Limbering up for November. / Garrett Rooney.
Sean McElwee,  February 23

The Midterms and the Turn Leftward

Some perspective on the 2018 elections

Limbering up for November. / Garrett Rooney.
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Pundits traditionally treat elections like sports, touting candidates’ win percentages like vital statistics—just recall the constant refrain about Tim Kaine’s perfect electoral record during the 2016 presidential campaign. But in 2018, as the tattered American republic prepares for the spectacle of the midterms, we would do well to remember the stakes. It is not an exaggeration to say the fate of American democracy is in play. A Democratic House could check Trump’s authoritarian impulses and stop the Republican Party from further transferring the nation’s wealth to the richest 1 percent. With that in mind, this piece runs through the biggest battlefields this year.


Democrats will take the House, probably winning around forty seats. Despite what you’ve heard, Democrats won’t just be winning upscale suburbs, but will pick up a basket of seats, ranging from highly educated and upscale to working-class and rural. They will make their biggest pick-ups in ten key states, though CA, FL, NY, PA, and TX alone will deliver enough seats. Here’s how.

California

D pick-ups: Up to 10

California offers the most potential seats with seven Republicans holding seats in districts Clinton won (the 21st, 39th, 49th, 25th, 45th, 10th, 48th, in order of margin), two of which will be vacated when Darrell Issa and Ed Royce retire at the end of this year. Another three seats are within range (the 22nd, 4th and 50th, in order of margin)—due mostly to scandals embroiling the incumbent: Duncan Hunter is currently under FBI investigation and was outraised by multiple Democrats trying to unseat him; Devin Nunes’s hijinks have led him to being up on a generic ballot by a mere five points; and Tom McClintock famously scurried out of a town hall in the face of criticism for supporting ACA repeal.

Democrats will pick up a basket of seats, ranging from highly educated and upscale to working-class and rural.

In addition, the top-two primary system—in which candidates from both parties run in a primary and the top two-candidates, regardless of party, proceed—means it’s increasingly likely that both the Senate and governor’s race will include two Democrats. California political analysts insist this won’t happen, but most polling suggests the outcome is plausible for both statewide elections, and it’s not clear that the state Republican Party is organized enough to stop it, given that they recently fought over whether they should sanction each other for accepting the science behind climate change. If the GOP is shut out of the top-two, the result would be disastrous for them. In 2014, Democrats ran an unknown candidate for governor top of the ticket in Nevada—he advanced to the general by default after “None of the Above” won the Democratic Primary—costing them both chambers of the legislature; the GOP may not have such luck this time. With Democrats mobilized by two competitive races and anger at Trump, it’s possible Republicans may stay home, wiping out incumbents. However, Democrats also will need to get some candidates to drop out, to avoid splitting the vote and losing out to a sole Republican.

New York

D pick-ups: Up to 7

The New York GOP is in a similar situation to California Republicans, minus the top-two primary. Republicans are having trouble finding strong challengers against either Cuomo or Gillibrand, both of whom have gobs of money to spend and a powerful incentive to pad their margin—if they want to make a strong case for a presidential bid, that is. There is only one district that Clinton won that’s held by a Republican, the 24th, but Democrats are making plays in some ancestrally Democratic districts now held by Republicans that could easily be up for grabs if the bottom falls out for the GOP.

In New York, California, and New Jersey, the GOP tax plan could easily jam up incumbent Republicans, as upper-middle-class, college-educated voters feel that the GOP tax plan is hurting them. It’s possible that New York will have laxer voting laws in time for elections, which would further benefit Democrats.

Pennsylvania

D pick-ups: Up to 6

Pennsylvania may be the state with the most interesting 2018 dynamics. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently struck down the state’s wildly gerrymandered districts, and after several attempts by the GOP to usurp the Court’s authority, the state will have new maps. North Carolina and Texas also have districts that courts have ruled unconstitutional but unlike PA, their rulings are based in federal constitutional law, meaning it’s likely the Supreme Court will dither until after the 2018 elections. In PA, the challenge is based on the state constitution, meaning the state will have new districts before the vote.

The Court-drawn maps were unveiled this week, and they’re good for Democrats. To be clear, that is not because they are a Democratic gerrymander (we know this because Democrats submitted their ideal map, and it would give them an extra seat). However, Republicans are freaking out because they’ve grown accustomed to being able to win twelve of the state’s eighteen districts, despite Pennsylvania being essentially a fifty-fifty state (Trump won 49 percent of the vote in 2016 and Clinton won 48 percent). In the new map, eight districts are Clinton districts and ten are Trump districts.

