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The battleground for Senate control looks well defined. Republicans have six clear targets, and the Democrats have three. But some other developing races could become unexpectedly difficult for the incumbent. These “sleeper” Senate races are worth watching as election activity heats up in the fall.
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The fall midterms will be fought in thousands of towns and cities nationwide. But if you want to get a quick idea about the outcome, go to Miami, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia. Together these areas include 13 in-play House seats and contain concentrations of the types of voters up for grabs in other places.
Miami-Dade County is dominated by Latin Americans, especially those of Cuban heritage. It normally votes Democratic in presidential races, but it currently sends three Cuban-American Republicans to the House. That’s because Cuban immigrants have long voted Republican due to the party’s traditional opposition to the island’s Communist regime. But younger Cubans have no memories of the old land and vote much more for Democrats. Miami-Dade also has large numbers of recent émigrés from throughout Latin America: These voters are staunchly Democratic.
Together, these trends make it likely that two of the GOP-held seats will flip parties and have placed the third, Mario Díaz-Balart’s 25th district, under severe pressure. If Latinos turn out in large numbers and vote as they did in 2016, they could flip Díaz-Balart’s seat—which Trump narrowly carried—and reelect Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is facing a tough challenge from the current Republican governor, Rick Scott.
Minneapolis is thought of as a very liberal, Democratic area. That is true for the inner cities, but the suburbs send two Republicans to the House. Both face serious challenges: One, Erik Paulsen, represents a seat that Hillary Clinton won by 9 percent in 2016 but that supported Barack Obama by less than a point in 2012. It’s no accident therefore that Paulsen’s first television ad emphasizes that he opposes Trump when he thinks Trump’s acts will hurt Minnesotans. These “Romney-Clinton” voters exist throughout affluent suburbs nationwide: If they don’t come home to the GOP, Republicans will be very hard-pressed to hold the House.
Outside Minneapolis, but still within the Twin Cities’ media market, are two totally different House districts, the 1st (Rochester) and the 8th (Duluth). Each of these seats is currently held by a Democrat who is not running for reelection. Both districts went for President Obama in 2012 but went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016, and these “Obama-Trump” voters, largely whites who did not graduate from college, are the reason Trump is in the White House. Republicans think they can pick up both seats, but to do so they must transform these voters’ allegiance to Trump into support for the GOP. If they can, Republicans could hold on to similar seats already represented by Republicans and pick up enough seats from Democrats to offset losses in Hispanic or suburban areas. If they cannot, Election Day might be very dark for the GOP.
The Philadelphia media market will be ground zero for control of the House. Six seats held by Republicans are under threat there. Redistricting placed two beyond the GOP’s reach while failure to recruit a good candidate has made a third a sure Democratic pickup. That leaves three seats, each of which was either narrowly carried by Trump (New Jersey’s 3rd) or Clinton (Pennsylvania’s 1st and 7th), as the prizes to be won. Each seat has a mix of both types of swing voters, the “Romney-Clinton” and the “Obama-Trump,” and the results here will be a good bellwether for the nationwide outcome.
In every race the individual candidates matter, so if someone commits a serious gaffe or has unusually strong grassroots support, that candidate could stand apart from national trends. But as a general matter, Democrats need to pick up at least eight of these 13 seats to retake the House and must retain Florida’s Senate seat to have a shot at winning that chamber. The outcomes in these three areas on election night will likely tell us a lot about the outcome once all the votes are counted.
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The battle for the House has dominated discussions about the fall midterm elections. But, as the debate over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court shows, control of the Senate could matter more to the country’s direction. The polls paint a very mixed picture as to which party will enjoy Senate control next year.
Republicans are favored to gain some Senate seats because Democrats hold most of the seats up for election. Moreover, President Donald Trump carried 10 states that Democrats currently represent, compared with only one Republican-held seat that Hillary Clinton won. The sheer weight of numbers points to some Republican gains even if the national mood tilts decidedly toward Democrats.
The polls so far, however, paint a much more nuanced view. Democratic candidates currently lead in the one Clinton-carried state, Nevada, and in two Trump-carried states, Arizona and Tennessee. Seven of those 10 endangered Democratic incumbents also lead in the polls, and in no state does any Democratic incumbent trail by an insurmountable margin.
There’s reason, though, to think these polls are high-water marks for Democrats. In 2014, six Democratic incumbents led their GOP challengers based on the average of all polls taken in July. Five of those six lost in November. In 2012, Republican incumbents or other candidates in nine contested seats either led or were within 1 point in July. They won only two of those nine seats on Election Day.
Indeed, only Nevada’s Jacky Rosen is a near lock to flip a GOP-held state. Incumbent Dean Heller is receiving around 40 to 41 percent in the most recent polls, and only one previously elected incumbent since 2006—Pat Roberts of Kansas—has won after polling so low in July.
These data show two things: Campaigns matter, and so do a state’s demographics. Current Democratic incumbents Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly won their races in 2012 after their Republican opponents self-destructed from ill-considered comments about rape and abortion. More tellingly, however, most of the other races where early leads faded involved an incumbent or former governor running against a candidate who was not as well-known. As the races heated up and more voters learned about the challenger, that person rose in the polls, presumably on the backs of consolidating support among voters likely to support a candidate from that party.
Thus, in 2012 Elizabeth Warren came from behind to best GOP incumbent Scott Brown in Democratic Massachusetts, while in 2014 numerous Republicans came from behind in heavily red states like Alaska and Louisiana or purple states like Colorado and North Carolina.
That latter factor works heavily in the GOP’s favor this fall. Tennessee, for example, went for Trump by 26 points. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen leads the GOP’s likely nominee, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, by an average of 5 points so far, but she has never run a race in the GOP’s heartland of eastern Tennessee. Once she starts to advertise there, Bredesen’s built-in advantage from being a well-known state figure will fade. He might still win, but the race is highly likely to tighten before the end.
Very few Democratic incumbents in Trump-carried states should feel safe despite the early poll advantages. Since 2006, only incumbents who consistently receive at or near 50 percent in July head-to-head matchups have won the vast majority of their races. So far that is good news only for West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, each of whom has received over 50 percent in every public poll since May. The other Democratic incumbents will have to fight hard against the pull of their states’ Republican tendencies.
Elections should never be called this far from Election Day, but the data show that Republicans are likely to retain Senate control.