Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Barbara Bush (1925-2018)

First Lady Barbara Bush
Barbara Bush was not the first First Lady of my lifetime (I was a Reagan-era baby), but she was the first woman I remember holding the office.  My mom always liked her, particularly because Mrs. Bush was an avid advocate for illiteracy and because my mom was a teacher who loved to read.  As we often do with our parents, I grew up having admiration for Mrs. Bush because my mother liked her, which is strange because the first thing I thought about Mrs. Bush when I heard she had passed away at the age of 92 was not about my childhood admiration, but specifically Alice Walker.

When I was thirteen, I was part of the Speech Team (why a shy, gay kid would want to give public speeches when he barely liked raising his hand in school is still a mystery to me-there wasn't even a cute boy I was chasing in the club).  I was on the "Great Speeches" team, giving MacArthur's farewell address across West Central Minnesota, and because there weren't a lot of people I was competing against, there was one girl from a neighboring town whose speech I basically had memorized by the end of the season because I kept hearing it at various events.

Her piece was Barbara Bush's Wellesley Commencement Address in 1990, a speech which caused considerable protest at the time amongst the young, liberal student body who didn't want a woman who had devoted her life to being a wife and mother (the then-Ms. Pierce was a college dropout, leaving Smith when she married her husband of 73 years, George Bush).  The student body protested that a woman who stood against the feminist wave of the 1970's and 80's should be chosen to address future leaders of America, with The Color Purple author Alice Walker beating the First Lady in a vote for the choice of speaker.  Ms. Walker declined, and Bush addressed the graduates with the quip "Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker, known for The Color Purple...instead, you got me, known for the color of my hair."

The person interpreting the speech in my high school, who read that speech so often to me, taught me a lesson, because as I listened to the words, it felt very different than the vindicated reading she'd brought to Barbara Bush's accomplished tone and text.  Yes, Bush was impressive, but she also presented a rather demeaning version of feminism, one that seemed to value only choice, but not necessarily agreeing with a woman's choices after she became a mother.  This was one of the first times that I thought critically about a public person's actions and deeds versus what I had been taught to believe of the public figure.  I reread the speech after the announcement of Mrs. Bush's demise, and I was struck by how insulting it was, particularly realizing that she'd taken this spot almost entirely on the merits of her husband's career, and seemed to scold the women in the audience while being witty and clever enough to get away with it, a bit like if Tallulah Bankhead ran the Club for Growth.

In a similar fashion to Nancy Reagan before her, Barbara Bush's public policy positions contradicted the actions of her husband.  Mrs. Bush, an avid advocate for illiteracy, seemingly whitewashed over her husband's failures in education policy, particularly in not achieving his goals toward universal Head Start and his strong advocacy for school vouchers, which in many ways perpetuate the "generational" effect of illiteracy that Mrs. Bush wanted to banish.  She publicly asked for the Republican Party to keep abortion rights and gay rights out of the platform, saying this was a private matter (at the time, a more liberal response to such issues than most in public life were willing to make), but her husband and particularly her sons would make demonizing women's reproductive rights and gay marriage critical to their political success.

I wrote when Margaret Thatcher died that I'm not a big fan of just ignoring the realities of someone's life when they die, even if you don't wish them ill will and you hope their family has some peace.  I wish that for Mrs. Bush's family, but I cannot deny that as I grew up, my childhood opinion of her shifted to something of distaste.  At best, she was a devoted mother & wife, someone who publicly backed populist causes, but wasn't willing to use her privilege and fame to convince those in power to make a shift in policy.  In this way, she and her daughter-in-law Laura (as well as the current First Lady) are anomalies.  She didn't take a stand for stem-cell research like Nancy Reagan or for children's health care like Hillary Clinton or talk publicly about taboo subjects like Betty Ford.  Like Laura Bush and Melania Trump, Mrs. Bush may have said things, but never actually used their power to convince their husbands' and their administration's to take their viewpoints seriously.  Less charitably, Mrs. Bush was a prop to make her husband and son's administrations seem kinder and gentler than they actually were to the poor and to our nation's students.  She was a clever woman, complicated and ambitious, born into immense wealth that oftentimes insulated her from the changing times, and who represented a retrograde feminism that nonetheless found a home in the women's movement.  Nonetheless, she made an impossibly large mark on American culture for a time, and lived long enough to see a Republican administration more chaotic and hateful than one that ever bore her last name.  I doubt history will have much time for Mrs. Bush other than as a footnote, but unlike most First Ladies, she presented a conundrum, easy-to-like but difficult-to-explain-why as you got below the surface of her public persona.   Mrs. Bush once said "Believe in something larger than yourself...get involved in the big ideas of your time"...if there's any hope the generation she spoke to at Wellesley, and future female graduates that come after them will continue to heed that advice even if Mrs. Bush rarely did.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Can the Democrats Win a Majority of the Governorships?

We have now done write-ups of what I think (as of today) would happen with the Senate and the House, but there is a third major leg of the midterms this fall we need to discuss: the governors (actually there's also the state legislatures, mayors, and ballot initiatives, so it's a six-legged stool & you should care about all six legs, but it's too early in the year to know enough to profile these races quite yet so hold-tight and we'll get there later).  The current state of affairs for the Democrats when it comes to gubernatorial seats is pretty dire.  Despite a big pickup (and a big hold) last year in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, the Democrats only have 16 of our nation's governorships, with 33 going to the GOP (and one Independent in Alaska).  This doesn't automatically have an impact on you, of course, unless your state is one of the ones hosting a major election.  After all, unlike the House or Senate we aren't trying to build up to a majority (ultimately it doesn't matter who has the "majority" of the governorships as its an arbitrary goal), and electing a Democratic Governor in Arizona doesn't have the same impact on your state that electing a Democratic Senator does (because that senator will vote on laws that affect you, while that governor won't).  But governorships have taken on an outsized role within the past couple of administrations, particularly with an increasingly stalemated Congress unable to do much of anything amidst DC gridlock.  Governors have helped to shape public opinion on gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and Voter ID laws, and some have become synonymous with creating their own, specific, version of their state as a microcosm of what their party can accomplish in terms of governance.  Look at how Jerry Brown, Scott Walker, Sam Brownback, and Terry McAuliffe have all regularly made national headlines for the ways that they have run their states.  With 36 states holding governor's races this year, they could bring conversations about criminal justice, energy independence, transgender rights, election reform, and school choice, amongst dozens of other issues, to the forefront (or put them on the backburner) depending on who is elected.  And of course in most cases the winners of these elections will be the people who ultimately get to shape state and congressional redistricting, something that helped the Republican Party dominate through gerrymandering in the past decade-nearly every governor elected this year will still be in office when redrawing district lines becomes a conversation piece.

So these are important positions to look into, and as a result I've divided the biggest races into seven  different buckets.  Obviously the name of the game is running up the total, both from a pragmatic standpoint (getting to have a bigger hold on public policy), and from a bench-building game (many of these freshmen governors will become presidential or Senate candidates in the future).  Let's dive into our first category, an important one that ultimately won't have a lot to do with our overall math score...

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA)
1. The Open Seats That Won't Change Hands

There are currently six seats on the map that are held by the party that will probably hold the levels of power in January of 2019, but it'll be a different person in charge.  One of them is a Democratically-controlled state (California), while five more are ruby-red Republican states with little hope of a Democratic takeover (Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Wyoming).

All of these states are important, of course, since a change in leadership could change the direction of the state.  A party shift, particularly at a governor's level, isn't the only indication of change.  An incumbent may end up being considerably more vitriolic or conservative than the current incumbent would be.  It's hard not to see, say, if Rep. Raul Labrador becomes governor of Idaho that he could make the state a testing ground for a future presidential race (he could also turn the state into Kansas).  The same could be said if Rep. Kristi Noem wins the gubernatorial primary in South Dakota; considering her age (she's only 46), gender (in a party missing women in powerful positions), and time in Congress, she'd be an interesting future presidential candidate if she won this race.  Gov. Jerry Brown's successor will surely catapult to a "future presidential" list, and considering the vaulted place that Brown has put his state on the world stage (giving him the aura of a "shadow" president for some of our allies befuddled by President Trump), a Governor Gavin Newsom or Governor John Chiang could be making headlines from day one.

