At long last, we’re down to one week before Election Day. This is a time when strategists and junkies pace as candidates engage in last minute tactics (some of them ethical) to get out the vote. And much is on their plate.
While Democrats seem assured of making momentous gains in the U.S. House of Representatives, big-state governorships and state legislative chambers, control is now certain to elude them in the one area they want it most: the U.S. Senate. The upper chamber has control over nominations which means Democrats would, numerically at least, be on par when it comes to battling the Trump administration, particularly on the all-important Supreme Court. But for that to happen, the party would have to run the table and gain two seats in order to reverse the current 51-49 Republican majority. The lay-of-the-land, that being the map of states holding Senate contests, is daunting because a majority of the battles are being fought on heavily red turf in states held by Democratic incumbents. Therefore, a few scenarios await. While there is a small chance for Democrats to get to a 50-50 tie (which should leave them ecstatic), more realistic outcomes is that they’ll be relegated to breaking even (which would be a relief), losing one seat (not a catastrophe given that the ’20 cycle is on more favorable terrain) or potentially losing more, which would be very uninviting and more and more catastrophic the further they get from their current 49.
My call is that the Republicans will retain control with 51 seats and perhaps 52, while Democrats will be left with 48 seats and perhaps 49. Why the discrepancy. Because I am copping out on calling Arizona. This has been such a rancorous and bitter campaign with so many variables that the outcome appears to be a real nail-biter. Thus, venturing a guess might be worthy, but making an educated prediction purely fool’s gold and I’ll illustrate that below. For that reason, it’s a good old fashioned pick’em.
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<strong>The rapidly changing dynamics of the Arizona’s Senate race leads me to categorize that race as a “pick’em.”
Photo via kyrstensinema.com</strong>
That said, let’s look at the race-by-race dynamics of each seat that is ferociously up for grabs, starting with the endangered seats currently held by Democrats.
Even before the 2016 election, there was no doubt that Heidi Heitkamp would have among the most challenging races of any Democrat facing the voters this cycle. She only won her first term by 3,000 votes and Trump carried North Dakota by 36 points. Sure enough, Heitkamp fell behind her Republican rival, Congressman Kevin Cramer, early this summer and has only dropped more precipitously since September (some polls have her trailing by 15 points). Heitkamp had hoped her very likable style which even Cramer concedes is a hallmark, would be enough for voters to overlook her party but that prospect has all but evaporated. Heitkamp was aided by more than 12 million dollars that flowed her way following her vote against Judge Kavanaugh but money was never an issue. She wasn’t helped when her campaign inadvertently revealed the names of over a hundred victims of sexual assault, including dozens who had not consented.
Because the state is only represented by a single Congressman, the constituency is very familiar with both candidates. Despite the grim odds, Heitkamp is putting up a major fight and ex-Vice-President Joe Biden is scheduled to do a number of stops for her. The state’s Native-American community has been galvanized by a recent Supreme Court ruling upholding a state law mandating voter identification. Democrats insist the race is within low single digits but the state’s partisan lean seems too much for Heitkamp to overcome.
<strong>Crass’s Call: </strong><strong>Kevin Cramer (R) 54% Heidi Heitkamp* (D) 46%</strong>
Claire McCaskill is also on the edge of precipice and in this case, it may be a test of urban versus rural that decides her fate. Republicans wooed young Attorney General Josh Hawley into the race (he just won the post in 2016) and McCaskill has hit him hard over the issue of pre-existing conditions. McCaskill knows she can’t win without winning over at least some voters outside of Democratic friendly constituencies, and exhibit a of that came most recently when she referred to colleagues Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as “crazy liberals.” That does not appear to be political speak as McCaskill has long had base consolidation issues, particularly with the African-American community who argue that she hasn’t used her bully pulpit effectively enough to champion their interests. But McCaskill also was among the only vulnerable Senate Democrats to come out against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court even before the sexual harassment allegations (she cited his ideology).
McCaskill has long been well-respected in the Senate for her oversight and tell it like it is style (she was once referred to as “Truman in a skirt”), but the fact is, the state has sharply turned against her brand. There is no question McCaskill is down though polls make it difficult to ascertain how much. Folks say a five point deficit might be too much to make up on Election Day though the St Louis and Kansas City area will come in big for her. The question is whether it is enough counters rural Missouri. If I had to call it, I’d say she is nosed out in the biggest heartbreaker of the evening for Democrats.
<strong>Crass’s Call: Josh Hawley (R) 48% Claire McCaskill* (D) 47%</strong>
Joe Donnelly is the one deep red state incumbent for whom the forecast is entirely uncertain. The Indiana Democrat has tried – many say successfully, to combine an engaging personality with a centrist image. Furthermore, while the Republican with the least baggage, State Senator Greg Braun, emerged from a three-way primary, that said little as most were not thrilled with the lot they had to choose from.
