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Which Races Could Shake Up The Midterms?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): All right, team. We have 🚨 LESS THAN A MONTH 🚨 until the midterms, so it’s time we did an update on the races we’re watching: To get us started, what races are you watching that no one else is? Let’s start in the House (as there has to be at least one race flying under the radar in a pool of 435). We’ll be sure to make stops in today’s chat in the Senate and governor’s mansions as well.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Collectively, the competitive North Carolina House races are very interesting. There is no major statewide contest in North Carolina this year — i.e., Senate or governor — making it what’s sometimes called a “blue moon” election. I’m curious to see if the Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage is bolstered by the lack of a notable contest at the top of the ticket.

sarahf: Any districts you’re eyeing specifically, Geoff?

geoffrey.skelley: Currently, FiveThirtyEight pegs the North Carolina 9th as a toss-up, so it’s probably the most notable. But the North Carolina 2nd and North Carolina 13th lean toward the GOP in our model.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Agreed, Geoffrey. As I wrote this week, Democrats could pick up as many as five House seats in North Carolina with a big enough wave.

This is due in large part to how Republicans drew the state’s districts — i.e., they’re built to withstand a modest Democratic wave, but not a tsunami, as may form in 2018.

One race that’s on nobody’s radar there is the North Carolina 6th, Republican Rep. Mark Walker’s district. But we give him only a 5 in 6 chance.

geoffrey.skelley: In the case of the North Carolina 9th, it’s always interesting when an incumbent loses renomination, making it potentially easier for the opposition to win in the general election. In this case, Rep. Robert Pittenger lost to Mark Harris in the GOP primary, and that has probably helped the Democratic candidate, Dan McCready, who has a huge resource advantage over Harris in the general.

sarahf: But North Carolina did vote for President Trump in 2016. How is that factoring into what we’re seeing in the House races there?

nrakich: According to Morning Consult, Trump’s net approval rating has dropped by 20 points in North Carolina since the beginning of his term, so its love for Trump may not be what it once was.

sarahf: So why couldn’t Pittenger make it through his primary? I think Mark Sanford in the South Carolina 1st was the only other GOP incumbent to not win his renomination?

nrakich: That’s right, Sarah. Pittenger’s loss was kind of a delayed-release time bomb. In 2016, he narrowly beat Harris as questions were swirling about an ethics investigation and because he was new to much of the district after court-ordered redistricting. Pundits thought those issues had evaporated by 2018, but Harris ended up pulling out the win.

sarahf: And what do we know about Harris? Is he a Trumpy-Republican?

geoffrey.skelley: Harris is an evangelical Christian pastor who lost in North Carolina’s 2014 GOP Senate primary. Harris is an ardent social conservative, and given the president’s overwhelming support among evangelical Christian voters in 2016 and his continued support from that group, Harris could be described as “Trumpy” at least in who he most appeals to. Trump even helped Harris with a private fundraiser a little while back.

Janie Velencia (FiveThirtyEight contributor): Personally, I’m most curious about what’s happening in Minnesota — specifically in the 1st District. It’s a seat that has been left open by a Democrat (Tim Walz is running for governor). Donald Trump won the district by 14.9 points, while Hillary Clinton won the state by 1.5 points in 2016. I think it will be interesting to see whether they vote in another Democrat or opt for the Republican this time around. In 2012, the district went blue, voting for Obama over Romney by 49.6 percent to 48.2 percent.

Right now, the district is rated a toss-up by experts we rely in for our model, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast gives the Republican a 2 in 3 chance of winning. To me, it seems that Democrats should try to pick up at least one seat in the state to meet the seat target they need to win the House.

sarahf: Yeah, after 2016, I think there were some real questions about how much of a “blue wall” Minnesota would be moving forward.

Janie Velencia: Minnesota is also interesting in that both of its Senate seats are on the ballot in November and will likely stay blue, but the state’s House seats are pretty competitive. The Classic version of the FiveThirtyEight forecast currently rates five of the state’s eight races as competitive (lean Republican, lean Democrat, likely Republican, likely Democrat or toss-up).

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Minnesota is basically the epicenter of competitive House races — it more or less has the largest share of races that are competitive of any state.

nrakich: Theoretically, Minnesota’s House delegation could be six Republicans and two Democrats or seven Democrats and one Republican. That’s, uh, a big range.