It's worth noting that Oklahoma and Tennessee aren't foregone conclusions that they will stay GOP-a truly big wave might knock Attorney General Drew Edmondson or Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (the respective first-tier candidates) into contention in states that had Democratic governors within the past decade, but I'm not betting on it for now.  In fact, this list is more likely to grow in coming weeks, as it appears that Gov. David Ige of Hawaii is deeply vulnerable to a primary challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (the winner of that primary being the de facto governor considering the Aloha State's one-party nature).  But while these races won't make headlines, it's probable that their new incumbents will, so keep an eye on them (at least until primary season is over).

What I'd Predict at This Point: All safe, though some of the primaries are coin flips right now.

Ned Lamont (D-CT)
2. Vulnerable Democratic Seats

Because of the short list of Democrats that have to stand for election (only nine of the D's incumbents are up this year), the list of Democrats that are vulnerable is relatively short.  Still, though, there are four states that seem to be at least somewhat vulnerable to a takeover: Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Colorado.

Rhode Island is the only one of these four seats that has an incumbent running for reelection, Gov Gina Raimondo.  Raimondo's popularity is low in a state that is in part angry at her over traffic tolls that have put her at odds with leaders within the party.  Raimondo has so far avoided a serious inter-party primary like Ige (her only opponent for the nomination being former State Rep. Spencer Dickinson), but former Gov. Lincoln Chafee and state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin are still mulling over a challenge from her left, which could make Raimondo vulnerable on both sides.  Either way, she's probably vulnerable in the general election, as polls have shown her in a dead-heat with former Cranston Mayor Allen Fung, who was her opponent in 2014.  Raimondo would surely be helped by a blue wave, and New England has a history of reelecting unpopular Democratic governors based on party ID alone, but she's definitely the most vulnerable Democratic governor to a Republican in 2018.

The other three seats are all open, and are in states that marginally went for Hillary Clinton in 2018.  Colorado, I'd argue, is the least likely to switch as the Republicans have struggled in gaining back the governorship here for a while, but both sides have messy primaries that could result in a less attractive candidate emerging and ruining things for the party's chances; it's too soon to say one way or the other on this, though all things being equal I'd bet on the Democrats.  Same is probably true with Minnesota, though here the race is entirely dependent on how popular former Gov. Tim Pawlenty is.  Though he made a national name for himself, Pawlenty never won with 50% of the vote, twice being aided by a third-party candidate splitting the vote to get him a victory (something less likely to happen in 2018), and he's going to have to make it through a bitter GOP Primary with Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is already making Pawlenty's tepid support for Donald Trump an issue.  A race to the right could doom the Republicans, though it's worth noting that the Democrats didn't really bring their A-Game with their candidates either (I'm now even more befuddled by Attorney General Lori Swanson's refusal to get into the race, as she'd be the frontrunner at this point).  Still, another race to watch.

If there's one seat where Democrats are in trouble, though, it's Connecticut.  The incumbent, Gov. Dan Malloy, is wildly unpopular, to the point where Southern New England is the only region of the country that Republicans have done pretty well in recent special elections.  Malloy is retiring (note that he is not term-limited, but thankfully got out of a race he had no hope of winning), and both sides have a gargantuan primary to get through before the general is reached, but the Democrats couldn't really find a "clear" frontrunner for the nomination as the likes of Attorney General George Jepsen won't be running.  Democrats could end up with a politially-toxic environment and a terrible candidate (like, say, Ned Lamont), which would give the GOP an opening in a state that for decades prior to Malloy regularly had moderate governors.  A blue wave could tilt this one, but if you're a Democrat, there's probably no more vulnerable seat.

Where I'd Predict at This Point: I'm going to guess that Connecticut is a loss at this point, while the other three stay slightly blue (though with whom, I'm not sure).  These races will all become a lot clearer once the primaries have settled so they could become more or less vulnerable once that's taken into account.  So bring it back down to 15 Democratic seats for now.

Attorney General Janet Mills (D-ME)
3. The Likely Takeover States

Here's where the Democrats transition into very good news-there are already three seats that the Democrats are leading in the race to be governor: Maine, Illinois, and New Mexico.

All three, as you can tell, are Hillary-won states, in some cases states Hillary took by a lot (looking at you, Illinois), and all three have to deal with deeply unpopular Republican governors.  In Illinois, that governor is standing for reelection, and while the Democrats nominated a less-than-ideal candidate in JB Pritzker (whose campaign tactics and aggressive billionaire bullying made him a candidate I was loathe to support in the primary even as a Yellow Dog), it's difficult to see how Rauner can take a splintered GOP AND win over a state that doesn't like him already against someone who can basically match him dollar-for-dollar in the general election (it's the battle of the billionaires).  Pritzker will probably win, and has the aura of another scandal-plagued Illinois governor (Daniel Bliss was right there people, so you only have yourselves to blame).

The other two seats are open, though as I said both Govs. Susana Martinez and Paul LePage have seen steep dips in their popularity since they last stood for reelection.  The biggest problem in these states, though, is that the GOP's bench is too thin.  In New Mexico the GOP arguably got their best case scenario with Rep. Steve Pearce standing for reelection, but this is the wrong year for a Republican to try to succeed another Republican in a Latino-populated state, and the Democrats also got a very adept candidate in Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham.  In Maine, the GOP has struggled to find a candidate who could catch on the same way that LePage did, and it's probable that Attorney General Janet Mills (D) will be able to dominate both the primary and the general election here.  About the only hope for the GOP in any of these three seats is if one of the plethora of independent candidates in Maine catch on with Democratic voters (that's how LePage ultimately won), but after being twice-burned and with Trump in the White House, I wonder if the Democrats might not be willing to take risks in 2018.

What I'd Predict at This Point: Democrats take all three, in Illinois & New Mexico possibly by double-digits.  That brings them back up to 19 seats.

State Sen. Laura Kelly (D-KS)
4. The True GOP Tossups

The next four races we're about to profile all are probably where the Republicans are going to gage whether or not they had a good year on the gubernatorial front.  All of these races both sides have at least some reason to be excited, though none of them are ones that are automatically going to either side.  If Democrats want any shot at a majority of the gubernatorial seats (still a pretty steep climb, though not an impossible one...I'd put it somewhere between the likelihood of a House Majority and a Senate Majority), they're going to have to lock up at least a couple of these by September.  But the four races that seem like a true tossup at this point are Michigan, Florida, Nevada, and Kansas.

The only Hillary state in this bunch is Nevada, a state that arguably has a better shot of flipping its Senate seat than its Governors' seat.  That's in part because the Republicans have an actually popular governor in incumbent Brian Sandoval (rumors that he and Dean Heller would swap offices were the stuff of Democratic nightmares as it's very possible Sandoval would have held the seat that Heller may well lose).  Republicans have a strong candidate in Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who has led in most primary polling and bested former Secretary of State Ross Miller in 2014 despite a tough campaign.  On the Democratic side, the left has largely coalesced around Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, though he'll have to best one of his colleagues (Chris Giunchigliani) to take the nomination.  Surface-level, I'd argue Laxalt is probably the superior candidate (he's the grandson of longtime Republican fixture, former Sen. Paul Laxalt), but Sisolak will have a blue tinted state in a blue wave election.  Democrats are making some serious plays down-ballot (trying to reclaim most of the constitutional offices, as well as two congressional seats and holding the State Senate, not to mention a serious play against Heller), so Sisolak's strength is important to ensure coattails.

