Oct 19, 2018 18 days to Nov 06, 2018
Hot Seats

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

“Do you believe—do you honestly believe—she was protecting adult men who were molesting children?” Those were the incredulous words of a moderator trying to make sense of a Senate debate that was spinning out of control this week. And things only went downhill from there, in what wasn’t necessarily even the nastiest debate of the week. Yes, we have reached the ugly period. But this week’s list isn’t all nasty Senate races; we’ve got a pair of nasty governor’s races too.

Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, William Philpott/Reuters.

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1. Texas Senate

Beto-mania is still strong, but his chances aren’t.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke was unable to land a punch this week during his second and final debate with Sen. Ted Cruz, who hit the Democratic dreamboat with a barrage of GOP buzzwords. (Radical? Check. Left-wing judicial activists? Check. Extreme pro-abortion? Extreme check.) But that’s only one of 38 million reasons why this race tops the list this week. O’Rourke remains a heavy underdog in one of the least toss-up–y races of the nine Senate toss-ups—he’s down 7 or so points in the polls, and FiveThirtyEight pegs his chances at roughly 1 in 5—but the long-shot nature of his campaign has always been central to his ability to attract donations and devotees. A proud progressive, no matter how charismatic, was never supposed to win in the Lone Star State. The fact he’s made Cruz—the left’s most-hated villain (non-Trump division)—sweat as much as he has means an O’Rourke loss on Election Day won’t be the end of Beto-mania.

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Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #4

2. Arizona Senate

I’m sorry, did you say treason?

It’s difficult to top Cruz in the nasty department, but GOP Rep. Martha McSally may have done just that during her first and only debate with Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Early in the night, McSally suggested Sinema has a soft spot for men who have sex with underage prostitutes. (“She was a defense attorney, so I mean, I guess that’s where that comes from,” the Republican said.) One of the moderators was stunned by that attack, but McSally was just warming up. Her big finish: ignoring a question about climate change to instead claim her opponent is pro-treason. Yeah, she used that word. Sinema refused to join McSally in her tour of the absurd, but it’s unclear how her decision to keep calm and carry on played with Arizona voters, who are currently evenly split on who they’d like to see replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake. Meanwhile, we’re about to find out whether the GOP can ratchet things up further: McSally will join the president at a MAGA rally on Friday night.

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Rank 3

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3. Wisconsin Governor

The left closes in on its white whale.

Scott Walker flamed out on the national stage in the last presidential election, but he’s proved far more durable at home, where he’s won three gubernatorial elections in the past eight years, each by at least 5 percentage points. The fourth time, though, just might be the charm for Democrats and their labor friends, who remain furious with Walker for his Koch-funded work dismantling union protections in the Badger State. The limited polling suggests Walker and challenger Tony Evers are running neck and neck, but there are plenty of signs that things look far worse for Walker behind the scenes. White House officials are reportedly so worried Walker will lose that they tried, unsuccessfully, to talk Trump into canceling an upcoming visit to Wisconsin. Then on Thursday, three former high-ranking officials in Walker’s administration released an open letter slamming their former boss and endorsing Evers. You don’t jump off the USS Walker unless you see a truly massive blue wave cresting on Lake Michigan.

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Rank 4

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4. Missouri Senate

Wait, it’s possible not to yell at one of these things?

Thursday’s debate in the Show-Me State wasn’t exactly civil, but it was a marked contrast to the tone and tenor on display in Texas and Arizona this week. GOP state Attorney General Josh Hawley and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill exchanged plenty of policy barbs, but they kept the personal attacks to a minimum, despite the decimal point separating them in the polls. (McCaskill even took a second to apologize for a campaign retweet about Hawley’s son that the candidate had taken offense to; at another point, Hawley said one of the nicest things uttered by a Senate candidate about his opponent in recent memory: “I think she’s a good person.”) Without all the yelling, and with the help of some tough follow-ups from moderator Judy Woodruff and a team of local reporters, this was, dare I say, a productive night. The campaign’s two major fault lines were front and center: Hawley’s quest to kill Obamacare, despite Americans’ newfound love of the law and its protections for pre-existing conditions, and McCaskill’s liberal voting record in a state that Trump won by 19 points.

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Rank 5

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5. Florida Governor

In case the stakes weren’t already high enough …

The contrast between Florida’s gubernatorial candidates was already as stark as in any race in the country: Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is a proud progressive who would be the state’s first black governor; Rep. Ron DeSantis is a white Republican with a history of saying racist things who loves Trump so much he likes to joke (“joke”?) about indoctrinating his kids into the world of MAGA. But the stakes climbed even higher this week, when the state Supreme Court scuttled the plans of Senate-seeking Gov. Rick Scott to stack that court with three conservative justices on the morning after his final term ends. As my colleague Mark Joseph Stern explains, that means the Gillum-DeSantis winner won’t just head to the governor’s mansion; he’ll also get to shape the state’s highest court right away.

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Rank 6

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6. Iowa’s 3rd District

Democrats are making headway in the heartland.

Democrat Cindy Axne earned the right to take on Rep. David Young by winning a crowded—and complicated—primary earlier this year, and she’s been gunning hard ever since in a district that went for Trump by 4 points in 2016 after going for Obama by that same margin in 2012. Axne has out-raised and out-spent the incumbent by more than $1 million, and a top House Democratic super PAC announced this week it will give her additional help in the form of an existing six-figure ad buy in the Omaha market that originally was going to be used to support a Nebraska nominee. The late switch is the latest signal that Democrats believe the district—the second-most-conservative of Iowa’s four House seats—is poised to flip from red to blue.

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Rank 7

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7. Nebraska’s 2nd District

Even Democrats are having to make difficult choices.

Axne’s gain was Kara Eastman’s loss. Eastman notched the left’s first big win of the primary season when she defeated a former Democratic congressman running a far more centrist campaign. Nonpartisan handicappers currently give the edge to GOP incumbent Don Bacon in a district that went for Trump by 2 points after going for Mitt Romney by 7. But Eastman isn’t out of it yet. She’s managed to keep things close in the fundraising department and still has enough cash on hand to make some noise. But at this point in the game, Republicans aren’t the only ones facing difficult choices about where to invest and where not to.

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