Looking for first signs of a blue wave? Here are five early races that should tell the story

Is this election a squeaker or a big blue wipeout? These below-the-radar House races will offer major clues

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 6, 2018 1:05PM (EST)

Andy Kim; Debbie Mucarsel-Powell; Antonio Delgado (AP/Julio Cortez/Wilfredo Lee/Seth Wenig)
Andy Kim; Debbie Mucarsel-Powell; Antonio Delgado (AP/Julio Cortez/Wilfredo Lee/Seth Wenig)

Well, here we are. Unbelievably enough, it’s Election Day, tentative day of judgment for the Donald Trump experiment — and for that matter the American experiment, circa 2018. You’ve read entirely too many polls and predictions and prognostications and lists of races to watch, in what is simultaneously the most overhyped and most momentous midterm election campaign in American history. (Yes, that’s a contradiction. Because we live inside a contradiction.)

So here’s another one! But my list is not meant to represent the most significant races, or the ones with the most emotion riding on them, because those are subjective categories. For understandable reasons, many people are focused on the historic gubernatorial campaigns of Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Electing black governors in neighboring states of the old Confederacy would unquestionably be a watershed moment, and Abrams would be the first black female governor of any state. It actually might happen — if Abrams’ Republican opponent, manifestly crooked Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, doesn’t find a way to bake the votes in his favor.

Other folks are obsessed with Claire McCaskill's dead-heat Senate race in Missouri that could well decide which party controls that chamber, or have been swept up in the pop-culture phenomenon known as Betomania, which just might (OK, on the outer edges of possibility) mobilize the youth vote in extraordinary numbers and send Ted Cruz crawling back to his onion-scented burrow.

Like many other people, I’ve made predictions about how the 2018 midterms will turn out. My predictions are pretty normal and deeply uninteresting — and anyway, I now suspect they are wrong. Right now I suspect everybody’s predictions are wrong, because this election reflects a dynamic national narrative that has taken a distinctive (and very dark) turn over the last two weeks. Am I dropping hints? Perhaps. Do I think the winds of change augur a Democratic victory of historic proportions? Well, that would be one possibility.

What I’m offering here is not a guide or a prediction but a cheat sheet, in the form of five House races that should be decided early in the evening and ought to give us a good indication which way the wind is blowing. All five have Republican incumbents, in seats that under more normal circumstances should be pretty easy to defend. All five are extremely close — only one of them has a clear polling leader on the morning of Election Day — and in different ways all five encapsulate elements of the larger national narrative.

I don’t claim to know who will win any of these, which is pretty much the point. But I can tell you this much: If Democrats win four of these races, or all five, they will already be on course for a big-time blue-wave wipeout, at or above the upper end of the Nate Silver paradigm — and winning a Senate majority as well will not be out of the question. If they win three out of five, we’re still talking about a substantial House majority, but with not as much Champagne and dancing, and not quite as much stunned silence or complicated conspiracy theory emanating from the White House.

If Republicans manage to save three or four of these seats, then we’re looking at a split verdict that keeps us all up until the early hours of Wednesday morning, probably resulting in a narrow Democratic majority in the House and a Republican Senate. (Which is more or less what the polls claim to predict.) If the GOP rescues all five of these seats, on the other hand — well, I hope you remember what combination of comfort food, pharmaceuticals, alcohol and magical thinking got you through the second Wednesday of November in 2016, because you might need it all again and then some.

I’m sorry; I genuinely didn’t mean to go there. It was tough love! I don’t think it’s likely this will be an election night like that one, but please God, let’s not start talking about what’s likely and what’s not. It’s time to focus on things we can control: There are snacks to buy, nervous messages to exchange with friends and family, snarky comments to make about the hosts on Fox News, prayers and pleas to send out to whatever forces you do or don’t believe in. Oh, and by the way, you can vote. Go do that, and soon enough we will find out what happens. This list will help: I promise. (I think.)

Maine 2: Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R) vs. Jared Golden (D)

No doubt it’s foolish to consider Maine an indicator of anything, since it’s pretty much a detached Canadian province stuck to the top of New England. But in 2018 the Pine Tree State may be a national bellwether precisely by not being one, if that makes sense. Maine isn’t so much a purple state as a cantankerous state. Both of its senators are outliers: so-called Republican moderate Susan Collins, about whom we’ve heard quite a bit lately, and Angus King, a liberal independent who caucuses with Democrats but isn’t one. Which is a very Maine thing to do. Outgoing Gov. Paul LePage was a Trumpy Republican well before Donald Trump was, and the Mainers who used to think he was wacky and wonderful apparently hate him now.

Maine’s 2nd congressional district is the largest in terms of land area anywhere east of the Mississippi, and one of the most rural in the entire nation. (Trump narrowly carried it in 2016, one of the few things the president frequently cites as fact that is actually true.) It has been represented for two terms by Bruce Poliquin, a nearly invisible Republican who has presumably been to Washington, and possibly even purchased a souvenir postcard of the Lincoln Memorial, but has not done anything else of note there besides quietly vote for bad things. This was assumed to be a safe-ish seat at the beginning of this cycle, but as in the rest of the country, health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions may be Poliquin’s downfall. Democrats also found the kind of candidate who makes Beltway consultants drool in the person of 36-year-old Jared Golden, a Marine combat veteran and former Republican. If folks in the Maine backwoods send Poliquin packing, it’s likely to be a bad night for other GOP incumbents across the northlands.