The remaining three are in states that went for President Trump in 2016, but by varying margins and with different factors contributing to them being tossup seats.  For starters, you have Michigan, which Trump won by less than half a percentage point, and has something of a history of switching governors' parties every eight years, and despite some trepidation from party bosses in the state, it seems that they're settling upon State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer while the Republicans weather a primary between Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette.  Whitmer's probably not as strong statewide as either of these two, but she might not need to be.  The Democrats have also had a perpetual bench problem in this state (it's embarrassing how many of the House seats go to children or relatives of former Democratic congressmen), so Whitmer doing well could help Jocelyn Benson & Patrick Miles in their runs for Secretary of State and Attorney General, respectively, as this is the best chance in a while the Democrats have of sweeping all of the state's constitutional offices.

Florida is frequently the close-but-no-cigar race for the Democrats, with seemingly strong candidates like Alex Sink & Charlie Crist falling at the last minute to the GOP candidate despite doing well in polling.  This year, we'll be wondering if Rep. Gwen Graham (D), can follow in her father's footsteps and stop this trend, with Republicans enduring a tough primary between State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (who has been running a stealth campaign for governor for like a decade now) and Rep. Ron DeSantis.  Democrats in Florida always struggle at the finish line, but Graham is a strong campaigner, and will potentially have a new bloc of younger voters and Puerto Rican voters that could help her in a way no other state could (we don't know yet what the effects of the Parkland High School protests & Puerto Ricans seeking refuge from hurricane relief are, but it certainly won't hurt Graham).

And finally we have Kansas, a ruby-red state that nonetheless may be ready for a Democrat after eight deeply unpopular (but still reelected) years of Sam Brownback.  Brownback's disapproval before he was appointed as an ambassador by President Trump was in the 70's, and while Brownback is no longer in office, his stench could still linger in the memory of voters.  This is particularly true since the new incumbent (Jeff Colyer) has struggled in the polls against controversial Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who may be incendiary enough to remind voters of Brownback (who probably would have lost in 2014 had that year not been a rough one for Democrats).  On the Democratic side, there are a number of candidates, but State Sen. Laura Kelly may have a slight leg up on State House Minority Leader Jim Ward & Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty.  A third-party bid by Greg Orman could complicate things (though for which side-it's hard to say), but this is a winnable race-lest we forget, Kansas had a Democratic governor for eight years prior to Brownback.

What I'd Predict at This Point: At this point, honestly, I see all four going blue.  That may be a bit sunny, but honestly in an environment like this, a true tossup should go blue, and while these races aren't set in stone (Graham & Kelly in particular could falter if they are seen as "too liberal"), I'm going to bet on the Democrats making a clean sweep and hitting 23.

State Superintendent Tony Evers (D-WI)
5. Republican Strength vs. a Democratic Wave

The next round of states are ones where, at least on-paper, I think the Republicans have a slight edge, but I also think the recipe is there for the Democrats to eventually win a seat or two.  All four of these states went to President Trump in 2016, albeit by varying margins, and for the most part are open seats (or seats with incumbents that haven't elected their current governor yet).

If that isn't confusing to you, may I introduce you to Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, who took over as governor after Terry Branstad (who was basically King of Iowa considering how long he served as governor, serving longer than any governor of a state ever, surpassing Founding Father George Clinton to get that record) resigned to become Ambassador to China.  Reynolds is probably the frontrunner as Iowa Democrats have been relatively scattered recently, but she doesn't have Branstad's sense of invincibility, and when given the chance last time, Iowa sided for a Democrat when Branstad wasn't on the ballot.  Reynolds' fate could be tied to Trump's tariff war, as Iowa is the country's second-highest producer of soy beans, one of the biggest items China raised their tariffs on in the past few weeks.

Just across the border from Iowa is another governor who could be in trouble, Wisconsin's Scott Walker.  Walker recently has seen two major defeats in his state (watching a State Senate seat and a Supreme Court seat slip to the Democrats), and has never won reelection by much (though he's always won it).  His likely opponent for the general election will be State Superintendent Tony Evers, who has been quarreling with the governor over education funding for years.  Wisconsin has a long history of reelecting their governors (as well as Iowa), but Walker hasn't had to contend with a rough political environment in his statewide bids yet-could Evers be the unlikely one to take him down after three spirited campaigns?

The final two races are open seats, as Republican Govs. John Kasich (OH) and Nathan Deal (GA) are both term-limited.  Ohio, a traditional swing state, might seem like the better option for the Democrats, though the state swung hard-right in 2016 (even while recent wins by President Obama prove it can be won), but polling has shown that the Republicans have a bit of a leg-up.  Both sides have tough primaries ahead of them that could be damaging for candidates.  Republicans have likely nominee Attorney General Mike DeWine getting into a particularly nasty campaign against Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (who is fighting her association with Kasich, who is not popular with the party's base right now), while former Attorney General Richard Cordray is the establishment favorite amongst Democrats, but needs to best former Rep. Dennis Kucinich from his left to take the nomination (Kucinich would be poison in the general).  DeWine is probably the frontrunner, but Cordray has done well before in Ohio, and could gain if the environment is toxic (Trump's approval has been declining in the Buckeye State).

In Georgia, both sides are fighting tough campaigns, albeit ones I don't think will be that close at the end of the day.  Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) seems likely to dispatch Secretary of State Brian Kemp & former State Sen. Hunter Hill, while former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) will surely best State Rep. Stacey Evans.  A Cagle vs. Abrams race could turn ugly, as Cagle is known for scorched-earth, win-at-all-cost campaigns (just Google "Casey Cagle Delta Airlines" and understand what he's capable of doing to appeal to social conservatives), and Abrams position as an African-American woman running for governor (she'd be the first to serve if elected), could lead to a copy of Donald Trump's 2016 dog-whistle campaign.  Georgia went to Donald Trump in 2016, but not by a huge amount, so there's potential for Abrams, but she'll need a huge win (and record African-American turnout) to take the state.

What I'd Predict at This Point: As I said, the Republican is favored in all four of these races.  If I had to place a bet as to which one turns first, though, I think Wisconsin is their best opportunity, potentially followed by Georgia.  The political winds in Wisconsin seem to be tilting to the Democrats' favor, and he's hardly a popular incumbent.  Really, though, if these four states start getting competitive, you can tell we've gotten into a tsunami.

Mayor Setti Warren (D-MA)
6. Hillary-Held States (with Popular Republican Governors)

Waves occasionally erupt in strange ways.  In 2006, for example, Democrats had a pretty strong tide of gubernatorial wins, picking up six governorships, but somehow missing in a few solidly blue states like California, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Connecticut.  Four years later, however, Republicans in another wave election managed to win the governorship to all but one (Arkansas) state that John McCain had taken the year before, in a cycle where they also ended up netting six seats.

These four holdouts are an indication that you can't just win because you're the out-of-power party and because you are a blue state.  Currently, the Republicans have four popular incumbents in Hillary-won states that are standing for reelection, and as these waves indicate, they could be fine when it comes to their reelection campaigns.  After all, in all four states, the Democrats have vastly struggled when it comes to recruitment, and they have (if we're being generous) second-tier candidates in all of them.

That being said, waves do occasionally topple popular incumbents simply because of party label.  In 2006, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley beat incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich despite Ehrlich's approval ratings being above 50% at the time; many noted at the time (including yours truly) that O'Malley didn't so much beat Ehrlich as he beat George W. Bush.  In these four races, the Democrats are going to try as hard as they might to do the same against Donald Trump.

One of those four states is again Maryland, which was Hillary Clinton's third-best state, where Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has relatively solid approval ratings, but can't quite hit the 50%-mark in most public polling (though he's close).  The Democrats have a hodge-podge of random guys running for governor, with Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker toward the top of the pack.  Considering that nearly the entire House delegation is Democratic (and so is every constitutional office), it's clear local Democrats don't think they can win this seat (otherwise surely one of them would have tried for a promotion), but it's impossible to shake the image of Martin O'Malley coming out of nowhere, and Hogan's polling is strong but not invincible.

