2018 Midterm Elections Update: 10 Developments We're Watching

Voters in Texas officially kicked off the 2018 midterm election season this week and brought many of the issues we’re watching into sharper focus, while also muddling some of the national party strategies.

We know that the Senate electoral map for 2018 heavily favors Republicans. While they have a slight majority in the upper chamber, Republicans will defend only eight seats this year to Democrats’ 26. On the other side of Capitol Hill, however, Democrats are increasingly appearing likely to regain control of the House. Turnout for midterm elections tends to favor Republicans, and midterms traditionally favor incumbents, but Washington these days is looking a little less traditional than usual. To date, 68 members of Congress have resigned or will be leaving their positions at the end of the 115th Congress. According to RealClearPolitics’ 2018 generic congressional vote, the average Democratic lead over the past three weeks has been 9.3 points, up about three points from a few weeks ago, but still down from the 13 point lead in December. Remember, in the past 21 midterms, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. That number is higher for presidents with an approval rating below 50 percent, and President Trump has maintained low approval ratings throughout his presidency. In the six times in U.S. history that the president’s approval rating was under 50 percent going into the first-term midterm elections, the average loss was more than 43 seats. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats to win control of the House, and between tough races in California and the new Pennsylvania redistricting map, Democrats appear to be half way there. At the end of 2017, 1,218 Democrats and 807 Republicans had filed with the FEC to run for Congress. Compare that to 2009, when 591 Democrats and 881 Republicans filed, and 2001, when 368 Democrats and 392 Republicans filed.

While the direction of the country numbers have improved slightly from the end of 2017 to today, the “two Americas” theory still can be aptly applied, as voters across the country view the world in vastly different ways. Republicans are hopeful about this year, and President Trump and congressional Republicans point to tax reform, consumer confidence, and the economy as successes that they can build upon over the next eight months. Democrats, on the other hand, are concerned about a wide range of issues such as women’s equality, immigration, healthcare, and the environment. As a result, many Democrats face pressure, at least in the primaries, to lean further left, while many Republicans feel like they must embrace the president to win a GOP primary in this environment. President Trump defied all of the political rules when he won in 2016, and Republicans may like to think that they’re going to defy gravity again.

The midterm elections are officially underway, but it remains to be seen whether they will be a referendum on President Trump or any number of issues. While primaries don’t wrap up until September, and we are still a long way to the November general elections, here are ten developments we’re going to be watching closely:

