Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Charlie Cook, December 2, 2016

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on November 28, 2016

In just a few weeks Demo­crats have gone from driv­ing for what figured to be an easy lay up to hav­ing the rest of the sea­son can­celled, with the next sea­son in real doubt. They seemed to have the pres­id­ency in hand, a ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate very likely, and, while win­ning a ma­jor­ity in the House was al­ways un­real­ist­ic, they did seem to have a good chance to cut the GOP ma­jor­ity in half with a gain of between 10 and 20 seats. In­stead they al­lowed the White House to slip from their grasp, gained just two Sen­ate seats, leav­ing them in the minor­ity, and gained only a half dozen seats in the House, be­low the bot­tom end of what thought pos­sible.

It only gets worse. Demo­crats would need a three-seat net gain in the to se­cure a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2018, a tall or­der since they’ll be de­fend­ing 25 seats and Re­pub­lic­ans just eight. Of the eight Re­pub­lic­an seats up in 2018, just one, that of fresh­man Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, is in a state that went for Demo­crats in either the 2012 or 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions (it voted Demo­crat­ic in both). No oth­er GOP-held Sen­ate seat ap­pears to be even re­motely in danger.

Con­versely, Demo­crats are de­fend­ing some states that have been pretty rough on them in the past. The two can­did­ates likely to face the toughest races are Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, a state Mitt Rom­ney won by 20 points and Don­ald Trump by 36, and Sen. Joe Manchin in West Vir­gin­ia, which sided with Rom­ney by 27 points and Trump by 42. Three oth­er Demo­crats have the their work cut out for them. In In­di­ana, Sen. Joe Don­nelly will face his first reelec­tion in a state that went to Rom­ney by 10 points and Trump by 19. In Mis­souri, Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill faces an elect­or­ate that favored Rom­ney by 9 points and Trump by 19. In Montana, Sen. Jon Test­er must win over voters who chose Rom­ney by 14 points and Trump by 21.

In the House there seems to be very little volat­il­ity in 2018. Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port House Ed­it­or Dav­id Wasser­man es­tim­ates that there are about ten Re­pub­lic­ans sit­ting in dis­tricts car­ried by Hil­lary Clin­ton and just eight Demo­crats in dis­tricts won by Don­ald Trump. The party hold­ing the White House usu­ally loses House seats in midterm elec­tions, but that might not hap­pen this time. First, the House of­ten ex­per­i­ences a surge and de­cline phe­nomen­on in which a party picks up a bunch of seats with its White House vic­tory only to lose many of those seats in the next mid-term elec­tion. But this year Re­pub­lic­ans won the Pres­id­ency while los­ing House seats, so they aren’t go­ing in­to the midterm with a lot of new seats to de­fend. Second, Demo­crats de­pend on young­er and minor­ity voters, who are most likely to sit out midterm elec­tion years.

The first or­der of busi­ness for Demo­crats is find­ing a new coach. The front-run­ner for the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship is Rep. Keith El­lis­on, who rep­res­ents a Min­neapol­is-area dis­trict that, at least in 2012 (new num­bers won’t be out un­til early next year) had a Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port Par­tis­an Vot­ing In­dex score of +22, mean­ing that his dis­trict votes 22 points more Demo­crat­ic than the coun­try as a whole, the 45th most Demo­crat­ic dis­trict in the coun­try. It isn’t quite clear why some Demo­crats think that a con­gress­man and part-time DNC chair­man is the solu­tion, es­pe­cially since the real chal­lenge for the party is in the states. It needs to score suf­fi­cient gains in state le­gis­lat­ive and gubernat­ori­al races in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 to have a hand in 2021 draw­ing the con­gres­sion­al and state le­gis­lat­ive bound­ar­ies that will be in place for the next dec­ade.

El­lis­on’s two cur­rent rivals for the po­s­i­tion, former Ver­mont Gov. Howard Dean and South Car­o­lina state Demo­crat­ic Chair­man Jaime Har­ris­on, at least would be able to work for the party full time. While Ver­mont is a very Demo­crat­ic state, Dean is a former chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation, a former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who built an ad­mir­able grass­roots na­tion­al net­work, and a former DNC chair­man who put to­geth­er a 50-state party that un­doubtedly helped Barack Obama win 2008. A good case also can be made for Har­ris­on. Like El­lis­on, he is an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and he’s party chair in a state on the front lines of the chal­lenges fa­cing the Demo­crat­ic Party in the South—small-town and rur­al Amer­ica.

The task for Demo­crats in 2018 is for­mid­able. They need to hold the bulk of their Sen­ate seats, make some mod­est in­roads in the House, and make a start on break­ing the Re­pub­lic­an strangle­hold in the states. Pres­id­ent Trump could be their best friend. If he shows no signs of mak­ing Amer­ica great again, if he doesn’t mod­er­ate his tem­pera­ment in keep­ing with the dig­nity of his high of­fice, if he can’t avoid con­flicts between his busi­ness in­terests and polit­ic­al du­ties, then the usu­al pat­tern of midterm elec­tions could be turned on its head.