Janie Velencia: But Republicans also see potential pickups, especially in the Minnesota 1st.

sarahf: Why is that you think? Are we seeing a pretty big shift in the political makeup of Minnesota House races from 2016?

geoffrey.skelley: The state had lots of competitive races in 2016, too.

But I think the interesting part is that what’s going on in Minnesota is somewhat reflective of what we’re seeing nationally.

sarahf: Go on.

geoffrey.skelley: The Minnesota 2nd and Minnesota 3rd are partly, or mostly, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs.

sarahf: Ah, so Romney-Clinton districts?

Or Obama-Trump?

geoffrey.skelley: The Minnesota 3rd is a Republican-held Obama-Clinton seat. The Minnesota 2nd did go narrowly for Obama, but by only 0.1 points, and then it went for Trump by about a point.

nrakich: Yeah, but it’s not an Obama-Trump district by the spirit of the law. It shifted all of one percentage point — it just so happened that it was already close, so that made the difference between going blue or red.

geoffrey.skelley: Right.

And our House forecast gives Democrats a 5 in 6 chance of winning in each of those seats.

nrakich: The Minnesota 2nd stretches from almost downtown St. Paul to some pretty rural areas, so I think you may have a situation where lots of Romney-Clinton voters and Obama-Trump voters basically cancel each other out.

geoffrey.skelley: But the two rural Democratic seats that are particularly close — the Minnesota 1st and Minnesota 8th — are both open seats that swung sharply toward Trump after voting for Obama.

nrakich: As sharply as a Ginsu knife.

geoffrey.skelley: So Democrats are hoping the environment helps them retain those, while Republicans see those as among their only real pickup opportunities in this cycle. But we might have a situation where Democrats and Republicans just trade two seats with each other, resulting in no net change in Minnesota.

Janie Velencia: Even if Democrats come out even in Minnesota, it will still bode well for them in terms of taking the House. If they win more than that, I think it’s a good signal all around for Democrats.

nrakich: Agreed, Janie. If Democrats can win two very different district types in Minnesota, that’s a sign they might not have to choose one path forward in 2020 and beyond.

sarahf: I see what you mean about Minnesota being at the epicenter. But what about states that actually flipped red in 2016, like Pennsylvania?

geoffrey.skelley: Pennsylvania’s new map is working out nicely for Democrats, as you’d expect, considering that it was drawn by the Democratic-controlled state supreme court. The Pennsylvania delegation is currently 12-6 Republican (including vacant seats with the party that previously held them), but our current forecast suggests that there’s a pretty good chance it will be 9-9 after this election.

sarahf: Gotcha. So you’re telling me the Conor Lamb special election hype wasn’t wasted?

geoffrey.skelley: Lamb’s narrow special election win set him up to run in the new Pennsylvania 17th, where he’s favored against fellow incumbent Keith Rothfus, who’s a Republican. But the remnants of Lamb’s old district will almost certainly go Republican, so there’s no net change there. But the new map probably helped his chances of staying around, so watch out for Lamb to run against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in 2022.

nrakich: There’s no way this doesn’t end with President Conor Lamb, is there?

sarahf: Ha, let’s see what happens in the Minnesota 2nd and Minnesota 3rd first.

nrakich: One district I think could be a deep sleeper Democratic pickup is Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik’s New York 21st. It’s kind of a weird district — located in New York’s rural North Country, it shares a lot of characteristics with next-door Quebec and Vermont that make it more liberal than you’d expect. It voted for Barack Obama by 6 points in 2012, and while it did swing strongly toward Trump in 2016, lots of other areas that did that (looking at you, Iowa) look poised to return to the Democratic column this year. New York 21st is actually a bluer seat than Rep. Claudia Tenney’s New York 22nd, which our model rates as lean Democratic. Now, Stefanik is a much stronger incumbent than Tenney is, but I’m surprised that there hasn’t even been any polling in New York 21st.

geoffrey.skelley: Nationally, it seems that a lot of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities are in the suburbs and exurbs. But they almost certainly have to win a few districts that are substantially rural, and many of those districts were places where Trump improved markedly on Mitt Romney’s vote support. The New York 21st is that sort of place, although Democrats probably have better rural/rural-ish targets.

