Examining Charlie Cook’s Prognostications

I have a couple of quibbles and a few observations about Charlie Cook’s prognostication on what Congress will look like next year. One thing I can endorse wholeheartedly is his caveat at the end where he states: “Humility is always necessary with election forecasting; after all, we are talking about human behavior and politics is a dynamic, not static, exercise.” I will use the same warning for what follows here.

My first problem comes from a statement Cook makes about the significance of the size of a prospective Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

Unless Democrats score net House gains of 46 seats or more, their majority would be smaller than the current GOP majority. If Republicans retain a majority, it will certainly be smaller than it is today. Anything short of a Democratic gain of 60 or more seats means that it would a real challenge for House Democrats to get much out of the chamber (a 60-plus seat gain for Democrats is possible, but very unlikely given current congressional-district boundaries and natural-population patterns).

Cook is correct to say that it’s unlikely that the Democrats will win as many as sixty seats. Nate Silver’s 538 site currently gives the Dems a ten percent chance of winning more than fifty-two. But Cook’s cutoff here makes no sense to me.  There is no filibuster rule in the House and the minority party is essentially powerless to obstruct.   When the majority party cannot pass something, it’s because of internal divisions. The GOP suffers from these anytime they try to appropriate money or pay our debts on time, but the Democrats are much more united.  The only way the Democrats will struggle to pass bills out of the House is if their majority is significantly smaller than the one the Republicans currently enjoy.  For example, with a majority of just a handful of seats, there could be enough conservative Democrats or far left Democrats to torpedo a bill. With a split that even, there would be razor thin majorities on some committees, so that could create a problem if dissenting Democrats vote with the GOP during the markup of bills.

If I had to defend Cook’s prediction here, I’d point to two things. One is that the Democrats won’t struggle to pass spending bills of their own but may very well have problems reconciling those spending bills with a possibly Republican Senate, especially in the face of shutdown and veto threats from the president. The other is that a narrow majority will probably result in immediate turmoil over the Democratic leadership of the House, as many candidates and even a few incumbents have promised not to support another speakership for Nancy Pelosi.  But, of course, that will shake itself out in January of next year and shouldn’t create much additional or lasting obstacles to muscling home bills preferred by whatever leadership team prevails.

Another quibble I have with Cook is his presentation of a best case scenario for the Democrats in the Senate.

Given the map, and keeping in mind the Pew study, a good case can be made that Republicans pick up at least one and as many as three seats, resulting in a GOP Senate majority of 52-54 seats. Conversely, giving Senate Democrats every conceivable break—holding all 26 of their own seats, winning the open seats in Arizona and Tennessee, and knocking off incumbents Dean Heller in Nevada (quite plausible) and Ted Cruz in Texas (tougher, but possible)—a Democratic-led 53-47 chamber is as far as it could possibly go. The reality is that no party is going to exceed 53 or 54 seats, making for a tough legislative sled given the rules and practices of the Senate.

The Democrats are unlikely to win every single competitive Senate election, and I doubt they’ll wind up with fifty-three seats, but Cook fails to mention every opportunity they have. Just five days ago, Roll Call ran an article on the election to fill out the term of Thad Cochran of Mississippi. A recent Mellman Group poll for the Democratic candidate, Mike Espy, shows him qualifying for a runoff election which he would win.

According to the Mellman data, Sen. Hyde-Smith’s advantage is only 29-27-17 percent over Espy and McDaniel. Testing potential post-general election run-off scenarios, the Mellman results find Espy holding an advantage over both Sen. Hyde-Smith and McDaniel. The Espy/Hyde-Smith run-off breaks 41-38 percent in favor of the Democrat, while Espy would defeat McDaniel, 45-27 percent if those two advance.

Under Mississippi election law, the top two special election finishers on Nov. 6 will advance to a secondary Nov. 27 run-off contest if no candidate receives majority support on the first vote. Since the three candidates are all viable, it is pretty clear that the run-off election will be required.

That would be an interesting election, coming as it would three weeks after Election Day. It’s not inconceivable that it might determine control of the Senate.

