At first glance, some of 2018’s most pivotal elections look very promising for Republicans.
Democrats have to play defence — big league. Of the 11 Senate seats the party controls in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, ten senators are up for reelection in the upcoming vote.
“When you look at our incumbents, I mean, our third most competitive state this cycle is Texas,” a Republican close to the campaign process told Business Insider. “So it definitely is a good place to be.”
But take a step back from the promising map, and Republicans are faced with a litany of outside challenges.
As it is, the GOP is taxed with a number of key issues this early in the cycle that could prove to be detrimental in the months of campaigning ahead: A potentially risky vote on unpopular healthcare legislation, a number of already bruising primaries, a number of top contenders deciding against entering the race, and — possibly the most important factor — where Republicans stand with Trump, who has routinely seen his approval rating dip into the 30s.
“When Trump won, I think one had to immediately downgrade Republican prospects even while acknowledging their excellent list of targets,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Business Insider in an email. “I don’t think anything is certain, but it remains the case that if the Democrats avoid a net loss that would be a significant victory, and Republicans could make a small Senate gain even under poor conditions next year.”
Terry Sullivan, who served as campaign manager for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, echoed Kondik, pointing to the Democrats having “some very strong candidates” who are “tailor made” for the states they’re running in, even as the map proves daunting.
“And, they have got a hell of a tailwind, given the environment,” he added. It’s “a cat’s game in the Senate.”
The specific seats up for grabs are the Democrats’ “biggest problem,” Kondik said. Some of those races are in traditional Democratic states that Trump won by slim margins in 2016, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Others are in states like West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri — states in which Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by anywhere from 19 to 42 points.
A total of 34 seats are up for grabs, and 25 of them are currently occupied by Democrats or independent senators who caucus with the party. Just one of the Republican seats — Nevada’s — seems to have a very real shot of flipping, although some consider Arizona to be very much in play, while Democrats believe Texas is on the table, too.
“In the west, you know, Nevada and Arizona, those are going to be challenging races,” Tim Miller, communications director for former Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Business Insider. “But those are Republican incumbents.”
“There are states that are going to be less favourable than what’s happening under the Trump administration, but, you know, in a lot of these states that people mention as potential Republican pick-ups — Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Missouri — these are big Trump states,” he continued. “So the Republicans are going to have a big advantage as long as they nominate somebody who doesn’t blow themselves up. I think we’re going to be in good shape to win a lot of those states.
Incumbent senators naturally have an advantage when it comes to getting reelected, particularly when the opposite party is in power. That bodes as good news for the likes of Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, among many others.
As the data journalism outlet FiveThirtyEight reported, there have been 114 senators of the opposing party to the one occupying the White House who have run in a midterm election since 1982. Only four have lost.
That amounts to an astonishing 96% success rate.
In the absolute worst year for opposition party senators, 1998, the party out of power won 86% of its senatorial incumbents elections.
On the flip side, incumbents of the controlling party tend to lose more often. Among the same time-span, 25 of 128 incumbent senators of the ruling party lost reelection, roughly 20%. In other words, one could expect that either Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona or Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada will end up going down, if that trend holds.
Of course, you’re still looking at a scenario in which everything going right for the Democrats means they essentially maintain their current foothold in the Senate. Actually gaining seats on the GOP appears to be virtually impossible.
“I mean, when you look at Barack Obama coming to town in ’09, everything was amazing, great, and then ’10 happened,” a Republican close to the campaigns said, pointing to the Tea Party wave. “I think everyone is very cognisant that the map looks really, really good, but there is a lot of time between now and Election Day.”
“The bruising element of the primary matters less than the result of the primary”
As a Democratic staffer close to the campaigns told Business Insider, a long and heated primary season could be a boon for the Democratic incumbents.
Republicans are also hoping that repeats of 2012 don’t take place in Republican strongholds like Indiana and Missouri.
That year, Republican candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin pulled off improbable primary victories, only to both make comments related to rape that made both virtually unelectable in a general election. In turn, that led to the Democrats in those states, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill, pulling off victories.
But Democrats too could face some primary challengers from the left, as some progressives seek to primary Democratic candidates they believe are too close to the center. And Republicans know all too well the challenges of a tough primary season, which many believe actually improve a candidate when it comes time for the general election.
“There’s always the talk of primaries hurting the candidates in the general election,” Sullivan said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case.”
Primaries help to build name recognition, intensity, and a campaign organisation, he said.
“In some cases primaries really do hurt, but I’ve seen just as many cases where a healthy primary matters more,” he added. “And the momentum out of winning a primary is a big advantage heading into a general.”
