A Late Nudge Toward Democrats?

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on November 2, 2018

Heading into the final weekend before the midterms, you have to wonder whether in the last week fate has thrown another election-changing event our way in the form of the tragedy in Pittsburgh.

Building up through last summer, it seemed that we were headed toward an outcome of Democrats scoring a net gain of between 25 and 45 House seats, and the chances of Democratic gains north of 45 seats seemed greater than gains south of 25 seats. It looked extremely likely then that the Republican majority in the House would fall. In the Senate, Democrats had a plausible chance of picking up the two seats needed to win a 51-49 majority, but Republicans were always more likely to hold on. One of the most likely scenarios was no net change in the Senate, with a single seat gain or loss on each side also a distinct possibility. The odds of Democrats scoring the net gain of two seats and winning a Senate majority seemed just 1-in-3.

Then the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination seemed to move the needle nominally away from Democrats and more toward Republicans in the House—not so much diminishing Democratic chances of gaining the 23 seats necessary to capture a majority, but seemingly lowering the ceiling of Democratic gains, more like 20-40 than 25-45. But the Kavanaugh nomination battle triggered a major momentum shift in favor of Republicans in the Senate. The fight—what I called a “color-enhancement event,” making the reds redder and the blues bluer—definitely worked to the benefit of the GOP because most of the competitive Senate races were in conservative Republican states. Any Democrat needing the votes of any appreciable amount of Republican voters took a beating after Kavanaugh. Democratic chances of a Senate majority practically evaporated, maybe to just 5 or 10 percent post-Kavanaugh.

Now we are faced with trying to figure out whether the horrific and tragic synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh changes anything—the shooting itself, as well as President Trump’s less-than-deft handling of it. Let’s face it, of all of Trump’s qualities, he definitely has an empathy gene missing in his DNA. Whether it is hurricanes, mass shootings, or whatever else, he can’t seem to master the skill of connecting with people during times of tragedy in the way that President Clinton did after the Oklahoma City bombing or President George W. Bush did after 9/11. We have seen his numbers dip in recent days. He seems to have a tin ear for such moments.

There are those who are quick to blame Trump for anything and everything, but the case that he has contributed to a decline in civility and public discourse is hard for anyone other than the most adamant of Trump backers to deny. Since last weekend, it’s hard to be thinking about a strong economy and declining unemployment when we have pipe bombs being mailed to Democratic leaders, an anti-Semite shooting up a synagogue, and a racist trying to break into an African-American church but instead shooting people in a Kroger.

Many campaigns have stopped polling and we are trying to analyze something that happened just a few days ago, but it seems like we are seeing a bit of a movement back toward Democrats in public and private surveys—not back to where we were pre-Kavanaugh, but nominally back in that direction. It might average just a point or two, but we do seem to have more movement from right to left than from left to right. There is too little data to quantify the amount of movement, but there does seem to be some.

So where are we going into the final weekend? To offer up a ridiculously wide range of House outcomes to construct a mental bell curve, it seems really likely that Democrats pick up at least 20 and maybe as many as 50 seats in the House, with a 30-40 range most plausible. If I had to hang it on a single number, let’s call it a 35-seat gain for Democrats at the top of the curve. It’s not so much whether the overall turnout is high or low—and it does look like we may have a modern-record-level turnout for a midterm election—but which groups disproportionately vote that is the key and unknowable factor at this stage.

A similar bell curve in the Senate with a ridiculously wide range would be anywhere from Democrats picking up two seats—a distinctly unlikely but possible outcome—all the way to an equally unlikely outcome of Republicans gaining four seats. The most likely outcome would be Republicans picking up one seat or no net change, like if each party captures three seats from the other side, or each takes two seats from the other. This defies the modern trend of between 70 and 90 percent of Senate races rated as Toss-Up breaking in the same direction, but when have we seen a map as lopsided as this one, while at the same time we have a wave breaking in the opposite direction? Republicans are more likely to gain than lose seats, but probably not much.

Realistically, Democrats picking up a small majority in the House, one probably smaller than the current GOP majority, and a Senate staying Republican 51-49 or even 50-50 with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a lot of ties, is not likely to have gigantic policy consequences, particularly with President Trump still able to wield a veto pen. The significance on Capitol Hill would be House Democrats being able to schedule floor action and to a certain extent frame the policy debate, wield the gavel in committees and, of course, call oversight hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents.

It is in the states where there is the potential for real policy changes. We could see Democrats plausibly gaining anywhere from four to 10 net governorships, with a six-to-eight-seat gain most likely, some in some pretty key states. It would be equally plausible for Democrats to gain somewhere between 400 and 600 state legislative seats, potentially tipping between five and 11 state legislative chambers. Aside obviously from 2021 congressional and state legislative redistricting implications, the aggressively conservative policy agenda pursued in many states by GOP governors and state legislative majorities—particularly in those captured in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections—may become muted in some places and reversed in others. Quite a few Supreme Court cases that Democrats and progressives have become so concerned over were on the constitutionality of laws and policies in those states; those cases may be fewer and farther between if Democrats score big gains Tuesday.