Iowa’s Senate race is anyone’s to win as Republican advantage withers away

Ernst faces a well-funded challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield, prompting major outside groups from both sides to spend massive sums and reserve even more advertising time for the fall. National Republicans may have hoped that they could weaken Greenfield by going on the offensive right after her June primary win, but surveys taken since then have continued to find the race neck-and-neck.

Campaign Action

This is now the second time we’ve moved Iowa’s Senate race to a more competitive rating, following our shift from Likely Republican to Lean Republican in May. While Iowa backed Trump by double digits four years ago, all signs indicate it’s returning to swing state status, at least for 2020. It may still retain a slight edge for the GOP, but at this point, neither a Greenfield win nor an Ernst victory would surprise us. If Greenfield does come out on top, however, that very likely means Democrats have won enough seats in other, friendlier states to flip the Senate.

● MO-02 (Lean R to Tossup): Republicans are on the defensive in many well-educated and affluent suburban seats that have shifted to the left in recent years, and you can count Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District among them. Republican Rep. Ann Wagner won only 51-47 two years ago in a contest that didn’t attract much outside spending, and that wasn’t an isolated showing: Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill carried the district 50-48 in 2018 even as she was losing statewide by a 51-46 margin. Just two years earlier, Donald Trump had won the 2nd 53-42.

This fall, Wagner faces a tough challenge from Democratic state Sen. Jill Schupp. While the well-connected congresswoman (she was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg in 2005 after she served as a Republican National Committee co-chair) ended June with a large financial advantage, Schupp has brought in the type of money she needs to run a serious campaign, outraising the incumbent in the second quarter. A mid-August poll for Schupp’s allies at House Majority PAC showed her ahead 45-42 with Biden up 48-46, and so far, no one has released contradictory data. Wagner will put up a tough fight, but this is anyone’s race.

● NC-11 (Safe R to Likely R): Republican Madison Cawthorn seemed a sure bet to become the first member of Congress born in the 1990s after he claimed the Republican nomination in a late June upset, but the contest for North Carolina’s 11th District in the Appalachians has suddenly started looking much less predictable.

The DCCC released an in-house poll in early August that found Cawthorn beating Democrat Moe Davis just 46-41, with Trump ahead just 48-46 in a district he’d won by a strong 57-40 margin in 2016. Davis’ team soon publicized a July EMC Research survey that showed Cawthorn ahead by an even smaller 42-40 margin, though that release did not include presidential numbers—but Republicans haven’t put out any polling of their own.

Cawthorn has also attracted intense scrutiny—all of it bad—in the last month, which may be helping to put this race in play. Most seriously, three women have accused him of unwanted sexual advances. Cawthorn was further criticized for describing his visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation home, the Eagle’s Nest, as an item on his “bucket list” and calling Hitler “the Führer.” In addition, he’s been on the defensive for suggesting his hopes of attending the Naval Academy were derailed by his 2014 auto accident that left him without the use of his legs, even though he had already been rejected by the school before the crash. This seat is red enough that Cawthorn is still the clear favorite, but an upset cannot be dismissed.

● NJ-11 (Likely D to Safe D): Republican Rosemary Becchi did her party a solid in January when she dropped out of the primary against establishment favorite Tom Kean Jr. in New Jersey’s 7th District and instead launched a bid against freshman Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill in the 11th, but she’s struggled to gain traction in her new race.

This suburban North Jersey seat used to be solidly Republican turf but it’s moved to the left in recent years, and Sherrill crushed her GOP foe 57-42 last cycle. The GOP brand has only taken a further hit in areas like this since then, and it would take a very strong opponent to give Sherrill a real race this cycle. Becchi is not that opponent: She ended June with a massive $3.4 million to $310,000 cash-on-hand deficit, and there’s no indication that the same Republican power-brokers who helped engineer her district hop have any interest in repaying her now.

● NY-01 (Likely R to Lean R): While New York’s 1st District swung from 50-49 Obama to 54-42 Trump, Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin has a difficult re-election fight ahead of him.

Zeldin only won 51-47 last cycle against an opponent with weak ties to this eastern Long Island seat, and his current Democratic challenger, Stony Brook University professor Nancy Goroff, looks like a much tougher foe. Goroff has raised a credible amount of money so far, and she’s also capable of self-funding.

Crucially, we’ve seen three polls from Goroff and her allies that suggest that the political climate will be very different than it was the last time Trump was on the ballot here. In July, a Public Policy Polling internal for 314 Action Fund showed Zeldin leading 47-40 and the presidential race tied 47-47, while in August, Goroff’s team released a Global Strategy Group poll that showed her trailing 47-42 and Biden ahead 46-42. Most recently, the DCCC dropped its own numbers from Tulchin Research that had Goroff in the lead 48-46 with Biden out front by a 51-45 margin. We have yet to see any contradictory numbers from the GOP.

