What do last week’s elections tell us about the Democrats’ chances in the 2018 midterms?

15 Nov 2017

Donald Trump’s first year in charge has been, to put it mildly, deeply underwhelming. Whether one views his presidency thus far from a Democratic or Republican perspective, it is difficult to compile a list of any notable or worthwhile achievements.


As is often the case, next year’s midterms are likely to act as a referendum on the job the President is doing, and after enjoying so much success in last week’s gubernatorial and local elections, Democrats are feeling understandably confident.


The problem for them, however, is that recording significant, country-wide gains remains an incredibly difficult prospect, despite Trump’s historically low approval ratings. This is particularly true in the Senate. Of the 33 seats up for re-election, only eight are currently held by Republicans. And of those eight, just two represent realistic opportunities for Democrat challengers.


One of those openings is in Arizona, where Republican incumbent Jeff Flake won by just 3% when he was first elected in 2012. A frequent critic of Trump, he has indicated that he won’t be seeking re-election next year. So far, only Kelli Ward has put her name forward. Fiercely pro-life and supportive of the proposed border wall, Ward can be placed on the hard-right fringes of the Republican Party, and she has unashamedly adopted Trump’s “America First” slogan in her campaign material.


The other state is Nevada, where Dean Heller is seeking re-election. Firmly a swing state, this arguably represents the Democrats’ best chance of gaining an extra seat in the Senate. Nevadans voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by 2% in last year’s presidential election and, as such, it is the only Republican-held, Clinton-backing state up for re-election. Furthermore, Heller is in danger of losing out in the primaries to Danny Tarkanian, who, like Ward, hails from the Trumpist wing of the party and could alienate more moderate voters if his challenge is successful.


Whilst it is certainly possible the Democrats could win in both states, the nature of next November’s midterms means that 25 of the 33 Senate seats up for re-election are either held by Democrats or independents who caucus with them. Further to this, 10 of those senators represent states that voted for Trump last year, and the Democrats will find themselves firmly on the defensive in at least six tight races.


Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin are arguably in most danger of losing out in North Dakota and West Virginia, respectively. Heitkamp narrowly squeezed past her Republican challenger by 0.9% in 2012 but represents a state in which Trump won by 35.8% last November.


Manchin, meanwhile, is in a similarly tough position. Running in a state where Trump won with nearly 70% of the vote, he is in real danger of losing out to his Republican challenger – which, at the time of writing, looks to be either West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey or Representative Evan Jenkins. Both are hardcore conservatives who have praised Trump and his legislative agenda.


Add to this challenges to the likes of Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin (relatively liberal voices in swing states that backed Trump over Clinton) and it is clear to see that the Democrats’ path to Senate success is a far from easy one. The President may well be deeply unpopular nationally but with the midterms favouring Republican candidates, he could be spared further blushes.

The political landscape looks slightly better for the Democrats in the House, however. With all 435 seats up for election, the two parties are fighting on an even playing field, and the Democrats will be firmly targeting the 23 seats with Republican incumbents that represent Clinton-backing districts.


Democrat success in suburban areas in both New Jersey and Virginia last week points towards potential further joy in the midterms, as these highly populated, largely middle-class areas backed Democrat candidates over Republican ones by historically large margins. This hints at a concerted pushback against Trump in politically moderate parts of the country, highlighting areas favourable to the Democrats and raising serious questions for Republican candidates. Do they closely align themselves with Trump and alienate moderate voters that have proven themselves willing to switch to the Democrats? Or do they distance themselves from the President and run the risk of losing a potentially sizeable chunk of Republican supporters that remain firmly on Trump’s side?


In Virginia, Ralph Northam, who successfully beat Republican nominee Ed Gillespie last week to become the state’s new governor, enjoyed the fruits of this suburban revolt by capturing the outer Washington suburbs by 20% or more. He also won in areas like Virginia Beach, which went red in 2013 only to switch to blue this time around.


It was a similar case in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy will succeed Chris Christie as governor after comfortably beating his challenger by 13.3%. Christie was victorious by over 20% just four years ago, highlighting what a turnaround it was for the Democrats to win so easily this year. Republican Kim Guadagno rarely talked about Trump but was unable to stem the tide of dissatisfaction with the President in a traditionally moderate state.


This points to a particularly potent problem for Republican candidates. Even if those that are standing in predominately suburban districts attempt to avoid mentioning Trump, the President’s poor reputation in these areas is likely to severely hurt their chances of winning.


Last week’s Democratic success was impressive and should act as a wakeup call for the Republican Party, which finds itself in a precarious position due to Trump’s polarising presidency. But the areas up for grabs then largely favoured the Democrats, in stark contrast to the political landscape of next year’s midterms.


Whilst the map could end up looking a lot bluer on the morning of November 7th, the race for congressional supremacy is likely to be much closer than many think, even if the Democrats do currently find themselves on the front foot.

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