Sabatos Crystal Ball

Final picks for 2018

Democrats in House; Republicans in Senate; Democrats big in gubernatorial races; be on guard for upsets

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 5th, 2018

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— Sorry, friends, but you are going to have to actually read this one.

— Our full list of ratings changes is available here.

Our best guesses for Tuesday

The 2018 midterm has long been a study in contradictory signs. There is, for Republicans, the benefit of running at a time of relative peace and prosperity. Unpopular wars and economic recessions have spelled doom for the president’s party in many past midterm elections. But then there is also the weak approval rating of President Trump, who thanks to his deliberately polarizing style has kept the GOP base in line but strongly alienated Democrats and, perhaps more importantly, independent, swing voters. Democrats have held a steady lead in the high single digits on the national House generic ballot polling, a lead suggestive of a potential House flip but not one large enough to indicate that such a flip is an absolute lock.

There is the shifting political landscape that emerged nationally in 2016, with some traditionally Democratic blue collar small cities and rural areas across the North moving toward Trump and the Republicans, and some traditionally Republican suburbs dominated by voters with high formal educational attainment breaking sharply away from Trump and the GOP.  Those latter areas make up a significant share of the competitive House districts, many of which seem poised to deliver for Democrats on Tuesday, although some Trumpy, traditionally Democratic turf is part of the Democratic House calculus too.

There are the competing maps in the battles for major statewide offices. In the Senate, Democrats are defending 26 seats while Republicans are only defending nine. In the gubernatorial races, the Republicans are defending 26 seats while Democrats are only defending nine. We’re expecting vastly different overall results in the Senate and gubernatorial contests.

Our expectations for this election have been consistent for the past several months. We favor the Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate, and we expect the Democrats to pick up a significant share of governorships. Our picks[1] follow.

We’ve also included an “upset watch” listing in each category to flag some potential surprises that we didn’t pick in our ratings but that might emerge on Election Night.

THE HOUSE

Table 1: Final Crystal Ball House ratings

Note: Districts shaded by color of current party control (red for Republicans, blue for Democrats.

Our ratings changes leave 229 seats at least leaning to the Democrats and 206 at least leaning to the Republicans, so we are expecting the Democrats to pick up more than 30 seats (our precise ratings now show Democrats netting 34 seats in the House, 11 more than the 23 they need). We have long cautioned against assuming the House was a done deal for the Democrats, and we don’t think readers should be stunned if things go haywire for Democrats tomorrow night. That said, it may be just as likely — or even more likely — that we’re understating the Democrats in the House. Many of our sources on both sides seemed to think the Democratic tally would be more like +35 to 40 (or potentially even higher) when we checked in with them over the weekend.

Those who think the Republicans can or will keep the House will think we are being overly aggressive in some of our ratings. For instance, we now have Democrats favored in all four of their takeover opportunities in New Jersey. If Democrats come through, they will hold all but one of the House seats in the Garden State, sending the GOP to a low in the state’s congressional delegation not seen in more than a century. Democrats netting three seats in Virginia might also seem high to some, along with Democrats netting four combined seats in heartland states Iowa and Kansas.

On the flip side, those who think the Democrats will win the House comfortably will quibble with some of the seats that we’re picking the Republicans to hold. We don’t have Democrats winning any new seats in Georgia, where Democrats are hoping to net a couple of suburban seats, and we have Democrats netting only a single seat in Florida despite the party having a few other credible targets there. If Democrats netted three seats in Pennsylvania, as our ratings indicate, that might be a mild disappointment for them, too. We have something of a split decision in California, with Democrats picking up four seats, a little short of their ideal scenario. Those looking for the Democratic number to go higher might look to these places to exceed our expectations.

Upset watch: Speaking of California and Florida, Reps. David Valadao (R, CA-21) and Carlos Curbelo (R, FL-26) have long seemed like two of the most secure Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won, and yet both may have been ill-served by the president’s hard emphasis on immigration down the stretch. Curbelo losing actually would not be much of a surprise; some Democrats expect it. Valadao losing would be more surprising. Reps. Don Young (R, AK-AL), Duncan Hunter (R, CA-50), Steve King (R, IA-4), Greg Gianforte (R, MT-AL), and Chris Collins (R, NY-27) are all Republicans in usually safe seats who are being pushed for myriad reasons; it may be asking too much for all of them to win, but that is what our ratings suggest.

Also, watch Reps. Mike Kelly (R, PA-16) and Scott Perry (R, PA-10), who both face credible opponents in redrawn, Trump-won seats. It wouldn’t surprise us at all if one lost. Two Republicans who won very close special elections earlier this cycle, Reps. Karen Handel (R, GA-6) and Troy Balderson (R, OH-12), are also right on the edge of losing.

While his race has attracted zero attention, Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) represents the most Republican district held by any Democrat — Trump won it by about 30 points. It would be shocking if Peterson lost, but it would make sense in the larger scheme of things. Meanwhile, also in Minnesota, most are assuming Republicans pick up the open MN-8, a Trump-won seat covering the Iron Range. And yet the district’s Democratic DNA is deep enough that a Democratic hold remains a possibility. And an open Democratic-held seat, NH-1, is always competitive and has not been quite as easy of a hold as Democrats might have hoped.

For a list of all 435 Crystal Ball House ratings, please take a look at the chart at the bottom of our ratings page.

THE SENATE

Map 1: Final Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Because of the bad map Democrats faced this year, the GOP picking up seats always seemed like a possibility, even a strong possibility. Our final ratings reaffirm this potential; we have 52 Senate seats at least leaning to the Republicans, and 48 at least leaning to the Democrats. If that happened, the GOP would net a seat.

