Early announcements of candidates for U.S. house and senate
seats in 2018 have begun, including challengers in both parties
and decisions about re-election from incumbents in both
parties. For now, it’s just a trickle, but it will pick up to a flood
Of course, most house races and a majority of contested
senate seats next year won’t be close, but for the dozen or so
competitive senate races and the approximately three dozen
house races potentially in play, early decisions are more
important than ever before. This is primarily due to the very
high cost of campaigns today, especially for statewide
campaigns in places with expensive media markets.
Campaign finances are quite important, as is the assembly
of effective campaign organizations, but as the mid-term
elections of 2010 and 2014 clearly indicated, the recruitment
of first-rate and appealing candidates to challenge incumbents
needs to be the first priority. Particularly, in competitive senate
races, Republicans in those two cycles found exceptional men
and women to run --- and they were rewarded with significant
gains. Those were cycles when many more vulnerable
Democratic than Republican senate seats were up.
It’s more difficult to make gains in presidential election cycles
such as happened in 2012 and 2016. In the former, GOP hopefuls
did not make gains when Mr. Obama won re-election, and in
the latter, despite many more conservative incumbent seats in
play, the Democrats only picked up a net gain of two when Mr.
In 2018, there will be 25 Democratic seats up, and only 8 GOP
seats. Most of the Republican seats seem safe, but about half
of the Democratic races could be close. Retirements could
change these numbers a bit, but the challenge remains the
same for both parties, that is, finding strong nominees in a
stressful and bitter political environment.
While I have noted the conservative party’s success in
recruitment in the recent past, some significant liberal party
successes should also be noted. In New Hampshire, the
retiring Democratic governor Maggie Hassan ran, and she
did narrowly defeat GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte. In Illinois,
Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth defeated
GOP incumbent Mark Kirk by a wide margin. Although
Democrat Jason Kander did not defeat GOP incumbent
Roy Blunt in Missouri, he was an impressive candidate
and made it close. By contrast, less-than-ideal liberal
candidates in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Iowa failed to
win in races that might have become competitive.
In 2010, 2012 and 2014, Republicans also put up flawed
challengers in Nevada, Delaware, Missouri, Indiana and
others states where they might have won.
In the 2018 U.S. house races, more conservative seats than
liberal ones are competitive, and so the opportunity for the
Democrats to make big gains is greater. The question is
whether or not the minority party can find outstanding
A contrary case exists is Minnesota. The Democrats (called
here the DFL) lead the congressional delegation 5-3,
but two of the districts they represent (MN-1 and MN-7)
could be won by a Republican if the party would put up a
strong challenger. In a third district (MN-8), President
Trump won by 16 points, but the liberal incumbent won by
a small margin. That incumbent might retire to run for
governor in 2018.
With both parties divided by factionalism, it might be in
many cases even more difficult for the strongest candidate
to win his or her party’s nomination next year. Elected
public service is not generally regarded as attractive as it
was a generation ago. First-time candidates of either party
face inevitable hyper-scrutiny.
Each race for seats in the Congress has its own character
and circumstances, but if there is anything common to the
expectation of victory against a vulnerable or retiring
incumbent, it is the immeasurable quality of political
talent. This has been the difference in so many recent
races, and in today’s tense and polarized atmosphere,
it is quite likely to be critical next year, too.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.