The midterm elections, a little more than a month away, are a national drama – with voters deciding whether Republican control of the House and Senate will give way to Democrats, who have been hankering for a chance to challenge the priorities and actions of President Donald Trump. But they are also an intensely local story as voters get ready to make their choices in 435 House and 35 Senate races and in 36 gubernatorial contests. We asked commentators to tell us which race they are watching most closely and why. The views expressed are solely their own.
Is Ted Cruz Beto-able?
The crowds and the media love him. But will Texas voters turn out for Beto O’Rourke? In November, the faceoff to watch will be between Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and his Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. This contest could upend the political order in the Lone Star State. And an August NBC News poll showed O’Rourke within 4 points of Cruz.
This race is fascinating because it is the Democrats’ best chance in years to turn Texas blue. Democrats have long looked to the state’s changing demographics – Texas is about 40% Hispanic -- with hopes of putting the state into play.
However, Texas’ electorate is not the same as its demographics. In 2016, despite a slight increase from prior elections, less than half of the state’s eligible Latino voters turned out at the polls.
Ironically, this race is between one of the country’s most prominent Hispanic politicians (Cruz), who supports Trump’s wall and admittedly doesn’t speak Spanish well, and a white upstart (O’Rourke) who is against the wall and fluent en Español.
O’Rourke’s rise is remarkable considering that he is running as a staunch liberal. He supports gun control, the legalization of marijuana and universal health care coverage. What began as a grassroots effort has now garnered such momentum that even Cruz’s former campaign spokesman thinks O’Rourke could pull off an upset victory. O’Rourke comes across as authentic and youthful, which is reportedly making Cruz nervous.
Still, it will take more than viral videos and friendly appearances on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” to put O’Rourke over the top. He remains David to Cruz’s Goliath. While O’Rourke’s likability factor is huge, his effort will hinge on voter mobilization. To win, he will have to perform strongly with millennials, Latinos and voters in Texas’ more liberal cities. In interviews, O’Rourke has often asserted that Texas is not a red state, it is a nonvoting state. He’s got that right – and so his success will depend on upending this paradigm.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Will Arizona elect its first Democratic senator since 1988?
With the House expected to fall to Democrats and Republicans expected to keep and possibly even make gains in the Senate, sweeping 2020 projections will be tricky to make after these midterms. But I’m watching the Senate race in Arizona with a few things in mind.
First, putting aside the historic promise of Arizona electing its first woman to the Senate, it’s possible Arizona is about to elect its first Democrat since 1988. President Donald Trump only won Arizona in 2016 by a little over 3 percentage points – if Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema pulls out a win over Republican Rep. Martha McSally, it will be hard not to see the significance of a reliably red state voting blue.
Second, if that happens, exit polling will be key. Was Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and child separation policy a factor? That, specifically, will have national implications and might serve as a forecast of his 2020 re-election hurdles among Hispanic voters.
Finally, if McSally, an Air Force veteran, wins, the significance won’t be that a Republican kept the seat red. It will be the kind of Republican who did it. McSally easily beat out Trumpian Kelli Ward in a race that was supposed to send a message to perceived “moderates” like McSally, the outgoing Sen. Jeff Flake and even the late Sen. John McCain that their kind has fallen out of favor among conservatives. McSally’s win here will prove there’s at least some desire for less “Trumpy” Republicans, even in a historical red state.
SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator and host of “SE Cupp Unfiltered.”
Mother of a slain young man runs for Congress
The electoral race that most encapsulates the potential of this political moment and the future of politics in our nation is Lucy McBath’s contest to unseat Republican incumbent Karen Handel in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, just north of Atlanta.
Unlike Handel, the former secretary of state of Georgia, who has taken strong stances against Obamacare and regulations, McBath is not a career politician interested in dismantling Washington legislation. She’s not even a lifelong activist. She was, by her own account, just a regular “suburban mom” until her son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed outside a gas station in Florida in 2012 in a dispute over playing loud music. Davis is black, and the white man who killed him had a conceal carry permit. In that horrific moment, McBath became, as she told me over the phone recently, “a mother on a mission.”
