November 2, 2018


By Chris Smith

Julie McClain Downey was calling from the Atlanta airport. She was between planes and between midterm campaigns. Downey is the spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which is spending $46 million to back 82 female House and Senate candidates this cycle. Her layover fell between checking in on a race in Kansas City and another in suburban Atlanta. The Kansas district has been a realistic Democratic pickup for nearly two years. It’s the second district, in deep red Georgia, that is the surprise—and that is emblematic of the late Democratic drive to grab unexpected opportunities. “The map is just huge this year,” Downey says. “I could probably give you at least 20 examples of races that came into play just recently.”

No one is foolish enough to guarantee a blue wave. And regaining a Democratic Senate majority looks unrealistic. But heading into the final weekend before Election Day, the data and the tone are consistent across seven different Democratic strategists: a cautious optimism bordering on bullishness. “After Kavanaugh, I was somewhat pessimistic,” says Howard Wolfson, who is running Michael Bloomberg’s $80 million operation to back 23 congressional candidates. “I am back to being more optimistic now. Nothing has sort of fallen the wrong way.” Instead, the Republican energy stoked by the Supreme Court fight has mostly faded, and revulsion over attempted bombings and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre seems to have motivated Democratic voters.

So millions of dollars are being shifted to try to seize House seats that looked unwinnable as recently as one month ago. In Georgia, for instance, Emily’s List and Bloomberg are behind Carolyn Bourdeaux, a budget wonk and first-time candidate who is neck and neck with Rob Woodall, a Republican incumbent who has won his previous four races in landslides. In Florida, there’s Nancy Soderberg, a former member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, running for an open seat vacated by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. Just north of Portland, Oregon, Carolyn Long is in a dead heat with six-term Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler. “Those three races were not really on anybody’s radar a month ago,” Wolfson says. “And now they are highly competitive.”

Guy Cecil ran the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 2012 and 2014; this time around he is heading Priorities USA, a super PAC that is spending $100 million on behalf of Democratic candidates. “A lot of the really tough decisions you normally have to make at this point in the midterms are about throwing races overboard. That is not happening this time,” Cecil says. “We’re finding new races to invest in. There is enough enthusiasm and, frankly, enough money that we can contest heavy purple areas, some of the tougher red areas, and make sure that the base turns out.”

So closing-days cash is also flowing to several races that have long been close, including the Dana Rohrabacher-Harley Rouda battle in Los Angeles. The Conservative Leadership Fund just bought $1 million worth of TV time backing Mike Bishop against Elissa Slotkin in southern Michigan, and it pumped $2 million into ads for Ross Spano, who is tied with Kristen Carlson in a district north of Tampa. “We’re not going to win every single one of these,” says Clay Schroers, the national campaigns director for the League of Conservation Voters, which is aiding Democrats with $80 million. “But a year ago there was a lot of talk about whether to focus on the Obama-to-Trump districts, or the Romney-Clinton districts, or the few Obama-Clinton districts that Republicans still hold. It turns out, hmmm, just about any of them are competitive.”

Not all the signs are favorable. The Democrats are being outspent in Maine’s Second District, and in New Jersey they are scrambling to play defense for Senator Bob Menendez, who survived a corruption trial last spring but is now leading his Republican challenger by low single digits. And one part of President Donald Trump’s chaotic search for wedge issues appears to be working: his fearmongering about the “caravan” of impoverished Central Americans. Democratic strategists say their polling shows Trump scoring points in red states that have tight Senate races, like Tennessee, Missouri, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. “They are almost myopically focused at this point on trying to juice up Trump turnout,” a top operative says. “It’s really going to come down to what happens over the next five days with straggling voters—do they go with the caravan or health care? A bad night for Democrats is if we lose some combination of Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and Montana in the Senate.”

In House races, however, Trump’s immigrant bashing seems to be backfiring, especially in suburban swing districts. “Look, I could be wrong,” says Schroers, the League of Conservation Voters strategist. “But I think the president maybe misjudged how much of the 2016 results was due to him finishing on immigration and how much of it was due to the Jim Comey letter. Every poll we look at, this year it’s about health care and economic security. You go to focus groups and it’s not like you have to feed it to people. So when the president is talking about something else, it’s not helping the Republicans. In Florida right now, our issues are top of mind with voters, because of the hurricane, the algae bloom, and the red tide. They’re not worked up about a group of people 1,000 miles away.”

If the blue wave does come in, some of the credit should go to an unusual circumstance: Democratic organizational unity. “There’s been an enormous amount of coordination and cooperation between all of these groups and donors, at a level that is much better than previous cycles,” Cecil says. “It turns out when you are fearful, desperately fearful, of another two years of single-party rule, people have a willingness to set aside some of their petty bullshit from previous cycles.”