2018 Gubernatorial Elections: Where the REAL action is

With the recent—and thoroughly warranted—attention on the excellent Democratic prospects for recapturing control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) and their improving (though still less than 50%) chance to do the same in the United States Senate (“Senate”) this November 6, there has been insufficient focus on the 36 gubernatorial elections being held simultaneously.

In fact, I would argue that from a long-term perspective (innovative policy making, redistricting following the 2020 United States Census, etc.), this is where the real electoral action is. And currently Democrats only hold 17 governor’s mansions, compared to 32 held by Republicans and Independent Alaska Governor Bill Walker.

I first addressed the importance of governors in June 2017:

“In an age of increasing partisan polarization and Congressional gridlock, governors have emerged as crucial policy leaders far from Washington DC. On the conservative side are recent innovations by Republican Governors such as Sam Brownback of Kansas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin (prompting an unsuccessful 2012 recall election) and Rick Snyder of Michigan. Governors could choose whether or not to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, as Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio continues to note.

More recently, Democratic Governors have attempted to block Trump Adminstration actions. Washington’s Jay Inslee was a key leader in blocking iterations of the travel ban. California’s Jerry Brown has emerged as a leader on climate change, especially after President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.”

In this post, I present an analogous comparison of “fundamentals” (state partisan lean [3W-RDM], expected Democratic “advantage” in 2018 of 8.9 percentage points, incumbency) to the current polling average (WAPA; average Democratic margin of all publicly-available polls conducted in 2018 adjusted for statistical bias and weighted by date and pollster quality) I recently conducted for 2018 Senate races. Unlike those races, however, I calculated a WAPA for all 36 races, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 2018 Gubernatorial Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AL 2/2 D-19.5 D-19.6 2.7 D-18.4 D-18.4 D-18.4
AK 4/3 I-9.3 I-9.5 2.8/2.6 I-9.4 I-9.6 I-9.5
AZ 6/4 D-3.7 D-4.1 2.8/3.1 D-5.9 D-8.2 D-7.1
AR 2/2 D-37.0 D-37.5 3.0 D-37.2 D-37.2 D-37.2
CA 6/6 D+14.3 D+14.5 3.0 D+17.6 D+17.6 D+17.6
CO 2/2 D+6.0 D+5.9 3.0 D+5.8 D+5.8 D+5.8
CT 3/3 D+8.7 D+8.4 2.8 D+9.2 D+9.2 D+9.2
FL 10/7 D+2.9 D+2.8 2.8/2.8 D+3.0 D+3.4 D+3.2
GA 5/5 D+2.4 D+2.2 3.0 D+1.4 D+1.4 D+1.4
HI 2/1 D+25.0 D+25.7 3.3 D+24.8 D+24.8 D+24.8
ID 3/2 D-10.0 D-11.0 2.6/2.5 D-10.7 D-10.9 D-10.8
IL 12/9 D+14.4 D+14.6 2.3/2.4 D+14.6 D+14.7 D+14.7
IA 2/2 D+0.0 D-0.1 3.8 D+3.5 D+3.5 D+3.5
KS 3/2 D-0.3 D-0.9 2.7/2.7 D-1.0 D-0.5 D-0.8
ME 1/1 D+0.0 D-0.6 3.3 D-0.6 D-0.6 D-0.6
MD 6/5 D-14.0 D-14.0 2.8/2.8 D-13.7 D-13.5 D-13.6
MA 3/2 D-36.3 D-36.3 3.6/3.5 D-35.8 D-36.5 D-36.2
MI 10/8 D+8.2 D+8.2 2.8/3.0 D+8.9 D+9.2 D+9.1
MN 3/3 D+6.3 D+6.0 3.5 D+6.1 D+6.1 D+6.1
NE 0  
NV 5/4 D+0.4 D-0.4 2.8/2.6 D+0.2 D+0.2 D+0.2
NH 3/2 D-21.3 D-23.3 3.1/3.2 D-22.1 D-22.1 D-22.1
NM 6/6 D+7.3 D+6.7 2.9 D+6.8 D+6.8 D+6.8
NY 8/5 D+21.4 D+21.4 3.3/3.6 D+20.1 D+19.1 D+19.6
OH 12/9 D-2.3 D-2.5 2.7/2.7 D-0.3 D-0.5 D-0.4
OK 4/2 D+2.0 D+0.6 2.6/2.7 D-0.1 D-0.1 D-0.1
OR 5/5 D+4.2 D+4.5 2.5 D+4.2 D+4.2 D+4.2
PA 7/5 D+14.1 D+14.0 3.1/2.9 D+13.6 D+13.0 D+13.3
RI 3/2 D+1.3 D+1.7 3.1/3.0 D+1.7 D+1.6 D+1.6
SC 2/2 D-7.5 D-7.9 3.2 D-7.8 D-7.8 D-7.8
SD 1/1 D-4.0 D-5.4 2.0 D-5.4 D-5.4 D-5.4
TN 4/4 D-12.0 D-12.2 3.2 D-15.4 D-15.4 D-15.4
TX 11/9 D-14.7 D-14.6 3.0/2.9 D-15.4 D-15.1 D-15.2
VT 0  
WI 8/5 D+3.9 D+3.6 3.5/3.5 D+3.6 D+3.9 D+3.7
WY 0  
AVE 5/4 D-1.5 D-1.8 3.0/3.0 D-1.6 D-1.7 D-1.7

Gubernatorial elections are woefully under-polled: only 163 polls have been conducted for 36 races in 2018, or just 4.5 per election. These polls were conducted by an average of 3.6 pollsters, meaning most pollsters have only polled these races a single time. Only five of these elections—Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Texas—have been polled as many as 10 times, with Illinois and Ohio being polled 12 times each. At the same time, Nebraska, Vermont and Wyoming have not been (publicly) polled at all, Maine and South Dakota have only been polled once, and 13 states have only been polled two or three times. Of these 163 polls, just over half (52.1%) were conducted since July 1. Overall, the quality of the polling is marginally better than in the Senate races I analyzed recently: the average poll was conducted by a B-rated pollster. And their skew (according to the FiveThirtyEight.com pollster ratings) has only been slightly pro-Democratic (0.3 percentage points, on average—note, however, that 24 polls were conducted by non-rated pollsters).


This analysis is divided into five parts:

  1. Safe seats
  2. States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat
  3. States with Democratic governors that are (not very) vulnerable.
  4. Popular Republican governors in Democratic states
  5. Alaska

Just as a reminder, “expected” margin is each state’s 3W-RDM plus 8.9 plus party-specific incumbency advantage; I described how I calculate incumbency advantage in my updated Senate race post. The only difference with gubernatorial races is that I used data from the 2014, 2010 and 2006 elections—the last three times these 36 states (excluding New Hampshire and Vermont which hold gubernatorial elections every two years). Also, Republican incumbency advantage, for unknown reasons, dropped from a bonus of 16.2 percentage points (“points”) in 2006 to just 0.5 points in 2010 to a loss of 8.4 points in 2014. Averaging these values yields a Republican gubernatorial incumbency “advantage” of just 2.6 points; Democrats, by contrast, had gubernatorial incumbent bonuese of 24.0, 1.4 and 7.1 point, respectively, for an average of 10.8 points.