Speaking out about her son’s death and the need for comprehensive solutions to gun violence and systemic racism, McBath joined “Mothers of the Movement,” women whose black children have been killed by gun violence or the police. McBath also became a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
“Then Parkland happened,” McBath explained to me. “Those children were the same age as Jordan when he was murdered.” She thought maybe now, finally, policies would change. But when they didn’t, McBath took the next big step – and declared her candidacy for office.
McBath represents the moment we are in as a country today – where more and more people are not only protesting and lobbying against status quo injustices but also transforming their anger into real political power. “This is our modern day civil rights movement,” says McBath.
Yet while progressive movements for change haven’t always embraced electoral politics or have been slow to do so, the recent surge of multi-issue, multiracial progressive protest has quickly focused the movement on political change. Mitt Romney won GA-06 in 2012 by 23 points. But Trump just barely won the district in 2016 by one point. And when Handel won the special election a year ago over Democrat Jon Ossoff, the race was still quite close.
So, McBath has a real shot at victory. But either way, she’s blazing the trail for ordinary people to become engaged in the political process, including running for office. “I intend to win,” says McBath, “but no matter what happens, this is a win-win.”
Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and author of the book, “The Opposite of Hate.”
Will an anti-Trump, liberal Democrat win in rural Kentucky?
This race in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region features a well-funded incumbent, Republican Andy Barr, running against an outsider Democrat, Amy McGrath, who easily beat two establishment politicians in her primary. Polls close at 6 p.m. ET and votes are counted quickly in Fayette County (Lexington), the district’s largest, which means we’ll know early whether Barr weathered the storm
A Democrat win likely means a big night for their party. The Cook Report rates the district R+9 and Trump won here by more than 15 points. If Democrats are knocking down contested jump shots like this, it means the “blue wave” is real.
McGrath, a former fighter pilot, leans on her military credentials to fend off the usual attacks that sink Democrats in Kentucky. Shortly after the May primary, internal polling from both parties showed her with a decent lead.
But Barr’s campaign smartly went on offense in August, dropping brutal attack ads featuring audio of McGrath claiming: “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” a bold statement given Kentucky’s only Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth, is one of the most liberal in Congress.
McGrath has been taped at numerous fundraisers staking out liberal positions on abortion and taxes, stances better left to campaigns in California than Kentucky. Republicans believe their barrage will have conservative Democrats reaching for the ejection handle on McGrath’s bid.
Both parties are all in, with donations and outside spending piling up. Can an anti-Trump, liberal Democrat win in rural Kentucky? You’ll know before dessert on election night.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Will the Tennessee Senate race be a referendum on Trump?
Keep a close eye on Tennessee, where Republican Marsha Blackburn is facing off against Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former governor. This race will be a good lens through which to see what kind of damage, if any, President Donald Trump might be inflicting on the GOP. The state is now in comfortable Republican territory. The GOP has a supermajority in the state House, controls seven congressional seats and now holds onto both Senate seats.
However, a majority of the nation does not approve of how Trump is doing his job, with his approval rate hovering in high 30s and low 40s. So, how will Trump’s tenure impact this partisan dynamic?
The Tennessee Senate race to replace Bob Corker pits the popular two-term governor against a Trumpian Republican who elicits the strong support of anti-abortion activists. While Bredesen promises to expand health care access and opposes the Republican tax cuts, Blackburn has been a harsh critic of the Affordable Care Act and voted in favor of recent tax cuts.
And though Bredesen is an unusually popular Democrat and leading in the latest CNN poll, his victory would signal a big chip in the partisan armor of the GOP, which would inevitably be blamed on Trump’s impact on his own party.
While one part of the story in November will revolve around who wins control of Congress, another big issue that political observers are watching is whether Trump, with his unstable behavior and radical approach to governance, will stimulate any sort of backlash within his own party that goes beyond words of reprimand.
It would take major midterm losses, including defeats that cut deep into Republican territory, to push congressional Republicans into actually taking a stand against the President and beginning a soul-searching process. If this Tennessee Senate seat goes blue, that would be the kind of outcome that could have a real-world impact on Capitol Hill.
Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer.
A Democratic veteran aims to win in Trump country
There are so many remarkable women and men running for office this year – Rashida Tlaib, Beto O’Rourke, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – but, out of all of them, West Virginia’s Richard Ojeda might be the one most worth watching.
