How the Midterm Elections Look With One Day to Go

The most important figure in tomorrow’s election is actually not on the ballot. No matter what happens, Wednesday morning Trump will still be president. This election isn’t about getting rid of Trump, it’s about controlling him. If Democrats get the majority in  one or both houses of Congress, the country will finally get some of the checks-and-balances that the Founders thought they had written into our Constitution.

Getting rid of Trump will still depend either on the 2020 elections, or on turning up evidence of impeachable offenses so compelling that more than a dozen Republican senators will be convinced.

The Senate

Republicans currently have a 51-49 majority. Tomorrow 35 seats are up for election, so on the surface you’d think it wouldn’t be that hard for Democrats to flip two seats and take control. (They need two, because Vice President Pence casts the deciding vote in a 50-50 Senate.)

However, 26 of the contested seats already belong to Democrats, so even if they hold all those, they have to flip 2 of the 9 Republican seats. It’s a tall order. (“Why did things shake out that way?” you might wonder. That’s because 2006 — when the public finally turned against the Iraq War — was a huge Democratic year, when Democrats like Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana won seats in very red states. 2012 was Obama’s re-election year, so they managed to hold onto those seats. 2010 and 2014, by contrast, were strong years for Republicans.)

538 gives Democrats only a 1 in 6 chance of pulling this off. Here’s how it rates the individual races:

  • 18 are solid for Democrats, meaning the Democrat has at least a 95% chance to win.
  • 4 (Smith in Minnesota, Tester in Montana, Menendez in New Jersey, Manchin in West Virginia) are likely Democratic wins, with a win likelihood over 75%.
  • 3 (Nelson in Florida, Donnelly in Indiana, McCaskill in Missouri) lean Democratic, with a 60% or better win probability.
  • 2 (Sinema in Arizona, Rosen in Nevada) are toss-ups, though in each case the Democrat has a slight edge.

Already, winning all of those at the same time seems unlikely. If each race were independent of the others, for example, winning all four of the “likely” seats would only be about a 2 out of 3 bet. All three leaning seats together would be less than 1 in 3, and the two toss-ups together would be 1 in 4. (Actual combined probabilities are quite a bit higher than that, because the races are not independent rolls of the dice. As we saw with Trump’s victory in 2016, the party that wins close races in one state is more likely to win close races in another.)

Worse, all those seats together add up to just 27. In order to take control of the Senate, Democrats would need an upset in the only lean-Republican seat: North Dakota, where incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp has only a 25% chance of hanging on. If she can’t pull that off, Democrats need one of the likely-Republican seats:

  • Beto O’Rourke in Texas (23%)
  • Phil Bredesen in Tennessee (20%)
  • Mike Espy in Mississippi (12%)

Unless at least one of those longshots comes in, Republicans hold control of the Senate. (Again, the races aren’t independent, which is how the odds for a Democratic majority can be as high as 1 in 6.)

The House

Democrats gaining control of the House is a much more doable job. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are in play. Republicans currently have a 235-193 majority, with 7 seats vacant. Of the vacancies, two were formerly Democratic and five Republican. So you will sometimes hear that in order to gain a majority Democrats need to pick up 23 seats (if you count two of the vacancies as Democratic seats) or 25 seats (if you don’t).

In order to get a majority (218 out of 435), Democrats need only win the seats 538 rates as leaning their way:

  • 193 solid Democratic
  • 17 likely
  • 10 leaning

That adds up to 220. In addition, there are 18 toss-ups and 13 lean-Republican seats within range. Overall, that gives Democrats a 7 in 8 chance of winning the House. If everything breaks in their favor, they could have as large a majority as the Republicans have now.

House races, though, are unlikely to all go according to script. First, there are just so many of them that some longshot candidate is going to win somewhere. And second, House races aren’t polled as aggressively as Senate races, so some last-minute local factors could be overlooked. Somewhere, a district the media stopped paying attention to months ago is going to produce an upset.

As I’ll discuss in the hour-by-hour guide (the next post), you want to watch for toss-up or leaning seats in states where the polls close early. That will give the first indication of whether this is going to be a nail-biter or an easy Democratic win.

Governorships and state legislatures

If Democrats gain some governorships and control of some state legislatures, they’ll have a chance to undo the extreme gerrymandering that allows Republicans to maintain minority rule. (Last year, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 9% in the elections for the Virginia House of Delegates. But Republicans kept control.)

State government becomes more important as the federal government stops protecting civil rights and the environment. And if the now-more-conservative-than-ever Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade, whether a woman can get an abortion may be up to the states.

Governors are being elected in 36 states, and at least some legislators are being elected in every state. 538 expects Republicans to win slightly more states (winding up with 26 governorships), but Democrats to wind up governing a larger percentage of the population (62%).