Even without the ruling, PA is looking strong for Democrats, with the 6th, 7th, and 8th districts all in range—the first two were won by Clinton and the third Trump won by less than a percentage point—and the 15th and 16th both plausible pick-ups. Now, Democrats are looking at four Clinton-won seats held by Republicans: the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th. The 5th is an almost certain D pick-up now being a 63/34 Clinton district. Democrats also have decent shots in the new 17th and 1st, with a long-shot chance in the 10th. The median winnable district moved significantly left, and it’s plausible Democrats will make several pivotal pick-ups in PA on their path to the House.

The redistricting shook up the ongoing primary in the 16th, where Jess King and Christina Hartmann were battling for a shot at what would have been a plausible pick-up (a 51 Trump, 44 Clinton district). However, after the redistricting, this area became the 11th and the more Democratic Reading was spun off into the 16th, meaning the new district will be incredibly difficult—almost impossible—to win (61 Trump, 35 Clinton). King has confirmed on Twitter she’d run in this new 11th, but it’s unclear whether Hartman will stay in this race or try for another district. A bigger priority for the left is ensuring that anti-immigrant DA John Morganelli doesn’t win the 7th district Democratic primary, especially because a real left-winger could win in this district. The redistricting also leaves Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone fighting over a district that won’t exist in 2018—the campaign was always highly symbolic, but Lamb will need to find another district to run in if he actually wants to be a congressmember. One possibility is the 17th, but he would need to move to the left to win the primary there.

While we’re in PA, it’s worth noting Bob Brady is retiring under an FBI probe for bribing a primary challenger to drop out. Brady infuriated state Democrats after he worked with the GOP to ensure his district didn’t have enough black voters to encourage a primary challenger. Nina Ahmad was running before Brady retired, but this new district (being the product of a white supremacist gerrymander) has vanished, so it’s unclear what her next move is. Democratic alliances with white supremacy have had important electoral consequences, and Brady’s retirement is another sign of the party’s move left.

Texas

D pick-ups: Up to 5

Democrats love talking about turning Texas blue, with each election since 2002 when Latino multi-millionaire Tony Sanchez ran for governor and popular black mayor of Dallas Ron Kirk ran for Senateheralded as the one when the tide will finally turn. In 2018, it’s unlikely that Democrats will win the governorship—Abbot has amassed a massive war chest—but they have a decent shot at a half-dozen House seats, with the chance of sending a new woman to Congress for the first time since Kay Granger was elected in 1996.

Three Texas districts (the 23rd, 32nd, and 7th) are held by Republicans but went for Clinton, and all face competitive primaries. In the 23rd, Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Filipina Air Force vet who supports Medicare for All, is running as the left-wing choice, with the backing of national organizations like EMILY’s List, while Jay Hulings has influential state-level support in the Castro Brothers.

In the 16th, a solidly Democratic district being vacated by Beto O’Rourke for his Senate run, progressive Veronica Escobar is facing off with Dori Fenenbock, a lifelong Republican backed by Republican donors running in the Democratic primary.

In the 7th, the DCCC recently made waves by releasing opposition research against a Democrat running in the primary, Laura Moser. The last time the DCCC released opposition research against a Democrat in a primary it was Joe Baca, a Blue Dog who later flipped to the Republican Party. The move has baffled observers and may well bolster Moser, who had out-raised the party’s favored pick, Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher, in the fourth quarter.

New Jersey

D pick-ups: Up to 4

Here, two powerful Republican incumbents have retired—Frank Lobiondo in the 2nd and Rodney Frelinghuysen in the 11th—and Democrats are optimistic about both districts. The 11th is a Republican-held district that Clinton lost by less than a point, but Democrats are hopeful about Mikie Sherill, who has a strong fundraising advantage. Trump won the 2nd by five points, but the Democratic Party is thrilled about its top recruit, Jeff Van Drew. The left wing of the party has balked at the fact he voted against gay marriage in 2012 and has voiced support for loosening gun restrictions, and Van Drew is facing a primary challenger from the left.

On the top of the ticket, Democrat Robert Menendez faces awful approval ratings, but is no longer dogged by corruption charges. If he holds on, he’ll probably be re-elected, but unless he’s primaried the top of the ticket won’t be helping Ds down-ballot. New Jersey may also have more open voting laws in 2018, due to the recent gubernatorial victory of Phil Murphy.

Florida

D pick-ups: Up to 5

Two of the most vulnerable Republican seats are in Florida, where so-called “moderate” Republicans hold the 26th and 27th districts, which Clinton won by sixteen and nineteen points respectively. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retired, leaving the 27th as the Democratic Party’s best pick-up opportunity. Carlos Curbelo will run for re-election, and has garnered support from an unlikely place: the Florida Democratic donor class.

