Oct 12, 2018 25 days to Nov 06, 2018
The Hot Seats

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

This week’s edition of the Hot Seats is Senate-heavy, because that’s where we’ve seen the most action this week—and it hasn’t been good, at all, for Democrats. Some of the long-shot pickup opportunities Democrats thought they had are fading from competition, while the must-wins are getting uncomfortably competitive. This week’s list is just a small sample of that southward turn; we’re not even getting into how Republicans are sending money back into the Montana race, or how Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke is pretty much done. As for why this is happening: There’s been some debate about the cause. Is it a red-state “Kavanaugh bump” or just Republicans coming home near the end of the election? Democrats seem to be in denial about how the Kavanaugh saga might be hurting them. But they should hope that what we’re seeing is a “Kavanaugh bump” instead of Republicans coming home. At least “bumps” can disappear over time.

Dean Heller, Jacky Rosen
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call.

Rank 1

Last Week
Unranked

1. Nevada Senate

Democrats need Dean Heller to lose. He’s not cooperating.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller is Democrats’ top Senate target in this so-called Democratic-wave cycle. Democrats need Rep. Jacky Rosen to beat him. It’s just not an option for him to win re-election. The problem for Democrats is that Heller is quite good at winning elections. He’s run in them continuously since 1990 and has lost a grand total of zero (0) races, eking out many by very close margins. He’s the sort of gritty incumbent that Democrats would want to have a buffer against heading into Election Day, but they might not get it. Call it the “Kavanaugh bump” or just “Republicans remembering in October that they hate Democrats,” but the two most recent polls from reputable pollsters give Heller a 2-percentage-point lead over Rosen, bringing the race to a tie in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Were this any race in any other state, I’d suggest that Democrats, being Democrats, were en route to blowing it, but Nevada is home base to the only competent Democratic electoral organization in America: Harry Reid’s political machine. So the hottest seat this week is the one I won’t try to predict.

Themes:

Rank 2

Last Week Up from last week #3

2. Tennessee Senate

No amount of Taylor Swift can salvage this sinking ship.

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, thanks for playing. This one is going down an awful lot like former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh’s comeback attempt in 2016: Democrats land a recruit with high name recognition who’s remembered fondly from a red state’s pre-polarization era, only to be obliterated by the modern red-state machinery down the stretch. In the last two polls, GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn has posted 5- and 8-percentage-point leads over Bredesen. It doesn’t appear that he’s hit the bottom, either. And the Democrat seemed hapless in Wednesday’s debate, missing opportunities while Blackburn created her own with every answer, linking him to unpopular national Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. Bredesen hands these opportunities to her when he makes inexplicable moves like visiting New York to fundraise with Michael Bloomberg. And now he’s got James O’Keefe on his case. Christ. You can tell things are getting desperate when a candidate thinks celebrity wattage will save him. It won’t.

Themes:

Rank 3

Last Week Down from last week #1

3. North Dakota Senate

Heidi Heitkamp needed to roll the dice. So she did.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Senate Democrats’ most endangered incumbent, was trailing Rep. Kevin Cramer well before Senate Republicans’ October resurgence. Were she only trailing by a point or 2, the textbook political play might have been to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. From where she was sitting, though—down by double digits with a month left—that wouldn’t have changed much of anything. She needed to take a risk. So she not only decided to vote against Kavanaugh, she amplified her vote, speaking out about it on 60 Minutes and releasing a campaign ad explaining her decision. Odds are that North Dakota’s answer to this will still be a decisive “Bye,” but it’s refreshing to see a red-state Democrat taking a chance for once. Now, if only there weren’t a new state law blocking her voters from voting.

Themes:

Rank 4

Last Week
Unranked

4. Arizona Senate

Democrats also need Martha McSally to lose! She also is not cooperating!

This one too? A quick polling recap of the past month here: GOP Rep. Martha McSally got a brief boost out of her primary victory over Joe Arpaio and Kelli Ward in late August, but Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema quickly took it back. The latest poll, though, shows McSally on top by 6 percentage points, the largest lead she’s had. But do I really need to belabor this? I could write about all the “hits” Republicans are making on Sinema, but by now you get the point: The Senate map looks awful for Democrats this week. Just … ick. Let’s not talk about it anymore.

Themes:

Rank 5

Last Week
Unranked

5. Maryland Governor

The base-first nominee strategy definitely isn’t working in “deep blue” Maryland.

Progressive Democrats won a series of gubernatorial primaries earlier this year, and the results have been mixed. Andrew Gillum’s campaign in Florida appears to be going just swell, while Stacey Abrams is behind but hanging tough in Georgia, where her opponent gets to decide who votes and isn’t sure that “black people” will make the cut. One place where progressives’ bet is an absolute dud, though, is in “safely blue” Maryland, where incumbent GOP Gov. Larry Hogan is trouncing former NAACP president Ben Jealous. It’s not clear that any Democrat could have beaten Hogan, a popular centrist, this cycle, but this is looking like a blowout. According to the most recent Washington Post poll, which shows Hogan with a 20(!) percentage point lead, Hogan is neck and neck with Jealous in Montgomery County, a vote-rich suburban county and a beating heart of “the Resistance.” Hogan lost this county by 25 percentage points in 2014. It turns out that Maryland is a blue state, but it’s not an ideologically progressive one. A lot of federal workers live there, and they don’t want—and specifically, don’t want to pay for—what Jealous is selling.

Themes:

Rank 6

Last Week
Unranked

6. Alaska’s At-Large District

Oh how sweet a Don Young loss for Democrats would be.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, the dean of the House, has been in Congress for 44 years. He is a caricature of a cantankerous old corrupt politician. For four decades, his job has been to secure as many federal dollars for his home state as possible through whatever means necessary. He’s good at it. He’s also good at making sexist and racist remarks and threatening people with knives on the House floor. He’s not a pleasant person, as any reporter who’s ever asked him a question will tell you. So. Could he finally lose? Probably not. The main race-ratings groups have the statewide seat as “likely Republican.” But Republicans could lose a couple of those “likely Republican” races, and a recent poll shows Alyse Galvin, an independent nominated by the Democratic Party, within 4 points.*

Themes:

Rank 7

Last Week
Unranked

7. Kentucky’s 6th District

Republicans are calling in President Trump to stop Amy McGrath.

The asymmetry in campaign strategies between GOP Rep. Andy Barr and progressive champion Amy McGrath must be baffling to the voters in this central Kentucky district. It’s important to note, first, that the only thing airing on television networks in this district is an endless, hellacious loop of congressional campaign ads from these two extremely well-funded camps. Barr has been using that time to run almost entirely negative ads against McGrath, at one point releasing a new one around the same time each week as appointment viewing. McGrath, though, has not run any explicitly negative ads against Barr. It’s a fitting climax to this strategy, then, that Barr is calling President Trump into the district for a rally this weekend, where he will presumably spit hot venom in McGrath’s direction, and she will respond by painting smiley faces or something. The race is close.

Themes:

Correction, Oct. 12, 2018: This story originally misstated that Alaska congressional candidate Alyse Galvin is a Democrat. She is an independent nominated by the Democratic Party.