The closest races are in Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Georgia, and Kansas. The two most interesting races, to me anyway, are Georgia and Florida, where Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum have a chance to be their states’ first black governors. (Abrams would be the first black woman governor in any state.) Abrams’ race is leaning towards her opponent, while 538 gives Gillum a 76% chance to win. Personally, I will find it very satisfying if Wisconsin finally boots out Koch puppet Scott Walker, which is the way the race is leaning.

As for state legislatures, I don’t know what to tell you, since there are very few published polls.

Ballot propositions

538 has a good rundown of the most important ones.

In general, ballot propositions cause more problems than they solve. There’s a reason we elect representatives who can focus on the issues full-time, rather settle everything by direct democracy. But in states that are heavily gerrymandered, or where running for office requires the kind of money you can only get from special interests, a ballot proposition might be the only way for the majority to make its will felt.

Michigan is one of those heavily-gerrymandered states.

Last year, Michigan Democrats won more overall votes for state House than Republicans. It was by a whisper, about half of one percentage point. But Democrats got walloped in the race that counts, as the GOP swept 63 of 110 seats.

Proposition 2 would create a non-partisan commission to draw districts for both the legislature and Michigan’s congressional districts. The commission would be given strict criteria to meet. Other anti-gerrymandering proposals are on the ballot in Colorado, Utah, and Missouri.

Given the racial biases in our justice system and the correspondingly high incarceration rate for non-whites, one way to make sure whites hold onto political power as long as possible is to keep felons from voting, even after they have served their sentences. Florida is one of the worst states for this form of voter suppression, with 10% of the voting-age population disenfranchised. Amendment 4 would give felons back their voting rights after their sentences end, except for murderers and sex offenders. (Yes, that is the proposition John Oliver was telling you about.)

Nevada, Maryland, and Michigan have propositions that would make it easier to register to vote, while Arkansas and North Carolina would make it harder to vote by requiring a photo ID.

A California proposition would repeal a number of gas taxes. A Washington proposition would create a carbon tax. Arizona’s Prop 127 would force utilities to get half their power from renewable energy by 2030.

Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah all have propositions to expand Medicaid.

Here in Massachusetts, the proposition I care most about is #3, which would protect transgender rights. I’m for it.

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  • postcards4wa  On November 5, 2018 at 10:35 am

    I’m hoping you can help me figure out how to post comments on your site.

    I have an existing WordPress website that is connected with my email address. When attempting to post a comment on your site, I’m asked to sign into my WordPress account. I fear that doing so will mess up the website login information for my existing website. Can anyone give me some advice?

    Thanks so much!

    • weeklysift  On November 6, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Somehow you posted this comment. Whatever you did must have worked.

  • Rebecca Stith  On November 5, 2018 at 11:36 am

    As a native Missourian I can assure you that Missouri was not a “very red” state in 2006 or even in 2008. McCaskill’s 2006 victory was not a big surprise in what was then a purple state. In fact, Obama nearly won the state in 2008.

    2008 presidential election: “The race had been too close to call in the two weeks since Election Day, with McCain holding a slim lead. Heading into last weekend, McCain held a roughly 5,000-vote lead with tens of thousands of ballots remaining uncounted. The final margin of victory was 3,632 votes, out of over 2.9 million cast.”

    Alas, it has since become a very red state. I escaped to Washington state several years ago.

    Thanks for all your articles, thoughtful perspectives, and deep research. Your columns are among the most enlightened and incisive of all.

    Rebecca Stith


    • weeklysift  On November 6, 2018 at 10:03 am

      Thanks for the clarification. When I was growing up across the river in Quincy, IL, Missouri was a swing state. When I go back to the area now, Missouri seems like Alabama to me. I didn’t realize how recent the change was.

  • wcroth55  On November 5, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Doug, great to hear you note the importance of Michigan proposal 2. I’ve been volunteering with these folks ( for over a year, doing everything from software development to canvassing for signatures on Hallowe’en dressed as Uncle Sam!

    There’s a great (and true!) spiritual-ish story about how prop 2 got started. Right after the 2016 election, the founder (Katie Fahey) despaired of returning home for Thanksgiving to her Trump-supporting parents: what could they talk about that wouldn’t start a fight? Gerrymandering came to mind, and her parents largely agreed with her that it was unfair. A few Facebook posts later, and the snowball started rolling.

    I love this as a “third alternative” story: don’t give in, but don’t just fight, either: look for common ground where possible.

    The volunteer energy in this group has been awesome. All ballot proposal signatures were gathered by volunteers: not a single ‘gatherer’ was paid. The national Dems didn’t think we had a chance: one Dem strategist even said “Michigan is where great ideas go to die.” But by the end of summer 2018, they saw our success, turned around, and invested on the order of $10M to buy ads and other support.