  1. Women: More women are running and organizing than ever before. In the last ten months before the 2016 election, nearly 1,000 women contacted Emily’s List about running for office or getting more politically involved. This time around, that number has grown to nearly 35,000, with almost 9,000 ready to help, too. The rise of the #MeToo movement has immensely strengthened women’s political participation.  Recent White House controversies may even put more fuel on that fire; what that does for suburban white women voters will be interesting to watch. For example, there are 23 House Republican seats in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and most of them are suburban. Yet so far, President Trump’s popularity with his base, including his strongest supporters, evangelicals, has survived every possible attack.
  2. Republican Generic Ballot: The Republican generic ballot is better than it was a couple of months ago. The president is still underwater, but the generic ballot spread is two-thirds what it was in December. Representative Kevin Cramer’s (R-ND) announcement will help Republicans against Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Yet, it’s hard to tell how primaries will go in other states. In AZ, if former County Sheriff Joe Arpaio wins the Republican primary, Representative Kyrsten Sinema looks like a good bet to beat him in the general. We’ll be watching to see if Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) enters the race against Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).
  3. Party Enthusiasm: The Democratic base is energized. Since Trump was elected president, Democrats have won Virginia and New Jersey governorships, an Alabama Senate seat, about three dozen state legislative seats, and control of the Washington State Senate. The 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election probably best demonstrates the enthusiasm of the Democratic base. In addition, Democrats in Kentucky solidly flipped a state legislature seat last month in a district Trump won by 49 points in 2016. Democrats to date seem to be running under the radar successful elections where they focus on kitchen table issues rather than more national debates or President Trump. And why not? Democrats greatly dislike the president; Republicans favor him; and Independents don’t really seem to want to be reminded of him. Yesterday’s Texas primaries, however, went differently than many expected. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D) only won the Democratic Senate primary with about 62% of the vote, despite aggressive campaigning and fundraising and lesser-known primary opponents. Furthermore, leading up to yesterday, Democrats cast ballots in the TX primary early, but once total vote counts came in, more than 1.5 million people voted in the Republican primary, while about a million voted in the Democratic race. It is worth noting, though, that during early voting, Republicans saw a 16% increase in turnout since the 2014 midterm primary, while Democrats experienced a 102% increase in turnout in that same time period. Rep. O’Rourke will face Senator Ted Cruz (R) in the general election, so it will come down to a question of who votes in November. In 2016, white voters comprised 43% of the Texas population, but 54% of the electorate; Hispanics made up 39% of the population, but only 35% of the electorate. Even if Rep. O’Rourke cannot overcome Sen. Cruz, Democrats in Texas could still potentially do well in other races across the Lone Star State.
  4. Mueller Investigation: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, including potential links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, continues. Mueller is moving quickly, using the full reach of federal power in securing five guilty pleas and a handful of additional indictments, and it remains to be seen what comes next.
  5. Youth participation: The Parkland, Florida shooting has ignited youth participation. Young people across the country have already staged school walk-outs, with more to come throughout the spring, followed by the “March for Our Lives” March 24. Watch to see if the GOP can take the edge off this issue. Concerns about climate change, the affordability of education and housing, and employment could also propel young people to become more involved in elections and the public debate.
  6. Gun Violence: More than 6 in 10 Americans fault Congress and President Trump for not doing enough to prevent mass shootings. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll ...  "The falloff in support for restricting assault weapons has come from all partisan groups, but has been starkest among Republicans and independents. While more than 7 in 10 Republicans and independents supported banning assault weapons in 1999, the new Post-ABC poll finds 45 percent of independents supporting it now, dropping to 29 percent among Republicans. A 71 percent majority of Democrats support such a ban."  This is not unexpected with the two America’s narrative. Gun violence in schools is particularly energizing women and young people, so we’ll be watching how it impacts the November elections.
  7. Retirements: More members of Congress are announcing retirements than we normally see in a midterm election year. To date, 68 members are leaving or have already departed. In the Senate, six Republicans (Sens. Sessions, Strange, Cochran, Corker, Flake, and Hatch) and one Democrat (Sen. Franken) have left or will leave at the end of their term. In the House, 43 Republicans and 18 Democrats have left or will depart at the end of their term.
  8. Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting: Voters will turn out next week for a special election in conservative-leaning western Pennsylvania to fill the seat left vacant by former Representative Tim Murphy (R). President Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, but Democrats are running Marine veteran Conor Lamb against Trump-supporting state Representative Rick Saccone. While the Democratic candidate has outraised his Republican opponent, party and outside expenditures have given Rep. Saccone a significant financial advantage, spending more than $10 million on the race for a House District (PA-18) that will disappear in eight months. Lamb, who has the strong support of organized labor, has spent $3 million and is polling within the margin of error. Additionally, President Trump’s recent announcement about proposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports may have an impact in the outcome of the election, but it remains to be seen how. Next week’s election comes after Pennsylvania Governor Tim Wolf (D) rejected the Republican-drawn congressional map, and the State Supreme Court, which invalidated the state’s 2011 map in January, made a new map available in February. The PA primary election, using the new map, will take place May 15.
  9. Immigration: Immigration issues could potentially impact GOP districts with rising Hispanic populations, especially with great uncertainty still surrounding DACA. Senate Democrats are primarily from states with higher immigrant populations than their Republican colleagues, save for a handful of Democrats from red states, almost all of whom are up for reelection this year. President Trump and some congressional Republicans may want to use immigration as a wedge issue, especially in Senate races against Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) as well as some House seats the GOP is defending.
  10. Tax Reform: This may be a winning issue for Republicans in 2018, but it remains to be seen whether it will be in 2020. Republicans are currently successfully messaging the passage of significant tax reform legislation as a major win for the middle class. Combine the trends of declining unemployment with a rapidly growing stock market and the passage of tax reform, and individual and business confidence in the economy is climbing. If the tax bill results in Americans seeing an average $80 increase in each paycheck, the rhetoric of tax reform benefitting corporations and the wealthy could ring untrue. For many Americans, such an increase adds up in meaningful ways – it could put a lot of food on the table. However, in response to the tax bill, companies appear to be opting for bonuses instead of raises, and as more voters realize this, combined with the fact that the package adds significantly to the deficit, the impacts of tax reform may lend themselves to a populist Democratic presidential message in 2020.

BONUS.Tweetstorm” behavior: President Trump’s ongoing tweeting habits continue to have an impact on policy and politics. In some cases, they continue to help him reach his base, while in other cases, they have potentially undercut progress on policy issues. It remains to be seen exactly how this behavior impacts the midterm elections, but we believe that Independents may register their distaste for his tweeting tone in the ballot box this November.