Can Democrats win in deep-red states?

By Aristophanes, Hermes and Dolos

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, grammar and style.

Aristophanes (Ari): Today we’re discussing four contentious Senate races in deep-red states: Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas. But, more important, we have a new contributor joining in! It’s the spirit of deception and guile himself, none other than the fabulous DOLOS…

Dolos: Hey guys! Glad to be joining you.

Ari: Before we get into the weeds, here’s a quick run-down of the races we’ll be discussing.

In Missouri, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill is running for re-election in the 2018 midterms. She’ll likely face Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, although a more populist challenger, such as dark-horse candidate Courtland Sykes, could triumph instead. Perennial candidate Austin Petersen, a libertarian running in the Republican primary, presents another interesting alternative.

In Tennessee, Republican Sen. Bob Corker has announced he will not run for re-election in 2018, leaving his seat open. Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn has launched a campaign, and is already a clear favorite. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Breseden is considering a run, as well.

In Alabama, conservative firebrand Roy Moore bested sitting Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican primary. He has a history of racist remarks, and has twice been ousted from his position on the state’s Supreme Court. The election will take place this December, as Strange is merely an appointed senator, who assumed the role after his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, became the U.S. attorney general. Moore will face Democratic challenger Doug Jones.

Finally, in Texas, incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has a strong Democratic challenger in Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Early polls show a close race, but this far out, and with a large portion of undecided voters, the outcome is still tough to predict.

So, I want to get a general sense from each of you: How would you rank these races by the relative likelihood of a Democratic win?

Hermes: Most likely is clearly Missouri. It is far easier to win when you are an incumbent, even if the likelihood the Republican candidate pulls a Todd Akin is microscopic. Sen. McCaskill still has an incredibly hard race ahead of her, assuming Hawley gets the GOP nomination.

I even think the populist newcomer Courtland Sykes could stand a decent chance of winning, since people seem to like the abrasiveness. I mean, Eric Greitens used a lot of guns and “sexy” commercials on his way to the governor’s mansion.

Dolos: You can’t understate the sexiness factor of Navy Seal Gov. Greitens.

Ari: Or the power of alliteration.

Dolos: But I agree: Missouri has a Democratic incumbent in McCaskill, making that easily the most likely. After that, things get murkier.

Ari: I agree, as well. But to play devil’s advocate, Missouri is a state that went 19.5 points to Trump in 2016. Texas wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic — Trump won there by less than half that amount. Do you think that’ll weigh McCaskill down?

Hermes: Surely. It would be easy for any Missouri Republican to quickly compare McCaskill to Hillary Clinton. Both are moderate, female Democrats with potentially politically-damaging skeletons in their closets.

Ari: If Josh Hawley does indeed win the primary in Missouri, I believe he’ll be a really, really strong Republican candidate with a defined brand in that state. He’d be hard to beat, an argument I’ve made in a previous article.

Dolos: Having Trump at the top of the ballot makes a big difference. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, won re-election in 2016 by only 3 points. That suggests that without Trump’s presence on the ballot, Jason Kander, his Democratic opponent, may have won. 2018 is a midterm year, so I think turnout will be down, which in this case could help McCaskill.

Ari: Although, don’t you think it’s important Kander was sort of seen as anti-establishment, at least compared to Blunt?

Dolos: That’s a good point. McCaskill has much deeper Washington roots, for better or, more likely, for worse.

Hermes: Kander was and is an anti-establishment kind of guy.

Ari: Comparatively, at least. He was once the Missouri secretary of state, after all.

Hermes: Which is not the same as working in Washington.

Ari: True. But there’s an anti-Jefferson-City bias at play in the state, as well, even if it’s to a smaller degree than the anti-Washington sentiment.

Dolos: He tells it like it is. He speaks with… what’s the word…?

Hermes: Conviction.

Ari: He’s rather Blunt? Missouri is a good state for political puns, I’ll give it that

Dolos: He can be a bit Kurt.

Ari: (i.e., Kurt Schaefer, former state senator who last year lost the Republican primary for attorney general to Hawley)

So McCaskill has the best chance of winning out of these four races, but is still not favored to win her own re-election. Would we all agree on that?

Hermes: I’d say it’s about 50/50 right now.

Ari: You’re more optimistic than I am. I’d say it’s closer to 75/25, against McCaskill.

Hermes: There are worse Republicans to have in the Senate. But that’s something we’ll get to later.

Dolos: I haven’t seen any polling yet, especially since Hawley technically still has a primary to win, but I expect Claire to be trailing by single digits when those numbers do come out.

Ari: Anyway, I think we should move on. What do you think, of these four races, is the second most likely win for Democrats?