Donnelly seemed to be proving that case through September as he maintained an edge over Braun. But Kavanaugh and a vicious ad barrage may have changed that and even Democrats concede Donnelly has fallen behind, though are quick to point out that he is still within the margin of error. Donnelly has been trying to appeal to Republicans by noting that he voted for Gorsuch and does not favor the abolishment of ICE. At a recent debate, he even raised eyebrows among his own party by refusing to rule out voting for a moratorium on birthright the president has been promoting. Braun meanwhile, who often sheds the sports jacket when he campaigns, emphasizes his outsider image. Democrats insist undecideds will break Donnelly’s way and are encouraged by high turnout in areas such as Marion County (Indianapolis) in the early vote. If polls are to be believed, he’ll need every one of them as this is a true tossup, and may well finish the closest of the close Senate races.
Crass’s Call: Joe Donnelly* (D) 49% Greg Braun (R) 47%</strong>
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<strong>Joe Donnelly’s race could literally go either way</strong>
<strong>Photo via Joe Donnelly’s Twitter Feed</strong>
Jon Tester is one incumbent that Democrats that both parties feel is now headed to reelection kind of a relief for Democrats who fear that he too would be on the bubble. The ultimate nominee for Republicans, state auditor Matt Rosendale was not the first choice but Republicans, led by President Trump, have made multiple efforts to prop him up (Tester had earned Trump’s wrath by opposing the nomination of his personal physician, Ronnie Jackson as Veterans Affairs Secretary citing qualifications). Tester’s strength is farmer image and his closing argument has reminded voters of an accident at the age of nine when a meat grinding accident cost him three fingers. Rosendale, on the other hand, has generated heat for being an outsider, he hails from Maryland, and that’s not particularly an asset in Big Sky County.
Democrats typically see a downturn as the election draws near (Tester led incumbent Conrad Burns by a comfortable margin weeks before Election Day yet ultimately prevailed by one point). Thus, no Democratic Montana can breathe until all the ballots are counted but, Tester recently told a Politico reporter, “damn right I think I’m going to win.” With a majority of Montanans casting their ballots early, it seems likely that at least some attention is shifting to the states At-Large Congressional race.
<strong>Crass’s Call: Jon Tester* (D) 50% Matt Rosendale (R) 45%</strong>
One incumbent who is not sweating all that much is the man who sits in the biggest Trump state of all among Senate races up this cycle – Joe Manchin. The President took 68% in West Virginia there but Manchin, as a former two-term governor, has long since built a record of trust with voters. He has kept major distance from the Democratic Party (he was the only Democrat to support Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination) and was even a candidacy for purging by the Trump administration as the president dangled the prospect of a cabinet appointment over him.
Manchin’s opponent is Attorney General Patrick Morrisey but despite trying, has not been able to land a hammer on any feet of clay he feels the incumbent may have. The incumbent looks well positioned here and Democrats better enjoy it. Given the state’s rapid demographic shift, Manchin, 71, may be the last Democrat to win a Senate seat here for decades.
<strong>Crass’s Call: Joe Manchin* (D) 54% Patrick Morrissey (R) 43%</strong>
There is a sixth seat that has ginned up unexpected trouble and that is Florida. Until this past Spring, outgoing GOP Governor Rick Scott dangled political watchers over whether he’d jump into the race and he could afford to – he had two things, money and near-universal name recognition. Nelson on the other hand has been an institution in Sunshine State politics but has always had a laid-back campaign style that made Democrats nervous. They had reason to be as Scott initially established nominal leads. It soon became clear that Nelson would need all of his assets: his long-term popularity and the national trend to counter Scott and, after a very rusty start, he appears to be getting it (the governor’s race that African-American Andrew Gillum stands a good chance at winning is expected to draw further votes to Nelson). Republicans say this one is far from locked up and Scott keeps dipping into his personal fortune to fund the campaign but, Nelson has overperformed in the past (an unexpectedly 55% in 2012) and many are breathing easier about this one.
Crass’s Call: Bill Nelson* (D) 52.5% Rick Scott (R) 47.5%</strong>
There are a few Republican held seats that are important parts of the equation.
At the earliest point in the cycle, the one state Democrats expected to flip early on was Dean Heller, who holds the only Republican seat up this year that Hillary Clinton carried. A Trump midterm, the party reckoned, would mean a slam-dunk for Heller’s opponent, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen. But Heller has proven to be one dogmatic incumbent and in a Vegas-style move that was full high-rollers, has embraced Trump (“whatever you touch turns to gold”), a statement even more eyebrow raising because Heller had withdrawn his support of Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. Heller meanwhile was not helped by Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s contention that the administration supports building the durable Yucca Mountain nuclear waste sites which most Nevada politicians of both stripes oppose (Harry Reid famously called it the “screw Nevada law”),but the few who don’t do so at their peril. That led iconic Nevada columnist Jon Ralston to quip, “Poor Rick Perry didn’t get the memo and accidentally told the truth.”
