Sept 28, 2018 39 days to Nov 06, 2018
The Hot Seats

Slate’s guide to the seven midterms races everyone is talking about this week.

We are six weeks away from the midterms and sweet Lord, did polls look spiffy for Democrats in all sorts of races this week. With only an exception or two—seriously, just one or two exceptions!—every poll this week of races for the House, Senate, and governorships showed Democrats just where they wanted to be. What could be the cause? Let’s take a guess: The trend in many of these polls is women breaking overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates, just as President Donald Trump’s support among Republican women is eroding. Is there something that’s completely dominated the news for a couple of weeks that might erode Republicans’ position among women? It must be something …

But don’t assume this is how it will all end. These polls were taken ahead of Thursday’s hearing, an astonishing spectacle capable of blowing up American politics. We don’t know where the pieces will land.

Heidi Heitkamp, Brett Kavanaugh, and Kevin Cramer.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, and Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images.

Rank 1

Last Week
Unranked

1. North Dakota Senate

An unusual strategy for Kevin Cramer.

I was prepared to write this week that North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp safely holds the title of most endangered Democratic incumbent, but then the Brett Kavanaugh situation blew up, and Heitkamp’s opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, can’t stop saying stupid things about it. In a radio interview last week, Cramer described Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against the Supreme Court nominee as “even more absurd” than those that Anita Hill leveled against Justice Clarence Thomas, because Ford and Kavanaugh were “teenagers” who were drinking, which as we all know excuses all actions. And besides, he said, the alleged assault “never went anywhere.” Cramer later clarified (oh God) by saying that “nothing happened in terms of a sexual … event, beyond, obviously, the attack.” Well yeah, beyond the attack, it was all hunky-dory. Cramer’s latest hot take is, “even if it’s all true, does it disqualify him?” Still TBD, but these comments might ultimately disqualify Cramer. 

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Rank 2

Last Week
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2. Florida Senate

Bill Nelson finally rights the ship.

The most pleasing polling news Democrats received this week would have to be in Florida’s Senate race. Two new surveys from reputable pollsters show incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson pulling into the lead, leading Gov. Rick Scott by 3 percentage points according to NBC News/Marist and 7 points according to Quinnipiac. This turns around the narrow leads that Scott held for much of the summer when he controlled the airwaves. Why’s that so important? Democrats cannot afford a purple-state incumbent to lose in a strong blue year when they’re defending red-state seats across the map. Nelson is hardly out of the woods, and we shouldn’t expect him to coast from here on out. His numbers among older Hispanic voters, especially older Cuban Americans, are still poor. But for a while this summer it seemed like this race could be Democrats’ least likely retention. That’s no longer the case.

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Rank 3

Last Week Up from last week #4

3. Florida Governor

Andrew Gillum breaks 50.

More Florida: In the battle of base candidate versus base candidate to control one of the country’s most important states, the progressive black Democrat is consistently leading the conservative Trumpist. In the polls taken since Florida’s primary in late August, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has led former Rep. Ron DeSantis by 2, 3, 4, 6, 2, 4, 5 and now 9 percentage-point margins. That most recent one, from Quinnipiac, is the most impressive for Gillum, not just because it’s the widest margin, but because it shows the Democrat safely above the 50 percent mark with 54 percent of the vote. The RealClearPolitics average now puts Gillum ahead by 4.5 percentage points, the same margin by which Sen. Ted Cruz is leading Beto O’Rourke in the average of Texas’ Senate race. If we’re going to call the latter a competitive long shot for O’Rourke, it’s time to start calling this gubernatorial race a competitive long shot for DeSantis.

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Rank 4

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4. Virginia’s 7th District

Abigail Spanberger may soon be Terror High’s next student body president.

You may recall this race from Hot Seats past, when Republican opposition researchers had obtained a copy of Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s detailed security clearance application. Despite the outcry, Republicans used information from that form, such as Spanberger’s teaching stint at an Islamic academy, in a messaging campaign about her illicit involvement with “Terror High.” But it doesn’t seem that voters are convinced that this former CIA officer is in cahoots with terrorists. A Monmouth poll released this week shows Spanberger either narrowly ahead or tied, depending on the turnout model, with ultra-conservative Rep. Dave Brat in this district covering Richmond’s suburbs and rural central Virginia. Virginia’s 7th, like many districts Democrats are targeting this year, is not the sure thing for Republicans that it was earlier in the decade, when former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gerrymandered it for himself: The suburban areas, considered “Romney country” in the early 2010s, are turning blue under Trump, and it will be up to Trump supporters in the rural areas to counteract the drift.

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Rank 5

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5. Arizona’s 4th District

Thank you for your dysfunction, Gosar family.

It’s not like Rep. Paul Gosar is going to lose. As the representative for a broad swath of white people in central and western Arizona, he’s one of the most conservative people in one of the country’s most conservative districts. He’ll be in Congress for as long as his little heart desires. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t spend at least one Hot Seat commemorating the comical turmoil within his family. Democratic challenger David Brill took note of an ad in Wisconsin in which Democrat Randy Bryce’s sibling attacked his own brother. But Brill went much further, recruiting six of Gosar’s siblings—who all look exactly like him, so you know they’re not crisis actors—to star in his attack ad. The viral spot was funny enough on its own, but then we got to hear Gosar’s reaction. Speaking of his siblings putting ideology ahead of family, Gosar mused at first that “Stalin would be proud.” After having a little more time to collect his thoughts, though, Gosar gave the more measured reaction: This is all Barack Obama’s fault. 

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Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #2

6. Texas Senate

True to form, this race lands on the Hot Seats once again.

This race is the closest our nascent newsletter has to a permanent fixture. It’s not the tightest of all available races, but the two candidates—Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Sen. Ted Cruz—are too compelling, in completely different ways, to ignore. The two met last Friday night for their first of three debates. While most of the debate was fought to a draw, the lasting moment came in the closing minutes, when each candidate was asked to say something positive about the other. O’Rourke talked about how he respected Cruz’s service to the country, knowing how difficult it is to spend time away from a young family. Cruz, meanwhile, said he respected how committed O’Rourke, like Bernie Sanders, is to what he believes, which is socialism. “True to form,” O’Rourke said afterward. It was one of those moments that got to the root of the race and pointed to why Cruz is even in this spot: He’s just so … ick. The two will debate again on Sunday.

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Rank 7

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7. Arizona Senate

Kyrsten Sinema is back in the lead. For now.

GOP Rep. Martha McSally’s post-primary boost in this blockbuster race has ebbed, and Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema has taken the lead in the past four polls conducted in the state. But can she sustain it? Sinema is facing some scrutiny this week after a New York Times story shed doubt on some of the details in her oft-repeated story that she lived for nearly three years “in an old abandoned gas station without running water or electricity.” This doesn’t mean, as my Hot Seats colleague Josh Voorhees wrote, that Sinema is fabricating her story about how she grew up in dire financial straits. But Sinema’s convenient political metamorphosis from leftist protester in the early aughts to conservative Blue Dog Democrat has already exposed her to trust issues, and this will further fuel that.

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