The potential GOP gain would come from places that make sense: We have them favored in three of the five strongly Republican states that have Democratic senators running for reelection: Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. Meanwhile the two Republican-held seats where we now favor Democrats, Arizona and Nevada, are much more competitive states at the presidential level and thus are susceptible to Democratic takeovers in a challenging environment for Republicans.

The reasonable range of outcomes in the Senate still seems fairly wide, with a bigger GOP gain possible, or no gain at all or even a Democratic gain. The Democrats still essentially have no path to the majority without winning one of these three states: North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas, and the Republicans retain what appear to be edges in all three.

Upset watch: An overall upset pick to watch would be the Senate majority itself: Democrats winning everything where they are currently favored, plus Indiana and Missouri, and then one of North Dakota, Tennessee, or Texas. It’s not likely but it is possible: Just this morning, NBC News/Marist showed Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) up by three points, and the same pollster had Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) up a couple of points last week.

And then there is the Lone Star State. We have been flooded with messages from credible contacts in Texas, from both sides of the aisle, warning us not to discount the possibility of an upset by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). The energy on O’Rourke’s side, they say, is palpable. This all may be reminiscent of the grassroots energy that helped power Trump himself to victory in 2016. Of course, analysis by anecdote isn’t always the right formula; while measuring crowd size might’ve helped navigate the last presidential race, it can deceive, too, like back in 1972 when the reporters following George McGovern (D) to big rallies smelled a massive upset brewing against President Richard Nixon (R). McGovern lost in a landslide. So we don’t know if the buzz is real, but we’ve heard enough of it that we’re paying attention.

On the other hand, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) has been a shaky Leans Democratic in our ratings the whole cycle. Would anyone be shocked if he lost? He’s never won a majority and if Donnelly and/or McCaskill end up losing earlier in the evening, it would make some sense that Tester would be in trouble too. Also, Democratic outside groups have put a little bit of money into appointed Sen. Tina Smith’s (D-MN) bid for a first electoral victory and a lot of money in Sen. Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) bid for a third term. And of course, Republicans could end up winning any of Arizona, Florida, or Nevada, but any one of those happening wouldn’t really be an upset in races we’ve listed as Toss-ups for about a year or more until now. If so, it will likely be the actual Election Day vote (as opposed to the early vote) that would save the Republicans in these races, much like how in 2016 Republicans did very well on Election Day across the country.

THE GOVERNORS

Map 2: Final Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

For all the focus on the House and the Senate, the real story of the night may be in the gubernatorial races, where we see the Democrats poised to make big gains.

Right now, the Republicans hold 33 governorships, the Democrats just 16, and an independent, Bill Walker holds Alaska. Our ratings suggest the Democrats could net 10 governorships, while the GOP could lose nine (we favor Republicans to pick up Alaska, which throws off the net change statistic a little bit). That does not include Georgia, where we are maintaining a unique “Toss-up/Leans Runoff” rating in anticipation of a possible runoff on Dec. 4 if neither major party candidate gets a majority. If the runoff happens, just think about how much money former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) might raise from the Democrats’ hyper-active small donor network. This is something that concerns Republicans if there’s a runoff.

More than half of the Democratic pickups could come in the Midwest. While we think the GOP could claw back one or two of these states — Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin are the picks we’re the least confident in – we thought the data and the year’s overall trends pointed to the Democrats in each of these states individually. Besides the national environment, there may just be a fatigue with eight years of conservative GOP rule in places like Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, particularly in a time of conservative governance in Washington. The public is idiosyncratic and often wants what it doesn’t have; the same dynamic helped Trump win many states in the Midwest after eight years of a liberal Democratic president.

Upset watch: The Republicans have a real shot to pick off Connecticut or Oregon, two blue states agitating for fresh leadership. The Democrats could very well spring an upset in red states Oklahoma and South Dakota. The gubernatorial races follow traditional political patterns less than the federal races. And keep an eye on Alaska, which has tightened considerably since Walker left the race, leaving a matchup between former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R) and former Sen. Mark Begich (D) that the latter definitely has a chance to win.

Conclusion

We know, dear readers, that many of these picks — though hopefully not too many — will be off. But we pick all the races because we believe you deserve our best guess as to what will happen in each contest.

One last thing. A couple of months ago, we featured a handful of political science forecasting models that attempt to predict the net change in the House, and a couple of them also try to project the Senate. More details on the models are available here, and their findings are in Table 2:

Table 2: Political science model predictions of 2018 congressional race

While we did not deliberately fit our seat-by-seat projections to mirror these models, our picks do line up fairly well with them, although we’re slightly closer to the smaller forecasts for Democrats in the House than the larger ones. And note that the two models that are more bullish on Democrats in the House still also forecast a modest GOP gain in the Senate, which is also what we’re expecting. A poll-based model from Ipsos on our jointly-run Political Atlas site shows a similar House gain to what we’re suggesting as well if one assumes that the model’s Toss-ups break about evenly.

We’ll be back sometime on Wednesday with a quick reaction to tomorrow night’s results.

A disclaimer

[1]The Crystal Ball picks represent a collaborative, consensus effort between Editor-in-Chief Larry J. Sabato and Managing Editor Kyle Kondik with the help of many special advisers from both parties who have been with us for years (you all know who you are, and we enormously appreciate your help once again). There are two exceptions: Sabato deferred to Kondik on the pick in KY-6, because Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) is Sabato’s former student, and Kondik deferred to Sabato on the pick for Ohio governor because Kondik used to work for former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray (D).