Time to check in with Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball team of election prognosticators as the 2018 midterm elections are now under two weeks away, and while Sabato sees Sen. Heitkamp's seat in North Dakota as vulnerable, the rest of the Senate map remains in play with Florida, Missouri and Indiana as true toss-ups that Dems must defend, and two GOP tossups that are vulnerable in Nevada and Arizona. Texas and Tennessee remain in play for the Dems to pick up, as do Montana and WV for the GOP to go after.
On the House side, Sabato sees 20 pickups for the Dems and 2 for the GOP, 18 of the 23 pickups the Democrats would need, still leaving 20 GOP seats as tossups and 1 Dem tossup, and a staggering 33 more GOP leaners that could be picked off compared to just 2 for the Dems. Longer shot races still find 29 more likely House Republican seats in play, with only 10 Dem likely seats in the same condition. The Dems are in excellent position to retake the House.
Having said all that, it's the gubernatorial races that could be the most surprising.
The highlights of this week’s ratings changes come in the gubernatorial races, where we’re moving three additional races into the Toss-up column, giving us a whopping 10 races where we don’t see a favorite with less than two weeks to go. Red states Kansas and South Dakota go from Leans Republican to Toss-up, while Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) moves from Leans Democratic to Toss-up.
Notice that these are all states with decided federal political leans where, nonetheless, the federal minority party may have a chance to steal a governorship. In the case of the minority parties in Oregon and South Dakota, gubernatorial wins would break very long losing streaks: A Republican has not won a governor’s race in the Beaver State since 1982, and a Democrat has not won such a contest in the Mount Rushmore State since 1974. A key ingredient in the potential upset bids of both state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D-SD) and state Rep. Knute Buehler (R-OR) is that they both can point to mainstream (for their respective states) positions on abortion: Sutton does not support abortion rights, Buehler does. Our sense is that both races are very close. Buehler is running against Brown’s management of the state; Sutton is running against Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL) as a Washington insider.
When it comes time to pick these races, as we will, it may be hard to go against the ingrained federal partisanship of each state. But they are very much in play.
The same goes for Kansas, where Democrats have won the governorship recently — for instance, former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-KS) won in 2002 and 2006 before becoming President Obama’s secretary of Health and Human Services. If this race was just a head-to-head contest between Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) and state Sen. Laura Kelly (D), Kelly probably would have an edge. But the presence of independent former 2014 Senate candidate Greg Orman has pushed this race into something of a tie, although some Republicans believe Kobach is a little bit ahead. Kelly has to hope Orman, who attracts something around 10% support, performs worse than that on Election Day, as often happens to third-party candidates. Kelly has the support of several prominent Kansas Republicans against Kobach, who is from the more conservative wing of the party. One challenge for Kelly: In a socially conservative state, she’s pro-choice on abortion.
One other change this week: Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) has seemed very much in trouble throughout the cycle, but polling has shown her taking a stronger lead against her 2014 opponent, Allan Fung (R), as well as former state Rep. Joe Trillo, an ex-Republican who is running as a pro-Trump independent and splitting the vote in a way helpful to the incumbent. A group backed by the Republican Governors Association recently stopped running ads in the Ocean State, signaling that Raimondo’s path to a second term is clearer. We’re moving Rhode Island from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.
So now we’re left with 10 gubernatorial Toss-ups, a situation similar to four years ago, where many gubernatorial races (although fewer) were up in the air at the same point of the cycle.
A quick word on all the current Toss-ups:
Of the three races we just moved to Toss-up, Kansas seems like it might be the likeliest to flip, but we also remember how embattled Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) was left for dead in 2014 but won anyway. However, that year featured a GOP-leaning national environment, whereas this one does not. If one goes by the polls, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers (D) may be a tiny favorite over Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). The same is true of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) in his open-seat Florida race against former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R, FL-6), as well as state Attorney General Janet Mills (D) in Maine, where she faces businessman Shawn Moody (R) and a couple of independent candidates who may hurt her more than Moody. We don’t have even a slight lean at this point in Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio. In Georgia, we think a runoff is likelier than not.
One final note: Late last Friday, Gov. Bill Walker (I-AK) dropped out of the Alaska governor’s race. He remains on the ballot but his exit makes former state Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) position a little less secure against ex-Sen. Mark Begich (D). We moved that race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, but it remains the GOP’s best opportunity to win a governorship the party currently does not hold.
Overall, Democrats are going to net governorships, and perhaps many, but a lot of the individual races remain up in the air.
Oregon is always unpredictable, as is Alaska, and it's a shame that Ben Jealous isn't getting more help in Maryland against Larry Hogan. But for Kansas, Iowa, and South Dakota to be in play right now really feels good. Dems are already poised to pick up Michigan, New Mexico, and Illinois, and it's entirely possible that Dems could pick up eight more seats, vitally important going into 2020 and the Census.