sarahf: OK, switching gears just a little … What about sleeper races in the Senate? Or things that have surprised you? A much harder chamber to discuss this year, I know!

nrakich: I guess the main thing that has surprised me in the Senate is just how well Democrats have expanded the map. At this time last year, I thought Arizona would be lean Republican; instead, our model has it at lean Democratic. And I certainly didn’t expect Texas and Tennessee to be in play at all. (Both are lean Republican.)

geoffrey.skelley: With only 35 races in total, there really isn’t a true “sleeper” contest in the Senate. But Mississippi’s special election is unusual and worth commenting on. The election is technically nonpartisan — there won’t be any party labels on the ballot for that race — and it’s unlikely that any candidate will win a majority. If that’s the case, the winner will be determined in a runoff on Nov. 27, just after Thanksgiving. It’s possible, though unlikely, that control of the Senate could come down to that runoff, which would be quite the show.

sarahf: Do you really think Democratic challenger Mike Espy stands a chance, Geoff? What do we know about him? And when was the last time Mississippi elected a Democrat to the Senate?

geoffrey.skelley: I think it’s unlikely that Espy can defeat appointed Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith in a runoff — Mississippi is a racially polarized state when it comes to voting, so it’s difficult to see a black Democrat winning. Still, if somehow Republican Chris McDaniel were to advance to a runoff, instead of Hyde-Smith, that would really open the door for an Espy win. McDaniel isn’t Roy Moore, but he has a lot of problems as a candidate. As for the last time a Democrat won a Senate race in Mississippi, we have to go back to John Stennis in 1982, though it’s worth remembering that Stennis was a conservative Democrat.

Janie Velencia: I’m surprised by a couple of seats that Democrats look to be in danger of holding on to. In Missouri, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill is in a tight race with Republican Josh Hawley. And there’s also Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.

sarahf: Right, do you think Heitkamp is in jeopardy now because she voted against confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court?

Janie Velencia: I think that’s part of it. Polls conducted in the state before she voted showed that voters supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation and about a third of voters would be upset if she voted “no” on Kavanaugh. And Republicans are definitely trying to use it to campaign off of now.

nrakich: I’m not sure it will help her, but it’s clear that she was trailing before the Kavanaugh vote. The two latest polls have her down by double digits, and both were out of the field by the end of the day on Oct. 2.

I’m surprised by Heitkamp, too. In such a small state, you’d expect her to have a pretty big incumbency advantage. And she has a strong personal brand.

sarahf: It seems as if the #MeToo movement may resonate with Heitkamp given her mother’s experience with sexual assault. It definitely put her in a difficult situation of sticking to her moral guns and appeasing North Dakota voters, but maybe there’s a chance that resonates with women in North Dakota?

Janie Velencia: She’s also an example of how senators are increasingly losing their personal brand and voters are instead voting for local candidates based on national issues and aligning with national party sentiment.

nrakich: Yeah, there are several candidates who will be a test case of that this year. Phil Bredesen, the popular former governor of Tennessee who’s now running for U.S. Senate, also comes to mind.

sarahf: #TaylorSwiftEndorsement

nrakich: In all seriousness, I wonder if that could backfire because it nationalizes the race more.

And that is the last thing I will ever say about Taylor Swift’s endorsement.

geoffrey.skelley: Bredesen didn’t lose a single county in his 2006 re-election win for governor. But he’s an underdog against Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Tennessee has moved sharply to the right in the last few presidential cycles.

nrakich: Yeah, Geoffrey, remember when Tennessee was one of the hot Senate races of 2006? That state has changed a LOT since then.

Janie Velencia: Are you sure we can’t talk about the Taylor Swift effect?

sarahf: Tell us more, Janie!

Janie Velencia: While most celebrity endorsements don’t really affect elections, Trump actually responded to Taylor Swift, which is bringing more attention to her endorsement. Is there a chance she could have some effect? Maybe encourage younger voters to go out and vote?

sarahf: Well, did tell BuzzFeed that they got 65,000 new voter registrations after Swift’s Instagram post. So you might be onto something.

nrakich: Speaking about candidates getting nationalized … I have some really out-there sleeper picks for governor. Sitting governors Phil Scott, Chris Sununu and/or Charlie Baker lose in Vermont, New Hampshire and/or Massachusetts, respectively. These New England Republicans are generally seen as unthreatened, but I do wonder how many Democrats (of which there are a lot in Vermont and Massachusetts) will go to the polls both (a) really steamed at Donald Trump and (b) prepared to vote Republican for governor.

sarahf: You think Charlie Baker is going to lose!?! Get out.