Safe seats. Three heavily Democratic states (average 3W-RDM=D+26.4) will remain in Democratic hands. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is ahead of Duchess County Executive (and four third-party candidates, including former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon on the Working Families line) by 19.6 percentage points (“points”) though Cuomo “should” be ahead by 41.3 points; weighting polls 3-1 over fundamentals puts Cuomo ahead about 27 points. Similarly, Hawaii Governor David Ige leads Republican State House Minority Leader Andria Tupola by 24.8 points; an expected lead of 54.0 points works out to Ige being ahead by 34.6 points. Finally, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newson leads Republican businessman John Cox by 17.6 percentage points; an expected lead of 32.1 points works out to Newson being ahead by 22.4 percentage points.

Next January, nine solidly Republican states (Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming; average 3W-RDM=D-27.2) will still have Republican governors (Table 2); incumbents are bold-faced. Because only one poll has been released of the South Dakota governor’s race, WTD is the simple average of Expect and WAPA. The one remotely-possible upset here is South Carolina if the Democratic wave crests high enough.

Table 2: Safe Republican governorships in Republican states

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AL Maddox Ivey D-20.8 D-18.4 D+2.4 D-19.0
AR Henderson Hutchinson D-22.0 D-37.2 D-15.2 D-33.4
ID Jordan Little D-25.3 D-11.0 D+14.3 D-14.6
NE Krist Ricketts D-19.6 n/a n/a n/a
SC Smith McMaster D-8.1 D-7.8 D+0.3 D-7.9
SD Sutton Noem D-16.9 D-5.4 D+11.5 D-11.2
TN Dean Lee D-16.9 D-15.4 D+1.5 D-15.8
TX Valdez Abbott D-9.1 D-15.2 D-6.2 D-13.7
WY Throne Gordon D-36.8 n/a n/a n/a
AVE     D-19.5 D-15.8 D+1.2 D-16.5

Here are the nominees in each election (Democrat listed first):

  • Alabama: Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox vs. Governor Kay Ivey
  • Arkansas: Former Arkansas Executive Director of Teach for America Jared Henderson vs. Governor Asa Hutchinson
  • Idaho: Former State Representative Paulette Jordan vs. Lieutenant Governor Brad Little
  • Nebraska: State Senator Bob Krist vs. Governor Pete Ricketts
  • South Carolina: State Representative James Smith vs. Governor Henry McMaster
  • South Dakota: State Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton vs. U.S. Representative Kristi Noem
  • Tennessee: Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean vs. businessman Bill Lee
  • Texas: Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez vs. Governor Greg Abbott
  • Wyoming: Former State House Minority Leader Mary Throne vs. State Treasurer Mark Gordon

States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat. Thirteen states that currently have Republican governors represent the best opportunities for Democrats to pick up governor’s mansions (Table 3); on average, these states lean Republican (average 3W-RDM=D-4.8). However, term limits mean nine states have no incumbent running, creating an opening for strong Democratic challengers. And Iowa’s Kim Reynolds only became governor when Governor Terry Branstad became Ambassador to China in May 2017). Note that for Iowa (2 polls) and Maine (1 poll), WTD is the simple average of WAPA and Expect.

Table 3: States with Republican governors most likely to elect a Democrat

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
IL Pritzker Rauner D+21.0 D+14.7 D-6.3 D+16.2
MI Whitmer Schuette D+11.1 D+9.1 D-2.0 D+9.6
NM Lujan-Grisham Pearce D+15.4 D+6.8 D-8.6 D+8.9
ME Mills Moody D+14.8 D-0.6 D-15.4 D+7.1
WI Evers Walker D+7.0 D+3.7 D-3.2 D+4.5
FL Gillum DeSantis D+5.5 D+3.2 D-2.3 D+3.8
IA Hubbell Reynolds D+2.9 D+3.5 D+0.6 D+3.2
NV Sisolak Laxalt D+10.9 D+0.2 D-10.7 D+2.9
GA Abrams Kemp D-0.7 D+1.4 D+2.1 D+0.8
OH Cordray DeWine D+3.1 D-0.3 D-3.4 D+0.5
KS Kelly Kobach D-14.5 D-0.8 D+13.7 D-4.2
AZ Garcia Ducey D-3.5 D-7.1 D-3.6 D-6.2
OK Edmondson Stitt D-29.2 D-0.1 D+29.1 D-7.4
AVE     D+3.4 D+2.6 D-0.8 D+3.1

 Of these elections, the one for which you can most clearly say “stick a fork in it, it’s over” is Illinois. Billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner defeated unpopular incumbent governor Pat Quinn in the Republican 2014 wave by less than four points. Four years later, an equally-unpopular Rauner appears headed for a 16.2-point loss to billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker.

Two additional races also have the Democrat heavily favored. The specter of Flint’s water crisis hangs over the race in Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder—who championed the emergency manager law that precipitated the crisis—is term-limited. Former State House Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer could crack double-digits against state Attorney General Bill Schuette; her adjusted lead in six polls since mid-July is 10.5 points, nearly the “expected” margin. New Mexico, meanwhile, is merely reverting to partisan form (D+6.5) after Governor Susana Martinez won two elections in Republican wave years. U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham would be the nation’s first Latina governor; she seems headed for a high single-digit win over U.S. Representative Steve Pearce.

Maine’s penchant for supporting Independent candidacies (as in Senator Angus King) likely cost Democrats the governor’s mansion in 2010 and 2014. In 2010, Independent Eliot Cutler won 35.9% of the vote, while Democrat Libby Mitchell only won 18.8%, allowing Republican Paul LePage to win with 37.6% of the vote. LePage proved…controversial…though he still won reelection in 2014 with by just 4.8 points over Democrat Mike Michaud; Cutler’s 8.0% could have made the difference. In 2018, however, state Attorney General Cheryl Mills is in a strong position to defeat businessman Shawn Moody (who won 5.0% as an Independent in 2010). An early August poll showed the race tied (with 22% other/undecided), but Mills “should” be ahead around 15 points; a mid-single-digits win for Mills seems highly plausible.

In four other states with a Republican governor, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is less-heavily favored. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was first elected in the 2010 Republican wave, surviving a recall attempt in 2012 before winning reelection in 2014. This year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers is likely to defeat Walker, whose ill-fated run for president in 2015 did not help him. Evers, who “should” be ahead by 7.0 points, leads by 3.7 points (though only by 2.2 points since mid-August), suggesting a mid-single-digits victory. Florida Governor Rick Scott is term-limited (and running for the Senate). To replace him, Democrats nominated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republicans nominated U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis. Gillum, who would be the first African-American governor of Florida, rode a progressive insurgency to an upset primary victory while DeSantis decisively embraced President Donald Trump. Gillum, who would be the first Democratic governor of Florida since 1999, leads by 3.2 points (and in all seven polls released since the August 28 primary), slightly lower than the expected 5.5 points, but enough to anticipate a low-single-digits win. Businessman Fred Hubbell looks similarly headed for about a 3-point win in Iowa over Governor Reynolds as both the fundamentals and the polls (only one since January) converge. Finally, Nevada has not elected a Democratic governor since 1990. With popular Governor Brian Sandoval term-limited, however, Clark County Commission Chair Steve Sisolak has an excellent chance to change that. While Sisolak is effectively tied in the polls with state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (D+0.2), he “should” be ahead by 10.9 points. The fact that Laxalt is the grandson of the late Senator Paul Laxalt (and the son of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici) may explain the discrepancy. Still, a 2-3 point win for Sisolak appears plausible.


Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, (left) leads U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis to be the next governor of Florida

Two Republican-leaning states with term-limited Republican governors are pure toss-ups. First, former State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is vying to become the first African-American—and first female—governor of Georgia, and its first Democratic governor since 1995. She “should” be 0.7 points down to state Secretary of State Brian Kemp (who also ran a Trump-like ad), but polls show her ahead 1.4 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of D+0.8. And in Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is tied in the polls (D-0.3) with state Attorney General (and former Senator) Mike DeWine. Cordray “should” be ahead by 3.1 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of D+0.5.

Finally, there are three Republican states (average 3W-RDM=D-23.7) where polls and/or weak Republican candidates give Democrats hope, merited or not. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey “should” be ahead of Arizona State University Professor David Garcia by 3.5 points, though he actually leads by 7.1 points, which works out to an anticipated margin of 6.2 points. Former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback had approval ratings in the mid-20s when he became Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in January 2018. Then, state Secretary of State Kris Kobach—controversial in his own rightnarrowly edged Brownback’s replacement Jeff Colyer in the Republican gubernatorial primary runoff. This has given Democrats hope that State Senator Laura Kelly could be Kansas’ next governor: while she “should” be trailing by 14.5 points, polls show her trailing by less than one point (which still works out to a 4.2-point loss). And in Oklahoma, Democrats chose former state Attorney General Drew Edmondson, and Republicans chose businessman Kevin Stitt, to replace unpopular term-limited governor Mary Fallin. This race should not be remotely close (D-29.2), but polls have this race essentially tied (D-0.1), likely because of Stitt’s position on teacher pay raises. The most plausible outcome, however, remains a high-single-digits Stitt victory.

Bottom line: Democrats are heavily favored to win the governorships of Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico and (more tentatively) Maine, and they are at least modest favorites in Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa and Nevada. They are even-money in Georgia and Ohio, while Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma appear just out of reach. Still, Democrats could easily net as many as 10 governor’s mansions from this group of 13 election.

States with Democratic governors that are (not very) vulnerable. Six Democratic states (average 3W-RDM=D+7.1) with Democratic governors are the only chance Republicans have to flip a governor’s mansion—at least based on polling (Table 4). And while it is true that Democrats are “underperforming” expectations by an average of 14.7 points in these six states, they still lead by an average of 6.7 points.

Table 4: States with Democratic governors that are (not particularly) vulnerable

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
RI Raimondo Fung D+37.7 D+1.6 D-36.1 D+10.6
OR Brown Buehler D+28.4 D+4.2 D-24.3 D+10.2
CO Polis Stapleton D+11.1 D+5.8 D-5.3 D+7.1
MN Walz Johnson D+10.4 D+6.1 D-4.3 D+7.2
CT Lamont Stefanowski D+21.7 D+9.2 D-12.5 D+12.3
PA Wolf Wagner D+19.3 D+13.3 D+6.0 D+14.8

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo only beat Cranston Mayor Allan Fung in 2014 by 4.5 points; Moderate candidate Robert Healey won 21.4% of the vote. Raimondo still has only middling approval, which could explain why she barely leads Fung in a rematch (D+1.6), fully 36.1 points below where she “should” be. Despite appearing headed for high-single-digits win, this is the governor’s race that should most worry Democrats. Less vulnerable is Oregon Governor Kate Brown, the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, though she “only” leads State Representative Knute Buehler by 4.2 points, fully 24.3 points below expectations. Nonetheless, I expect her to win by around 10 points. Three other states with retiring Democratic governors look solid for Democrats:

  • In Colorado, U.S Representative Jared Polis looks like a 7.1-point winner over State Treasure Walker Stapleton
  • In Minnesota, U.S. Representative Tim Walz looks like a 7.2-point winner over Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (who beat former two-term governor Tim Pawlenty by almost nine points)
  • In Connecticut, businessman (and 2006 Senate nominee) Ned Lamont looks like a 12.3-point winner over businessman Bob Stefanowski

As for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, he could easily be on the “Safe” list, as he appears headed for double-digit win over State Senator Scott Wagner.

Bottom line: In these six states with Democratic governors, only Raimondo in Rhode Island seems remotely vulnerable, and even she is somewhat likely to win.

Popular Republican governors in Democratic states. In 2014, Maryland and Massachusetts voters narrowly elected centrist Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, respectively, governor. In 2016, New Hampshire and Vermont voters narrowly elected Chris Sununu (son of former governor John Sununu) and Phil Scott, respectively, governor. The common theme seems to be normally Democratic voters (average 3W-RDM=D+18.1, with New Hampshire D+0.1), selecting a moderate “check” on overwhelmingly Democratic legislatures (less so in New Hampshire). Thus, these governors should sail to reelection (Table 5) over former State Senator Molly Kelly (NH), former NAACP CEO and President Ben Jealous (MD), former state Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez (MA) and Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist (who would be the first transgendered governor). In fact, in the three states with polling, these Republican governors are over-performing expectations by an average of 45.1 points!

Table 5: Popular Republican governors in Democratic states

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
NH Kelly Sununu D+6.4 D-22.1 D-28.4 D-15.0
MD Jealous Hogan D+28.9 D-13.6 D-42.5 D-3.0
MA Gonzalez Baker D+28.4 D-36.2 D-64.5 D-20.0
VT Hallquist Scott D+34.0 n/a n/a n/a
AVE     D+24.4 D-24.0 D-45.1 D-12.7

Bottom line: While Jealous could make a race of it in Maryland, suffice it to say that this lifelong liberal Democrat is voting for Charlie Baker.

Alaska. This is the one state where Republicans are likely to pick up a governorship—by defeating the Independent Walker, who defeated Republican Governor Sean Parnell in 2014 with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor (Brian Mallott). In 2018, Walker will face former Democratic Senator Mark Begich and Republican former State Senator Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy currently leads both Walker and Begich by between nine and 10 points in what “should” be a toss-up (I+0.5). Multi-candidate races are notoriously tricky to gauge, but the likelihood is that Walker and Begich split the non-Republican vote, giving Dunleavy a high-single-digits win.

Conclusion. Democrats need to net eight governor’s mansions to have a 25-25 split nationally. As of September 16, 2018, they appear well on their way to doing just that. They are clear favorites in Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico (and probably Maine), and they are likely also to prevail in Florida, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin. Georgia and Ohio are toss-ups, while Arizona, Kansas and Oklahoma may be just out of reach. Only in Rhode Island do Republicans have even a remote chance of netting a governorship (and Raimondo is still favored), while they will almost certainly flip Alaska from Independent to Republican.

Overall (and with all necessary warnings about polling accuracy, unforeseen events and margins of error), the (very unlikely) worst-case scenario is Democrats net two governor’s mansions, while the (very unlikely) best-case scenario is they net 13 (or more) governor’s mansions. The likeliest outcome is a net of between six and 10 governor’s mansions, with my money on the higher end of that range.

