Politics & Policy

The GOP’s Kansas Victory and the Very Favorable Electoral Map in 2018

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Republicans are poised to do well despite facing some political headwinds.

The special congressional election in Kansas’s fourth congressional district, was, despite the media hype, much ado about — well, maybe not nothing, but very little. The GOP candidate won by 7 percent, a margin that was certainly lower than Trump’s overwhelming victory in the district, but slightly better than Kansas governor Sam Brownback did in the same district in 2014. Given the numerous variables affecting the election (a low-turnout special election, a hugely unpopular governor, a greater-than-average Democratic effort, an un-Trumpian GOP candidate picked at an insiders’ convention rather than in a primary), it is hard to paint that result as the harbinger of the GOPocaylpse. To make a long story short: This was not the electoral disaster the Democrats and media were looking for.

Which is not to say the GOP is not facing some headwinds going into 2018. Off-year election cycles, especially in a first presidential term, are often unkind to the president’s party. And the average generic ballot for the GOP is –6 right now, the worst showing for a majority party in the 14 election cycles this question has been polled. (Although it is not dramatically worse than the numbers for several others years.)

On the other hand: There’s the map. And the map is pretty great for the GOP. A look at the competitive landscape of the 2018 House elections illustrates this nicely.

Roll Call’s latest election guide shows 212 solid House seats for the GOP. If the Democrats win all three GOP-held tossup seats and win every single one of the 13 GOP-held seats said to tilt or lean Republican, and then capture 8 of the 13 seats rated as “likely Republican,” and if they hold all four of the Democratic seats rated as tossups, all five of their seats rated as “leans,” and all six of their seats rated as “likely” wins . . . they still won’t have a majority. And they’d need to do far better than that to get a working majority, given the number of freshman Dems that would be in extremely vulnerable seats.

The nonpartisan and respected Cook Political Report tells much the same story. It rates 205 GOP seats as “safe.” If the Democrats win both GOP-held tossups, all 12 GOP seats that lean Republican, and 12 of the 25 seats that are “likely Republican,” and if they hold every single one of their three toss-ups, 7 leans and 12 “likely” seats, they still will not capture the majority.

Of course, political landscapes change, vacancies open unexpectedly, and seemingly invulnerable incumbents can occasionally lose — but the current race ratings show just how challenging the task is for the Democrats to control the House under the current map.

Having lost in Kansas, the media are now moving on to their next anti-GOP obsession, a special election in Georgia’s sixth district, traditionally Republican, but very unfavorable to Trump (the 48 percent he took there trailed Romney’s 2012 showing by twelve percentage points). Again, the media is pushing a message that is the opposite of the reality on the ground — the notion that a GOP defeat here would be a sign of GOP doom in 2018. The exact opposite is the case — if the Dems can’t win this seat, with their candidate having a massive spending advantage, a divided GOP field, and one of the most Trump-unfriendly GOP districts in the country, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which they would have enough momentum to run the table and win the House in 2018.

But compared to their chances of taking the Senate, the House looks like electoral paradise for the Democratic party.

Morning Consult has just released its 50 state polls, and it underscores the enormous shift that would have to happen for the Democrats to win that chamber.

Mitch McConnell remains the only senator with an overall negative approval rating (44 percent approval to 47 percent disapproval) — though it is notable that John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the most prominent Trump opponents within the GOP, war hawks, and liberal-media darlings, also have the two highest disapproval ratings among their constituents of any GOP senators (51–43 for McCain and 46–40 for Graham). Fortunately for the GOP’s chances of holding its majority in 2018, neither is on the ballot, but that fact does serve as a warning shot that the Graham/McCain axis of moderation continues to be a bad place for the GOP to make its electoral bets, no matter how much the Sunday shows and some members of the donor class love them.

Electorally, the GOP is in a fantastic spot, having to defend just nine of the 34 Senate seats up in 2018.