Hermes: Next most likely, in my opinion, is Texas. This will still be a hard race for Beto O’Rourke, but he seems like he could be a strong political player in the foreseeable future and should run a very good campaign regardless of results. However, with incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz winning Texas in the presidential primaries last year, I find it difficult to see him losing.

Ari: I agree with Hermes, but this is where it gets tricky. I could see Tennessee shaking up to be a more competitive race in certain scenarios, but it’s just not there yet. Texas is trending blue. I think the state’s trend of shifting demographics actually outweighs Cruz’s incumbency advantage, if only slightly.

Dolos: Beto O’Rourke is a strong candidate. Vanity Fair called him Kennedyesque, and some early polling has shown them both running around 30 percent with a huge chunk of undecided votes.

Ari: #BetoMale!

Hermes: This is as of the time we are having this chat, and from the data we know, I would make this argument. Dolos basically took a point I was going to make when I said O’Rourke has great potential. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has already endorsed O’Rourke.

Dolos: Massachusetts Democrats being notorious kingmakers in Texas U.S. Senate races.

Hermes: He’s the grandson of former U.S. attorney general and 1968 presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy. All I am saying is the Kennedyesque comparison is not totally off.

Dolos: He’s got the look!

Ari: But how tall is he?

Hermes: Around Paul Ryan’s height, judging by a picture I’ve seen. So apparently over 6 feet.

Dolos: Join us next week for another politics chat: Guessing the height of 2018 Senate candidates!

Ari: Hey, height matters in politics!

Dolos: Hillary is only 5 feet 5 inches. Why isn’t the fake news media talking about that?

Hermes: So back to Texas.

Ari: I’ve heard it’s lovely this time of year.

Dolos: The oil fields are alive with the sound of music.

Ari: But seriously. Demographics. Texas has several large, urban centers that are only getting larger. Houston is booming. That gives Democrats an opportunity to expand. The problem will be turnout. Can they compel these people to care about a midterm election?

Hermes: With the proposed border wall largely set to be on their border, they should.

Ari: Maybe they’re more likely to support The Wall because they border Mexico?

Hermes: Either way, whether someone supports it or doesn’t. Even if it’s been proven the wall would largely not be efficient in stopping illegal immigration.

Dolos: Or the opposite: they’d have to deal with the literal wall as opposed to just the idea of it. That means maintenance, travel inconvenience, potential relocation of those living in the path, price impacts at the border, etc.

Hermes: That’s exactly what I was thinking. It would cost billions to build and maintain.

Ari: Unless Mexico or Congress pays for it! But all in all, that’s a fair point. We’ll send our pollsters out to collect some data. (Note: We don’t have any pollsters.)

So what do y’all think of Tennessee? After Missouri and Texas, I’d say it’s the next most likely win for Democrats.

Dolos: I might even put it ahead of Texas, depending on who ends up in the general election race.

Marcus Mariota isn’t busy these days. Maybe he could run.

Ari: Or Peyton Manning.

Hermes: Manning turned it down explicitly.

But yes, I was going to agree with you, Tennessee is next most-likely, especially if Democrats get their best case scenario. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is already the presumptive nominee from the Republican Party (I’ve written a few articles about her), even if there are some other Republicans in the mix.

The Democrats are still figuring things out, but as of now the party is just not strong at the state level. The strongest Democratic candidates are either running for governor or just staying put where they are.

Ari: What is the best case scenario for Democrats, in your opinion? And how likely is it?

Hermes: I’ve talked about this extensively previously, but the long story short: Former Gov. Phil Bredesen runs for the Senate and probably loses with a 60 to 40 margin.

Ari: (Bredesen, aka, the last Democrat to win a statewide election in Tennessee)

Hermes: It’s going to require serious turnout from people in Nashville and Memphis to give him a chance, in my opinion.

Ari: And remember, his last race was in 2006, a very strong year for Democrats.

Hermes: Bredesen won pretty handily, but it’s easier to win when you’re an incumbent, most of the time. He’d take office as a 76-year-old man if he won this Senate race. Like I’ve previously written, he’d probably be a one-term senator. Blackburn’s up there in age, too, though. She’d be 66 when she takes office. Neither are going to serve for more than 20 years.

Ari: That’s right. I do always forget she’s up there, as well.

Dolos: Are there any rumblings of a Democratic outsider, perhaps in the mold of a Kander?

Hermes: Absolutely not. I’d argue Tennessee is much redder than Missouri. Tennessee Democrats have not won a U.S. Senate election since 1990. That’s the year Al Gore won re-election.

Ari: That’s probably the only reason Bredesen is considering a run, right? There are no other strong Democratic candidates, and that worries him.

Hermes: But yes, there are basically no alternative candidates. Gov. Haslam, a Republican, won re-election in 2014 very easily. The 2012 Senate elections were even worse.

Ari: Alright, that leaves one state left: Alabama. Thoughts?