Until next time…

UPDATE: State of play in the 2018 Senate elections

Just as FiveThirtyEight.com released its Senate forecast, I update this post on the outlook for Democrats in the 36 elections for the United States Senate (“Senate”) this November 6 (and beyond, in the Mississippi special election). Feel free to compare and contrast the two.

To be more precise, I am updating the tables and a few paragraphs of text to reflect the following changes:

  1. FiveThirtyEight.com now projects Democrats to win the total vote of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) by 9.0 percentage points.
  2. Since Labor Day, a slew of new polls have been released.
  3. I corrected a flaw in how I weighted time and pollster ratings in the “adjusted pollster averages.”
  4. I now weight my adjusted polling average three times more than “fundamentals.”
  5. For the four Senate races in Table 4 and three Senate races listed as “Wildcards,” I now use the simple average margin in all polls released in 2018, as listed on that election’s Wikipedia page.
  6. I revised how I calculate incumbency advantage.

Just bear with me while I describe my Senate incumbency advantage calculation.

For each Senate election in 2012, 2014 and 2016, I calculated an “expected” outcome by adding the state’s partisan lean (3W-RDM) to the margin by which Democrats topped (or fell) to Republicans in the total national vote for Senate that year (D+0.9, D-5.8, D+12.1 percentage points in 2016, 2014, 2012, respectively). Next, I subtracted that from the actual Democratic margin in each race. I then calculated, for each election year, the average of these differences for the Senate races in which no incumbent sought reelection; open seats elections exemplify “generic Democrat” versus “generic Republican” elections. Next, I averaged the difference between each Democratic, and each Republican, incumbent’s “actual-minus-expected” margin and the open seat average for each of 2012, 2014, 2016. Finally, I took the simple average of these “incumbent-minus-open” differences, separately for Democratic and Republican incumbents, for each of the three year.

Using this new method, on average Democratic incumbency still adds 8.3 percentage points while Republican incumbency adds 9.6 percentage points.

Here is an example using 2016 data. On average, in the five open seat Senate elections that year, the Democratic-minus-Republican margin was 3.9 percentage points higher than would be expected based solely on partisan lean plus 0.9.  The actual margin for the seven Democratic incumbents averaged 10.4 percentage points (or 6.5 percentage points higher than the open seat average), and the actual margin for the 22 Republican incumbents averaged 7.5 percentage points (or 11.4 percentage points higher than the open seat average). Thus, in 2016 the Democratic and Republican incumbency advantages were 6.5 and 11.4 percentage points, respectively. The Democratic incumbency advantages in 2014 and 2012 were 9.8 and 8.5 percentage points, respectively, while for Republican incumbents the values were 1.1 and 16.5 points, respectively.

With that, here are the updated tables:

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 10 Key 2018 Senate Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AZ 12/8 D+4.9 D+4.0/4.1 2.4/2.6 D+4.4 D+5.1 D+4.7
FL 31/16 D-0.2 D-0.7/-0.6 2.6/2.7 D-0.7 D-0.9 D-0.8
IN 4/4 D+3.8 D+2.4 2.3 D+5.3 D+5.3 D+5.3
MO 18/11 D-0.4 D-1.5/-0.8 2.4/2.6 D-1.0 D-0.7 D-0.9
MT 4/4 D+5.3 D+3.6 2.0 D+1.9 D+1.9 D+1.9
NV 9/5 D+2.7 D+1.1/0.7 2.5/2.3 D+1.2 D+1.2 D+1.2
ND 4/4 D-2.8 D-3.8 2.3 D-3.6 D-3.6 D-3.6
TN 15/11 D+0.8 D+0.1/-0.9 2.7/2.8 D+1.6 D+1.2 D+1.4
TX 17/13 D-6.1 D-6.1/-6.0 3.0/2.9 D-5.6 D-5.4 D-5.5
WV 10/10 D+8.2 D+7.2 2.6 D+6.9 D+6.9 D+6.9
AVE 12/9 D+1.6 D+0.6/0.5 2.5/2.5 D+1.0 D+1.1 D+1.1

Table 2: Most-endangered 2018 Democratic Senate incumbents

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
ND Heitkamp Cramer D-12.1 D-3.6 D+8.5 D-5.7
WV Manchin Morrisey D-18.2 D+6.9 D+25.1 D+0.6
MO McCaskill Hawley D+1.4 D-1.1 D-2.5 D-0.4
MT Tester Rosendale D-1.3 D+1.9 D+3.2 D+1.1
FL Nelson Scott D+9.4 D-0.8 D-10.2 D+1.8
IN Donnelly Braun D+1.0 D+5.3 D+4.3 D+4.2
AVE     D-3.3 D+1.4 D+4.8 D+0.3

 Table 3: Most-endangered 2018 Republican-held Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AZ Sinema McSally D-0.7 D+4.7 D+5.4 D+3.4
NV Rosen Heller D+1.5 D+1.2 D-0.3 D+1.3
TN Bredesen Blackburn D-16.8 D+1.4 D+18.2 D-3.1
TX O’Rourke Cruz D-15.8 D-5.5 D+10.3 D-8.1
AVE     D-7.9 D+0.5 D+8.4 D-1.6

Table 4: Once-endangered, now safe 2018 Democratic Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect Wiki Ave Diff WTD
WI Baldwin Vukmir D+18.0 D+11.1 D-9.4 D+12.8
OH Brown Renaccia D+11.5 D+10.2 D+4.5 D+10.5
PA Casey Barlettab D+16.9 D+13.7 D-1.5 D+14.3
MI Stabenow Jamesc D+19.5 D+17.6 D-1.6 D+18.0
AVE     D+16.4 D+13.2 D-3.3 D+14.0

Wildcards. New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez “should” be ahead of businessman Bob Hugin by 29.3 percentage points. However, Menendez “only” leads by an average of 10.0 percentage points in six 2018 polls—and just 6.0 percentage points in three July/August polls. The weighted average of these two percentages is 14.8 (11.8 using the three most recent polls), which is about where the race should ultimately land.

Minnesota Democratic Senator Tina Smith “should” be leading Republican State Senator Karin Housley by 14.6 percentage points; as an appointed senator, I arbitrarily cut her incumbency advantage in half. However, in an average of four polls released in 2018, Smith is ahead by “just” 8.4 percentage points; I currently anticipate Smith winning reelection by around the weighted average of 10.0 percentage points.

Appointed Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is very likely to face former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat, in a November 27 runoff. Hyde-Smith would be expected to prevail over a generic Democrat by 14.2 percentage points, though in four head-to-head polls with Espy, she leads by “only” 7.3 percentage points (and 5.5 in the two most recent polls). The weighted averages suggest Hyde-Smith will prevail by 7.7-9.0 percentage points—though if this race ends up being decisive for Senate control, anything is possible.

nelson scott

The 2018 Florida Senate election between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson (left) and Republican Governor Rick Scott is by far the most polled of all Senate races, and it could easily be the most expensive—and decisive for Senate control.

Bottom line. The likeliest outcomes are still between Democrats losing a net of two seats (flip Arizona; lose Nevada, North Dakota, Florida, Missouri) and gaining a net of one seat (flip Arizona, Nevada; lose North Dakota) with Tennessee and Texas JUST out of reach for Democrats. Still, there is a path for Democrats to recapture the Senate by starting with the D+1 seat outcome and winning any one of North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas.