Zeldin still has the advantage here, though. Two of those Democratic polls found him in front, and the congressman is a strong fundraiser who will have the resources he needs to fight back. Long Island Republicans also habitually perform well further down the ballot, so Zeldin has a good chance of prevailing even if Biden carries the 1st District. However, this contest is looking considerably more competitive than it did just a month ago.

● TX-07 (Tossup to Lean D): Army veteran Wesley Hunt is one of the GOP’s most heralded recruits of the cycle, but even he faces an uphill battle in yet another suburban seat where his party’s fortunes are in decline. Texas’ 7th District in an ancestrally red slice of West Houston swung dramatically from 60-39 Romney to 48.5-47.1 Clinton, setting the stage for Democrat Lizzie Fletcher to unseat longtime Rep. John Culberson 53-47 two years later.

So far, there’s no indication that the voters who abandoned the GOP over the last few years are looking to return. Indeed, with statewide polls showing the closest presidential race in Texas in decades, it’s far more likely that Joe Biden will do well locally at the top of the ticket and give Fletcher a boost.

Hunt still has the resources to put up a very tough fight, and national Republicans are preparing to spend millions here to help him in the fall. But unless something dramatic changes, Hunt is going to need to win over quite a few crossover voters to win, and that’s not a good position for a challenger to be in.

● WA-10 (Safe D: Lean Strickland): Two Democrats, former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and state Rep. Beth Doglio, advanced from the top-two primary for Washington’s 10th Congressional District, but it’s Strickland who looks like the early favorite in the general election.

Strickland led Doglio 20-15 in the first round of voting, and she soon picked up an endorsement from former state Rep. Kristine Reeves, who took third with 13%. While Doglio has campaigned as a progressive, Strickland, a former head of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, has a reputation as more of a moderate. That should make her an easier sell to Republican voters who don’t have a candidate of their own.

One-party general elections can be unpredictable since party affiliation isn’t a factor, and a Doglio victory is very possible this fall, especially since we haven’t yet seen any polling. Still, for the moment at least, Strickland appears to be the frontrunner.

Senate

● MI-Sen: The Republican pollster Trafalgar Group just released its first downballot poll of the 2020 general election, and if you’re wondering why it’s the first poll since the start of the pandemic—and just the third survey ever—to find Republican John James leading in Michigan’s Senate race, that’s because a highly questionable assumption is powering the firm’s methodology.

Trafalgar gained notice after the 2016 elections for being one of the few pollsters to predict that Donald Trump would win the key swing states that proved crucial to his Electoral College victory, including Michigan. The outfit’s founder, Robert Cahaly, argued he was able to do so by accounting for so-called “shy” Trump voters—those who, due to an alleged “social desirability bias,” are reluctant to tell pollsters that they support Donald Trump.

However, Trafalgar’s approach didn’t fare all that well two years later. In the dozen polls the firm made public in the last two weeks before the 2018 midterms, nine were too favorable to the GOP, including one that predicted Republican Brian Kemp would win the Georgia governor’s race by 12 points (he prevailed by just 1 point). On average, Trafalgar missed by 5 points and outright called three races incorrectly, including the contests for Senate in Arizona and both Senate and governor in Nevada.

Cahaly is nonetheless sticking to his thesis, even though every serious analysis has rejected the notion that these supposedly “shy” Trump voters actually exist. (For more on this topic—and what was really behind the 2016 polling miss—see Huffpost’s Ariel Edwards-Levy, CNN’s Harry Enten, and the New York Times’ Nate Cohn.) As a result, Trafalgar sees Trump leading Joe Biden 47-45 and James edging out Democratic Sen. Gary Peters 48-47, a finding at odds even with James’ own recent polling, which had him down 49-44.

Trafalgar could of course be right and everyone else wrong. But even if it succeeded where most others failed in 2016, the opposite obtained in 2018, when the bulk of polling forecast a Democrat landslide—and that’s precisely what unfolded.

House

● CA-48: Republican Michelle Steel uses her opening general election ad to tout herself as a proven conservative who “took on Sacramento and returned $400 million to taxpayers.” The narrator goes on to laud her as a candidate who will “stand strong against do-nothing Washington politicians, and take on communist China, bringing back jobs.”

● NY-02: Democrat Jackie Gordon is airing her first TV spot of the general election. As photos of her time in the Army fill the screen, Gordon tells the audience, “When I was 20 years old, the Army said ‘Be All That You Can Be.’ Not just SOME of what you can be … but all of it.”