Hermes: Roy Moore is going to win.

Dolos: Doug Jones, his Democratic opponent, was a U.S. attorney under former President Bill Clinton.

Hermes: And you know how Alabamans feel about his wife.

Ari: Jones recently did an interview with Pod Save America. He seems a much better candidate than I would expect from an Alabama Democrat, honestly. It’s not the place where talented Democrats can normally get ahead, you know? But Jones is very articulate. He’s also pro-choice. I wonder if that puts a death knell in his campaign?

Dolos: Polling data has Jones within single digits, which is practically unheard of for an Alabama Democrat.

Ari: Although, as we talked about privately before the Republican primary, polls suggested he actually had a better chance against Luther Strange in a hypothetical general election matchup. But that’s likely due to local politics.

Dolos: This election is one of the first real tests of Steve Bannon’s pet projects.

Hermes: So it’s clear the taller candidate doesn’t always win.

Ari: R.I.P. Big Luther.

Which reminds me: Even in Alabama, the Trump-endorsed candidate didn’t win. Trump officially endorsed Luther in the primary, although less than enthusiastically.

Hermes: Let’s talk about the tweets he deleted.

Ari: #transparency

After his candidate lost the primary, Trump deleted his past tweets endorsing Luther. Even though, with the level of scrutiny Trump’s Twitter feed gets, you can’t exactly just pretend that didn’t happen. Journalists across the country have them archived.

Hermes: Of course! We all know — the fact we are talking about it shows.

Ari: We wrote about this on the site before, but I do think Roy Moore is more Trumpian than Strange is — he might even be more Trumpian than Trump himself.

Hermes: And this is why I think it will be the hardest election for the Republicans to lose.

Ari: Alabama is just a very, very red state. And Roy Moore has twice been elected to the Supreme Court there. (Alabama uses elections to pick Supreme Court judges, by the way)

Dolos: And twice removed!

Ari: Yes. That’s true. But the voters didn’t remove him!

Hermes: I don’t understand why that doesn’t resonate with voters there, regardless of party/belief/etc.

Ari: He plays up the culture warrior of the right angle, no? And the deeply religious angle.

Hermes: That’s true. Riding his horse, pulling out his gun at a rally, etc.

Ari: Do you think it makes a difference, though, that this is a federal election and not just an Alabama election?

I would also add: Roy Moore has lost a statewide race in Alabama before. He lost a gubernatorial primary, and he narrowly won his second election to the Supreme Court.

Hermes: The way Trump’s presidency has been portrayed in the news probably has Alabama voters feeling attacked; Moore would be someone who might come to the president’s defense in Congress.

Dolos: I believe this sort of thing does resonate with Alabama voters. This is going to get national attention and money, probably in a way the Jon Ossoff special election did in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. It will be an interesting barometer for the national landscape.

Ari: Is nationalizing good for red-state Democrats, though? Ossoff lost. The money is good. But is the attention?

Hermes: I was going to bring up Ossoff at some point. He was a big litmus test and lost.

Dolos: I’ve wondered that myself. Democrats overperformed in a South Carolina special election which didn’t have the same national attention.

Ari: Archie Parnell! Very true. Although that district has Democratic history in its recent past, even if it’s very red nowadays. Ossoff’s district was very much a Republican bastion that was somewhat skeptical of Trump’s rise.

Dolos: The trend, though, has still favored Democrats. They’ve typically lost the special elections in red states, but there’s been a distinct shift compared to the 2016 general election numbers.

From Daily Kos

Hermes: Doing better than Clinton doesn’t mean winning, though.

Ari: It’s much better to look at the data on the special elections in the aggregate than to single out any one election. The combined data shows a national atmosphere which is shifting toward the Democrats, as the chart above clearly shows.

Hermes: That’s typical of recent history — the opposing party gains momentum in midterm elections.

Ari: That indeed happened in 2006, 2010 and 2014.

Dolos: The problem for Democrats in 2018 is the Senate map: They’re defending 25 of the 33 seats up for election. That’s not a lot of room to grow.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 3.02.40 PM.png
From 270 to Win

Ari: The map shows Democrats must flip at least one traditionally red state to win control of the Senate. And that’s assuming they win every re-election contest.

That brings me to our final question of this discussion. Just give me a percentage for each. Based on what we know right now, what would you say is the chance Democrats take back the House of Representatives in 2018, and what’s the chance they take back the Senate?

I’ll start. I’d give the House a 60 percent chance for Democrats. Senate, 20 percent.

Hermes: Same here. For the Senate, 20 percent. For the House, 60 percent.

Dolos: Damn, 60 percent? I’ll put the House at 48 percent. Senate, I’d say 15 percent. They have to pick up three seats!

Ari: That’s it. The oracles have spoken! ■

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