At the outset of the 2018 national mid-term election cycle,
three U.S. senate contests were considered “safe” for their
political party --- each with popular incumbents.
But now, each of them might need to be moved from the
“safe” category to likely “toss-up” --- changing the already
unbalanced partisan mathematics of this year’s battle for
control of one house of Congress. The U.S. senate will be a
key factor in the prospects of the final two years of the
Trump administration’s first term.
In New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Senator Bob Menendez
went through a protracted and reputation-damaging criminal
trial that ended in a hung jury. The prosecution decided not
to ask for a new trial. Menendez then announced he would
seek re-election. Conventional pundit wisdom concluded that
New Jersey voters, most of whom usually vote Democratic,
would forget the trial, especially since an aggressive
Republican opponent who was willing and able to keep the
issue current, did not at first appear. But then one did. With
the backing of state Republicans and apparently unlimited
self-funding, businessman Bob Hugin has been hammering
away at Menendez’s recent controversies, driving down the
liberal senator’s poll numbers to almost a tie, according to
new polls. Moreover, Hugin has reportedly put together a
serious campaign effort. This is now a race to watch.
In Tennessee, incumbent Republican Senator Bob Corker,
chairman of foreign relations, seemed like a shoo-in for
re-election, but he became embroiled in disputes with
President Trump and announced his retirement. A serious
GOP replacement, Congresswoman Martha Blackburn,
entered the race, but so did popular former Democratic
Governor Phil Bredeson. Tennessee leans to the conservative,
but has elected significant liberals (e.g. Al Gore) in recent years.
Bredeson leads in early polls, and this race is likely to go to
the election day wire.
The third senate contest belatedly became competitive
when John James won the Michigan Republican primary just
held. He will now face incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie
Stabenow in November. Before the charismatic black West
Point graduate James emerged, Stabenow had been a heavy
favorite for re-election over the previously leading GOP
opponent, businessman Sandy Pensler. National media stories
and an endorsement from President Trump, however, vaulted
James quickly past Pensler by a large margin. James could now
make major inroads into Stabenow’s traditional black support
in the Detroit area. Stabenow is a low profile senator whose
support could be vulnerable to an aggressive campaign from
an attractive and articulate challenger like James.
A possible fourth “sleeper” race was not even expected to
occur at all. Embroiled in controversy, incumbent Democratic
(DFL) Senator Al Franken was pressured in late 2017 by his
own party to resign, and his appointed replacement, Lt.
Governor Tina Smith, now has to face voters in a special
election this year. She will be on the ballot with her senior
colleague DFL Senator Amy Kobuchar (who is expected to win
her re-election easily). Republicans are likely to nominate
State Senator Karin Housely to oppose Smith. Smith has
been favored to win the seat in her own right, especially if the
midterm cycle went badly for the party holding the White
House, and because Smith has so far notably outraised
Housely in campaign funds. Minnesota voters, however, are
frequent ticket splitters, Housely is proving to be a stronger
candidate than expected, and a bitter divide between radical
and mainstream liberal DFL candidates in other Minnesota races
this year --- all these could be factors making the special U.S.
senate race much closer than expected. The August 14
Minnesota primary results will make it clearer what impact
the intraparty DFL tensions will have in November.
Although election day is now approaching, it is not
uncommon for a few major state races to change their
electoral character --- and go from varying levels of “safe”
to “toss-up” in the closing days of a campaign cycle. In
addition to the races mentioned above, there could be other
surprises, especially in a year when the electorate is as
volatile as it seem to be in 2018.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.