Until next time…

2018 U.S. Senate elections: the state of play after Labor Day

I have written in broad terms (here and here) about the 36 United States Senate (“Senate”) races which will determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate after the November 2018 midterm elections[1]. Including Independent Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democrats control 49 seats; Republicans hold the remaining 51 seats (now that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has appointed former Republican Senator John Kyl to fill the seat held by the late John McCain). To regain control (assuming Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, would break a 50-50 tie), Democrats need to win a net of two seats on November 6, 2018. And while that sounds relatively easy, bear in mind that 27 of these seats are currently held by Democrats (including King and Sanders), with 10 of those seats in states Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump won in 2016, many by large margins.

In those previous posts, I described the political context of each Senate race (a variation on what the indispensable FiveThirtyEight.com calls “the fundamentals”) using three measures:

  1. State partisan lean (using 3W-RDM[2]): what you would expect the Democratic candidate minus Republican candidate margin would be if the national vote were split evenly between the two parties.
  2. Democratic advantage in the total national vote for United States House of Representatives [“House”]. As of September 4, 2018, FiveThirtyEight.com projects Democrats to win the national House vote by 8.4 percentage points, according to their “Classic” model.
  3. Incumbency. I calculate that, all else being equal, Democratic and Republican Senate incumbents garner 8.3 and 7.5 additional percentage points, respectively.

When I wrote those original posts, the identities of the Democratic and Republican Senate candidates were not yet known, and the polling sat between non-existent and irrelevant. Now, however, it is the day after Labor Day, the traditional starting point for American political campaigns. The field of candidates is effectively set in each state, and a slew of polls (of wildly-varying quality) have been conducted.

My goal here is to compare my “fundamentals” characterization to the actual polling to assess how the Democratic quest to recapture the Senate stands with (at most) nine weeks left to campaign. For 10 especially key races, I calculated a “weighted-adjusted polling average” (WAPA; current margin by which the Democrat leads/trails the Republican), otherwise I used the RealClearPolitics (RCP) average.

Just bear with me while I explain how I calculated WAPA.

First, I collected every poll released in 2018 listed on each race’s Wikipedia page [an exception to my preference to steer clear of Wikipedia]. For each margin I added/subtracted the pollster’s average partisan “bias” (how much, on average, a pollster’s results favor Democrats and Republicans compared to all other pollsters) listed in FiveThirtyEight.com’s pollster ratings. I then weighted each bias-corrected margin by a) how long prior to November 6 it was released (midpoint of days poll conducted[3] divided by 309, the number of days between January 1 and November 6) and b) the letter-grade rating assigned that pollster by FiveThirtyEight.com (on a scale where A+=4.3, A=4.0, A-=3.7, etc.; weights were numeric equivalent divided by 4.3) If a pollster was unlisted, I did not adjust for bias and followed FiveThirtyEight.com and assigned them a C+ rating.

However, because the “polls” WAPA treated all polls from the same pollster as “statistically independent” data points, I calculated a second WAPA for the six races (AZ, FL, MO, NV, TN, TX) in which at least one pollster released multiple polls in 2018. This “pollster” WAPA is the rating-weighted average of the time-weighted, unbiased average margin for each pollster. The final WAPA was the average of the two; only in Arizona and Texas did WAPA differ by two or more percentage points.

For the record, I did not adjust for “likely” vs. “registered” voters in these analyses. While the former tend to be slightly more Republican historically, I have not seen evidence they differ much this year, nor would it materially affect my conclusions.

Table 1: Summary of 2018 Polling Data in 10 Key 2018 Senate Elections

State # Polls/ Pollsters Raw Margin Bias-Adjusted Margin Average Pollster Rating Adjusted

 Poll Average

Adjusted Pollster Average Final Ave
AZ 9/7 D+6.6 D+5.4/5.5 2.4/2.7 D+6.8 D+3.9 D+5.3
FL 29/15 D-0.1 D-0.7/-0.4 2.5/2.7 D-0.6 D-0.5 D-0.5
IN 3/3 D+3.0 D+1.3 1.7 D+4.7 D+4.7 D+4.7
MO 18/11 D-0.4 D-1.5/-0.7 2.4/2.6 D-1.0 D-0.7 D-0.9
MT 4/4 D+5.3 D+3.6 2.0 D+1.9 D+1.9 D+1.9
NV 8/5 D+2.9 D+1.2 2.4/2.5 D+1.5 D+0.8 D+1.1
ND 4/4 D-2.8 D-3.8 2.3 D-3.6 D-3.6 D-3.6
TN 14/10 D+0.7 D-0.04 2.6/2.7 D+1.5 D+0.6 D+1.0
TX 15/11 D-6.4 D-6.6 3.0/2.9 D-6.1 D-4.1 D-5.1
WV 10/10 D+8.2 D+7.2 2.6 D+6.9 D+6.9 D+6.9
AVE 11/8 D+1.7 D+0.6 2.4/2.5 D+1.2 D+1.0 D+1.1

Before I summarize WAPA and compare them to the “fundamentals” in these 10 Senate races, I have observations about the polling itself (Table 1). One, publicly-available polls of these 10 Senate races have had a modest Democratic bias of about one percentage point. The bias is worst (D+1.7) in Indiana, Montana and Nevada, primarily due to the inclusion of at least one poll conducted by SurveyMonkey/Axios, whose polls have a pro-Democratic bias of 4.9 percentage points! Two, the overall quality of polling in these races has been…meh. The average poll within each of these races has been conducted by a pollster with a C+/B- rating. Again, much of this mediocrity can be ascribed to SurveyMonkey/Axios, which FiveThirtyEight.com assigns a D- rating; removing their polls entirely bumps the average rating to a more respectable B/B-. Three, while the Florida, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas Senate races have been polled 14 or more times in 2018, the Indiana, Montana and North Dakota have only been polled 11 times in total (by C-level pollsters, on average)—with no pollster polling the race more than once; the latter is also true of West Virginia, though it has at least been polled 10 times. Finally, only 32 (28.1%) of these 114 polls were conducted in July and August. Granted, polling is even more exceptionally tricky in the summer, when potential respondents are on vacation and/or tuned out of political news. But I still would love to see higher-quality pollsters like Marist, Monmouth and Quinnipiac conduct more surveys of these races soon.


This analysis is divided into five parts:

  1. Safe seats
  2. Endangered Democratic incumbents
  3. Endangered Republican-held seats
  4. Once-endangered Democratic incumbents who appear safe
  5. Wildcards

Safe seats. The good news for Democrats is that 15 of the 27 Senate seats they are defending are safe: all 15 states were won in 2016 by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, they average 14.8 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and each features an incumbent running in what looks like an exceptional year for Democrats. And while I do not expect these 15 Democrats to win by an average of 14.8+8.4+8.3=31.5 percentage points, it would be a historic upset if any of these Senators lost.

And that includes two Senators, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tim Kaine of Virginia, whose states are “only” D+1.5. The “fundamentals” still say each should win by 18.2 percentage points; the RCP averages for these two races (D+22.0 and D+19.3, respectively) suggest they are beating expectations. Also, 2016 Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, the former two-term governor of New Mexico, recently entered that state’s Senate race between incumbent Democrat Martin Heinrich and Republican businessman Mick Rich as a Libertarian, introducing unexpected volatility. Still, in the five most recent polls, Heinrich leads his nearest opponent by about 14 percentage points, below the “expected” margin of 23.2 percentage points, but near-safe nonetheless.