New York 19: Rep. John Faso (R) vs. Antonio Delgado (D)

Perhaps because it’s only a couple of hours from Manhattan and because of its nearly even partisan split, New York’s 19th — which sprawls from the Albany suburbs into the remote rural Catskill region — has long been an object of political-class fascination. It was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s district when she was in the House, and then it was represented by Chris Gibson, a folksy Tea Party Republican who repelled several challenges from downstate Democrats. Current Rep. John Faso is a much weaker candidate, a classic neither-fish-nor-fowl upstate Republican who is vaguely genial, faintly sleazy and devoid of any obvious ideology other than allowing corporations to do whatever they want.

You may have heard about this race because Faso’s opponent is Antonio Delgado, a charismatic lawyer and former Rhodes scholar who is black and has a Latino name and has been described in Republican attack ads as a “big-city rapper” because he cut a few middling hip-hop records in his youth. (He is from Schenectady, which is just outside this district but does not really qualify as a “big city.”) Perhaps Delgado doesn’t seem like the obvious candidate for a huge exurban purple district that is more than 90 percent white — but he projects a wholesome, all-American image, holds no controversial positions of any kind and has worked the chicken-dinner circuit tirelessly. More to the point, Faso is a small-time nonentity whose wife might have trouble recognizing him, and who must fake being a fire-breathing Trumper for some audiences and a cautious suburban moderate for others.

New Jersey 3: Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) vs. Andy Kim (D)

There are several districts likely to flip from red to blue in New Jersey, where Republicans face the prospect of a near-total wipeout. North of here, in the 7th district, moderate Republican Rep. Leonard Lance is widely seen as doomed, and in two other districts GOP incumbents have bailed out in the face of likely defeat. But Tom MacArthur, who represents this district in the affluent, largely white suburban belt just below the waistline of the Garden State, was supposed to be on fairly safe ground. New Jersey’s 3rd is almost the paradigmatic “Obama to Trump” district: It was carried comfortably by the previous president in both his campaigns, but Trump got 51 percent of the vote there in 2016.

MacArthur used to be a standard-issue pro-business Republican with moderate social views and modest bipartisan credentials, and won his last two races easily. Then came the Trump train, and he jumped aboard. MacArthur has voted with the president roughly 95 percent of the time, including on the Republican tax bill (which was massively unpopular in the Northeast). In an uncharacteristic moment of hubris, he literally wrote the amendment to the failed Obamacare repeal bill that would have allowed insurers to charge more for people with pre-existing conditions. His race against former Obama administration official Andy Kim looks dead even, as do a whole bunch of other races in formerly safe Republican suburbs across the country. If MacArthur goes down, many more dominoes may follow.

Virginia 7: Rep. Dave Brat (R) vs. Abigail Spanberger (D)

There are other districts in Virginia that Democrats are much likelier to win than this one – such as the 10th, in the D.C. suburbs, where Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican moderate who has tried to keep her distance from Trump, faces probable doom. But the element of karma surrounding Dave Brat, the right-wing economics professor who shocked the political world by defeating then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 Republican primary, is hard to resist.

Brat is the proto-Trumper and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who famously complained last year that women were “getting up in his grill” about health care. He had likely never previously considered the possibility that a Democrat might give him a real race in this wealthy, largely white suburban district north and west of Richmond. While Spanberger is a former CIA agent and nobody’s idea of a progressive, the fact that she has made it this close tells us how much the heart of the Confederacy has changed. If she actually fells this rebel hero of the right, then watch out: That will mean that pollsters have undercounted the women’s vote, the youth vote and the generally pissed-off anti-Trump vote, and Republicans could end up losing 60 seats or more.

Florida 26: Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) vs. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D)

Carlos Curbelo may be the ultimate anomaly of the 2018 election — and may pay the price for it. There’s probably no prominent Republican elected official anywhere in the country who has more eagerly tried to distance himself from Donald Trump. Curbelo’s district, encompassing the southern tip of Florida from Miami to Key West, is majority Latino and heavily Democratic. In 2016, Curbelo vowed not to vote for Trump (or for Hillary Clinton), and did not attend the Republican convention. He opposed the Muslim travel ban and has consistently spoken out against Trump positions and policies on climate change, Charlottesville, the migrant caravan, gun control, LGBT rights and various other issues. Based on that record, one might wonder why he’s a Republican at all — but in fact Curbelo has voted with the administration better than 80 percent of the time, including on tax cuts and Obamacare repeal.

Based on his personal popularity and moderate views in a district where many voters share his Cuban heritage, and facing a little-known Democratic opponent with no electoral experience (Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, an Ecuadoran immigrant and health-care executive), Curbelo would easily have won re-election in any normal midterm. But 2018 is not a normal midterm, in case you hadn’t noticed. For better or worse, the power of incumbency has been greatly diminished and every local election is, at least in part, a referendum on national politics. Curbelo’s fate hangs on an unanswered question about the future of American politics, the same one that drove Bob Corker and Jeff Flake into retirement: Is there still room, anywhere, for an anti-Trump Republican?


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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