year, which was held just a few days after Ojeda was severely beaten in an attack that may have been politically motivated. Ojeda backed Trump last year, just like so many other registered Democrats in the district. Several Republicans are either running or considering running, including ex-state Del. Rick Snuffer, who lost to Rahall in 2012, state Del. Rupie Phillips, and state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas.
Despite West Virginia’s shift to the Republicans over the last two decades, open-seat House races in the state can be quite competitive: In 2014, Rep. Alex Mooney (R, WV-2) only won by three points in his successful bid to replace now-Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) in the House.
Unique local considerations and the possibility of plenty of ticket-splitting in WV-3 prompts us to move this open seat from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
We also have a couple of ratings changes in some upcoming special House elections.
Greg Gianforte (R), the GOP’s 2016 gubernatorial nominee, remains a favorite in next week’s Montana House special election over musician Rob Quist (D). However, Republican outside groups have spent about $4 million to boost Gianforte’s bid, a clear sign that they are taking the possibility of an upset quite seriously in a statewide “district” that Trump carried by 20 points. Democrats have spent a more modest $630,000, although Quist has outraised Gianforte and thus is hardly starved for resources. The election is next Thursday (May 25), and the likeliest outcome seems to be a Gianforte win in the single digits. If that’s what happened, the outcome would continue the trend of Democrats significantly outperforming Clinton’s 2016 showing in the lion’s share of federal and state legislative special elections held so far, a positive sign of Democratic voter engagement in the Trump era. A Quist win, though unlikely, would not be a complete shock given the amount of attention the race has received, and we’re moving the race to Leans Republican as a way of allowing for an upset.
Meanwhile, we’re still about a month away from the much-anticipated special House election in GA-6, where former congressional aide Jon Ossoff (D) faces former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) in what has become the most expensive House election of all time. There have been only two nonpartisan polls since the initial round of voting last month: Handel led by two points in one poll and Ossoff led by two in the other. There’s every reason to expect a very close outcome.
On Tuesday, former state Rep. Ralph Norman appeared to win a primary runoff to become the Republican nominee in SC-5, although his lead over state House Speaker Pro Tem Tommy Pope — 200 votes, or about half a percentage point — was so small that a recount looms. Assuming he is the nominee, Norman starts as a heavy favorite against Archie Parnell (D), a former Goldman Sachs tax adviser, in a race that hasn’t yet attracted national spending outside of the GOP primary. As with the other special elections, where Parnell performs in relation to Clinton is worth watching: She lost the district by 19 points last year.
There’s really no indication that Parnell has much of a shot to win. But we’re going to move this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican anyway. Why? Because even though these special elections are different, Trump’s problems make them all alike in the sense that the GOP has to constantly be on guard for upsets.
Both the SC-5 and GA-6 specials will be on Tuesday, June 20. Given the seemingly endless flood of new and potentially damaging revelations coming out of the White House, the circumstances under which those elections are contested a month from now could be significantly different than they are now.