Similarly, four currently Republican Senate seats—those currently held by Roger Wicker (MS), Deb Fischer (NE), Orrin Hatch (UT) and John Barrasso (WY) are certain to remain in Republican hands, even with Hatch’s retirement; 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is a near-lock to win that race.

Endangered Democratic incumbents. Six of the 10 Democratic incumbent Senators running in states Trump won appear vulnerable to varying degrees, according to Table 2. “WTD” is a weighted average of expected (0.33) and WAPA (0.67) margin, and it reflects a “best guess” (albeit with a wide “margin of error”) of what the final outcome will be on November 6; using no weights or weighting polls 3 times more than “fundamentals” does not substantively alter the conclusions.

With one exception, the polling is quite good for these six Democratic Senators, as they are beating expectations (mean=D-3.8) by 5.2 percentage points on average.

Table 2: Most-endangered 2018 Democratic Senate incumbents

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
ND Heitkamp Cramer D-12.7 D-3.6 D+9.1 D-6.6
WV Manchin Morrisey D-18.8 D+6.9 D+25.9 D-1.7
MO McCaskill Hawley D+0.8 D-0.9 D-1.5 D-0.3
MT Tester Rosendale D-1.9 D+1.9 D+3.8 D+0.6
FL Nelson Scott D+9.6 D-0.5 D-10.1 D+2.8
IN Donnelly Braun D+0.4 D+4.7 D+4.3 D+3.3
AVE     D-3.8 D+1.4 D+5.2 D-0.3

 First-term Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who won her first Senate race by 0.9 percentage points, currently appears headed for a mid-single-digits loss to North Dakota’s lone House member, Kevin Cramer. Granted, she is polling 9.1 percentage points better than expected, but that is not nearly enough to overcome North Dakota being R+29.4. Still, there are only three (excluding SurveyMonkey/Axios) polls of this race, and she beat expectations six years ago.


North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp

The good news, however, is that the other five Democratic incumbents are currently no worse than toss-ups.

The most surprising race on this list is Florida; eight months ago, I would have expected Ohio’s Sherrod Brown to be far more endangered. Running as a Democratic incumbent in slightly-Republican-leaning Florida (R+3.4), Bill Nelson “should” be ahead by about 13.1 percentage points (almost exactly his average in three previous races). Republican Governor Rick Scott has actually taken a slight polling lead (R+0.5), though, shifting from about 0.5 percentage points behind to 1.1 percentage points ahead starting in mid-June. As Scott is currently a statewide officeholder, I allotted him half of the 7.5 percentage point Republican incumbency advantage. Nelson “should” still win by 9.6 percentage points—and the weighted average projects a low single digits win for him on November 6.

Claire McCaskill of Missouri is also (slightly) underperforming expectations. The fundamentals make McCaskill the slightest of favorites (D+0.6), but she is currently trailing Missouri’s Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, by 0.9 percentage points. And that average masks the fact she has lost ground since early June (when embattled Republican Governor Eric Greitens resigned, freeing Hawley from deciding whether to indict him), dropping from nearly-tied (R+0.2) to 1.4 percentage points behind. Still, this race is nearly a perfect toss-up (R+0.3).

Joe Donnelly of Indiana, by contrast, has taken a small polling lead (D+4.7) over Republican former State House member Mike Braun in what “should” be a coin flip (D+0.4). Caveat emptor: only been three polls have been conducted of this race (including one by SurveyMonkey/Axios), two showing Donnelly behind by an average 1.5 percentage points while the other has Donnelly ahead by 12 points! Still, a low single digits Donnelly win seems in the cards right now.

Finally, Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin are considered by prognosticators to be in the “Lean Democratic” category, and I agree, even as the fundamentals and WAPA suggest caution. Tester should be losing to Montana’s Auditor, Matt Rosendale, by 1.9 percentage points, while West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey, should be walloping Manchin by 18.8 percentage points! However, Tester’s narrow polling lead (D+1.9—in only four subpar polls) has him eking out a very narrow win. Manchin has a larger polling lead—D+6.9—but that still would have him losing by around two percentage points. Regardless, both men are proven winners in their states, and I think will both win in the mid-single-digits.

Bottom line: Democrats are likely to lose one, maybe two, of these six seats—an improvement over the five or six Republicans envisioned flipping just two years ago.

Endangered Republican-held seats. Four Republican-held Senate seats are in varying degrees of danger of being captured by strong Democratic opponents, according to Table 3: while Democrats should be losing these four seats by an average of 7.6 percentage points, they are slightly ahead in the polls overall.

Table 3: Most-endangered 2018 Republican-held Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect WAPA Diff WTD
AZ Sinema McSally D-1.3 D+5.3 D+6.6 D+3.1
NV Rosen Heller D+2.9 D+1.1 D-1.8 D+1.7
TN Bredesen Blackburn D-17.4 D+1.0 D+18.4 D-5.1
TX O’Rourke Cruz D-14.4 D-5.1 D+9.3 D-8.2
AVE     D-7.6 D+0.6 D+8.2 D-2.1

The retirement of Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, facing a tough reelection against Democratic House member Kyrsten Sinema, turned a toss-up into the Democrats’ best chance to flip a Republican-held seat; the caveat is that Republicans nominated their strongest general election candidate: House member Martha McSally. The fundamentals say McSally should win by about 1.3 percentage points, but Sinema has opened up a 5.3 percentage point lead in the polls; that lead has actually widened slightly since mid-June. A low-single-digits win for Sinema seems a good bet at this point.

kysten sinema

Arizona Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema

The only Republican Senator seeking reelection in a state won by Clinton in 2016 is Nevada’s Dean Heller. The fundamentals back this up, suggesting he should lose to Democratic House member Jacky Rosen by about three percentage points. However, Rosen’s polling lead is “only” 1.1 percentage points, and Heller won reelection to a full term by 1.2 percentage points in 2012, even as Democrats won the national House vote by 1.3 percentage points. That said, this should be a far better year for Democrats, and Rosen seems set to win by a hair under two percentage points.


Nevada Senate candidate Jacky Rosen

When Tennessee Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement, what looked a possible 25 percentage point loss for Democrats became a little less uphill, even if the fundamentals still had Democrats down 17.4 percentage points. And when former two-term Democrat Governor Phil Bredesen entered the race against Republican House member Marsha Blackburn, the early polls showed a lead for the Democrat (D+4.1 through May 2018). However, since June, Blackburn has opened the narrowest of leads (R+0.4); overall, Bredesen leads by about one percentage ahead. Right now, that does not appear to be enough of a lead to overcome Tennessee being R+25.8, and I would expect Blackburn to win in the mid-single-digits.

Finally, Texas Senator Ted Cruz should be ahead by nearly 14.4 percentage points in this R+15.3 state. However, Democratic House member Beto O’Rourke has dramatically reduced that gap with eye-popping fundraising and relentless campaigning. I have suggested Texas could soon be fertile ground for Democrats, and O’Rourke’s (relative) success appears to bear that out. Nonetheless, O’Rourke still trails Cruz by about five points, though this obscures that the gap has dropped from 8.4 percentage points through early July to 3.5 percentage points since then. Overall, I would expect Cruz to win in the high single digits—though Democrats could win a victory of sorts if they force Republicans to invest time and money helping Cruz rather than in vulnerable House races.