    • weeklysift  On November 6, 2018 at 10:04 am

      I’m rooting for you today. If this works, it could be a turning point.

  • Jessica  On November 5, 2018 at 10:58 pm

    MA voter here, longtime feminist and member of the LGBT community. I agree with almost all your points wholeheartedly, but I’d like to share my contrarian thoughts on Question 3.

    Liberals like us want to extend all possible protections to marginalized groups, which is obviously the noble intent behind the law supported by Question 3.

    However after looking into this in more detail, I think this law is flawed,
    and increases risk to women and girls in sex-segregated spaces.

    The purpose of sex-segregated spaces is to provide a place of relative safety
    for females to undress privately, in locker rooms, changing rooms and
    bathrooms. The reason this is necessary is the fact that males routinely
    inflict sexual violence on females.

    The problems with the law as written is that it makes no practical provision
    for keeping male predators out of women’s safe spaces. The guidance
    provided instructs that a male bodied person in a women’s restroom or other
    private space should generally not be questioned:

    Click to access ag-healey-gender-identity-guidance-for-public-accommodations-9-1-16.pdf

    *What should a place of public accommodation do if it has reason to believe
    that a person is not using the appropriate sex-segregated facility?*

    Misuse of sex-segregated facilities is exceedingly rare. [*citation?*] As a
    general matter, employees of a place of public accommodation should presume
    that an individual is using the correct facility (the one most consistent with
    their gender identity), if the person is not engaged in any improper or
    unlawful conduct.

    Employees of a place of public accommodation should not assume an
    individual’s gender identity solely by appearance. The fact that a woman,
    whether transgender or not, is perceived as having a “masculine”
    appearance is not a legitimate reason to exclude her from, or question her
    presence in, a sex-segregated facility intended for women. Similarly, the fact
    that a man may appear “feminine” is not a credible basis to exclude him
    from, or question his presence in, a sex segregated facility intended for men.

    Inquiry into a person’s gender identity is generally not necessary. However,
    if a place of public accommodation has a legitimate concern about whether a
    person is using the appropriate facility, an employee may attempt to resolve
    the issue through a private and discrete conversation with that person. A
    legitimate concern arises where, due to the behavior of the person in
    question, the place of public accommodation is reasonably worried about
    potentially improper or unlawful conduct. Under such circumstances, an
    employee may approach a patron privately, out of the earshot of others, and
    ask, for example: “Are you using the appropriate facility?” In most cases,
    if the person confirms that they are using the facility most consistent with
    their gender identity, that should be the end of the inquiry (unless there is
    a reasonable basis to believe that the person is actually engaging in improper
    or unlawful conduct, as discussed in Section IV below).

    Under this guidance, any male predator or voyeur can simply enter a restroom
    or changing room, and will “in general not be questioned.” If anyone gets a
    weird vibe and he is questioned, he can simply state he is indeed using the
    facility most consistent with his gender identity, and that will be the end of
    the inquiry. Failure to follow this guidance can result in large fines or
    other penalties.

    Of course, rape and assault remain illegal within the restroom as well as
    outside of the restroom, but that doesn’t seem to slow down the epidemic of
    rape in our society. Inability to preemptively keep males out of women’s
    restrooms and changing rooms prior to their committing a crime will increase
    risk to women and girls.

    Note that I am not saying that women are at risk *from transgender people* in
    these spaces, as is often portrayed in the media. I am concerned that the law
    as written provides no means to keep male predators out of female spaces prior
    to them actually committing a crime.

    Feminist scholar Sheila Jeffreys has written eloquently on the risk posed to women by changing the rules about who may be in a sex-segregated space:

    Click to access toilet-article.pdfpublished-version.pdf

    Philosophy professor Kathleen Stock explores her concerns about gender self-ID
    laws’ impact on society here:

    Voting yes on Question 3 is not necessary to protect transgender individuals
    from discrimination in housing, employment, education, credit, and lending, as
    gender identity is already a protected category for these purposes since 2011 in Massachusetts. Voting no on Question 3 would not revoke this protection.

    It is important that we not compromise the rights and safety of 51% of the
    population in our efforts to promote the dignity of transgender people who
    comprise less than 1% of the population. Violence against women and girls is increasingly accepted in these Trumpian times, and I feel it is imperative that we find a way to protect both trans people AND females without sacrificing gains already made.

    • weeklysift  On November 9, 2018 at 6:18 am

      I apologize for not getting this comment posted in time for the election. For some reason, WordPress flagged it as needing moderation, and I only just noticed that.

  • wcroth55  On November 7, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    Just FYI, Michigan Prop 2 (stop gerrymandering, independent citizens redistricting commission) passed 61% to 39% !


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