Early voting has been well-underway in Nevada. Heller has been dominating the rurals but they are small and Democrats have been holding their own in normally Republican Washoe County where Heller needs to win. Clark County (Vegas) is the Democrats firewall and so far, Democrats appear to be getting their numbers. Hence, I’d rather rather be Rosen at this point than Heller.
Crass’s Call: Jacky Rosen D 48% Dean Heller* (R) 46%
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<strong>Nevada’s senior Senator is one GOP incumbent who has been through Heller and high water this cycle
Photo via the United States Senate</strong>
At that time, Arizona was the other GOP held seat Democrats thought they could wrest away but that is shaping up as expected at the time, into a dogfight which one week out, offers anything but clarity. Democrats anointed three-term Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema while Republicans, after fending off two rivals very far to the right, tapped her two-term colleague, Martha McSally. Sinema has done a complete political metamorphosis since her days as a Ralph Nader supporter, compiling a pro-business voting record that is actually to the right of most House Democrats (Sinema has raised eyebrows by refusing to state whether she’d vote for her party’s nominee for governor). This isn’t stopping Republicans have been relentless at reminding voters of her past, including her wearing a pink tutu during the Iraq War, appearing to encourage folks to join the Taliban (which cost her the endorsement of the State Trooper’s Association), of calling her state “crazy” and the, “meth lab of democracy.”
But Sinema has baggage against McSally, including audio of her saying, “Let’s get this fu—ing thin done” just before the House vote to repeal Obamacare (now McSally acknowledges she “is getting my ass kicked,” over that vote, which means she’d likely win a cussing competition hands down.
The ads have diminished Sinema’s front-running status but not to the point of no return. She has regained her footing in polls though, the candidacy of a Green candidate complicates the math. This is one race that might take days to sort out – Arizona has a large number of ballots that are not counted right away and the majority of those are from Maricopa (Phoenix) and Pima (Tucson) counties. McSally knows this full well as she initially trailed Ron Barber before securing a 133 vote victory in 2014. And Democrats, behind in early voting, have much ground to make up. Typically, that happens later.
<strong>Crass’s Call: Pick’em</strong>
For a while, Tennessee seemed to be confounding the pundits. When Democrats wooed ex-Governor Phil Bredesen into the race following Senator Bob Corker’s retirement, he immediately vaulted into a lead. But most pundits thought it would be simply a matter of time before the Volunteer State’s Republican proclivities overtook him and though it did take a surprisingly long time (Bredesen hung on in polls through mid-September), Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn has passed him, though it’s not clear how much.
Bredesen appears to have been given at least one lifeline. Singer Taylor Swift’s endorsement produced 65,000 new voter registrations just before the deadline, a margin that could easily make the difference in a statewide race (getting all those voters to show is a horse of a different color). Plus, some cite a hidden effect from folks who won’t admit publicly that they are voting for him but ultimately will. Bredesen also tried to woo right leaning voters by announcing that he would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh had he been in office, which earned the fury of left leaning voters.
Bredesen aides believe the race will be decided by two points either way and the president will be holding an election eve rally in the Volunteer State which wouldn’t be happening if the GOP felt the race was locked up. Still, early voting is already off to a rapid pace and one would think most minds will have been made up by that point.
The bottom line: Bredesen has not been totally written off but the math given the state’s political lean seems to suggest that Blackburn will hold the seat.
<strong>Crass’s Call: Marsha Blackburn (R) 51% Phil Bredesen (D) 47% </strong>
I know of no one who actually will go on the record and predict that Beto O’Rourke will actually unseat Ted Cruz but in this case, horseshoes and hand grenades apply- close does count.Congressman Beto O’Rourke has electrified the state like no other candidate. It has meant visits to the state’s 254 counties – no easy feat, and crowds. He has raised $38 million.
</em><em>The Texas Tribune</em> reported recently that, “The state’s five largest counties have all nearly doubled the turnout compared to the same point in 2014.Some counties — like El Paso, Williamson and Cameron — have already surpassed the overall voter turnout during the entire two-week early voting period in 2014.” Even O’Rourke would have to concede that this is not a result of his charm and charisma, which he has. Much is a reflection of the mood and the man he faces. One longtime GOP strategist uttered perhaps the understatement of the century by saying O’Rourke is “liked” more than Cruz. This year’s Texas race reminds me of North Carolina where Jesse Helms faced Harvey Gantt in 1990 in a nationally watched race. Helms was despised to the point that some Republicans hoped he’d lose but, the Helms framed the race in conservative vs. liberal terms and while the state was changing, it was not ready for a liberal Democrat (much less an African-American). But the times were changing and eventually the state changed as well (Obama carried it in 2008).
Unlike many, I don’t rule an upset as totally implausible but, I just don’t see it as occurring. A bigger question is what the future holds for Beto O’Rourke.
Crass’s Call: Ted Cruz* (R) 50% Beto O’Rourke (D) 47%