The next three Republican governors are also possible, but don't quite have as strong of a "partisan-lean" as Maryland (arguably the most partisan left-leaning state in the nation after Hawaii): New Hampshire's Chris Sununu, Massachusetts's Charlie Baker, and Vermont's Phil Scott.  All three states have pretty strong track records for reelecting Republicans to their governorships despite being blue on a federal level, and all three men have managed to distance themselves from Trump AND have 60%+ approval ratings.  Baker, in particular, has become the poster-child for how Republicans can run away from Trump and win support in the process.  The Democrats have respectable candidates leading the pack in all three races, but they're hardly impressive.  Massachusetts will probably settle on Newton Mayor Setti Warren, though Warren can't hold Baker below 50% in any public polling.  Vermont Democrats just recruited Christine Hallquist, CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, as a probable candidate; if elected, Hallquist would become the first transgender person to hold statewide office in the United States, but she's hardly well-known in the state, and Vermont has a rather poor history of electing female candidates.  Finally, there's New Hampshire, where the Democratic Primary appears to be between former State Sen. Molly Kelly & Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand. New Hampshire has a similar former situation like Ehrlich's (in 2004, Craig Benson got swept out of office by a political neophyte, John Lynch, in 2004 under the pressure of John Kerry winning the state, despite nearly 50% approval ratings and being in his first-term), so Sununu can't rest totally easy, but he is significantly better-liked than Benson was at this time.

What I'd Predict at this Point: I assume the Republicans will take all four.  One of these states (probably Maryland or New Hampshire) could go into tossup territory IF the Democrat can successfully rub Donald Trump off on the incumbent governor but so-far they have not had to deal with the national Republicans hurting their brand, so I'd say they're fine.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK)
7. And Then There's Alaska

Our final profile is of the Last Frontier, Alaska.  Four years ago, in a shock, Gov. Sean Parnell lost his reelection.  Despite low approval ratings, it was assumed that Parnell could translate that year's wave election into a victory due to his Republican label, and the Democrats/Independents splitting their tickets.  The two tickets, however, merged, making it possible for them to win on an Independent (but clearly Democrat-friendly) ticket.

Four years later, Gov. Bill Walker is struggling with his own approval ratings woes, and the Republicans are itching to take back a seat in such a poor environment, even if it's not at the hands of a Democrat.  The Republican Primary seems to still be forming, though State Sen. Mike Dunleavy has taken something of an early lead in fundraising.  If Walker is truly vulnerable, it's hard not to see stronger candidates getting into the race (like State Senate President Pete Kelly or former State Senate President Ben Stevens), but they make their decision with a potential 800-pound-gorilla in the room on the Democrats' side.

That's because former Sen. Mark Begich has been flirting with a potential candidacy for over a year, and would clearly benefit from this year's environment (and Walker's terrible approval ratings).  Were Begich to get in, he'd upend arguably the Republicans' best shot at a pickup, though this is still ruby-red Alaska, who hasn't chosen a Democrat for governor since Tony Knowles in 1998.  Until candidate filing is done on June 1st, he's still a potential candidate as Alaska is a cheap state to advertise in and his six years in the US Senate assures that he can assemble a fundraising team together quickly (and has near-universal name recognition).

What I'd Predict at this Point: Without Begich in the race, I'll say this is a Republican pickup.  If Begich gets in (and though I wouldn't bet on it, I have no idea why he wouldn't as he's only 56 and will never have an opportunity like this again), then this goes to pure Tossup.  As a result, my final count for the year is 27R-23D, but with enough seats up-in-the-air for the Democrats to reach that arbitrary (but morale-important) 26 seat-majority.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

They Both Die at the End...and Why I Love Melancholy Fiction

I recently power-read through Adam Silvera's They Both Die in the End.  Compared to my more literary-minded friends, I'm a notoriously slow reader, someone who views books as something to be consumed at a leisurely pace.  Philip Roth once said you're not really "reading" a novel if you can't finish it within two weeks.  Philip Roth would not approve of how long books sit on my bed stand.

But Silvera's They Both Die in the End was not the kind of book I could put down.  I initially thought this was just because I desperately wanted to know the end, to know if my theory was correct (for the record, it wasn't), and to see where the book would take itself.  I've never read any of Silvera's novels (though I probably will now), and based on online forums, the sadness of the book is not unfamiliar to his bibliography, and he has continually matured as a writer.  I could still see the faults in the novel; it meanders too much, stretching plot that can clearly be foreseen, and the shifting nature of the narrators (it's written in first-person, but a first-person where we have roughly a dozen narrators) caused confusion when the names were too similar (specifically Delilah and Deidre).  But the book is a jolt, and sneaks up on you.  For a novel where he literally tells you the ending in the title, you spend much of the story wondering what the twist will be-how can an author write a compelling work of fiction if you "know the ending" before you hit the copyright page.  That he still crafts a meaningful friendship, that you'll burst into tears around ten pages before it ends, and how the last sentence lingers like a giant ellipsis (a confident move I'm not familiar with seeing in YA fiction) is all terrific.  It's a great read, and (hey Hollywood!) would make a superb movie in the wake of Love, Simon.

In conversations with people, I have discovered two things, one I knew and one I didn't.  First, the book's title, before even getting to its contents, scares off people.  I was shocked by the number of book-loving people I know who instantly wouldn't try the book because they don't want the "sad ending" that the novel's title promises.  I think we all, on some level, judge a book by its cover, but I'm floored that we also would dismiss the title.  I, for one, bought the book based on the title (and a quick survey of LGBT-themed YA lit that produced this as the best-reviewed one on the list...so this literally was a sale wrought by Love, Simon).

The second thing I knew people would say-"why, John, do you always like sad books?"  It's true, and not something I can counter-punch, nor would I want to do so.  After all, I think literature, movies, TV, theater-it all becomes more important when you have some sort of sacrifice.  I'm not a genre snob, but I'll admit that most of the genres that I gravitate away from are subjects where there's little chance of an unhappy ending (sports films, comedies) or ones where a sad ending is likely, but there's rarely emotional sacrifice (horror, where death is inevitable).  In fact, arguably my favorite line in a movie might well be from The Hours, where Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf utters "Someone has to die in order that the rest of us value life more."  I kind of agree with that in fiction-you need to have some sort of tangible, unexpected sacrifice to reach an end goal (a fact that's mostly definitely true in The Hours).

But I thought it would be interesting to test this assessment that I "only like sad movies" because I recently made a Top 100 list of my favorite films and a Top 25 list of my favorite TV shows, and in doing so, I wanted to see how often they end with sad, happy, or ambiguous endings.

I had to make a couple of rules for myself while searching the list.  For starters, romances where the main characters don't end up together is automatically a "sad" ending.  I also included any film where the main character had to die to be a "sad" ending.  This meant that films like Casablanca, for example, qualify as a "sad" ending even though you could argue it was happy in the sense that Rick is better for his experience in the picture.  I initially thought I'd scrap it and just say "if I'm crying when the credits roll" it counts as sad, but then I remembered that for someone who is weirdly closed-off from emotional vulnerability in real-life, I cry at the drop of a hat in movies.  I also discounted the TV shows relatively quickly, as I found that very few shows end with a proper "sad' ending, even if a number of shows end with main characters dying, so I went solely with movies.  So I went with my own subjective analysis and found...