Ojeda voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and now he’s the Democratic candidate for his state’s 3rd Congressional District. Trump, not surprisingly, is not his biggest fan – calling him a “total whacko” at a recent rally in West Virginia.
It’s a wide-open race: Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins vacated his seat, leaving Ojeda to compete against state Rep. Carol Miller. In a district that went for Trump by 50 points, Ojeda is polling at 40% to Miller’s 48%. And 12% are undecided. If you’re wondering why he’s got a shot, just give him a listen.
Ojeda is an emboldened, outraged veteran, who came back from battle to find his home embattled. While many Americans risked their lives in nations abroad, many more struggled in our own nation – persistent income inequality, a disappearing middle class – and even died, as a pernicious opioid epidemic, for years, went ignored.
Yet his opponent doesn’t seem to prioritize these issues. Instead, Miller makes it clear she endorses Trump – and that the President endorsed her. She appears concerned with defending the Second Amendment, cutting taxes and lining up behind the agenda of the commander-in-chief who Ojeda regrets voting for.
Meanwhile, Ojeda speaks the story of struggling Americans in a dialect that dyes progressive populism with the hues of a very red state. This explains why, in addition to his support for more affordable education, comprehensive immigration reform and the decriminalization of medical marijuana, he vocally supports West Virginia’s coal industry, even as he acknowledges the reality of climate change and strives to keep his state competitive through investment in clean and alternative energy sources.
Such politics explodes the myth of insurmountable and immutable partisanship. Good for America. But helpful to me, too, as I find myself increasingly unable to singularly identify as a progressive or a conservative.
Ojeda suggests that we don’t have to be only and forever Democrats and Republicans, that we can grow and mature. And we don’t have to be milquetoast centrists. We could refuse the political boundaries imposed on us, for what are boundaries but limits, and who are Americans except people who refuse to believe anything is impossible?
Haroon Moghul is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He is the author of the new book “How to be a Muslim.”
Will Georgia elect first black female governor?
There’s a dead heat in Georgia, and I’m not talking about the weather. The race for governor of Georgia could not be closer. Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams are deadlocked. The latest Real Clear Politics polls shows Kemp at 45% versus Abrams at 45%.
In other words, Republicans in this center-right red state realize they are in a real fight.
It’s not hard to see the headwinds on the national level are blowing through the Peach State. The proverbial soccer moms of suburban Atlanta are conflicted with the tone and tenor of President Donald Trump. But there is time for a course correction before Election Day.
After all, the two candidates could not be more different. Secretary of State Kemp is campaigning on “Putting Georgians First” with a focus on jobs, public safety and education. Former State House Minority Leader Abrams – who could be the first female black governor in the country – has fully embraced the progressive agenda.
Kemp seeks to expand gun rights, while Abrams supports gun-control measures. Kemp wants quality, affordable private health care for all, while Abrams wants to expand Medicaid. Kemp support anti-abortion measures, while Abrams wants to protect abortion rights.
Though Abrams is charismatic, as a native of Atlanta myself, I can say her positions are too extreme for the state. Georgia remains a center-right state. Kemp is a center-right candidate, running a center-right campaign. As long as he continues to focus on what’s going right with the economy, Georgians will come home to the GOP.
Alice Stewart is a CNN Political Commentator and former Communications Director for Ted Cruz for President.
Familiar third-party candidate challenges status quo
Those who aren’t on board with President Donald Trump’s agenda but just can’t bring themselves to support the Democrats have a sliver of hope in New Mexico, where former Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian, has entered a three-way race for a US Senate seat.
As the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president in the 2016 election, Johnson earned 3% of the vote, the best finish for a national third-party candidate in 20 years. Still, the outcome was something of a disappointment for Johnson, who had hoped to capitalize on historic levels of dissatisfaction with the two main party candidates, but instead became a punchline after a series of gaffes. (Remember, “what is Aleppo?”) Afterward, he swore he was done with politics.
But now Johnson is mounting an unlikely but far from impossible challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich. A former Republican governor of the typically blue state, Johnson is still popular in New Mexico: A recent poll showed Heinrich leading the race at 39%, with 21% for Johnson and 11% for Republican Mike Rich. Some 30% are still undecided.