Bottom line: Democrats could easily win two of these four seats, with Tennessee and Texas tantalizingly just out of reach.

Once-endangered Democratic incumbents who appear safe. The other four Democratic incumbents representing states won by Trump in 2016, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Brown, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, appear headed for an average win of 14.5 percentage points (using RCP averages), nearly their average “expected” win of 15.9 percentage points (Table 4). Baldwin, who will face State Senator Leah Vukmir, is polling under 10 percentage points (8.0).

Table 4: Once-endangered, now safe 2018 Democratic Senate seats

State Democrat Republican Expect RCP Diff WTD
WI Baldwin Vukmir D+17.4 D+8.0 D-9.4 D+11.1
OH Brown Renaccia D+10.9 D+15.4 D+4.5 D+13.9
PA Casey Barlettab D+16.3 D+14.8 D-1.5 D+15.3
MI Stabenow Jamesc D+18.9 D+17.3 D-1.6 D+17.8
AVE     D+15.9 D+13.9 D-2.0 D+14.5

            a House member James Renacci

              b House member Lou Barletta

              c Businessman John James

Bottom line: These four swing states—three of which Trump won very narrowly—appear to be swinging solidly back toward the Democrats.

Wildcards. Three Senate races—two featuring appointed incumbents—are not (yet) in danger of changing hands, but each could still be interesting.

The fundamentals suggest New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez—in line to chair the powerful Foreign Relations Committee should Democrats recapture the Senate—should be ahead by a whopping 28.7 percentage points. However, the most recent RCP average has Menendez defeating businessman Bob Hugin by “only” 8.3 percentage points (three recent polls show an even closer race). This is almost certainly because Menendez was tried in 2017 on corruption charges, only to have a hung jury. While U.S. District Court Judge Jose Linares ultimately dismissed all the charges, they appear to have cost Menendez more than 20 percentage points of “expected” support. That is still not enough to overcome New Jersey’s strong partisan lean (D+12.0), however, and I currently anticipate Menendez winning by 10-15 percentage points.

When Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken resigned following allegations by numerous women of unwanted kissing and touching, Governor Mark Dayton appointed Democratic Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith to fill the seat. Smith will face reelection this November against Republican State Senator Karin Housley. Because Smith has only served in the Senate since January I (arbitrarily) cut her incumbency “advantage” in half, though the fundamentals still have her winning by 14.1 percentage points. However, the RCP average “only” has Smith ahead by 8.4 percentage points; perhaps voters hold Franken’s misdeeds against her. Nonetheless, I currently anticipate Smith winning reelection by around 10 percentage points.

And…the special election in Mississippi could decide Senate control—in late November. When Republican Senator Thad Cochran resigned for health reasons, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant appointed Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Republican, to fill the seat, making her the first-ever female Senator from Mississippi. Hyde-Smith will run for reelection on November 6 in a non-partisan (i.e., no party labels appear on the ballot) “open primary” against two opponents: Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, a Democrat. If no candidate tops 50% of the vote, a runoff election between the top two finishers—which polls suggest would be Hyde-Smith (simple average=31.2%) and Espy (28.5%), with McDaniel (16.8%) trailing well behind—would be held on November 27, 2018. The fundamentals suggest that a quasi-incumbent Republican Senator should beat a Democrat in Mississippi by 14.1 percentage points, though Espy could certainly make that closer. Still, this race is most likely to be an asterisk—easily remaining Republican—rather than a game-changer.

Bottom line: These three Senate races are intriguing, but the partisan gravity of these states makes it very unlikely any will change partisan hands.

Conclusion. Out of 36 Senate races, only 17 (18, counting New Mexico) are even remotely interesting, and only 10 of them are more than slightly likely to change partisan hands, based on each race’s “fundamentals” (partisan lean, Democratic wave, incumbency) and the current weighted-adjusted polling averages. As of September 4, 2018, Democrats seem likely to lose a Senate seat in North Dakota; retain four vulnerable seats (barely) in Florida, Indiana, Montana and West Virginia; and face genuine uncertainty in Missouri. They also seem likely to flip seats in Arizona and Nevada while falling short in Tennessee and Texas.

Overall—and with all necessary warnings about polling accuracy, unforeseen events and margins of error—Democrats appear poised either to net one Senate seat or to break even, depending on what happens in Missouri. This is NOT a prediction, merely a “best guess” based on available evidence: a net Democratic loss of one or two seats (or a gain of two or three seats) is certainly possible and would still put Democrats in an excellent position to regain Senate control in 2020.

Until next time…

[1] In previous posts, Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi had not yet resigned from the Senate.

[2] A weighted average (2008=16.7%, 2012=33.3%,2016=50%) of the difference between two measures: the state-level and national margins between the Democratic and Republican percentages of the total state/national vote.

[3] If the mid-point fell between two days, I used the later day. For example, if a poll was conducted between May 24 and May 29, the mid-point would between May 26 and May 27, meaning I would May 27.

John McCain and the essential bipartisan impulse

I eagerly anticipated the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 1986 for months. As a 20-year-old political science major and political junkie, Election Day was (and remains) one of my favorite days of the year. Plus, as a lifelong Democrat, I was particularly excited by the prospect the Democrats could win the net four seats necessary to regain control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) for the first time since 1980.

In my memory, I watched a small black-and-white television set in my small room high in the “tower” of Ezra Stiles (my residential college at Yale)—but it is far more likely I listened to the returns on the radio.

Ezra Stiles tower October 1988

It did not take too late into the night to learn the Democrats would actually flip a net of eight seats—giving them a 55-45 advantage. I vividly recall jubilantly shouting “eight seats!” into the telephone at my then-girlfriend, a fellow Democrat.

Somewhat lost in my celebration, however, was that Arizona had elected John McCain, a 50-year old Republican member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”), to replace retiring Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president.

Senator McCain would exist on the periphery of my political consciousness for much of the next 10 years—surfacing mostly as a tangential player in the Keating Five scandal and as a vocal critic of President Bill Clinton’s Balkans policy.

Then, in the spring of 1996, “Focus writer” Scot Lehigh wrote a long article in the Boston Globe[1] speculating that the Republican Party, sensing doom for its near-certain presidential nominee, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, would turn late in its August nominating convention to an entirely new ticket.

Here is the key passage:

Midnight [Wednesday, August 15, 1996]. There’s commotion on stage. The lights dim, and [Republican Party Chair Haley] Barbour walks to the lectern. ‘I’d like to introduce the ticket we hope will lead the GOP on to victory,’ he begins. ‘A former Navy pilot, a Vietnam War hero, a patriot, a stalwart in the Senate, I give you Arizona Sen. John McCain. And with him, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.’ The two senators, still shell shocked by developments, mount the podium. The crowd, not quite believing what it has wrought, responds with some cheers, some hisses, uncertain applause.

