What Began in 2015 May End on Tuesday

Charlie Cook New
November 6, 2020

Note: This article was originally published for the National Journal on November 3, 2020. 

The most turbulent, unexpected, and generally unorthodox half-decade of politics in our lifetimes will soon be over.

It began in 2015 when it became apparent that the kind of Republicans that the GOP usually nominates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, just to name four—were encountering unexpected resistance. For the better part of a century, the party had operated in a hierarchical fashion, nominating the candidate whose turn it seemed to be. Even Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who initially ran against the establishment, were respectively a sitting senator and a former two-term governor of the nation’s largest state.

Indeed, the next year, the party nominated someone who had never run for office nor served in government or the military in any capacity, who had apparently changed his party affiliation five times, becoming a Republican most recently in the last year of his predecessor Barack Obama’s first term. The Tea Party had effectively become the In Party.

On the opposing side, the period of 2015 and 2016 also featured Sen. Bernie Sanders giving Hillary Clinton all she could handle, taking the Democratic nomination fight all the way through the last primaries. This year, it looked like Sanders might well win that nomination, until the more conventional wing of the Democratic Party escorted all of the other conventional candidates to the exit and anointed Joe Biden, whose campaign at that point hardly had two quarters to rub together. Though well liked, highly regarded, and certainly ideologically compatible with the 60 percent of the party who make up its establishment wing, there had been deep reservations about Biden’s age and his propensity for verbal miscues. The more conventional Democrats had become so afraid of making a mistake again, of letting the presidency slip through their fingers, they’d allowed the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But going back to plan A has worked out splendidly so far for Democrats. Biden has had nary a stray step, and his once-almost-destitute campaign is now outspending an incumbent Republican president by a wide margin in a way that most of us never thought could happen, unless Democrats nominated Mike Bloomberg.

So what will happen on Tuesday? Having only recently completed wiping all of the omelet off our faces from 2016, it is now time to take a wild guess. I am comfortable with nearly everything I wrote last week; subsequent quality polling does not show a tightening in the presidential race at all. Biden still looks to have about a 9- or 10-point popular-vote advantage, knocking on the door of Ronald Reagan’s 51 to 41 percent victory over President Carter exactly 40 years ago. The country is far more polarized today, however, so that a lead of 10 points or so would not result in the type of 489-to-49 electoral win that Reagan enjoyed. In Obama’s 2012 reelection, a 51 percent to 47 percent popular-vote advantage translated into 332-to-206 Electoral College win. George W. Bush’s 51 to 48 percent reelection in 2004 gave him 286 electors to John Kerry’s 251.

The odds of Republicans holding onto their Senate majority have faded more rapidly than anyone could have imagined. Cook Political Report Senate/Governor Editor Jessica Taylor points out that since January, the newsletter has moved 11 ratings in the direction of Democrats, and only one toward Republicans. She expects Republican losses of between two and seven seats. Speaking only for myself, I think the higher end of that range is more likely than the bottom, I would not be surprised with the Senate reversing numbers, going to 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans. But with so many Senate races on the knife’s edge, either end of that range is entirely possible. At this point a reelection win by Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, or Thom Tillis in North Carolina would amount to an upset. Fellow incumbents Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia are right on the bubble.

Upsets in Texas or Alaska would not even shock me. “A superfund site” and “toxic” are some of the descriptors that Texas Republicans have used regarding their party’s standing in the Lone Star suburbs. Only the small-town and rural parts of the state are hanging in there for Trump and Republicans. Cook Political Report Contributing Editor Louis Jacobson moved the rating for the Texas state House from Lean Republican to Toss-Up. That change brings the total state legislative chambers considered Toss-Ups to seven—the Arizona Senate, the Iowa House, the Michigan House, the Minnesota Senate, the North Carolina Senate, and the Pennsylvania House. Yes, all are held by the GOP.

Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman argues that the range of possibilities of House outcomes could be as low as a GOP loss of just five to as many as 20 seats, settling on a range of a 10-to-15 seat gain for Democrats as the most likely. A year ago his outlook was for something between a wash and a GOP gain of 10 seats.

If all of this sounds like a really bad midterm election year to you, it should. This should remind Republicans of 2006, George W. Bush’s final midterm election. Or the Democratic disasters in 2010 and 2014, Obama’s two midterms. But in a presidential year, the only modern precedents are Reagan’s win and Goldwater’s 1964 defeat by President Lyndon Johnson. Even Reagan and Richard Nixon’s 49-state reelection landslides did not yield major changes in Congress.

Of course it is possible that Republicans dodge a bullet in this election. But probably not multiple bullets.