BY JOSHUA SUNMAN, FLINDERS BACHELOR OF ARTS (AMERICAN STUDIES/POLITICS) STUDENT AND FLINDERS WASHINGTON INTERN 2017:
The 2018 Midterms had two distinct results, a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, and a consolidation of Republican numbers in the senate, a mixed night for both parties, but arguably better for Republicans than Democrats. As it stands, Democrats, in line with Mid-term trends, should finish with a net gain of approximately 35 in the House for a total caucus of around 230 Members which affords them a slim majority. Republicans, whilst losing the house, limited the damage (aided by favourable district lines), and expanded their senate caucus significantly defeating Democratic incumbents in the Red States of Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota. Having outlined the big picture, this piece will look at some interesting races and trends the 2018 midterms demonstrated
Arizona and South-Western Trends
The South-West again found itself at the centre of electoral competition, with competitive Senate races in Arizona, Nevada and Texas. The Arizona race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally is still undecided, with by some estimates approximately 300,000 mail in ballots being left to count. The vast majority of these are from Maricopa County, home to the states capital Phoenix. At the time of writing, Sinema held a 49.6-48.1% lead over her opponent, and a 3.6% lead in Maricopa where most outstanding votes are located. It is not guaranteed incoming votes will continue to favour Sinema, as Maricopa is diverse taking in urban and suburban Phoenix which lean Democrat, as well as a significant rural area which are strongly Republican. As such, the winner of this contest is dependent what part of this massive county the outstanding ballots come from, but it is likely at this point Sinema will become Arizona’s first female senator, and first Democrat since 1988.
Democratic performance in surrounding states was also strong, with Jacky Rosen in Nevada being the only Democrat at this stage to unseat a sitting Republican in a senate race, which coincided with the first Democratic governor being elected in the state since 1994, and democrats holding the Republican leading 3rd House District, despite the loss of Jacky Rosen’s incumbency. Martin Heinrich in neighbouring New Mexico also won an easy victory, despite former Governor and Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson entering the race. Democrat Michelle Lujan-Grisham also seized back the Governorship from Republicans. Colorado, also solidified for democrats with Republican Mike Coffman being blown out in the suburban 6th District, which is unsurprising as it went for Clinton by 9 points in 2016, but the state also elected Jared Polis as governor, securing a third consecutive Democratic Gubernatorial term, and electing the first openly gay man to state-wide office.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about Betomania. Democrat Candidate Beto O’Rourke came surprisingly close to an upset victory over former Republican Presidential Candidate, and prominent conservative senator, Ted Cruz. The margin of 50.9%-48.3% makes for the closest state-wide race in Texas since Bill Clinton narrowly lost the state in 1992. O’Rourke’s strong performance was fuelled by the Democrats suburban surge in the large cities of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, as well as intense media coverage and vast amounts of money raised. O’Rourke raised a phenomenal $70 million, spending over $60 million. However, in the end Cruz’s firewall, of small, but plentiful, staunchly Republican rural counties saw him narrowly prevail.
The trend upwards in Democratic support in the south-west has been sustained over several electoral cycles and is justifiably filling Democrats with hope for the region, particularly looking at prospective senate races in Arizona and Colorado in 2020 when Donald Trump will be on the ticket. Even the most optimistic of Democrats however, would balk at the prospect of defeating Majority Whip John Cornyn in Texas.
Florida: its 2000 all over again
Florida, the quintessential swing-state has again delivered for election observers. As it stands, the race for Florida’s Senate seat has come down to a margin of 50.1% for Republican, outgoing Governor Rick Scott, to 49.9% for Three-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. A difference of a mere 12.500 out of over 8 million votes. As the margin is so close, an automatic hand recount will be triggered, which will see throngs of media and party lawyers and once again descend on the state to supervise the count. Whilst a recount alone is unlikely to overturn Scott’s slim lead, Democrat’s are holding out hope on mail in and provisional ballots. Another factor is reported under voting in the senate race in Broward County, a large heavily Democratic County, where Democrats believe a combination of ballot structure and poor voting machine calibration may have caused 25,000 votes to be missed. This potential loss is particularly worrisome for Democrats, as it is a key Presidential state which has failed to swing in their favour.
The Suburban Surge: Georgia and Minnesota
The suburban surge which propelled O’Rourke to competitiveness was not unique to Texas, it was evident in suburban metropolitan areas across the nation. Two states in which this phenomenon was particularly pronounced were Georgia and Minnesota, or more specifically, the suburbs of Atlanta and Minneapolis. In Atlanta’s suburbs, Georgia’s 6th and 7th Districts went 61.7% and 60.4% Republican in 2016, with the 6th remaining Republican in a highly watched Special Election in 2017. In 2018 however, the 6th flipped, going 50.5% Republican, whilst the 7th is currently undecided with the Republican incumbent narrowly ahead. This demonstrates a dramatic improvement in Democratic strength in these districts, one which was also echoed in similar areas across the Country.
In Minnesota, Democrats picked up the 2nd and 3rd Districts in the Minneapolis suburbs, both districts which have long Republican histories. Conversely, the 1st District which takes in the southernmost portion of the state, and the 8th which takes in the north-eastern portion both flipped to Republicans, despite having historically been Democratic districts, and an overall swing to democrats nation and state-wide. These were the only two Republican House district pickups nationwide, and highlight the increasing decline of Democrats in white, rural America, which is offset by gains in more affluent, cosmopolitan suburbs.
California: Mailing it in
Five House Races remain undecided in California, four of which are in the highly affluent Orange County. Orange County has long been a Republican bastion, but Democrats may yet sweep the county this year. This is due to a quirk in California’s electoral system where mail in ballots trickle in for weeks post-election, and tend strongly Democratic, meaning Republican leads could yet be overturned in two of the county’s four races, with Democratic leads likely unassailable.
Run-Offs and Preferences
Georgia’s gubernatorial election currently shows Republican Brian Kemp with 50.3% of votes, and Democrat Stacey Abrams with 48.8%. It is mathematically impossible for Abrams to overtake Kemp, but it is possible, albeit unlikely, a strong flow of provisional ballots could put Kemp below the 50% threshold required to avoid a run-off.
Mississippi’s Senate Special Election is headed to a run-off election on November 27th, as both lead Republican candidate appointed Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democratic candidate Mike Espy falling short on approximately 40% of the vote each, with the remainder going to insurgent Republican candidate Chris McDaniel. Whilst Mississippi is deeply red, a quirk of this special election is that neither candidate’s partisan affiliation will be listed on the ballot. It will be interesting to see if this improves Espy’s fortunes, although it is highly unlikely the seat will flip.
Maine’s 2nd District meanwhile will test a more efficient approach, optional preferential voting. This is the first test of preferential voting in a federal U.S. context, and it will be interesting to see if incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin’s primary vote lead is overturned by preferences. Poliquin has foreshadowed a court challenge on the validity of preferential voting if this is the case.