The 2018 midterm election projects to be one of the most consequential in recent history. At stake is Congressional oversight of the Trump Administration, the future of the federal court system, impending Congressional re-districting and a staggering range of elected positions.
If you’ve been too busy to obsess over American politics, here are answers to some of the questions you might have in the run up to November 6.
What’s the situation in the House of Representatives?
Driven by GOP waves in 2010 and 2014, Republicans hold a 235-193 advantage in the House. Democrats need to achieve a net gain of 23 seats to seize control of the chamber for the first time since 2010.
What’s the situation in the Senate?
Republicans hold a razor thin 51-49 majority in the Senate. With Vice President Mike Pence available to break ties, Democrats need to gain two seats to control the Senate.
How likely are Democrats to take back the House?
Somewhere between “likely” and “extremely likely,” depending on the political forecaster you ask.
Democrats have succeeded in running solid candidates in races across the country and are challenging in a range of Congressional districts, including those won by Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic candidates are raising staggering amounts of money compared to their Republican opponents, and polls consistently show that the President is deeply unpopular, historically a significant drag on the incumbent party in midterm elections.
The respected and non-partisan Cook Political Report currently rates 12 Republican-held seats as Democratic “leans” and 30 Republican-held seats as “toss-ups.” In addition, Cook has four GOP seats as “likely” Democratic wins. If Democrats successfully convert all of their “likely” and “lean” seats, they would need to win only seven toss-up races across the country to win a House majority, assuming they hold on to all of their existing seats.
As of the publication of this post, the data-driven website FiveThirtyEight estimates that Democrats have approximately an 84 percent chance of taking back the House. Most observers predict Democrats will gain between 20 and 40 House seats.
How likely are Democrats to take back the Senate?
It’s not impossible, but the odds are long.
Democrats only need to win two Senate seats to control the chamber. However, they face one of the worst Senate maps any party has ever faced.
Democrats are defending 26 of their seats, while Republicans are defending only nine. Many of the Democratic Senators up for re-election this year represent deeply blue states and face no significant challenge. However, 10 Senators are running in states Donald Trump won in 2016.
Who Are The Most Vulnerable Democratic Senators?
The list starts with Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Representing a state Trump won by nearly 40 points in 2016, Senator Heitkamp was always facing a difficult re-election fight. She won a narrow upset victory in the 2012 election and she’s still relatively popular in the state, so she shouldn’t be counted out. However, she’s facing a strong challenger in Congressman Kevin Cramer, and the bruising battle over the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh – which saw Senator Heitkamp vote no – has polarized a deeply conservative state. Recent polls have Congressman Cramer up by double digits.
Other Democratic Senators in toss-up races include Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Jon Tester of Montana. Trump won Florida by a narrow margin in 2016, but he won Missouri, Indiana and Montana by double digits, leaving all four Democratic Senators with difficult electoral terrain.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia represents one of the most fiercely pro-Trump states in the country. However, his personal brand as a conservative Democrat and history in the state have made him a slight favorite in his re-election fight.
Democratic Senators in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are all running for re-election in Rust Belt states Trump won. However, the incumbents in those races have established solid leads in multiple polls, and it would be a significant upset if any of those Democrats lost.
Do Democrats Have Any Pick-Up Opportunities in the Senate?
Yes. Democrats are currently seriously challenging for two Republican-held Senate seats – Nevada and Arizona.
In Nevada, incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller is the only Republican running in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. His vote in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act is a significant issue in his election against Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen. The race is currently considered a toss-up.
As is the race in Arizona, where Democrat Krysten Sinema is attempting to win the seat currently held by retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a frequent critic of the Trump Administration. Congresswoman Sinema has built a strong reputation as a moderate and independent Democrat and has a real chance to be the first Democratic Senator elected in Arizona since 1988. Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally is opposing her, and recent polls show a neck-and-neck race.
In addition to those two races, Democrats are mounting longshot challenges in ruby red Texas and Tennessee.
In Texas, Democratic Congressman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke has run a strong campaign against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, raising staggering amounts of money and becoming a progressive darling in the process. However, he always faced an uphill climb in the famously conservative state, and recent polls show Senator Cruz establishing a solid – if not insurmountable – lead. Cook rates the race a toss-up, but an O’Rourke victory would qualify as a significant upset.
