Sabatos Crystal Ball

How’d we do?

Longstanding picks of a Democratic House, significant Democratic gubernatorial gains, and GOP Senate pan out

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball November 7th, 2018

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It took a lot of Krazy Glue, but we think we pieced the Crystal Ball back together, reassembling after 2016 shattered us and just about every other prediction group.

As of this writing, early Wednesday afternoon, and with many uncalled House races remaining, the real-time seat projections from both the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight were suggesting that the Democrats would win a 229-206 majority in the House, for a net gain of 34 seats, exactly the seat change we picked in our final selections.

Democrats built their new majority in part by persuading voters in many Republican-held districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election to elect Democratic House members. Of the 25 Clinton-won GOP districts, Democrats have won at least 14 and very likely will win several more. But Democrats also will win a similar number of districts won by Donald Trump, including upsets against Reps. Dan Donovan (R, NY-11) on Staten Island and Steve Russell (R, OK-5) in Oklahoma City. Another surprising Democratic win came in Charleston after Rep. Mark Sanford (R, SC-1) lost his primary. But for the most part, the seats the Democrats flipped were ones that we projected to flip.

If indeed the final tally in the House is 229 Democrats and 206 Republicans, that sets up another competitive battle for the House in 2020, when Republicans (under this scenario) would need to net a dozen seats to win back the majority. A good thing for Democrats is that many of the suburban seats they picked up in this election — CO-6, MN-3, VA-10, and others — probably will be relatively easy to hold with Donald Trump on the ballot, and the Democrats did not max out their potential seat gains. Meanwhile, Republicans will focus on unseating several Trump-district Democratic incumbents they were unable to credibly challenge this year and clawing back some of their losses in less Clinton-friendly suburban areas as they plot their own path to restore their shattered majority.

We spent the whole cycle arguing that the lopsided Senate map, one of the worst that any party has had to defend in the history of Senate popular elections, made the Republicans considerable favorites to hold the upper chamber and potentially even add seats, and that’s what happened. While Arizona remains uncalled (and Florida probably is headed to a recount, although the GOP appears to be in the driver’s seat), it seems like the GOP could be headed for a three-seat net gain. If Republicans do get to three, it would give them 54 Senate seats, meaning Democrats would need to win at least four seats to flip the Senate in 2020, depending on which side wins the presidency. As we noted prior to the election in a lookahead to the 2020 Senate map, it will be hard for Democrats to scrape together such a gain next time. That’s particularly because Tuesday night’s results, where three dark-red state Democrats in Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota were wiped out and two others in Montana and West Virginia only won narrowly, are a very bad sign for the lone remaining Democrat in a heavily GOP state, Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), who will face the voters in November 2020. (A million things can happen before 2020 — we get it.)

A couple of supposedly close Senate races that the Crystal Ball never rated as Toss-ups, New Jersey (D) and Tennessee (R), ended up not being close. Meanwhile, we warned readers on Monday to watch out for a more impressive result than expected from Beto O’Rourke (D) in Texas, and he turned in a strong showing, losing by about three points. His performance had to have helped the Democrats net two House seats and contributed to other Democrats giving the GOP a scare in several more. Texas may not yet be reaching swing state status, but the dormant Democratic Party there is regenerating in the Trump era.

There will be one more Senate race, a Nov. 27 runoff between Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and former Clinton administration Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (D) following Tuesday night’s all-party election. The combined two-party vote in the first round of voting was approximately 58% Republican and 42% Democratic; our Likely Republican rating there remains operative.

Meanwhile, Democrats appeared to net seven governorships, an impressive tally although not quite as big as Democrats would have hoped. Still, flipping Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin gave the Democrats some marquee victories. Republicans are heartened to have held two big prizes, Florida and Ohio, although they also apparently found themselves on the wrong end of yet another very close gubernatorial election in Connecticut for the third consecutive election. That pales in comparison, though, to Democratic agony in Florida: The Democrats have lost three straight Sunshine State gubernatorial races by about a point each time. As of this writing, it appears as though Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) might avoid a runoff in his race, the one contest we left as a Toss-up in our ratings. Republicans also held their own losses to half a dozen by winning Alaska, but because the Last Frontier has an independent governor, that does not impact the Democrats’ seven-seat net gain.

It may be several weeks before the final outcome is known, at least in some of the closest House races.

But very soon it will be on to 2020. Expect Democratic presidential candidates, and there will be many of them, to start jumping into the race before the year is through. If they’re as smart as many appear to be, they’ll step back first and study the 2018 results. Some candidacies will be encouraged, but others will not. Future Crystal Balls will elaborate!

Thanks again to the hundreds who helped us see through the fog over the last two years. We deeply appreciate it, and your feedback will always be welcome.