I also think it’s only fair to put Nebraska’s Senate race on the radar. The incumbent Republican Deb Fischer suffers from persistently negative approval numbers and the president’s agricultural tariff policies have dinged the most conservative region of the state, possibly leading to disgruntlement and apathy. As of today, there’s no real sign that this race is competitive, but there’s a world of hurt coming for President Trump and the Republican Party between now and election day. If conditions for the GOP deteriorate enough, the Nebraska race would be next up on the list for a possible upset.

Most polling data for the Senate has been surprisingly good news for the Democratic Party. The incumbent I initially considered the most vulnerable is Joe Donnelly of Indiana and a recent poll from the right-wing Trafalgar Group gives Donnelly a robust twelve point lead over businessman Mike Braun. They also show Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia with a ten point lead. In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester has enjoyed a small but persistent advantage. The polling out of North Dakota indicates a toss-up race between Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, and that has to be encouraging for the Democrats considering that Trump beat Clinton there with 63-27 percent of the vote. The same cannot be said of toss-up polling out of Missouri where Claire McCaskill still looks more vulnerable than she should considering the condition of the GOP in that state. Missouri could spoil the party for the Democrats and cost them control of the Senate. But the biggest concern should be Florida where Sen. Bill Nelson narrowly trailed Gov. Rick Scott in two out of three polls released in July.

As things stand, no Democratic Senate candidate looks like a sure loser. Several incumbents from strong Trump states look shockingly sturdy.  That the Democrats are polling ahead in Arizona and looking very competitive in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas should terrify Mitch McConnell.  To gain control of the Senate, the Democrats need only net two seats in the elections, and they look to be right in that range with more potential to grow than the Republicans appear to enjoy.  It’s a brutal map, but when we anticipate further developments in the Mueller probe between now and election day, it’s not one that should fill the GOP with confidence. It should also be remembered that as long as John McCain remains a member of the Senate but too incapacitated to serve, the Democrats will have a voting edge even in a fifty-fifty Senate.

Having said all that, Cook is correct when he says that a Democratically controlled Senate will have difficulty passing legislation. Even if they eliminate the legislative filibuster, as many people have suggested they do, they still won’t have an easy time overcoming President Trump’s veto pen.  They’ll also be conflicted about giving him legislative victories, so while they might be able to hammer out some positive achievements on infrastructure or opioids, they may be more interested in reserving those as campaign issues. Conversely, they may find that it’s impossible to reach an acceptable compromise with the administration on even those fairly low-hanging fruits.

One observation I have on Cook’s analysis comes from this:

Republicans desperately hope that geography will trump a challenging political environment, pointing to the recent Pew Research Center study showing that in regular and special Senate elections held since 2013, 69 out of 73 were won by the party carrying that state in the most recent presidential election. Every single Senate race in 2016 was won by the same party that prevailed in presidential balloting there.

That trend is bad news for many Democratic Senate candidates, but it should be kept in mind if Democrats nevertheless prevail in states like Mississippi or Texas or Arizona. If the Democrats win statewide elections in any of those states this November it’s likely that they’ll be winnable for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. That’s true for those states but not states like North Dakota and West Virginia because the southern states don’t behave like northern states. If the Republicans lose in Texas or Arizona, it’s because demography has caught up with them, but when they lose in North Dakota and West Virginia it’s because those states have a history of sending Democrats to Washington DC regardless of their overall conservative bent.

The last observation I have on Cook’s piece is that he predicts that the Democrats will focus on “subpoenas and impeachment” because of their inability to legislate. That’s a very uncharitable characterization of Congress doing their job. The president obviously needs to be removed from office and it’s hard to find anyone who has wielded a position of responsibility who will give you an honest and objective opinion otherwise. At the very minimum, Congress needs to exercise much more robust oversight of how the courts are being filled and the various agencies are being staffed and run. Cook thinks Congressional paralysis will wind up transferring more power to the Executive Branch. I think real oversight will result in the opposite effect.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.