In Tennessee, Democrats have a strong challenger for the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Bob Corker in Phil Bredesen, a popular former governor of the state. Bredesen won every county in his landslide 2006 re-election campaign. However, the state has moved far to the right since that time, and Bredesen appears to be trailing Republican Marsha Blackburn, a far-right Congresswoman rated one of the most conservative in the House. Bredesen has a chance, but again, a Democratic victory here would be a surprise.
How Will The Senate Elections Affect the Federal Courts?
The Trump Administration has shown an uncharacteristic level of discipline and focus in filling vacancies on the federal bench. The Senate has confirmed 84 Trump judicial nominees – two Supreme Court justices, 29 appeals court judges and 53 circuit court judges. The President is filling the courts at a rate far above that of his immediate predecessors, and his actions will shape the judiciary for decades to come.
If Republicans hold on to the Senate, this will almost certainly continue. Even if Democrats net a single Senate seat and force a 50-50 tie in the chamber, Republicans will still have Vice President Pence to break ties. And GOP Senators have shown no appetite for bucking the President on his judicial nominations, which represent the conservative movement’s most cherished long-term priority. That likely won’t change after the mid-terms. And if another Supreme Court vacancy arises during the President’s first term, a GOP Senate will rush to fill it, even if they have to do so with a 50-50 vote decided by Mike Pence.
A Democratic takeover of the Senate would greatly limit the President’s ability to continue flooding the judiciary with young conservative judges, and Democrats would likely respond to a Supreme Court vacancy by holding open the seat until after the 2020 election, imitating the actions taken by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.
Are there any significant state judicial elections in 2018?
The most-watched judicial election in 2018 will be in North Carolina, where Democrats are hoping to defeat a sitting Republican judge on the state supreme court. If they do so, Democrats will have a solid 5-2 majority on the court.
And that’s important in North Carolina, which has been the epicenter of Republican efforts to consolidate political power through any means necessary. Many of these efforts – from gerrymandering to voter ID laws to attempts to strip a recently elected Democratic governor of power – have come before the state supreme court in recent years. A strong progressive majority on the court could stymie these efforts.
The election itself has not been without controversy. Incumbent Republican justice Barbara Jackson is running against Democratic civil rights attorney Anita Earls. However, a third candidate, Chris Anglin, entered the race as a Republican, though he had been a registered Democrat all his life.
The Republican-controlled legislature attempted to strip Anglin of his party affiliation on the ballot, but Anglin’s legal challenge to that law was decided in his favor by a state court, and he will be listed as a Republican on the ballot. The North Carolina GOP fears that this will split the Republican vote and give Earls a clear path to victory.
Are there any important state ballot measures in 2018?
There are, as always, a number of interesting ballot measures and constitutional amendments on statewide ballots this year. However, one of the most important elections in the country is the fight over Amendment 4 in Florida.
Amendment 4 would restore voting rights to former convicted felons after serving their full terms, including parole and probation (those convicted of murder and sexual assault are excluded). Florida currently has some of the harshest and most arbitrary felon disenfranchisement laws in the country, a fact brought home to the rest of the nation when Last Week Tonight With John Oliver ran a segment on the issue in September.
If passed, Amendment 4 could restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million people in Florida, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American. In a closely divided state where elections are decided by mere thousands of votes, this could completely upend Florida politics.
However, the amendment needs 60 percent of the vote to pass.
Where are the most competitive House races?
While Democrats are competing across the map, there are three states where they can rack up a huge chunk of the House seats they’ll need to win the chamber:
- California: The big prize is in California, where Democrats already control 39 of the 53 seats in the California House delegation. There are seven Republican-held seats that Democrats are seriously contesting, including three in and around former conservative stronghold Orange County.
- New Jersey: Democrats have a legitimate chance of knocking off four of the five Republican Congressmen in New Jersey, including Tom McArthur, who played a central role in House Republicans’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
- Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania’s Congressional districts were gerrymandered so outrageously against Democrats that the state Supreme Court stepped in and re-drew them itself. As a result, Democrats have a chance to net four or even five House seats in this classic Rust Belt battleground.