Johnson is an economic conservative known for vetoing hundreds of bills during his first term in office. But he’s also a social liberal who supports abortion rights, immigration and drug legalization. And he’s no fan of the President; in fact, he said Trump’s election “could be the end of the republic as we know it.” A good showing for Johnson would be a win for the Libertarian Party, while also proving that centrist liberals, independents and Never Trump Republicans can find a compromise candidate.
Can a Republican win again in a Clinton district?
On November 6, my eyes will be glued to the returns coming in from Texas’ 23rd Congressional District. Three features of the race that pits Republican incumbent Will Hurd against Democratic newcomer Gina Ortiz Jones make it especially important.
First, it’s one of the 23 House districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but that sent a Republican to Congress. Both parties are laser-focused because it’s prime real estate to flip. If the Democrats don’t win this district, it’s hard to imagine a path to majority control in the House of Representatives.
Second, Gina Ortiz Jones has the candidate profile that seems to be motivating Democratic turnout across the county. She’s young. She’s gay. She’s a woman of color. She’s an Iraq War veteran. And she’s progressive. If Jones can’t turn out the vote, then that bodes poorly for Democratic candidates with less compelling personal stories.
Third, Hurd isn’t a Donald Trump acolyte. He differs from the President on DACA and the border wall (not surprising given that the district is 55% Hispanic). And as a former CIA official, he has condemned the administration for how it handled Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Hurd poses a challenge for Jones in a way that not all Republicans in similar swing districts do.
In short, if TX-23 goes blue, then it’s likely that the wave is nothing short of a tsunami.
Jennifer L. Lawless is the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
Is Maryland ready for a civil rights leader turned governor?
I have known Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, for 2½ decades. What strikes me most about him: Every week, month and year that I have known him, he has been passionately working to help people who needed a strong champion. He is known as the youngest ever president of the NAACP, a venerable, ailing civil rights organization that he fixed and turned around. But he has not helped only African-Americans.
Though Jealous is running against Republican candidate Larry Hogan, who has tried to distance himself from Trump, Jealous’ campaign, like many this November, is about President Donald Trump.
And Jealous is everything that Trump is not. Where Trump seeks to divide and cater to a narrow base, Jealous has spent his life building diverse coalitions for change in the public and private sector, winning major victories for DREAMers, the LGBTQ community and abolishing Maryland’s death penalty.
In the private sector, he is an investor who has helped over 20 socially conscious companies launch and grow, creating jobs and proving that you don’t have to sell your soul to do well in business. He connects as easily with blue-collar white guys as he does with black female churchgoers.
Electing a civil rights leader and businessman right on Trump’s doorstep would send a huge signal that voters across the country are turning out to resist bigotry, division and corrupt government.
You don’t have to guess what Jealous would do in office. He has been winning real victories for underdogs in every role he has ever played.
Van Jones is the host of the #VanJonesShow and a CNN political commentator. He is the founder of the Dream Corps, a national nonprofit to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity.
A moderate Democrat has a chance in the Texas 7th
One of the races I will be watching on election night is the Houston seat – the Texas 7th – currently held by Republican John Culberson.
There was a nasty Democratic primary fight that the national party actively engaged in with a ham-handed release of opposition research on the progressive candidate Laura Moser. Ultimately, they got what they wanted in Lizzie Fletcher, a more moderate nominee who Democratic leadership believes will have a better chance of knocking off a longtime incumbent.
And Fletcher is still a young, fresh female candidate with a great resume and strong ties to the district. The first test will be whether Democrats coalesce around her candidacy to support her on Election Day like they have in other elections when the more progressive candidate was defeated, such as Virginia’s governor race last year.
Culberson has been in office for almost two decades, and he has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act repeatedly, an issue that has become the No. 1 topic for Democrats running this fall. If that message works in the Texas suburbs, it will be a good sign of its effectiveness in other swing districts.
Finally, the race also has the potential to benefit from the huge enthusiasm Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke is generating at the top of the ticket. Even if he falls short of knocking off sitting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, his impact on the turnout could send Fletcher, as well as a handful of other new Democratic members from the deep red state of Texas, to Congress.
Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.
We’re in for another Florida nailbiter
It has been 24 long years since Florida voters elected a Democratic governor. But all signs point to a possible history-making victory by the party’s nominee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
The race offers an early test of whether swing states like Florida support President Donald Trump’s performance. Gillum, a progressive, favors single-payer health care and has called for an increase in corporate taxes and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
His Republican rival, Ron DeSantis, is a fervent Trump supporter, riding an endorsement by the President to victory in the Republican primary.