For a moment, it appears the convention won’t be won over. Then Dole emerges from the shadows, strides toward McCain and raises the senator’s hand in the air. An explosion of applause wells from the crowd and washes over the stage in appreciation both for Dole’s grace and for the new start he has given his party. In short order, the Arizona delegation moves that McCain and Hutchison be nominated by acclamation – and the GOP has a new ticket.”

This was one of my first hints there was a broader appeal to Senator McCain, certainly in comparison to Dole, who would lose to Clinton 49.2% to 40.7%, winning only 159 Electoral College votes (EV) to Clinton’s 379. However, despite the gloomiest predictions, Republicans actually netted three Senate seats while only losing a net of four House seats. As I have written elsewhere, the Democrats were becoming the “White House” party while the Republicans were becoming the “legislative” party. As usual, federal election data come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and here.

Three years later, Senator McCain announced his candidacy for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, which Texas Governor George W. Bush appeared to have nailed down. McCain vowed to make campaign finance reform—an effort he pursued with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—a centerpiece of his campaign. I remember watching the months leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire primary from neighboring Massachusetts as “maverick” John McCain seemed literally to embody the words on his campaign bus, engaging in freewheeling town hall meetings and gabbing with the press.

straight talk express 2000

I found myself riveted by this Republican Senator who bucked his party on campaign finance reform, called out the tobacco companies for lying about the health risks of their products, and seemed to eschew negative campaigning. As the first nomination votes approached in Iowa and New Hampshire, I was rooting strongly for McCain to face Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey in November. I thought the two men would engage in an honorable, issues-oriented discussion in the fall—sharp-edged at times to be sure—but civil nonetheless. (In the interest of full transparency, I still would have wanted Bradley to prevail).

With no disrespect intended toward Vice President Al Gore or then-Governor Bush, I genuinely believed (hoped?) a Bradley-McCain race would best reflect this statement on my home page:

“I am grateful to everyone who…comments in a respectful way: it really is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”

However, despite McCain upsetting Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, 48.5% to 30.4% while Bradley only lost to Gore by 4.1 percentage points, Bush and Gore were the ultimate nominees. And we all know how that race ended.

Still, McCain’s bipartisan status only increased when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, repeatedly asked McCain to consider being his running mate. And in 2008, when McCain finally achieved his goal of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, his first choice for running mate was Democratic-turned-Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut—Gore’s running mate just eight years earlier. That he rather rashly chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin instead is a serious blot on McCain’s legacy and arguably helped trigger the election of Republican Donald Trump as president in 2016.

By the same token, Senator McCain’s finest moment in the 2008 race, which he ultimately lost to Illinois Senator Barack Obama 52.9% to 45.6% (365-173 EV), may well have been this exchange with some ill-informed voters:

Flash forward to the summer of 2017, when the Senate was nearing a final vote to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”). In what was less a policy argument and more a “restoration of norms” argument, Senator McCain hinted at what would ultimately be a “no” vote. [For the record, McCain mischaracterizes how Obamacare was passed…but his larger point stands.]

In many ways, this was John McCain’s bipartisan curtain call.


During my last session with my psychotherapist, amidst a discussion of these unresolved questions, I suddenly veered into my reaction to McCain’s death. Put simply, this staunch liberal Democrat was utterly heartbroken.

My therapist suggested I am far from alone.

Over the last few days, I watched a series of impassioned tributes to Senator McCain. Former Vice President Joe Biden remembered his close friend in the Senate, recalling how the two former colleagues were admonished in the mid-1990s by party leadership for sitting next to each other during floor debates (an early sign of the slow-motion death of civil political discourse). I teared up at Biden’s everyman eloquence, as I did watching former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, as well as Meghan McCain, eulogize their former political rival and father, respectively.

I urge you to watch each of these speeches and consider not only the extraordinary bipartisan settings in which they were delivered but also that Senator McCain pointedly asked two men who defeated him for the presidency—one Democrat and one Republican—to eulogize him.


It is a hopeful fact that my reaction to Trump’s victory was not to retreat further into my partisan Democratic camp, but rather to do what each of these four speakers above fervently recommended: be an American first and a partisan a distant second while viewing political opponents as fellow citizens who happen to hold different points of view.

And so I close with some of my own recent calls for the bipartisan impulse (if not necessarily results).

For example, in my first substantive post I presented my bipartisan “bona fides,” concluding:

“The point of this stroll through the first half of my life is that as a strong partisan Democrat, I could still find common ground with many Republicans. On a personal level, one of my closest friends in high school was a staunch Republican who loved Reagan as much as I loved Walter Mondale. Mondale was my first presidential vote, in 1984, and still one of my proudest.”

The following June, I reflected on two very different conversations:

“The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

“Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

“The answer may have something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.”

Over the next few months, as noted above, about the three Republican Senators who bravely voted against repealing Obamacare and about the profound lack of civility on sites like Twitter.

This past June, I was at it again.

First, I argued bipartisanship is an act of patriotism, declaring my intention to vote in November 2018 to reelect Republican Charlie Baker as governor of Massachusetts.

“Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

“If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

“Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

“Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong ‘label’ as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

“The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

“Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

“It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.”

One week later, I renewed my call for a bipartisan “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate:

“I have previously called for cross-partisan dialogue—patriotic bipartisanship. After President Trump was elected, I also began proposing a “coalition of the center” to form in the Senate that would wield an effective veto over legislation, forcing broad compromises by both parties. Such a group could consist of “red-state” Democrats like Donnelly, Heitkamp, Doug Jones (AL—R+28.4), Manchin, Claire McCaskill (MO—R+15.9) and Jon Tester (MT—R+18.6); Independent Angus King (ME—D+5.9); and Republicans like Susan Collins (ME—D+5.9), Lisa Murkowski (AK—R+19.2) and, perhaps, Cory Gardner (CO—D+2.2).

“Were this bloc (or even the smaller bloc of Donnelly, Heitkamp, Jones, Manchin, Collins and Murkowski) to insist, unequivocally, that President Trump select…

“’…a consensus nominee to replace Kennedy. “[Senator Heitkamp] told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions…’

“…they would elevate the traditional ‘advice and consent’ role of the Senate above partisan rancor and force both parties to compromise, in effect restoring the judicial nomination filibuster.

“Now, this would infuriate the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump (and President Trump himself) solely for the opportunity to remake SCOTUS in their image (though they still ‘won’ with Gorsuch). And it would disappoint the liberal activists who want every Senate Democrat to resist President Trump at every turn (though this is easily the least-worst nominee they will get in 2018). But those may be the necessary costs of restoring civil order to our public discourse.”

In retrospect, I should have included Senator John McCain in that group—though I could also argue that he was already a key voting bloc all by himself, a rare Senator whose support can make or break legislation by itself.

That one-man bloc is no longer with us, and it is clear why McCain’s death so broke my heart (despite rarely agreeing with him on policy and not voting for him in 2008):

He was the living embodiment of the bipartisan impulse I have strived to articulate for nearly two years, the simple notion that you treat all political opponents with respect and decency, while expecting the same in return (and, yes, there are limits to this impulse).

Without John McCain’s guidance, we each must work harder than ever to embody that impulse.

Rest in peace, Senator. You served your country honorably.

Until next time…

[1] Lehigh, Scot, “Unconventional thinking: Is it possible that Dole might not get the GOP nod?” Boston Globe (Boston, MA), May 19, 1996, pp. 65-67.