...that I really, truly like sad movies.  55 of my favorite movies, a solid majority of them, despite the fact that (I can't find proof of this, but I'm going based on personal, anecdotal evidence) most of the movies I've seen have had a happy ending.  You have to make it to 18th place on the list (Jurassic Park) before I can give a firm "this is a happy ending," even though there are "ambiguously" ended films earlier on the list like The Tree of Life.  With the exception of Malick's opus, all of my Top 10 have decidedly sad movies, most of them romances (a therapist would call this projection), and my highest-ranked romance with a happy ending, is one where our main characters go through emotional hoops to get to that ending (Before Sunset).  So yes, apparently I like sad endings, which is how I ended up reading a book called They Both Die at the End without reservations.  And I'm glad I did, as it is the sort of affirming novel that hits you in the stomach and makes you want to treasure your time with the characters (and real-life people) all the more.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

Film: Ready Player One (2018)
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, TJ Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance
Director: Steven Spielberg
Oscar History: It's a very, very short list of movies directed by Spielberg that don't score at least one Oscar nomination.  Surely Visual Effects (or perhaps Animated Feature?) might be in order.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

There are limited times as a film-viewer where I feel like a proper Millennial.  This is because there are few things in the world that make me feel less like a Millennial than when I'm watching movies.  I have been watching films since before I can remember (literally), but most of my formative cinema years were spent watching the likes of All About Eve and The Manchurian Candidate, pictures that came out decades before I was born.  But while watching Ready Player One, I was reminded of the fact that I didn't grow up with Steven Spielberg in the way that Gen X-ers did.  By the time I was old enough to see Spielberg's films on the big screen, he had largely graduated past his "childhood classics" phase.  I didn't see ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, or even Jurassic Park in a darkened theater, and so (with the possible exception of Hook-can't remember where I caught that first), I think the first time I saw a Spielberg film outside the comfort of a living room was The Lost World.  Spielberg's 80's films, therefore, are something I subconsciously lump into the same camp as the films of Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, and David Lean.  In terms of my immediate, in-theater tastes, he's either the maker of serious biopics, a twin pair of Sci-Fi masterpieces (AI and Minority Report), or trying to retread upon his 80's classics in an era that seems to have moved beyond them.

(Spoilers Ahead) This never really mattered to me until I saw Ready Player One, his latest big-screen adventure and a picture that is clearly trying to recapture the magic of his 80's classics.  Based on the controversial novel by Ernest Cline, the film tells the tale of Wade (Sheridan), who is more commonly known by his avatar identity Parzival, an ace player in the Oasis, a multi-player virtual reality game that allows you to indulge in online gaming, debauchery, and fun.  It's basically a cross between Blade Runner 2049 and The Hunger Games, with just enough Wreck-It Ralph thrown in to make it Spielberg-family-wholesome.  The film unfolds with Wade trying to solve the riddles of a long-lost (clearly inspired by Steve Jobs, and a teensy bit George Lucas) billionaire named James Halliday (Rylance), who has died, but left his half-a-trillion-dollar empire behind as a Willy Wonka-like incentive for the players of his game to continue playing.

You may have noticed I referenced a number of movies there, which is normally shorthand for a bad review (X meets Y is lazy writing, imho), but it suits Ready Player One.  The film and your patience/love for it is entirely dependent on your tolerance for references & nostalgia.  Initially I thought it was just my imagination (one has to wonder how much money it cost Spielberg to be able to get all of the imaging rights for these movies), but nearly every corner of this film is covered in references to past cinema, including Spielberg's own Jurassic Park.  Most of the film's movie, music, and video game references (it's weirdly devoid of television) come from the 1980's, though not all (more recent references include Minecraft and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn), and you could probably have a decent afternoon watching this on your TV with friends seeing who can spot the most pop culture touchstones.

But that doesn't mean it's a great movie, and where the film gets lost for me is that the pop culture eventually drowns the picture, to the point where it seems downright absurd and obscene.  For starters, it's 2045 in the film, and here is where the "I'm a Millennial" card gets played.  The film is littered with references to pictures like Say Anything or really the entire John Hughes canon, but talk to most Millennials, and they will appreciate Hughes' films in (at best) a kitschy, nostalgic way.  They might not realize that movies like Mean Girls or Love Simon are deeply reliant on the ground that Hughes trod, but they aren't carrying a boombox over their shoulders, and if most Millennials/Gen Z don't really feel these references, it's silly to think that this would be a relevant and important part of your pop culture knowledge for people decades from now.  Say Anything will be about as important in thirty years as the Tammy or Gidget films are to our current generation (ie not important at all).  It's preposterous to think that the basis for a pop culture game made thirty years from now would be centered entirely on current pop culture, or really pop culture that already felt nostalgic when we were still worrying about Y2K, and yet Spielberg doesn't age the film, clearly assuming that audiences in thirty years will care about Adventure or Child's Play or Back to the Future.

As a result, the film didn't connect for me.  There were moments I liked (the entire sequence where they go into the hotel from The Shining was marvelous...and allowed for perhaps the first clearly gay scene in a blockbuster of this nature, albeit one that we don't put together until later that it's gay), but the movie is weighted down by its love of references, and when you strip the film of that, you're left with a pretty generic picture.  Sheridan is lovely as the lead, and brings an earnest attractiveness that obviously spoke to Spielberg, but the supporting cast is basically a who's who of 2-dimensional characterizations, which is a pity considering Ben Mendelsohn & Lena Waithe are capable of much more.  Alan Silvestri's score is fun and the VFX were jaw-dropping but that doesn't make up for the film glossing over its harder edges (we're essentially trying to save a reprieve from poverty the entire picture).  I will say that I loved the film's cinematography in 70mm, and god bless my local theater for leaning hard into this angle (they had classic John Williams scores playing in an already-darkened theater with the curtain down before it rose up with a trailer to the 2001 re-release), but this was a dud for me.  It's not exactly a bad movie (and probably one a lot of people are going to ignore if they can feel the nostalgia), but it wasn't on my wavelength so I'm out...if I want Spielberg-nostalgia, I'll just watch ET again.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Film: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Director: Ava DuVernay
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I think A Wrinkle in Time was the first book ever that I had to read twice in a row not because I loved it so much, but because I didn't really get it.  The book, complicated and scientific in ways that were difficult for me to grasp, was the first novel I read with its own mythology, its own terminology.  It is also, even as an adult, a book that's hard to imagine as an actual film, which is why when Disney decided to tackle the project, I was skeptical.  Even in the hands of someone as accomplished as Ava DuVernay, it felt like a story that would be too cerebral, too introverted and too inward to ever pop on the screen.  Then again, "impossible" novels are made into classic movies all-the-time.  One of my favorite pictures ever is The Hours, and I read that book thinking how preposterous it was that it could ever be made into a movie...except of course it had.  So I went to A Wrinkle in Time with childhood fancy in my eyes but an adult's skepticism about what this book could turn into onscreen.

(Spoilers Ahead) And I left disappointed that my childhood's vision of the book would only be brought to life in a surface-level way, my adult side winning the day on this one.  The film centers around Meg (Reid), a bright young girl haunted by her father's (Pine) disappearance, with many of her fellow classmates thinking that he simply ran away from their family, and mocking her incessantly for it.  She lives with her brother Charles Wallace (McCabe), an unusually bright young boy who seems to have some issues with social cues, and doesn't care for most of the people his age.  One day three magical women (played by Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling) take them across the universe in pursuit of their father, and along the way they find out things about themselves.

This is standard-plate stuff for a children's movie, and if that were simply where we were going, it'd probably work.  We have three talented actresses taking on the main roles, and Witherspoon in particular (on such a role lately!) is a hoot as the Mrs. Whatsit, the newest celestial being who frequently becomes impatient with our chief protagonist Meg.  However, the movie's mythology appers too thick to come across in less than two hours, and as a result DuVernay has to sacrifice something.  The problem is she doesn't simplify the plot as a way of letting us connect with the characters, but instead she diverts away from our child performers, giving us cardboard cutouts of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin (Miller).

It feels hard to pick on younger actors in such a way, but all three struggle onscreen.  We leave the theater with just a razor-thin understanding of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, with their problems all coming back to relationships with family members, but little insight into who they are as human beings.  Reid, in particular, seems to rely more upon frustrated glances and stilted line readings than actually instilling something into her character.  This is partially the fault of Jennifer Lee & Jeff Stockwell, the screenwriters, who don't give Meg much character aside from hero-in-training.  There's a scene late in the film where Meg's name is listed alongside luminaries like Gandhi & Einstein, but we still don't know how simple Meg should possibly be grouped with such people, even though she supposedly just saved the world (weirdly, this is where DuVernay skimps the most on mythology-building).  Without a connection to the younger characters (whom I really loved as a kid as I read all of L'Engle's Time Quintet once I could understand the books), the film itself is just a disconnected series of shots, a muddled mess that movie star charisma can't even save.  It pains me to give it such a low score, but childhood nostalgia & pretty art direction don't make a movie watchable, and you can't be excused for having the budget to cast Witherspoon, Winfrey, and Kaling to try and liven up a dud.  DuVernay has made great movies before, and she likely will again, but this is a stinker.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Can the Democrats Win the Senate?