Florida will also host high-profile gubernatorial, Senate elections, and statewide ballot initiatives (to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people) that could bolster Democratic turnout. An influx of Puerto Rican migrants could make Florida ripe for a good Democratic year, and another dynamic to watch will be increasing feelings of linked fate among Latinos. If 2018 is the year Florida finally turns blue, however, it will be largely in spite of its state Democratic Party.

Michigan

D pick-ups: Up to 5

Michigan Republicans hold no Clinton districts, but Democrats are still targeting several districts, most notably the 11th where David Trott retired. There are five Democrats in the district and all pulled in $100,000 or more in the fourth quarter. The primary speaks to the current tenor of the Democratic Party and the coming death of Blue Dogism, with multiple candidates branding themselves as the “true progressive.”

The primary speaks to the current tenor of the Democratic Party and the coming death of Blue Dogism, with multiple candidates branding themselves as the “true progressive.”

In addition, Michigan is hosting an important gubernatorial election, where Abdul El-Sayed is running a populist left-wing campaign and refusing to take corporate PAC money. If the El-Sayed and Gretchen Whitmer primary galvanized Democratic turnout, there will be benefits down-ballot. However, the primary has gotten uglier, following reports that El-Sayed may not be eligible to appear on the ballot.

There has never been a Muslim woman in Congress or a Muslim governor, and Michigan is notable for having Muslim women running both for Congress (Fayrouz Saad, in the 11th and Rashida Tlaib, in the 13th) and for governor (El-Sayed).

Illinois

D pick-ups: Up to 4

There is only one district in Illinois that Clinton won currently held by a Republican (the 6th) but Democrats also have their eyes on three others (the 14th, the 13th and the 12th, in order of Trump margin). The top of the ticket race will likely be the most expensive gubernatorial race in history, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker ready to spend virtually unlimited sums against incumbent Bruce Rauner, himself wealthy enough to self-fund gobs of money and backed by billionaire Ken Griffin, also ready to shell out tens of millions on Rauner’s behalf. In order to get the backing of Mike Madigan, the kingmaker in Illinois, Pritzker promised to invest millions on down-ballot races, which could reap rewards. However, Pritzker also carries risks: he’s a billionaire and he has ties to Rod Blagojevich, which has led to embarrassing recordings being dug up, including of him using racially charged language.

Illinois is also the home of the most interesting intra-Democratic primary, where Marie Newman is challenging Dan Lipinski, in a Democratic primary for Illinois’s 3rd district (55 percent Clinton, 40 percent Trump). Lipinski has openly campaigned for Republicans, he’s one of the most reliable anti-immigrant votes on the Democratic side and he’s unabashedly anti-choice, literally co-sponsoring one of the most draconian anti-abortion bills in recent years and repeatedly voting to defund Planned Parenthood. He is anti-LGBT rights, refused to endorse Obama in 2012, didn’t vote for the ACA, and said  “Donald Trump will be the champion of immigration reform.” Daily Kos deserves credit for being the first to endorse in this race, and since then other groups have hopped in, starting with NARAL and DFA with EMILY’s List, SEIU, and Planned Parenthood endorsing in February. In a rare move, Senator Gillibrand endorsed against Lipinski in December, and fellow members of the Illinois House delegation Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutiérrez endorsed Newman as well in January. If Lipinski falls, it will further entrench the leftist wing of the party and solidify its future. Expect more aggressive primary challenges to the Democrats most out of line with their districts, too.

Virginia

D pick-ups: Up to 4

2017 saw the potential for left victories in Virginia, with Democrats taking the governor’s mansion with a definitive margin and making big down-ballot pick-ups. The 10th state house of delegates district which Democrats picked up covers much of Barbara Comstock’s district, which, combined with Clinton’s ten-point margin over Trump in the district, makes her one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the country. Democrats are also hoping that the 2nd, 7th, and the 5th are winnable.


These are far from the only places Democrats will pick-up seats. In any wave the party picks up a wide range of seats, and Democrats will need to win back some Obama -> Trump seats, as well as performing well in the Romney -> Clinton districts. There is evidence this will happen: in post-2016 special elections, Democrats have performed best in the Midwestern districts that cost them the election. We’ll see pick-ups in states like North Carolina and Ohio, where Democrats are investing big in redistricting, as well as states like Kansas, where disastrous policies by Republican politicians have brutalized the state. Democrats even have a decent shot at pick-ups in deep-red, rural states like Indiana and West Virginia, where frustrations about opioids and health care will send voters toward authentic Democratic candidates.

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst and writer. He tweets at @SeanMcElwee

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