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Notes on the State of Politics

How the North Dakota gubernatorial race could decide the Senate

The decision by Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R-ND) to not run for another term potentially puts a 2016 gubernatorial race in play for Democrats. But winning it might involve a trade-off that most Democrats wouldn’t make: the governorship of one of the nation’s least populous states in exchange for continued Republican control of the U.S. Senate.

That’s because the strongest Democratic contender for the open governorship is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who was elected to the Senate in 2012. If Heitkamp runs for governor and wins, a special election will be held to fill the remaining two years of her term, a recent change enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature designed to prevent a future Gov. Heitkamp from appointing her own Democratic successor. The special election must be held no later than 95 days from the time of a vacancy, and the seat would remain vacant in advance of the special election. In North Dakota, the new governor will be inaugurated on Dec. 15, 2016. That would probably put the special election sometime in mid-March 2017.

It’s not impossible to imagine the Senate starting 50-49 either way in January 2017, with the North Dakota seat vacant, and the special election deciding control of the Senate. Given North Dakota’s Republican leanings, the GOP would probably begin as favorites to win that seat and potentially the Senate majority, even if the Democrats had narrowly won an edge in the upper chamber the previous November.

Heitkamp faces an interesting decision, one that she says she will make “sooner rather than later.” She might feel powerless in the Senate minority, particularly because she’s more moderate than most of her colleagues. If she stays in the Senate, she would face a difficult reelection race in 2018 in a midterm climate that may or may not be favorable to her party. Also, losing the gubernatorial race would not necessarily prevent her from seeking another Senate term, although kicking off a 2018 reelection campaign coming off a statewide loss isn’t exactly starting from a position of strength. Formerly North Dakota’s attorney general, she may also simply prefer to be governor and decide jumping back into state-level politics is worth the risk. Given the state of national politics, who could blame her? However, one wonders how much she could accomplish as governor. Republicans have huge majorities in the state legislature: 32-15 in the Senate and 71-23 in the House. For what it’s worth, two of her class of 2018 Senate colleagues — Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) — also flirted with gubernatorial runs this cycle but passed. Ultimately, Heitkamp will face immense pressure not to jeopardize the Democrats’ chances to re-take the Senate.

As we wait for Heitkamp’s decision, we’re moving North Dakota’s gubernatorial race from Safe Republican to Leans Republican. We don’t expect that rating will last all that long, though: If Heitkamp runs, we’ll probably move the race to a straight Toss-up. If she does not, we’d consider pushing the race to Likely Republican, because there’s a drop-off from Heitkamp to other Democratic candidates. One could be Heitkamp’s brother, former state Sen. Joel Heitkamp (D), who is now a radio host and who says he doesn’t believe his sister will run for governor. Another is state Sen. George Sinner (D), who lost to Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) last year by 17 points in a race for the state’s at-large U.S. House seat.

Sinner’s father, also named George, was the last Democrat to win the state’s governorship, capturing it in 1984 and 1988. Since then, Republicans have won the office six straight times, often by huge margins. The Democrat who came closest to winning was Heitkamp, who lost to now-Sen. John Hoeven (R) 55%-45% in 2000. That margin probably understates how competitive the race was, though. Polling showed the race tight throughout, and Heitkamp’s breast cancer diagnosis in the latter stages of the campaign might have affected the result. (Heitkamp obviously beat cancer and went on to future political success.)

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley (R) and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) are both potential candidates, and there’s some indication that they would not run against each other. Other Republicans, such as former Rep. Rick Berg (R, ND-AL), who lost to Heitkamp in the 2012 Senate race, could also run. Whoever the Republican nominee is will likely benefit from presidential coattails: A Democrat has not carried the state since President Lyndon Johnson’s massive national sweep in 1964. Still, Heitkamp overcame Mitt Romney’s 20-point triumph at the top of the ballot to win her Senate seat in 2012.

If Heitkamp does run, Senate watchers would need to factor in her possible victory as they assess the battle for the upper chamber next year. As it stands now, Democrats need to win four Senate seats to get the Senate to 50-50, and a Democratic vice president would break a tie, giving them the majority (Democrats would need to net five seats otherwise, but that’s unlikely if they are simultaneously losing the White House).

However, a bare Democratic Senate majority could prove fleeting if Heitkamp wins the governorship and a Republican captures her seat in 2017.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

Recalculating: Waiting on new House maps in Florida and Virginia

Last week, the Florida legislature failed to come to an agreement on a new U.S. House map. The same thing happened in Virginia. Courts that threw out the current maps are now expected to determine what the new maps will look like going forward.

We have held off on making rating changes in anticipation of the new maps because of the inherent uncertainty of this redistricting. The failure of elected officials in both states to pass new maps in response to the court rulings only heightens the unpredictability of these mid-decade remaps.

Ultimately, the likeliest outcomes in both states probably will help Democrats, but we’re going to continue to hold off on reassessing these races.

In Virginia, a panel of federal judges ruled that Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D, VA-3) district, which takes in black voters from Richmond to Norfolk, was packed with too many minority voters. Unpacking that district could make the marginally Republican-leaning surrounding districts of Reps. Scott Rigell (R, VA-2) and Randy Forbes (R, VA-4) more competitive (Forbes seems likelier to be hurt, but let’s wait and see what happens).

Republicans in the state legislature probably would have preferred to sacrifice Rep. Dave Brat (R, VA-7), the insurgent who defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) in a shocking primary upset last year. Brat has few friends in the state Republican establishment. But Virginia Senate Democrats, aided by a rogue Republican state senator, shut down a special session called to draw new maps, punting the decision back to the judges. A court-drawn map may have been the end result even if the GOP-controlled legislature had passed a new map, as Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) might have vetoed the new lines anyway.

Florida’s changes should be more substantial because the court’s ruling addressed multiple districts. The Tampa Bay-area seat of Rep. David Jolly (R, FL-13), the 2014 special election winner who is now running for Senate, should become more Democratic, potentially allowing party-switching former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) to win it. The majority-minority district of Rep. Corrine Brown (D, FL-5), which currently runs from Jacksonville in the north to Orlando in the center of the state, is likely to be redrawn east to west from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. That could imperil one or more Republican-held seats in Northeast Florida while also robbing Rep. Gwen Graham (D, FL-2) of the most Democratic parts of her panhandle district, making it nearly impossible for her to hold her seat.

On balance, the changes should help Democrats win at least one or two additional seats in the House, but it’s possible there will be no net partisan change in either state.

In Virginia, perhaps the changes to Scott’s district will be minor enough that Forbes and Rigell can survive them. In Florida, Democrats could capture FL-13 and an additional Republican seat made more Democratic through the unpacking of FL-5 — under the proposed map the legislature ultimately failed to pass, Rep. Dan Webster (R, FL-10) almost certainly would have lost — but Republicans could negate these Democratic gains by winning FL-2 and also winning FL-18, which was narrowly won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and is now open because Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) is running for Senate.

After all, the maps matter, but candidate performance and the national climate will play a role in these races, too. There are lots of potential scenarios, but they do not all automatically result in the Democrats netting House seats as a result of the new maps, even if the new lines, when finalized, initially suggest that they should.