Judgment Day Is Nearly Here: A Midterm Overview

Election Day is nearly here, and Americans – with Mississippians possibly excepted — will soon be casting the final ballots of the 2018 election cycle. Wild predictions of a blue wave in the House have calmed to more tempered forecasts of a GOP loss in line with historical averages. Some even say Republicans could maintain control of the lower chamber. (The Senate appears to be out of reach for Democrats.) The one universal point of agreement from all sides is that the results will be a referendum on President Trump’s wild first two years in office and determine whether his voters remain onboard or are fleeing for the exits.

Trump’s strategy throughout these elections has been clear: A vote for Republicans is a vote for him. “I’m not on the ballot,” he said in Mississippi earlier this month. “But in a certain way, I’m on the ballot. So, please go out and vote.”

This is the key, according to party insiders, to turning Trump voters — who may not otherwise be politically active in midterm races — into GOP voters. The president has been on the stump across the country, particularly since the end of August, though mostly in support of Republican Senate candidates. RealClearPolitics ranks the Senate races in Montana and Missouri, where he has visited, as “tossups.” And Minnesota, where he has also visited, is ground zero for both Republicans and Democrats looking to flip House seats.

A Trump campaign spokesperson told RCP earlier this year that the president is “the greatest campaigner in history — in either party” and that’s a mantra Republicans are pinning their hopes on come Tuesday. On the stump, the president has emphasized key issues, including the tumultuous nomination of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, illegal immigration along the Southern border and even Democrats’ threats of impeachment.

At a September rally in Montana, Trump said that if he is impeached it’ll be because supporters didn’t go out and vote Republican. “I’ll be the only president in history [where] they’ll say, ‘What a job he’s done! By the way, we’re impeaching him,’” he told attendees.

That prediction may not be too far off the mark. Talk of impeachment proceedings have circulated among Democrats since almost the start of Trump’s presidency. Rep. Maxine Waters of California has long called to “impeach 45” despite pleas from her party’s leadership to tamp down such rhetoric.

“Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted in response to Waters’ comments earlier this year. The tweet also included a link to an article about Waters’ calls to harass Trump officials. ”As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea,” Pelosi added.

The House minority leader — who is eyeing a return to the speaker’s office if her party takes control of the chamber — has continued to try and curtail impeachment talk. Likewise, regarding a possible impeachment of Kavanaugh, Pelosi said it would not be in her plans.

However, Democrats do have a lengthy list of agenda items they intend to pursue should they retake the majority, starting with a slew of investigations. Pelosi told CNN that Democrats have to be strategic in these investigations, and need to be focused on “seeking truth.” She also ticked off legislative objectives, including stricter gun laws and addressing high-cost health care.

This possibility of a split legislative branch — with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate — appears to be the most likely outcome, according to political analysts. This is in part due to an unfavorable Senate map for Democrats, with 26 seats being defended, a handful of them in states Trump easily won in 2016. Republicans, meanwhile, are defending just nine seats, with only Arizona and Nevada looking like vulnerabilities for them. RCP has both of those races rated as tossups.

The idea of a Republican-held Congress is not outside the realm of possibility, though. RCP’s Sean Trende laid out a potential scenario for this. His state-by-state analysis showed a path giving Democrats a pickup of 22 seats — just shy of the 23 they need to reclaim the majority. Trende says this is not the most likely scenario, but one that is entirely plausible.

“Republicans have to catch some breaks, but they don’t have to catch breaks in ways that shock and surprise us,” he wrote. “We can still assume that suburban districts move against them, which they almost certainly will. We can even include some surprising Democratic wins.”

The University of Virginia’s Kyle Kondik also wrote about a possible GOP-controlled House after Tuesday and said that an old theory about midterm performances could actually end up in the party’s favor.

“Historically, one of the factors that sets up the presidential party to lose House seats in the midterm is that they often over-perform in the presidential year, winning a number of seats with the help of presidential coattails that they subsequently have trouble defending in the midterm,” Kondik wrote last week. “But Trump and the Republicans didn’t actually enjoy any surge in 2016: They lost six net House seats.”

Republican retention of both chambers would likely be seen by the administration, and the party overall, as a confirmation of the president’s first two years in office. It would also likely leave Democrats in a tailspin as they continue to try and regroup in the wake of 2016’s shocking result.

One underreported category of the 2018 races, where Democrats appear poised to emerge victorious, is gubernatorial contests. Republicans face the exact opposite problem here as they do in the Senate. The party is defending 26 seats compared to Democrats’ nine. Of the 11 states RCP ranks as tossups, only two are currently held by Democrats and one — Alaska — is held by an independent. Three states in the “leans Democrat” column — Maine, Michigan and New Mexico — are currently governed by Republicans, meaning the party could experience significant losses on this level. Illinois, also currently governed by a Republican, is rated “likely Democrat.”

Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy wrote two weeks ago that the best-case scenario for Democrats is a pickup of six to eight seats, while the worst case would be a three- to four-seat gain. She attributed the smaller number possibility to Republican base voters getting energized a few days out from the election.

Statehouse victories and gubernatorial wins have been a big component of the Republican Party’s rise to power since 2010. Democrats making inroads on this level could make up for any lackluster performances in Congress, particularly since the next round of redistricting is set to take place in two years. Democratic leadership in some of these states could help redraw maps in their favor.

Tuesday will be a day of reckoning for both parties – and for Donald Trump. And, perhaps even more importantly, it will provide the first indicator of how both Democrats and Republicans will seek to position themselves as 2020 comes to the political forefront.

Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics’ White House correspondent.

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