The Senate 2018: Potential Warning Signs?- Part 2

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., administers the oath to the members of the House of Representatives as the 115th Congress convenes at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. With the GOP now in control of the White House, the Senate, and the House, Republicans are expected to begin dismantling eight years of President Barack Obama's Democratic policies, including his signature health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In yesterday’s entry, this writer looked at the vulnerable GOP and Democratic seats in play this year.  Also looked at was the Trump effect and fundraising.  Today, I look at the role of incumbency, Senator approval, independents and issues likely to shape these races.

One factor is incumbency and the Senator’s approval rating in their state.  The average among the ten Democratic incumbents running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016 is 43.5.  They range from a low of 40% (McCaskill and Stabenow) to a high of 50% (Tester). But, only McCaskill has has an upside down approval/disapproval rating with Heitkamp being evenly divided.  This indicates the importance of independents and some of that means Trump’s popularity among this voting group in these states is of importance. In all the states except West Virginia, Trump has a net negative approval rating among independents.  As concerns independent voters, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the GOP (read on).

Of the key issues, one of importance is noteworthy- the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.  One poll found that large margins of independent and Republican voters in Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia are in favor of confirmation.  Putting Heitkamp, Donnelly and Manchin on the record is of utmost importance for the Republicans in these three key states, either now or through a vote on confirmation before Election Day.  Incidentally, although his reelection is two years away, getting Doug Jones on record in Alabama (the other state polled where there is heavy support for a Kavanaugh confirmation) is an important step for reclaiming that seat in two years.

As for other issues, across every state overall, health care, the economy/jobs, immigration, and the situation with North Korea all register with at least 20% of voters.  Taxes came close at 19%. However, in the key swing states, the economy/jobs came in first with 34% with the other three also rounding out the top four with at least 20% of voters, although health care drops to fourth.  Issues like Russia and climate change barely register more than 10% if they register at all in the minds of voters. Hence, donations by people like Tom Steyer’s NextGen PAC seem to be wasted dollars.

Before anyone believes that keeping the Senate is a foregone conclusion- or even strengthening control- because so many Democratic incumbents in key states are up for reelection, they would be well-reminded that Trump has motivated Democrats in 2018, perhaps more than Republicans are motivated.  Although incumbent approval rating surveys indicate a general dissatisfaction with the current status quo, including the incumbents, most analysis shows that the all important independent voter leans towards one party or the other.

One major factor affects the voting behavior of independents besides the usual metrics.  For example, the college-educated tend to vote Democratic and the more religious tend to vote Republican.  And in that other very important category, the GOP may hold the advantage. That metric is the perception of the state of the national economy which is usually attributed to the party in power in the White House.  Thus, while attaching oneself to Trump’s economic policies provided economic growth remains strong (as measured by GDP) and unemployment remains low, a Republican challenger can win votes.

One caveat in this area: Trump’s tariff policy which, if reports are to be believed, is not playing out so well in the farming heartland.  In a way, one wishes that Trump had waited to impose tariffs until after the midterms where he could have insulated Republican challengers in states like North Dakota, Missouri and Montana from a Democratic talking point.

Regarding the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party in general, one can surmise that some of these Democratic candidates harbor some socialist ideas.  Thus far, for example, it is Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand leading the “Abolish ICE” charge.  But, Harris is not up for reelection and Gillibrand hails from New York where her reelection is basically guaranteed.  It is not politically dangerous for either of them to espouse the more socialist views of the Democrats.  Hence, that is why incumbents like Brown in Ohio, Donnelley in Indiana and Heitkamp in North Dakota are either silent on certain issues or take a more moderate, if not opposite view.  Instead, we see the more socialist views being spread by Democrats in strong Democratic congressional districts and less among the Democratic Senate candidates.

The year 2016 shook up American politics like never before since 1968.  Trump, being the unpredictable candidate, has injected unpredictability into the entire process up and down the ballot.  It is hard to factor in voter unpredictability into the list of metrics. Republican Senate candidates in these key swing states, as concerns the economy at least, should be asking whether voters are better off or more optimistic than they were in 2015.  Keeping the issues more local and illustrating what a Democratic Congress would entail are winning propositions for any campaign.