According to a Monday report in The Politico, Republicans are plotting a full-on Donald Trump-assisted blitz to hold onto their narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate. An interesting proposition to make with a reliably unreliable president!
Despite some troubling-for-Republicans trend lines in Democratic turnout in two major special elections, the GOP is apparently going all-in on putting Trump at the forefront of its campaigns:
Republicans will lean most heavily on Trump in five deeply conservative states where the president remains highly popular and where he crushed Hillary Clinton: West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. But they say they will also deploy Trump in the next tier of swing states that Trump won more narrowly: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. And they expect him to help preserve GOP seats in Nevada, where he narrowly lost, and in Arizona.
In fact, despite his unpopularity on the national level, Republicans insist there isn’t a state on the Senate map where they are nervous about deploying Trump. Republicans reason that opposition to Trump is already baked into the Democratic electorate. They figure Democrats will be motivated to vote whether Trump shows up or not, so they might as well use him to fire up their base, too.
Figuring that Democratic voters will turn out in big numbers irrespective of Trump’s visibility in individual campaigns is probably a safe assumption given the anti-Trump sentiment driving those voters to the polls in huge numbers. But it seems like another question entirely whether Republicans can overcome both that enthusiasm among people looking to vote Democrat and Trump’s deep unpopularity.
As the wonks have been ever-persistent in reminding us, recent special elections where Trump publicly supported Republican candidates (even if, in some cases, he was reportedly badmouthing them in private) have not gone well for him. From FiveThirtyEight last year, just after Doug Jones’ improbable victory in Alabama:
The Democratic margin has been 12 percentage points better, on average, than the partisan lean in each race. Sometimes this has resulted in a seat flipping from Republican to Democratic (e.g. in the Alabama Senate face-off on Tuesday or Oklahoma’s 37th state Senate District contest last month). Sometimes it has meant the Democrat barely lost a race you wouldn’t think a Democrat would be competitive in (e.g. in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District in June). Sometimes it’s merely been the case that the Democrat won a district by an even wider margin than you’d expect (e.g. in Pennsylvania’s 133 House District last week).
The point is that Democrats are doing better in all types of districts with all types of candidates. You don’t see this type of consistent outperformance unless there’s an overriding pro-Democratic national factor.
And to be clear, although there have been more special elections on the state level, the pro-Democratic environment is quite clear if you look only at federal special elections. There have been seven special U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections so far this year. The Democrats have outperformed the partisan lean in all of them.
One special election is not enough to draw midterm conclusions from, but when it fits so clearly into an existing pattern, it’s safe to say something’s going on. Counting Tuesday’s result, Democratic candidates in federal special elections have now outperformed the normal partisan leans of their state or district by an average of 17 percentage points. In recent midterm election cycles, that number has tracked closely with the eventual national popular vote for the U.S. House.
In other words, the result in Pennsylvania 18 is just the latest indication that Republicans are in trouble. The best predictors of midterm strength we have — President Trump’s approval rating, the generic ballot, congressional retirements and special elections — all are saying the same thing. In fact, of those, special election results may suggest the rosiest future for Democrats.
That said! Democrats have their work cut out for them, and they historically have a habit of fucking it up at the last second. As the New York Times notes, for Democrats to take back the Senate, they’ll need to defend 28 seats and flip two more. Republicans just need to hold onto eight. Good luck?