MikeBraun

Senate: Geography is Destiny – Part II

It’s difficult to analyze the meaning of Senate race results without knowing the outcome of the contests in Arizona and Florida. For that matter, the special election in Mississippi has gone to a November 27 run-off and while Republicans are favored, the race is considered uncalled.  Thus, three contests remain to be decided, making the current Senate breakdown, 51 Republicans and 46 Democrats. 

At this point, Republicans have scored a net gain of two seats, having defeated Democratic U.S. Sens. Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp, while Democrats picked up the seat in Nevada where Democratic U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen unseated GOP U.S. Sen. Dean Heller. Republican gains are at the outside edge of our pre-election range of D +1 to R +2.  If they pick up one of the three remaining seats, Republicans would start the next Congress with 52 seats, they would have 53 seats if they two of three and 54 if they sweep all three.  A 54-seat Republican majority wasn’t ever on the radar of even the most optimistic operative.

One of the premises we have talked about all cycle is that if Republicans won a majority of the seats in the Toss Up column, then geography would be political destiny because it meant that Democrats lost the seats they were defending in red states. If, on the other hand, Democrats won the majority of the Toss Up races, then the political environment was the driving force in the election. Right now, Republicans have won four of the nine Toss Up races, while Democrats have won three. Without the results in Arizona and Florida, the question of which political dynamic prevailed is difficult to answer.

So what about Arizona and Florida? In Arizona, there appear to be about 320,000 paper ballots that need to be counted in Maricopa County (Phoenix) at this writing. No one expects any resolution to this contest before early next week, if that. Florida is going to a recount that will involve a machine recount and probably a hand count in some counties if not statewide. And again, don’t expect any resolution soon.

There is one observation that can be made without Arizona and Florida: the Senate has become even more polarized as the three Democratic incumbents who lost re-election are being replaced with freshmen members who are more conservative. Sens. Donnelly, Heitkamp and McCaskill were considered moderates, while their successors, businessman Mike Braun, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer and Attorney General Josh Hawley are all considered very conservative. In Tennessee, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is more conservative than the Republican she is succeeding, retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. With the loss of at least three moderates, the Senate Democratic Caucus has become more progressive.

By Election Day, Democrats were defending four seats in red states: Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota (while President Trump carried Florida, it was just by a point, making it more of a purple state). Republicans picked up three of them, losing just Montana where Democratic U.S. Jon Tester only got 50 percent of the vote. So, how did Tester survive while others didn’t? According to Democratic strategists, Tester had two big advantages. First, he is well defined, meaning that it was hard for Republicans to land crippling blows simply because voters weren’t that open to attacks. Tester also had what one strategist called the best ground game of any of the red state incumbents, acknowledging that it is easier to deploy a sophisticated plan in a state with a small population and early voting than it is in a bigger state like Missouri that doesn’t have early voting. And second, Rosendale didn’t start the race with a positive image, and there were plenty of lines of attack. This is one state, though, where Trump’s four visits helped Rosendale close the gap, but it wasn’t enough to pull him across the finish line. The same argument could be made in West Virginia where Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin won re-election with 50 percent of the vote to 46 percent for GOP Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

There were a few surprises on election night. The early vote in Indiana showed a solid turnout in Indianapolis and among African-American voters, but unexpectedly high turnout in rural areas swamped the early advantage Donnelly had built, giving Braun a 52-percent win.

There was a lot of talk about the “Kavanaugh effect” playing a major role in some of these races. We would argue, though, that it was a factor but not the sole contributor in the outcome of any one race. In Missouri, the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court breathed new life into Hawley’s campaign. He suddenly became a more confident and energetic candidate, while his campaign started raising the kind of money he needed to run an effective race. While we’ve heard many observers blame Heitkamp’s loss in North Dakota on her vote against Kavanaugh, that vote was really just the last straw for many voters who were already unhappy with Heitkamp’s votes against tax reform and repealing Obamacare. Kavanaugh did seal the deal for Blackburn in Tennessee, allowing her to open up a lead against former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen; she won the race with a very healthy 55 percent.

In the end, the races in New Jersey and Texas didn’t produce any surprises. Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez won with 53 percent, but that was far below his 59 percent victory in 2012. Still, it didn’t amount to the toss up contest Democrats believed it to be two weeks out. We took a lot of grief for having the Texas race in Toss Up, but what we knew about O’Rourke’s field organization versus Cruz’s led us to believe that even if O’Rourke didn’t win, he’d make it close. Cruz’s allies always argued that it was a 10-point race. We couldn’t find another GOP poll in the state that showed similar results. O’Rourke held Cruz to 51 percent while taking 48 percent. The last time a Democratic candidate cracked 45 percent in a statewide race in Texas was in 2002 when John Sharp took 46 percent in the Lieutenant Governor’s race.

Apart from Arizona and Florida, there is also the run-off in the special Senate election to fulfill the remainder of former GOP U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s term. Since no candidate got 50 percent, appointed GOP U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Espy move on to a November 27 run-off. Hyde-Smith finished first on Election Day with 41.5 percent followed by Espy with 40.6 percent; the two are separated by 8,424 votes with 98 percent of the precincts reporting. Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel played spoiler, getting 16.5 percent of the vote, robbing Hyde-Smith of a majority. Democrats haven’t signaled their intentions as to what kind of resources they will spend in the run-off, but their preoccupation with Florida and the possible run-off in the Georgia Governor’s race doesn’t bode well for Espy. The run-off is a long shot at best for Democrats, and there are only 18 days remaining before voters head back to the polls, which doesn’t give them much time to help Espy. Hyde-Smith went on the air Wednesday with her first run-off spot. Today, she is favored to win on November 27.

There will be more to say about Senate contests once Arizona and Florida are decided. In the meantime, look for 2020 Senate ratings next week.

Image: Mike Braun | Credit: AP Photo/Darron Cummings