Last week, I tackled whether or not the Democrats might win the United States House or not.  The question is a pretty big one-Democrats even taking back one branch of Congress would be a huge stop in the Republicans' control of Washington, giving Nancy Pelosi an indisputable seat at the table, and likely putting a kibosh on some of the more extreme aspects of the Trump administration (and also giving at least some protection to Robert Mueller, who could then become a part of a House Intelligence Committee investigation).

That being said, from a pragmatic standpoint it's almost better to have the Senate.  One of the most lasting hallmarks of the Trump administration (and, indeed, what Mitch McConnell sold his soul for), was the large number of conservatives that he's been able to get appointed to the federal judiciary.  Trump throughout 2017 outpaced his last three predecessors during his first year in terms of judges he had appointed/confirmed to the federal bench, and that's likely to grow even longer if the Democrats cannot win back the Senate.  However, while the Democrats only need two seats (Doug Jones' victory remains the most consequential special election by a country mile over the past two years), that's still a very tough climb, particularly considering that Democrats have to defend 26 seats to the Republicans only needing to defend nine.  Still, Jones ensured that the Democrats at least have a pragmatic mathematical option to win the Senate, so I wanted to do a step-by-step investigation into what I think will currently happen in the Senate (rather than our usual "State of the Senate" article), so let's take a look at the five questions that will decide who controls the Senate for the final two years of Trump's first (only?) term:

Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV)
1. Will the Democrats Win the Must-Have Seats of Arizona & Nevada?

This entire conversation is a moot point if the Democrats can't at least take two seats.  Thanks to Mike Pence, the Democrats can't just win and tie, they have to win two seats to break past a Pence tie (considering how polarized the senior body has become in recent years, I suspect Pence would have to set up camp at the Senate desk if we actually got a 50/50 Senate).  As a result, there's no even theoretical majority if they don't win at least two seats, and almost certainly, those seats will have to be Arizona & Nevada.

Nevada's Sen. Dean Heller remains the most vulnerable incumbent of either party running for the Senate this year, and possibly the most vulnerable incumbent in Congress running this year.  He holds the dubious distinction of being the only incumbent GOP senator up in 2018 that is running in a state that Hillary Clinton won.  Therefore, his likely opponent (Rep. Jacky Rosen) will only need to convince Clinton voters to get out for her, rather than also peeling away a few Trump 2016 voters who have lost the faith (or just really hated Hillary).  Heller avoided a potentially messy primary when President Trump convinced Danny Tarkanian to run for Congress instead, but that still might not save Heller against Rosen (who is doing her best to be a "Generic Democrat," which isn't an insult-Generic Democrats tend to poll higher), and quite frankly could backfire as Tarkanian's candidacy now makes it more likely that Susie Lee holds the 3rd district since he's the close-but-no-cigar candidate.

The second seat is less likely, but still a prime target.  Arizona went for Trump, but only by 4-points and if the state's large Latino population turns out (in similar fashion to how Alabama's large African-American population turned out) in 2018, this could be a major get for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, running to replace incumbent Sen. Jeff Flake (R).  The Republicans have a strong candidate in Rep. Martha McSally, but she needs to get back two more-loyal-to-Trump Republicans, State Sen. Kelli Ward & Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Both Ward and Arpaio would be DOA in a general election during a blue wave, but that hasn't stopped the GOP from shooting-themselves-in-the-foot before (see also Christine O'Donnell), and if they don't split the vote (a serious threat), they could pose a serious risk to McSally.  Quite frankly, even McSally v. Sinema could be a close race in the right circumstances, but Sinema will have to run a pretty flawless campaign to become the first Democrat since 1988 to win a Senate seat in the Grand Canyon State.

What I'd Predict at This Point: It kind of makes this article silly if I don't predict victories for both (I did give away you can't win without breaking a few eggs here), but I will say that at this juncture I'd probably bet on Rosen and Sinema both to win.  Rosen's race seems one of the easier "tossup" calls of 2018, and indeed if the election were actually held today, most of those pundits deeming this race a "Tossup" would be moving it to Lean Democratic, considering the state's fundamentals and the national environment.  Sinema's prediction is predicated on McSally having a rough primary or perhaps losing it entirely, but that seems likely to happen and I think that this could be an election cycle where we see typically under-represented Democratic base groups (like Latino voters) turn out in stronger-than-usual-for-a-midterm numbers.  So Democrats get their +2.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
2. Can the Democrats Take the "Big 5?"

The largest question for the Democrats is not whether they'll take the above two seats (like I said, if they don't, this whole exercise becomes pointless and Mitch McConnell gets two more years in charge of the judiciary).  The bigger question is-can incumbent Democrats overcome Donald Trump to actually stay on for another term.  Is Trump love stronger than the blue wave?

There are ten Trump-won states that Democrats have to defend in 2018 that Donald Trump won, but those aren't all created equally, and I've dubbed the "Big 5" here the five that seem most likely to flip to the GOP at this point.  Democrats really need to win all of these or find another "Doug Jones-Style Miracle" on the map, and that's a tall order.  Each of them come with at least some good news for the Democrats, but also a lot of trouble for the party.

The most vulnerable of the Big 5 are probably Sens. Claire McCaskill (MO) and Joe Donnelly (IN).  Both represent pretty red states, and states that got increasingly redder the longer that President Obama was in office.  Both had top-tier Senate candidates in 2016 (Jason Kander and Evan Bayh, respectively) that ended up losing on Election Night, and both have top-tier challengers in 2018, though Donnelly's are still in the middle of a primary so it's hard to tell which of the brawling members of Congress ends up being his foe.  A wave will surely help them, but I'd say at best that the Democrats have a 50/50 shot keeping these two, and will probably need a little bit of luck (or for Trump's approval in these states to tumble a bit more) to take both of them.  If the Democrats are taking both, it's likely they've won the Senate majority (hence why I keep telling people if you want to donate to a Senate campaign, give to McCaskill, Donnelly, Sinema, or Rosen)

The last three are a tad bit rosier for the Democrats, but hardly worth bragging about.  Sen. Bill Nelson represents the most marginal state (Florida went for Trump by 1.2-points), but he's also (probably-he's rumored to be announcing on Monday) got the best NRSC recruit of the cycle, two-term Gov. Rick Scott.  Scott has had a decent amount of popularity since the hurricanes last year, and has won against tough opponents before.  Nelson's also a storied politician, but Scott is probably the best candidate he's faced in his Senate career, and the Republican will have his own deep pockets to finance the campaign if need be.  This is a tossup race, and Nelson's going to need the notoriously disorganized Democratic Party of Florida to get its act together to win this seat.

The final two I'm still getting a gage on, but including because the fundamentals favor a tossup.  Sen. Joe Manchin is still figuring out his opponent in West Virginia, and controversial coal baron Don Blankenship (fresh out of jail) is fast-emerging as an unlikely leader for the Republican nomination, which could be a blessing (though his status as a "coal baron" shouldn't be lightly dismissed) for Manchin if he is as toxic as he should be (and would divert precious resources for the Democrats to another race).  Sen. Heidi Heitkamp knows her opponent (Rep. Kevin Cramer), but Heitkamp is a smart campaigner, and also Cramer is not the ideal candidate Republicans made him out to be (though he seemed better than State Sen. Tom Campbell).  Both candidates are going to go in with not just a wave, but a decent amount of personal goodwill in states that are famous for reelecting their incumbents, but they also represent the states that Trump is arguably the most popular in of these five, so it's a strange juxtaposition.