Electorally, the GOP is in a fantastic spot, having to defend just nine of the 34 Senate seats up in 2018, and in each of those nine seats, the GOP candidate is listed as favored to win by arguably the top three major race handicappers (Cook, Rothenberg, Larry Sabato). The GOP is defending only one seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton (Dean Heller in swing-state Nevada). In fact six of the nine GOP seats are considered “safe” by Cook, Rothenberg, and Sabato, meaning that a GOP loss would be a stunning upset in those states, and a seventh (Senator Cruz) is considered “safe” by Cook and Rothenberg and “likely” by Sabato. If the GOP does nothing more than hold those seven seats, they will retain functional control of the Senate.

The two vulnerable GOP senators are Heller in Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona. Of those two, Flake’s numbers are somewhat worse, with 44 percent approving and 38 percent disapproving. He has been a notable GOP critic of Trump, and it is likely that some of his diminished approval reflects lukewarm support from his own party.

Nonetheless, in an off-year, lower-turnout election, which should typically favor the GOP, and with a profile that has gone out of its way to embrace the growing Hispanic community in Arizona, Flake certainly starts as the favorite.

Heller’s numbers are a bit better than Flake’s (43–32 ), although he is less known, but he starts out in Nevada, less friendly territory for the GOP statewide. He’s aggressively distanced himself from Trump and some of Trump’s less popular policies and has left himself well positioned to appeal to Nevada swing voters.

Both should expect to see stiff challenges, but both are currently favored.

Meanwhile, for all the talk in D.C. of the allegedly polarizing Cruz, he remains popular back home, with favorables of 57 percent, putting him in the top one-third of senators, and with an overall approval rating of +26. Combined with a war chest that already tops $5 million and a huge donor database from the 2016 campaign, he is very strongly positioned to beat any Democrat who takes him on.

In fact, only if the GOP establishment is vain enough to encourage a serious primary challenge to Cruz does there seem to be any plausible scenario in which Cruz’s negatives could be driven up enough to make him at all vulnerable. Mitch McConnell may not love Cruz, but he’s a shrewd enough operator that he is unlikely to risk his majority chasing that particular rainbow.

On the other side of the aisle, the GOP has a number of excellent chances to expand its majority. While none of the ten Democrats who hold seats in states Trump carried have the look of “dead man (or woman) walking” at this point, several are clearly vulnerable. And while a few (e.g., Montana’s Jon Tester and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp) currently have strong personal favorability ratings that will help offset partisan headwinds, none are safe bets for reelection.

The media and Democrats will attempt to scare the GOP into fearing electoral devastation with each Trump misstep or weak result in a special election.

Four states with Democratic incumbents have strong Republican leans (+8 percent Cook PVI or greater), and seven Democratic sitting senators start the cycle with favorability ratings of less than 50 percent, traditionally the danger zone for incumbents. (Interestingly an eighth, vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, has favorables of exactly 50 percent with a relatively high unfavorable rating.) In addition to the ten Democrats running in Trump-victory states, two others — New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez — have favorables below 50 percent.

In sum, the only way the GOP can lose the Senate is to tank in two very winnable races in which they are favored, and simultaneously to sabotage Ted Cruz out of spite while failing to take a single seat from the ten “Trump Democrats” or two non-Trump Democrats with weak ratings.

That would be truly drawing to an inside straight of political incompetence. This is, of course possible, and the element of Trump will always add a greater degree of unpredictability to the proceedings — but the scenario under which it happens would imply a political apocalypse for the party so overwhelming that the GOP’s senator count would be the least of the party’s problems.

The media and Democrats will attempt to scare the GOP into fearing electoral devastation with each Trump misstep or weak result in a special election. But the party should ignore the naysayers — even with political headwinds, a highly favorable map means they are in a very strong position heading into 2018, as long as the party keeps faith with its voters. The GOP needs to stop getting spooked by its electoral shadow and start delivering the change it has promised voters for the better part of a decade.

— Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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