While Trump’s backing was enough to win over GOP voters, the November general election is another matter. Trump carried Florida in 2016 by only 113,000 votes, a margin of 1.2% of the more than 9 million votes cast.
That means the state is up for grabs this year, giving Democrats a chance to end their exile from the statehouse.
Florida is a true swing state, a fact etched in the nation’s memory in 2000, when a razor-thin 537-vote margin delivered the state, and the presidency, to Republican George W. Bush.
Since that infamous squeaker, the state has seesawed in presidential races, supporting Bush again in 2004, then switching to Democratic candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before flipping back to the GOP by supporting Donald Trump in 2016.
Democrats know that winning the state this year would give the party a head start on trying to carry the state in the 2020 presidential election.
Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
Will New Jersey elect its first Republican senator since 1972?
The last time Republicans won a Senate race in New Jersey, Richard Nixon was president. Over the last 46 years, Republicans have found spectacular ways to lose New Jersey Senate races, even when the GOP found success in wave election years nationally. They even lost when Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election victory in 1984. Although New Jersey has been a traditional Democratic stronghold, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by nearly 900,000, voters have elected Republican governors over the years. Yet the Senate has eluded the GOP since 1972.
Opposite the national trend of Democrats running competitively in Republican leaning districts across the country, the New Jersey Senate race may actually be in play in a reliably blue state. GOP Senate candidate Bob Hugin, a wealthy former pharmaceutical executive and former Marine, has spent nearly $16 million of his own money attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez as corrupt after his federal corruption trial ended in a mistrial and his severe admonishment by the Senate Ethics Committee.
The attacks seem to be working. According to the latest Stockton University poll, Menendez’s once double digit lead is down to 2 points, 45% to 43%. While other Republican candidates across the country pledge their loyalty to President Donald Trump, Hugin is taking another approach by declaring himself a “different kind of Republican.” He’s pro-abortion rights, against tariffs and critical of the GOP tax plan that hurt many of the state’s property owners because of the cap on state and local tax deductions. All these positions are at odds with the President, who unsurprisingly, has a low approval rating within the state.
New Jersey’s Senate race is probably too close for comfort for Democrats, who already have to defend 26 Senate seats, 10 in states Trump won in 2016. With a slim 51-49 GOP margin of control, every Senate race counts in 2018 – even in New Jersey.
Tara Setmayer, a CNN political commentator, is the host of the “Honestly Speaking with Tara” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer.
Will’s Faso’s racist Hail Mary pass throw him a lifeline?
Every race is critical: Here in California, where I live now, there are seven key House seats in districts that went blue in November 2016, and any path for Democrats to flip Congress will run through those. But the race I’m tracking most closely is actually in New York, my home state, albeit in the suburban reaches of upstate surrounding Albany: The dead-heat contest between vulnerable Republican incumbent Rep. John Faso and his Democratic challenger, Antonio Delgado.
Delgado is an incredibly impressive candidate – a Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhodes scholar who is running as a moderate progressive. He’s also black, running in a district that’s 84% white. Faso, in contrast, is a Trump-down-the-line checkbox in the House; until recently, he’s been best known for voting to kill Obamacare despite vowing to a cancer-patient constituent that he would not compromise her insurance in a video that subsequently went viral.
But Faso has a new infamy attached to his name: Pressured by polls showing that Delgado was tied or even ahead in the race, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a disgusting, deeply coded campaign ad that uses clips from Delgado’s youthful flirtation with hip-hop (rapping under the handle “AD the Voice”) as evidence that Faso’s challenger was out of step with the values of the district and “unfit” to serve as their representative. The race-baiting led The New York Times to run an editorial condemning Faso. Other publications have followed suit.
With any luck, Faso’s racist Hail Mary won’t throw him a lifeline, but an anvil. Given the demographics of the district and the nature of the race, if Delgado wins, it will be part of an overwhelming blue sweep of the midterm elections.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the ad about Antonio Delgado to John Faso's campaign. However, the National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for it. It also referred to the race as the New York Ninth, but it is the New York Nineteenth. This article has also been corrected to give Gina Ortiz Jones' full name.