In addition, Democrats have two or three pick-up opportunities each in New York, Virginia, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Washington State.
What impact will the elections have on Congressional oversight?
Congressional oversight is arguably the most consequential issue on the ballot in these Congressional races.
Congressional Republicans, especially in the House, have almost entirely abandoned their oversight responsibilities. As the President has completed his conquest of the GOP, Republican Congressmen have made clear they have no interest in seriously investigating the President’s tax returns, his extraordinary business entanglements, collusion with Russia during the 2016 election or any of the literally dozens of scandals that have rocked the administration.
This changes, however, if Democrats capture one or both houses of Congress. Democrats have already made clear that they intend to vigorously pursue investigations of the Trump Administration, and no one doubts they’ll have plenty of ammunition to justify a mountain of subpoenas.
By contrast, if Republicans hold on to both chambers, the White House and congressional Republicans will consider the result a validation of their last two years of governance. There will likely be no institutional opposition if the President decides to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and move on special counsel Robert Mueller.
What are the most important governors’ races in 2018?
Democrats took a pounding at the state and local level during the Obama years, and there are currently 33 Republican governors compared to just 16 Democrats. (There is also one independent governor, Bill Walker of Alaska, who recently withdrew from his re-election campaign.)
Democrats are likely to put a dent in that disparity this year, with most forecasters expecting the party to gain between five and 10 governorships.
Some of the most compelling gubernatorial races include:
- Illinois: If Democrats have a lead pipe cinch race anywhere on the map this year, it’s in the Illinois governor’s race. Incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner is deeply unpopular, and Democratic challenger JB Pritzker is a billionaire who has leveraged his wealth in a lavishly funded campaign. A Rauner victory would represent a significant upset.
- Wisconsin: Defeating incumbent governor Scott Walker would represent the culmination of a long-held dream for Wisconsin Democrats and progressive activists. And Walker is facing his toughest test yet in his quest for a third term. Polls indicate Democrat Tony Evers has a slim lead, though no one in Wisconsin is underestimating Walker, who has already won three statewide races in the last eight years.
- Florida: Democrat Andrew Gillum is close to becoming the first African-American governor in the history of the state of Florida. And he’s also looking to prove that Democrats can win in the state while running an unabashedly progressive campaign. Gillum has led in every single poll released since the primaries, though by thin margins, and his opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, has struggled to find traction in the general election after winning the GOP primary by firmly attaching himself to Donald Trump. Democrats haven’t won the Florida governorship since Lawton Chiles in 1994.
- Georgia: Democrat Stacey Abrams is locked in a bitter, neck-and-neck race with Republican and sitting Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Abrams is looking to become the first black woman to serve as Georgia’s governor, and she’s running on a strategy of turning out African-Americans and other progressive voters who often sit out midterm elections. The election has grown even more heated in recent days, as stories about Kemp’s office purging more than a hundred thousand voters from the rolls and holding up tens of thousands of voter registration due to small errors have brought the history of GOP voter suppression efforts into sharp relief. Polls show a race that is basically tied, and if neither candidate wins a majority on November 6 the race will go to a run-off to be held in December.
Democrats are also defending governors’ mansions in potentially competitive elections in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon. However, Democratic candidates in those states have solidified themselves as heavy favorites.
How will the statewide races affect upcoming re-districting?
Republicans timed their 2010 victories perfectly, as they swept to power in statehouses across the country just in time to take control of the re-districting process, which occurs every 10 years after a census. They used this power to ruthlessly gerrymander congressional districts across the country, ensuring that closely divided states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had congressional delegations with strong Republican majorities.
With another census due in 2020, the next two elections are crucial. Governors elected this year will play a significant role in the re-districting process come 2021, and if Democrats can boost their ranks of governors they can ensure themselves a seat at the table.
State legislative races are also crucial. In 44 states, representatives are elected every two years, which means representatives doing re-districting in 2021 will not be elected until 2020. However, many state senators on the ballot this year will still be in office come 2021, which means voters have a chance this year to choose a significant percentage of the men and women who will be drawing legislative districts after the next census.
A detailed breakdown of the different systems for electing state senators can be found here.