What I'd Predict at this Point: Anyone calling any of these five races "safe" for the Democrats needs their head examined, but none of them are unwinnable at this point.  That said, I'd argue that it's hard to think that both McCaskill AND Donnelly win from this vantage point, so I'm going to assume that McCaskill falls.  I'm not quite to the point where I'd predict both, but honestly a wash isn't out of the question with both of these two (or maybe Nelson) losing, but if the Democrats want a serious chance of winning the Senate, they're probably going to need to take at least one of these five races completely off the map by November (Manchin's seems the most likely, but Chuck Schumer's not going to be picky on that front), and improve all of the candidates' standings a little.  But to illustrate a point later in the article, I'll say McCaskill loses but Donnelly rides a split primary to a slim victory.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)
3. Can the Democrats Hold the "Other Five" (and Everything Else)?

So before we get into stranger hypotheticals that might get the Democrats back to 51, we have to acknowledge that the Democrats still need to hold all of the other seats, and probably keep them from actually being competitive, in order to have any shot at the majority.  At this point, I don't see a lot of evidence that any Hillary-won seats will become competitive, short of a scandal.  In some of the more marginally-won seats in Clinton Country (Tim Kaine and Tina Smith's, for example), the Republicans have failed in recruitment and the incumbents seem clean, and the one truly troubled incumbent (Bob Menendez) is in a state that Clinton won by 14 points two years ago.  A #MeToo scandal could rock one of these races, but at this juncture I don't see any evidence that the 16 senators are up for reelection in Clinton-won seats will lose to a Republican, even if it's not entirely clear that they won't lose to a Democrat (looking at you, Dianne Feinstein).

So if one of these races bolts, it's going to be one of the five senators running in seats that Trump won.  I think the least likely to go in that direction are Debbie Stabenow & Bob Casey, both of whom represent marginal Trump-seats (Stabenow's Michigan went to him by less than half a percentage point), and neither seems vulnerable in November; Stabenow never got a top-tier challenger, and Casey can be comforted by Conor Lamb's surprise victory, as it shows that more traditionally Democratic voters are willing to come back to the party in 2018.

The other three seats, however, seem a tad bit more vulnerable, though I'd argue all have something of a lean toward the Democrats.  Sen. Sherrod Brown is outperforming most polls so far (by a sizable margin, to the point where he's above the important 50% marker), but Ohio swung hard right in 2016 and his opponent (Rep. Jim Renacci) isn't super well-known.  If Brown is still pulling these sorts of numbers in September, chalk this up to him being super popular (and a bit lucky) and also that he will become a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2020; until then he remains a marginal favorite.  His colleague Tammy Baldwin also seems reasonably safe, though Republicans appear to think that Baldwin is much more vulnerable than polls (or common sense) let on, which has me scratching my head but giving them some benefit-of-the-doubt.  Still, she has to feel good that the GOP couldn't get one of its best candidates to run here (her opponent will be decidedly second tier, though second tier candidates do occasionally win elections...just ask Joni Ernst), and that Rebecca Dallet just showed her where to campaign to win a healthy majority in November.  And finally, we have Sen. Jon Tester, arguably the closest person to tossup territory in this group, but who has a relatively weak opponent and has good enough retail politicking skills (and proof in Gov. Steve Bullock that he can win despite Trump) that I think he's got to be considered the frontrunner.  Polls start to tighten and I'll reassess that, but for now I suspect Tester gets a third term.

What I'd Predict at this Point: This is less about predicting who will win (I suspect all of them would today) and more about predicting who might become competitive.  Really, the Democrats need as many of these races to be "non-events" as possible even as early as Labor Day.  Some of these start creeping into Tossup territory, it's going to give them less advantage to do more offense (or play a stronger defense) as they'll run out of money.  But yes, we stay 50R-50D here as I think all of these people would win by varying margins as of today.

Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN)
4. Is there another "Doug Jones" on the Map?

This is the biggest question right now.  Doug Jones made it mathematically possible for the Democrats to win the Senate.  Were they to win every seat we just profiled, they'd have a 51-49 majority.  But as I mentioned, I think either McCaskill or Donnelly (or both) could falter this year, and it's hard to imagine a perfect sweep of all of the competitive races as even in tough years they don't quite get there.  As a result, if the Democrats could open up at least one more seat, they'd be in a much better place for November.

Three seats theoretically could make that possible, though all clearly have a lot of Republican advantages (yes, so did Alabama, that's why I named this "is there another 'Doug Jones' on the Map?"-pay attention!).  For starters, there's Texas, where the Democrats are clearly trying their best to sink a basket with top-tier fundraiser and sitting Rep. Beto O'Rourke.  O'Rourke, though, feels like the sort of candidate who will beat expectations, but not beat Ted Cruz, and while party-building is important, it's not going to get you a Senate majority in 2018.  I'd say that we need some substantive polling here before I buy Cruz is actually vulnerable, and not just going to win by 7-8 points instead of 15.

The Mississippi race is obviously tempting, but it's probably too weird for the Democrats to actually win.  The race is predicated upon the idea that the top two finishers will advance, regardless of party.  There's two big problems there.  For starters, Democrats may have as many as 4-5 candidates running (so far they have two, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, but a couple others are rumored), while Republicans seem to have it split between soon-to-be-incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith and conservative firebrand State Sen. Chris McDaniel.  Mississippi is conservative enough that even two Democrats running could ensure both Hyde-Smith and McDaniel advance to a runoff, much less even more Democrats splitting the electorate (one has to imagine that Chuck Schumer will be working hard to ensure that Democrats get only one candidate, but he's not magic).  And even if one advances, it's very possible that an Espy v. McDaniel election (arguably the best case scenario for Democrats right now, though Brandon Presley or Jim Hood would be better for their side), would be less about McDaniel's radical politics and more about how this seat decides who holds the Senate majority (an extremely strong possibility).  Doug Jones won in part because crossover voters knew they weren't voting for Chuck Schumer.  It's probable that Espy wouldn't be able to beat the pressure (see also Louisiana Senate race in 2002 for more proof of this).

Finally, then, we have the one race that seems like it could switch to tossup: Tennessee.  The Democrats got their best possible situation with Gov. Phil Bredesen, and while recent history has not been kind to former governors running in  red states (Ted Strickland, Evan Bayh, and Bob Kerrey all come to mind), Bredesen is polling well and his opponent has a bit of baggage, even for a red state (Rep. Marsha Blackburn).  I will need to see more concrete polling, with Bredesen approaching 50% (it's easy to see undecideds breaking to Blackburn, so he'll need to be at least 48% to take this), but this is the one race that Democrats should at least be looking into.  At age 74, Bredesen is hardly the poster-child for the future of the Democratic Party, and might only be a one-term senator, but when it comes to math this year, that could well be enough.

What I'd Predict at this Point: Honestly, Bredesen would win today, but I still think Blackburn would win in November.  That said, I am keeping an eye out here (it's currently my #9 most-likely-to-switch-hands, and is moving up).  The other two races are pipe dreams unless the wave is a tsunami, in which case McCaskill and Donnelly are probably fine (put it this way-Beto O'Rourke and Mike Espy won't be Seat #51, but Phil Bredesen just might).

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
5. What about John McCain?

This puts the contest at 50R-50D, which is going to be my prediction, giving the Republicans a razor-thin majority.  But no review of the Senate races in 2018 would be complete without tipping a hat to the very real possibility that John McCain's seat will be up in November.  The longtime Arizona Republican has been battling brain cancer for nearly a year now, and health rumors have been hitting a fever pitch this week.  McCain's seat being open would be a huge game-changer in the race for the Senate, as it would open up another seat in a state that Hillary Clinton just barely lost, and would give the Democrats a bit more wiggle room to account for a "Big 5" loss or two.