She continues, “I’ve been a military police officer and a guidance counselor. I’ve served under Democrats and Republicans. I’ve been to basic and I’ve taught yoga.” Gordon concludes, “All of us, we’re more than just one thing. When we serve something greater than ourselves … we’re being ALL that we can be.”

● NY-24: Republican Rep. John Katko and the NRCC have been airing ads arguing that Democrat Dana Balter’s healthcare plan is far to the left of what Joe Biden supports, and Balter is now up with a response spot.

The commercial dismisses Katko’s attacks as false, declaring, “Joe Biden wasn’t talking about Dana Balter’s plan.” The narrator then reads from Biden’s statement endorsing Balter, saying, “I strongly endorse Dana Balter because working families deserve leaders who will make quality health care more accessible.” The rest of the ad goes after Katko for trying to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

● OH-14: EMILY’s List has endorsed Democrat Hillary O’Connor’s campaign against Republican Rep. Dave Joyce in a contest that hasn’t attracted much outside attention. Last cycle, Joyce turned back a credible opponent 55-45 in a suburban Cleveland seat that moved from 51-48 Romney to 54-42 Trump. The incumbent ended June with a $1.4 million to $158,000 cash-on-hand lead over O’Connor, who is an attorney and retired Navy pilot.

Legislative

● AK State House: More votes have been counted from Alaska’s Aug. 18 primary, and a second Republican member of the bipartisan House Majority Caucus has lost renomination. Thomas McKay beat state Rep. Chuck Kopp 61-39 in HD-24, an Anchorage seat that went for Trump by a 52-40 margin. The Democratic nominee is Sue Levi, who lost to Kopp 59-41 in 2016 and was defeated 60-39 two years later.

However, things look better for fellow Majority Caucus member Steve Thompson, though the AP has not yet called his GOP primary. With 850 votes in, Thompson leads challenger Dave Selle 52-48, which is an improvement from the 51-49 edge the incumbent enjoyed on election night.

The Majority Caucus is currently made up of 15 Democrats, two independents, and five Republicans, while 16 mainstream Republicans sit in the House Minority Caucus. National Republicans made a strong effort to unseat Republican members of the coalition in their primaries, and in addition to Thompson, they defeated Jennifer Johnston. The final two GOP coalition members, Bart Lebon and Louise Stutes, were renominated without any opposition.

Another seat in the 40-member state House is held by Republican state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, a former member of the Majority Caucus who now isn’t part of any alliance, but she won’t be in the legislature much longer. The AP has called the GOP primary for challenger David Nelson, who beat LeDoux 67-33. HD-15, which is in Anchorage, backed Trump 52-38, and the Democrats are running Lyn Franks. The final seat in the chamber was held by Gary Knopp, a Republican in the Majority Caucus who died last month and posthumously lost renomination to Ron Gillham, who earned the endorsement of the local GOP back in June.

Finally, state Rep. David Eastman, who is part of the House Minority Caucus but has been a pain for its leaders, survived the national GOP’s attempt to unseat him by defeating primary foe Jesse Sumner 52-48. Eastman’s intra-party critics remember how, after the 2018 election, he said he wouldn’t back a GOP speaker without some preconditions. Eastman was supposed to be one of the 21 Republicans who was to form the new majority, and his enemies blame him for causing the deadlock that eventually led to the bipartisan alliance that now controls the chamber.

Since then, Eastman has spoken against a number of his party’s priorities, and House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt announced in March that he was on “probation.” Unfortunately for Pruitt, though, there weren’t quite enough primary voters in this heavily Republican Wasilla seat who wanted to turn that probation into a termination.

Election Changes

● Mississippi: Voting rights advocates, including the NAACP, have filed a federal lawsuit asking that Mississippi officials allow all voters to request absentee ballots without presenting an excuse. The plaintiffs also want the state’s requirement that absentee voters have their ballots notarized to be waived, and they further ask that voters be given the chance to correct any problems that would otherwise lead to their ballots getting disqualified. A similar suit backed by the ACLU is pending in state court.

● New Jersey: New Jersey’s Democratic-run legislature has passed a bill to conduct the November general election by mail, though at least one in-person polling place will be open in each of the state’s 565 municipalities. Previously, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order for an all-mail election, but Republicans challenged the move in court, arguing that Murphy had usurped lawmakers’ authority.

This new legislation, therefore, is an attempt to render that lawsuit moot. A similar move succeeded earlier this year in California after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the November election be run by mail, prompting a Republican challenge that was derailed when legislators ratified Newsom’s actions by passing their own bill to do the same thing.

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AZ-Sen: Martha McSally (R-inc) (here and here)

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