GOP’s midterm election prospects looking up

March 4, 2018 GMT

Talk of a Democratic midterm sweep may be premature.

In recent weeks, the chance that Republicans will hold or even expand their Senate majority was boosted by two unexpected events: North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer decided to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and Arizona Rep. Martha McSally launched her bid for retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat.

Since World War II, the president’s party has lost House seats in 16 of 18 midterms, while in the Senate the president’s party has broken even or picked up seats in five midterms.

Only a third of senators are up for election in a given cycle, meaning each party’s prospects vary depending on which states are in play. Of the 34 Senate seats up this fall, 26 are held by Democrats and only eight by Republicans. Ten Democratic seats are in states President Trump carried in 2016, and only one Republican senator — Nevada’s Dean Heller — will face re-election in a state Hillary Clinton won.

The GOP’s best shots to pick up seats are in five states Trump won by double digits. One is North Dakota, which the president carried with 63 precent of the vote. The same night Trump earned 216,794 votes and a 36-point victory, Cramer received 233,980 votes for his 45-point margin. In 2012, when Ms. Heitkamp and Cramer both won for the first time, she got 161,337 votes and a 0.9-point margin while he received 173,585 votes and a 13.2-point margin.

Ms. Heitkamp’s voting record offers Republicans plenty of ammunition. She has voted against Cramer and the state’s popular senior senator, Republican John Hoeven, on issues like tax cuts, health care and energy — energy being of particular concern because North Dakota is America’s second-biggest producer of crude oil. Cramer is also a superb grass-roots campaigner, which matters in a state where politics is personal and voters are clustered on the center right.

Then there’s Arizona. Republicans were worried about the seat even before Flake announced his retirement last October, leaving the primary field wide open to far-right candidate Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. John McCain in 2016 and is backed by Steve Bannon.

Many Republicans applauded when Ms. McSally announced that she’d enter the race. An Air Force Academy grad, she was the first female American combat pilot — flying an A-10 Warthog in the Gulf War — and the first woman to command a fighter squadron.

After beating an incumbent Democrat by 161 votes in 2014, Rep. McSally was re-elected in 2016 with 57 percent, running 13 points ahead of Trump in Arizona’s most competitive district, centered in Tucson.

She now faces an August primary against Ward and 85-year-old former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After being found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order against racial profiling, Arpaio lost his re-election in 2016, trailing the entire GOP ticket. He and Ward will split the hard right, improving McSally’s chances.

The likely Democratic nominee is Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who had $5.1 million cash on hand at the end of last year. Ms. Sinema represents a Phoenix district, which gives her high name recognition.