There are too many variables here to really assess where this race would go.  Names like former Sen. Jon Kyl and Cindy McCain have been thrown around as potential replacements for McCain, and Mrs. McCain in particular would be a difficult candidate to beat (though it's worth noting she's considerably more progressive than her husband on most issues, so a primary challenge wouldn't be out of the question).  Other Republicans, including Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, could look at the seat if a placeholder is appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey.  Democrats don't have nearly the bench that the Republicans do, but names like former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Rep. Ruben Gallego, and Mark Kelly (husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) would probably be toward the top of the list.

Whether or not McCain's replacement (should there be one) would stand for election in 2018 or 2020 is also up-for-debate.  Most agree that if McCain were to resign or leave office before May 30th, the governor would be required to hold a special election this November.  It's highly-likely, though, that if McCain were to resign prior to the August primary, that Democrats would sue to force an election this November (legal experts generally seem to agree that May 30th is the deadline, though there is some grey area in the law & no precedence here as there has never been a governor-appointed-senator in Arizona, so it wouldn't be a safe assumption).  Either way, while it still remains unlikely, there continues to be a real possibility that a second seat is open in Arizona, and that would upend the math for Senate control.

What I'd Predict at this Point: It's too morbid to weigh-in on, but it's worth noting at least until May 30th that this remains a possibility (remember we already have two unplanned Senate races in Mississippi & Minnesota-Arizona could be a third).

So my predictions right now are that the Democrats net one seat, and that largely 7 races (that they'll need to cleanly sweep) is what it'll take to win the Senate, with at least some glances toward Baldwin, Tester, Brown & Bredesen being problems/solutions for the DSCC.  But the national environment, and each individual campaign, will continue to be the determining factor here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

5 Thoughts on Last Night's Elections

There was only one major contest yesterday for an actual political office, a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Yet, it was a surprisingly telling race, coupled with a ballot referendum, for a state that only marginally went for President Trump in 2016 (and delivered a shock Senate reelection when many were expecting a Democrat to pickup the Badger State's second seat).  As  a result, I still want to do one of our regular Wednesday "Five Thoughts On..." columns as we dive a bit deeper into what yesterday's election really meant.

Supreme Court Justice-Elect Rebecca Dallet
1. Rebecca Dallet Ends a Democratic Drought in Wisconsin

I really don't like the phrase "needed a win" mostly because people underestimate parties when they lose an election & assume that they are now "without a victory forever."  Candidates change, political winds blow in different directions, and what once was thought impossible suddenly results in a Democratic Senator from Alabama.

That being said, Democrats pragmatically needed a victory in Wisconsin last night, and they got one. No Democrat since Barack Obama was first elected has won as a non-incumbent in a non-presidential cycle (this doesn't sound like much, but remember that Wisconsin's weird judicial election cycles pretty much guarantee a statewide election every year, so they have more elections than your average state).  Dallet's victory is one that Democrats can boast about with pride after multiple defeats (including losing to Scott Walker thrice), and can also point to as evidence that they should have confidence heading into November, particularly considering that the Democrats have two major races they want to win statewide come the midterms.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI)
2. Wisconsin's Ballot Referendum = Trouble for Scott Walker

One could make the argument that Dallet won less because of her campaign and more because people just wanted to stick it to Scott Walker, a polarizing governor who has nonetheless had enormous control over the state in the past decade.  Some exit interviews I was reading in major Democratic cities like Milwaukee & Madison showed a number of people coming out for the first time essentially saying "I don't know much about Dallet, but the other guy's for Walker, so I'm voting for her."  That sort of mentality is important to note, particularly considering that the Democrat in November (probably State Superintendent Tony Evers) will not have as much money, name recognition, or the campaign operation that Walker will have at his advantage after three successive victories as governor.  But if Evers just needs to be the anti-Walker to win, he could well take the seat without those advantages.

But the more damning news for Walker was in the ballot referendum last night.  Wisconsin voters went to the polls not just to elect a Supreme Court Justice, but also to decide whether or not they should have the right to pick their State Treasurer.  Walker wanted to eliminate the position (which he and incumbent Walker Stapleton have gutted of most of its responsibilities), and this was an initiative that the Koch Brothers has invested money into as well, but a resounding defeat met the resolution, meaning Wisconsin will continue to elect their State Treasurer.  The next step for the Democrats is to get a candidate who can win this office in November, but make no mistake-this was a huge repudiation for Scott Walker, who has to be worried that his iron grip on the state's highest elected office could be loosening in the wake of a Trump presidency.

State Sen. Patti Schachtner
3. The Next Big Race is in June, Not November

Of course, Walker will have a chance for redemption or perhaps further cementing his vulnerability this June, as the highest-stakes special election in a while will be taking place in Wisconsin.  Walker recently appointed two members of the state legislature to his administration, leaving their positions open.  The governor, despite being the cause of these vacancies, had been reluctant to call a special election for them because of a shock pickup for the Democrats in January (when Patti Schachtner won a State Senate seat that had gone overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016).  However, the courts said that Walker couldn't keep the seats closed for an entire year, and ordered him to call an election in June.

The seats are not easy pickup opportunities for Democrats, but they might have a shot.  Both seats delivered similar wins for Trump in 2016 in comparison to Schachtner's seat, and after both of these women's victories, WI Democrats likely smell blood in the water.  Though neither will change the majority of either legislative house, expect millions to pour into these races as they serve as proxy battles for Walker in November.

President Donald Trump (R-NY)
4. What Does This Mean for November Nationally?

It is always a bad idea to attribute too much ink to how one special election will affect the November midterms.  After all, all races are unique, and the electorate (even the increased one in select areas of Wisconsin) will be considerably larger in November.  That being said, Dallet is just another in a long line of talking points for the Democrats going into the fall, as they have continually won seats that went for President Trump (worth noting that Dallet did just that, even if Trump took the state narrowly), and have generally out-performed Hillary Clinton's numbers nationally.  That might not be enough to win back both houses (or a majority of the governor's mansions), but it's worth a start.

It's also worth noting that Dallet indicates something else that Democrats desperately need, and could get in November: a replenished bench.  While President Obama won both of his elections rather handily, his party suffered repeatedly in terms of down-ballot races, giving them a depleted candidate pool that has hurt them in recruitment this cycle.  Look, for example, at the number of military veterans and business leaders that they are going to for House races, rather than state legislators (which is normally where they'd head for such candidates), in large part because they don't exist in swing seats.  Supreme Court seats, constitutional offices, and of course state legislatures have enormous sway over public policy even though they aren't as sexy of positions as governors or congressmen, and major gains for Democrats there could have an enormous impact on the individual directions of many states.

Judge Joanne Kloppenburg
5. Why Can't Democrats Vote in These Numbers Every Year?

This is me griping, but why is it that Democrats can only remember how to vote when there's a presidential election or a Republican is in the White House?  I keep thinking, looking at this election what would have happened if just 8000 more of the 1.6 million voters that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 had turned out for Joanne Kloppenburg in 2011.  A race decided partially by 7000 Wisconsinites and partially by what happened to be in Kathy Nickolaus's trunk at the time (look it up), the Democrats came SO close to unseating conservative Justice David Prosser.  Were they to have turned out in similar margins to the presidential elections (or even gotten close), we wouldn't be looking at a 4-3 Conservative Court, but a flip to a 4-3 Liberal Court, giving the Democrats their best tool against Scott Walker we have until November.

This isn't exclusive to Wisconsin.  Four current Republicans (Cory Gardner, Pat Toomey, Dean Heller and Thom Tillis) all won their last elections by less than 2-points.  In the cases of Gardner & Heller, both those were states that went for President Obama & Secretary Clinton in the general elections, but Democrats either were too lazy to get out and vote, or too blind to Mitch McConnell's hold on the Senate to not split their ticket (in the case of Heller).  Give those four senators just a handful more votes, and we don't have Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Neil Gorsuch, Jeff Sessions, or any number of conservative justices that have now been appointed for life to the bench.  Never forget how much your vote matters, and that you need to vote in every election, no matter how small, because what might be inconsequential now could have damning effects later.  This is a lesson that Democrats seem to be remembering here, but I hope they don't have collective amnesia they second a President Biden or President Harris take the oath of office.