Midterm Update: North Dakota goes to Leans Republican, giving the Republicans a clearer edge in the Senate

Dark red states going different directions in gubernatorial contests



— The North Dakota Senate race moves from Toss-up to Leans Republican, reinforcing what we’ve long described as a GOP edge in the race for the Senate.

— The Democrats do have a path to the majority, but that path almost certainly involves winning at least one race we currently rate as Leans Republican: the aforementioned North Dakota contest, or Tennessee or Texas.

— Meanwhile, in the gubernatorial races, two red states (Alaska and South Dakota) are moving in different directions in our ratings.

— The dean of the House, Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL), might have a hard race.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) Toss-up Leans Republican

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Governor Old Rating New Rating
Bill Walker (I-AK) Leans Republican Likely Republican
SD Open (Daugaard, R) Likely Republican Leans Republican

Because we know readers want to see the up-to-the-minute state of play, we’re going to be publishing our Senate and gubernatorial maps, along with our House ratings tables, at the top of the Crystal Ball each week from here to the election. One can also always find our ratings at our Crystal Ball site as well as the UVA Center for Politics-Ipsos Political Atlas, which also features projections based on poll-based modeling and social media metrics.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Map 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings

One of the many ways of slicing and dicing this year’s Senate contests is to look at them this way. In order to win the majority, Democrats need to win at least one of the following three contests: North Dakota, Tennessee, or Texas. And we now favor Republicans, at least narrowly, in all three, reinforcing the GOP edge in the race for the Senate with less than four weeks to go until Election Day.

For months now, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) has looked like the most vulnerable Senate Democrat. Republican polling has shown her down in the high single or even low double digits, and Democrats have conceded that she is behind. A couple of recent public polls have shown her down 10-12 points, too.

Is it possible that Heitkamp could come back? Yes. Her personal numbers remain good and it’s a Democratic-leaning year. Polling also underestimated her in 2012, although she was not an incumbent back then. Still, is it likely that she will come back? No. An incumbent clearly trailing whose party label doesn’t match the prevailing partisan preference in a state is in trouble.

So we’re moving North Dakota’s Senate race from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

By the way, this change isn’t really about Heitkamp’s decision to vote against Brett Kavanaugh, whom the Senate narrowly confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court over the weekend. We identified Heitkamp as the most vulnerable Senate incumbent of either party more than a month ago, but we were being cautious about downgrading her rating. But her poor horse race numbers do not appear to be getting better.

The ratings change in North Dakota means that we now rate eight of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot this year as Safe, Likely, or Leaning Republican: Seven of the nine currently GOP-held seats, and one of the 26 Democratic-held seats (North Dakota). That combined with the 42 other GOP-held Senate seats not on the ballot this year adds up to 50, the minimum number of seats the Republicans need to maintain control of the upper chamber. Remember, a 50-50 split means maintained Republican control, thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence (R).

That makes the Senate 50-45 Republican in our ratings, with five Toss-ups: Three currently Democratic seats, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri, and two currently Republican seats, Arizona and Nevada. All of these races remain close, although if the election were today we’d probably expect the Democrats to win more of them than the Republicans. But even if Democrats win all five Toss-ups, and also hold all of their other seats, including defending vulnerable incumbents in Montana and West Virginia, that would not be sufficient for Democrats to capture the Senate if they lose North Dakota. Democrats would need to win a third GOP-held seat — one more beyond Arizona and Nevada — to make up for it and get to a 51-seat bare majority.

That’s where Tennessee and Texas, both of which we continue to rate as Leans Republican, become important. And yet we don’t see either of those races as true Toss-ups, either. In the Volunteer State, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) led the two most recent polls by five (Fox News) and eight (CBS News/YouGov) points over former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN). We have agonized over moving this race to Toss-up, but we’ve held at Leans Republican because of the state’s GOP leanings. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has held a steady lead on Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) of around half a dozen points, with some polls above that and some below. Could Democrats win Tennessee and/or Texas? Yes, but we still see the GOP favored in both.

Barring some sort of shocking result, like former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy (D) winning a Senate runoff in the Mississippi Senate special election on Nov. 27, one can see how the Republicans just winning North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas would block the Democrats in the Senate. And Republicans very well might win some of the other competitive races discussed above, too.

Other changes: Alaska and South Dakota

In the midst of an election where Democrats are going to net governorships, and perhaps a lot of them, one consistent bright spot for Republicans has been the Last Frontier, Alaska. The GOP always planned to aggressively target independent Gov. Bill Walker, who defeated then-Gov. Sean Parnell (R-AK) in 2014. Walker, a former Republican, created a fusion ticket with a Democrat, now-Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott. But once former Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) entered the race, creating a three-way contest among him, Walker, and GOP nominee Mike Dunleavy, a former state senator, the possibilities of Walker holding the governorship (or of Begich replacing him) have only worsened.

Alaska pollster Ivan Moore’s Alaska Survey Research has released a couple of recent polls on the race and has had Dunleavy in the mid-to-high 40s and Walker and Begich each under 30. We’re moving the Alaska governor’s race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. This would not be a net loss of a governorship for Democrats because Walker is an independent, but it would be a gain for Republicans while they are mostly playing defense elsewhere. Interestingly, it may be that Dunleavy is in a better position than the state’s at-large House member, Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL), who has served longer than any other current member of the House. Young only received a shade over 50% in each of the last two elections, but he won comfortably because of third-party candidates helping to split the non-Young vote. But this time, he only faces a single named opponent on the ballot, Alyse Galvin, an education advocate and independent nominated in the Democratic primary. The pollster Moore, who it must be noted has overstated Democratic performance in the past, has Young up just 50%-46% over Galvin. Even if that underestimates Young, though, this should still be a relatively close race. We’re going to hold at Likely Republican in the House race, but we may push it to a more competitive category before the election.

Could Alaska throw out both its incumbent independent governor and its veteran Republican House incumbent in the same election? That would be odd, but remember that Alaska voted out both its incumbent Republican governor (Parnell) and incumbent Democratic senator (Begich) in 2014. So a contradictory result would not be without recent precedent in that state.

Meanwhile, the open gubernatorial race in South Dakota appears to be tight, with Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL) battling state Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton (D), a former rodeo cowboy who is disabled from the waist down. The Mount Rushmore State has not elected a Democratic governor since 1974, but we flagged this race several months ago as a possible upset, and Sutton recently released an internal poll showing him up three points, 45%-42%, on Noem. We have a hard time seeing this race as a true Toss-up, but we are moving it from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. This ratings change puts open-seat governorships from three traditionally GOP states, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, in the Leans Republican column. Don’t be shocked if Democrats win one (or maybe even more) of these gubernatorial races.