As Miller said, the only way a primary battle becomes a negative is if the nominee that emerges “is so extreme that they have a potential to not appeal to the overall electorate or to blow themselves up with comments that are so far outside the mainstream that makes them unelectable.”
He cited Mourdock and Akin.
“The bruising element of the primary matters less than the result of the primary,” he said. “As long as Republicans nominate candidates that can unite the base and at least have a mild appeal to independents, they’re going to be in good shape in most of these states.”
Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection bid, told Business Insider he thinks that so long as Republicans don’t “get in their own way” with a “bunch of far right-wing” nominees, they “should be able to do very well.”
Galen expects primary turnout to be more “activist in nature” on both sides.
“There used to be a lot of activists that could save the establishment candidate in a primary,” he said. That “doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. At least on the Republican side.”
Galen said that with Trump’s improbable victory through the most heavily-crowded Republican primary field in history, many candidates might feel compelled to echo the president’s campaign style and rhetoric.
“Somebody was telling me a story where they were like ‘oh yeah, we’re working with a candidate and we have to tell him you can’t say this stuff,'” Galen said. “‘He said it worked for Trump.'”
“You are not Donald Trump,” he continued. “You have zero name ID. No one knows who you are. … Do not compare yourself to Trump. And a lot of people are just going to go out there and think ‘I can go all crazy and say all this stuff about Latinos and ISIS and the mainstream media.’ And that’s all catnip to a very frustrated and angry Republican base voter. Probably a little different for a, relatively speaking, unaffiliated general election voter wherever.”
Noting that primaries are “definitely not a new thing” to Republicans, the Republican working close to the campaigns pointed to the fact that Trump won many of these states by nearly or more than double digits — and unlike in 2012, the message is going to be helping out with the current president’s agenda, not a message against the former president, Barack Obama.
“That’s a very different argument than 2012,” they said. “That was an issue in that cycle.”
The Republican aide said McCaskill and Donnelly likely would not have been elected if not for the results of Republican primaries in their states last time around.
“Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly really benefited from weak opponents in 2012 and may not have the same good fortune this time,” Kondik said. “If either survive it probably won’t be by much.”
Kondik said that states with later primaries, such as Florida or Wisconsin, “could make it harder for the eventual nominee to fully compete in the general election.”
“But I doubt the primary battles matter too much so long as the primaries produce viable candidates, which is not a certainty,” he added. “The national environment and the president’s standing are likelier to play a much bigger role.”
Ultimately, the individual who will dictate the most about the 2018 elections — not only in the Senate but at seemingly all other levels — will be the president.
As Politico recently reported, top Republican officials and senators have said chaos and impulsiveness coming from the White House are hurting their 2018 efforts.
A classic example was the Trump-backed nonprofit America First Policies launching an ad campaign against Sen. Dean Heller — the only Republican up for reelection in a state Clinton won — for opposing the Senate’s original healthcare bill last month. The group later pulled the ads at the urging of Senate Republican leaders.
In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake, who at times has been one of Trump’s most vocal Republican critics, has angered the president, and will be facing a much more Trump-friendly primary opponent in former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who challenged Sen. John McCain in 2016.
Plus, there are Trump’s poor polling numbers, which have frequently dipped into the 30s in terms of approval, which is unheard of at this early of a stage of an administration. Kondik, the University of Virigina political analyst, called this “the biggest problem for Republicans.”
Galen, the deputy campaign manager for McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, echoed this point.
“And whether you believe it or not, President Trump, his numbers stink for the most part,” Galen said. “So you might run on national issues, but if I were wanting to win a Senate race in a Republican state, I would say ‘I wish President Trump would get off Twitter and I wish he would focus on the problems of this country, here’s what I’m going to do when I get to the Senate.’ … And of course, every Democrat is going to hang President Trump around their opponent’s necks like an albatross.”
But the Republican aide close to the campaigns made a salient point: Taking Trump’s numbers at face value may be ignoring something beneath the surface that is more important.
“I think it’s funny that a lot of reporters are like ‘well, his approval rating is so terrible,'” they said. “And it’s like, ‘well, yeah, because that includes California and New York and places like Chicago. And you take those places out, places that we’re not playing in, and he’s above water in the states, he’s still very, very popular in the states we’re going to be competing in.”
While that “might change” in six months, they said “folks can’t seem to wrap their heads around” the idea that Trump is still popular in many of the states where Republicans will be investing heavily during the next cycle.
“Who knows, could everything go to hell? Sure,” they added. “But, what we’re looking at like the facts that we have today, that’s not the case. And I don’t know if that becomes the case.”
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