We conservatives find ourselves in a vexing position. Normally, we’d be hoping, grudgingly, that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan can maintain control of Congress this November. But there’s a wild card: Donald Trump, a non-conservative Republican, in the presidential slot. Suddenly, the need to keep Congress red is even more urgent, not just to check a hypothetical President Clinton, but also the likely excesses of a President Trump.
So how are the congressional races looking anyway? The answer is: not bad and getting better.
Let’s start with the shiniest upside: Republicans will almost certainly hang on to the House of Representatives. Esteemed political scientist Larry Sabato projects a 10-to-15-seat pickup by Democrats, well shy of the 30 they’d need to flip for a majority. Most of the at-risk seats are moderates in purple and blue districts — New York and Northern Virginia figure here.
That could mean come November, the House GOP ends up draining some of its centrist ballast, empowering conservatives like those in the Freedom Caucus. Whether a more right-leaning Congress would resist Trump or play follow-the-leader remains unknown, but there’s a strong tea party contingent in the House that doesn’t align with the mouthy mogul’s big-government populism, and even Speaker Paul Ryan has been subtly dissenting of late.
The situation is far more perilous in the Senate, where Republicans are clinging to a 54-44 majority. Senator Ron Johnson’s seat in Wisconsin is almost certainly lost. Right behind him is Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois — Republican hopes of making long-term inroads through the Upper Midwest will have to wait for another year. Assuming Democrats beat Johnson and Kirk, they’ll be three Upper Chamber desks short of a majority (two more and they’d have a tie, which could be broken by a hypothetical President Trump).
Unfortunately, Republicans face long odds elsewhere, too. Portents are to be found in Indiana, where Republican Senator Dan Coats is retiring, and while there’s been a paucity of polling, a WTHR survey from August finds former senator Evan Bayh beating Republican Todd Young by four points.
Crows also caw ominously on fences in Pennsylvania, where Republican Senator Pat Toomey is all tied up with Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. Keystone Staters tossed out their Republican governor back in 2014, but Trump is also relatively competitive in Pennsylvania, which makes this one a wash.
And finally over to New Hampshire, where Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte has a slim lead over Democrat Maggie Hassan. Ayotte, more than any other Senate contender, is trapped between Trump and her state’s independent voters, a divide she’s tried to navigate by pledging that she’ll both challenge the mouthy mogul and vote for him in November.
Democrats will lock down the Senate if they can win those three seats, but still other possibilities present themselves. North Carolina Senator Richard Burr’s race is unsettled, with a wide spread of polling — one survey finds him leading by six, another has his Democratic opponent up by nine. Optimistic Democrats might even bet against Marco Rubio in Florida, where some polls have the former Republican presidential candidate winning by only slender margins.
Republicans will probably flip a seat, too. Democratic Senate Minority Leader and X-Men villain Harry Reid is retiring, and Republican Joe Heck appears likely to take his seat in a contest against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto. That at least sets Democrats back one.
But overall, we’re likely to see a tide of blue, if not quite a surge. So where does that leave us? Right now, the most likely outcome is Democrats winning a net two to three seats, cutting into the Republican majority but not overcoming it. Whatever down-ballot damage Donald Trump wreaks, it probably won’t be as apocalyptic as many analysts initially predicted.
That being said, all of this could still change, and change drastically. Data analysts are not clairvoyant (though many believe themselves to be), and especially in this topsy-turvy year, with congressional trends mostly following the presidential race, there could still be a surprise swing in either direction.
One more observation. Foreign policy has played a bigger role in this election than was expected, and many of the endangered Republican senators — Kirk, Ayotte, Burr, even Rubio — are outstandingly hawkish. That isn’t necessarily a policy correlation — more a coincidence that many hawks happen to come from purple states. But it could spell further ideological change for a GOP that’s already in flux.
Wheels turning within wheels. Politics and substance both shifting. This continues to be a zany election year.