What evidence do you have?

nrakich: We have one poll of Vermont, and it gave Scott an 8-point lead. It’s a Democratic poll, but that’s not the lead you’d expect in a race rated “solid” or “safe” Republican by all three major handicappers. Scott’s approval rating also tanked after he signed a controversial gun-control bill.

And in New Hampshire, an American Research Group poll in late September found Sununu with just a 5-point lead. First-term New Hampshire governors almost never lose. But New Hampshire is a very elastic state, and in such a Democratic-leaning year, it might be asking too much for Sununu to survive.

Massachusetts is definitely the longest shot. There have been a few polls, all showing Baker with a huge lead. In my heart of hearts, I don’t really think it’s going to happen, but it could be closer than people think. All three of these races will be, I think.

sarahf: whispers Remember publishing this, Nathaniel?

Baker is safe.

nrakich: I don’t dispute that he’ll win, but I think “safe” is going too far. A 10-point Baker win feels right to me.

There will be a lot of energized Democrats voting in Boston and Cambridge.

geoffrey.skelley: One sleeper gubernatorial race this cycle might be a GOP pickup chance. In Oregon, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown is a moderate favorite to win re-election, but we have seen some close poll results. A new, nonpartisan poll there just had her up 49 percent to 45 percent over the Republican candidate, Knute Buehler. Buehler is interesting because he’s a pro-choice Republican, running ads like this defending his position on the issue.

nrakich: To move away from my shamelessly outlandish claims, I’ve been surprised that Democrats are so competitive in Kansas. I thought they were sunk when Greg Orman got in that race as an independent, but he hasn’t been much of a factor. Democrat Laura Kelly even led Republican Kris Kobach in the latest poll (a Republican internal!).

geoffrey.skelley: The Kansas race is very interesting and speaks to the three-party nature of Kansas: Conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats.

If the Republicans nominate a very conservative candidate, moderate Republicans might swing toward the Democratic candidate and create a competitive environment. That seems to be happening in 2018. Kobach is about as conservative as they come, and a number of well-known Kansas Republicans have endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly instead.

It doesn’t help the GOP that former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback left office quite unpopular. Somewhat similarly, Oklahoma seems competitive in part because outgoing Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has maybe the worst approval rating in the country. This environment has given Democrats a bit of an opening, and they have won a number of state legislative special elections there since Trump was elected president.

nrakich: Yep, definitely another race that has surprised me. South Dakota may even be competitive, although I have yet to be convinced on that one. Democrat Billie Sutton released an internal poll that showed the race as close, and the Cook Political Report moved the race all the way to “toss-up.”

sarahf: The current governor breakdown is 33 Republicans, 16 Democrats and one independent (shout-out to Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska). Not everyone is up for election here in 2018, but it’s still pretty unlikely that we’ll have more Democratic than Republican governors by the end of the midterms, right?

Janie Velencia: Yep, there are 36 gubernatorial races this cycle. Of the seats that are up, 26 are currently controlled by Republicans, and nine are controlled by Democrats (the other governorship up is Walker’s, in Alaska). So, Republicans simply have more to lose.

nrakich: It’s not out of the question, Sarah. Because most of the governorships up this year were previously up for election in 2014 — a very good GOP year — there are a lot of pickup opportunities for Democrats. They need to flip 10 governorships to control a majority of states, which is certainly a lot, but they have as many as 12 opportunities for gains. In rough order of likelihood, IMO, those are Illinois, New Mexico, Michigan, Nevada, Maine, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia and Oklahoma.

And that’s not counting my sleeper picks 😉.

sarahf: Guess I’ll have to wait until we publish our FiveThirtyEight governors forecast 😉.

FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast update for Oct. 10, 2018

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Janie Velencia is a freelance writer focused on survey research. She previously covered the 2016 elections as the associate polling editor for The Huffington Post. Prior to that, Janie managed congressional data and wrote for CQ Roll Call.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.