NATSO ANALYSIS: What to Watch for on Election Night

Election nights are always overwhelming affairs for those who live and breathe politics and public policy.  More than most – perhaps any other – midterm election, the 2018 Midterms will alter the policy landscape within which NATSO member operate for many years to come.  With so much at stake, here is a short guide to what I will be keeping my eye on when the election returns come in.

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(NOTE TO READERS: NATSO will run a separate, post-election analysis later this week outlining what the election results mean for NATSO’s policy priorities.)

Will History Repeat Itself?

Historical trends indicate that the incumbent President’s party typically ends up with a net loss in the House of Representatives (with recent historical exceptions in 1998 and 2002).  This is not necessarily true in the Senate, where results are heavily influenced by other factors such as which party controls the approximately 33 percent of Senate seats that are up for election that year.

This year, history and conventional wisdom indicate that Democrats should capture the House and Republicans should hold the Senate…But if the last two years have taught us anything it’s that we should not always trust history and conventional wisdom.

As one well-respected political observer put it recently: “Tuesday’s midterm election is about many things.  It’s about health care and immigration.  It’s about the economy. It’s about power and who will hold it, both in Washington and in the states.  Above all, it’s about something more elemental:  what kind of country Americans see today and want to see in the future.  That makes these midterms unlike any in the recent past. … It is what has motived record numbers of people in many states to cast ballots ahead of Election Day.  Together, those indicators have stamped this campaign a once-in-a-generation event.”

The economy is kicking on all cylinders – a new jobs report released Nov. 2 highlighted the continued strength of the economy, as employers added about 250,000 jobs in October while the unemployment rate remained at 3.7 percent, a nearly 50-year low.  This should be a gift to the party in power and would usually be the primary message on which all Republicans campaign.  But for the past several weeks, President Trump has focused his message more on his base’s bread-and-butter issues such as immigration, border security and law-and-order. 

This approach could help Republicans hold the Senate, where the key races are generally in deep red states that President Trump won handily in 2016 and where the primary objective is to get die-hard Trump supporters to show up to the polls. It could be counter-productive to Republican efforts to hold the House, however.  In the House, many key races are in suburban districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.  Throwing proverbial red meat to Republican supporters also gins up suburban women with college degrees (who overwhelmingly vote Democratic) to vote as well.  This could propel Democrats to win the seats necessary to control the House of Representatives for the first time in eight years.

Will the Democrats Take Over the House?

Republicans currently hold 235 seats in the House of Representatives, and the Democrats hold 193.  There are seven vacant seats (five previously held by Republicans and two held by Democrats) and 58 open races with no incumbent running (due to retirements or the incumbent running for other offices).

To claim the majority in the House, Democrats need to win 23 Republican-held seats.  House Republicans are defending 25 districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.  Seven of these districts are in California.  Republicans also have to deal with a newly drawn court-ordered congressional map in Pennsylvania – which resulted in several new Clinton-won districts in that state.

There also have been a large number of Republican incumbents retiring this cycle, creating open seats that are more difficult to defend.   More than 20 of these open seat races in Republican-controlled districts are not considered “Safe” Republican seats and will be contested in the general election. 

Control of the House will hinge in large part on the 29 “toss-up” races; of these races, 28 are Republican controlled and only one is Democrat-controlled.   One of the primary reasons that the President’s party does not fare well in midterm elections is that these “toss-up” seats tend to break to the party that isn’t in the White House. (But again, history has been wrong before!)

Will Republicans Hold the Senate?

Republicans currently hold 51 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 49 (two political “independents” caucus with the Democrats).  There are 35 seats up for election this year.  Of those, three are open races (Arizona, Tennessee, and Utah – all currently Republican-held seats).  The Senate map strongly favors Republicans, with Democrats defending 10 seats in states that voted for President Trump in 2016.  (These Democratic senators were able to win red states largely on President Obama’s coattails when he was re-elected in 2012.)  For Democrats to take control of the Senate, they would need to win all 26 Democratic seats being contested and also have a net gain of two Republican-held seats.  (A 50-50 tie in the Senate favors the President’s party as the Vice President casts tiebreaking votes.)

Top officials in both parties generally agree that Republicans are likely to defeat North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.  Every other Senate Democrat, however, still has a legitimate chance of winning on Election Day (a significant fact given that nine of these Democrats are running in states that President Trump carried).

Assuming all Senate Democratic incumbents (other than Senator Heitkamp) win on Election Day, Democrats still need to win three of the following four Republican-held seats to recapture the Senate: 

  • Texas (where rising Democratic star Beto O’Rourke is giving Republican Ted Cruz a much stronger challenge than most people anticipated;
  • Arizona (where incumbent Jeff Flake is retiring);
  • Nevada (incumbent Republican Dean Heller against Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen); and
  • Tennessee (Rep. Marsha Blackburn against former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to succeed retiring Senator Bob Corker). 

Of those four, officials in both parties think Democrats are best positioned to win in Arizona and Nevada, where the President’s incendiary language on immigration may mobilize Hispanic voters, though it is far from certain that this demographic will turn out in large numbers on Election Day.

What’s Going to Happen in Iowa?

Iowa voters overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016, though their support for the President is more tepid today.  Iowa, in my view, is a “leading indicator” for how long the President’s supporters will tolerate policies that run counter to their economic interest, even if they may support Donald Trump’s overarching agenda and approach to governing.

Iowa is home not just to the World’s Largest Truckstop but also to thousands of farmers who have seen commodity prices plummet as the President’s trade war with China escalates.  These same farmers have seen the Trump Administration’s former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt methodically undermine the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that helps facilitate a market for biodiesel and ethanol in the United States (though the President has sought to roll back those efforts in recent weeks).

There are several races in Iowa that will be a good indication of whether the President’s support in the Midwest – which will be critical for his reelection in 2020 – may be waning:

  • Iowa 1st – Incumbent Republican Rod Blum defending his seat against state representative Abby Finkenauer.
  • Iowa 3rd – Incumbent Republican David Young in a surprisingly difficult contest against small business owner and political activist Cindy Axne.  Both President Trump and President Obama won this district – which covers the southwestern portion of the state from parts of Des Moines to the borders with Nebraska and Missouri – by four points.
  • Iowa 4th – Incumbent Republican Steve King is favored to win this heavily Republican district against former professional baseball player J.D. Scholten, but King has found himself in hot water recently over some controversial remarks he has made over the years.  If Rep. King goes down Republicans may be in for a long night. 
  • Governor’s Race – A new Des Moines Register poll finds Fred Hubbell (D) heading into Election Day with a narrow lead over Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) in the race for governor.  The pollster said that “the data suggests there are two quality candidates and that they’re well-matched to their bases.”  Given Iowa’s importance in presidential elections, winning this race is viewed by both parties as particularly important.

Florida Statewide Races

In 2020, it’s quite possible that “as goes Florida, so goes the nation.”  There are two statewide races in Florida this year that will be interesting indicators for how the parties are doing halfway through the Trump Administration.  A recent survey had Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D) just ahead of Congressman Ron DeSantis (R) in the race for governor, 48% - 46%.  In the U.S. Senate Race, Governor Rick Scott (R) edges Bill Nelson (D) 49%-48%.  Both Scott and DeSantis have run their campaigns as unabashed Trump loyalists, so you can be sure that President Trump’s team will be watching these races closely.

Southern California

Orange County California has traditionally been a bastion of Republican politics, but it is the epicenter of some of the most competitive House races this year.  Most of the Republicans defending these seats are embracing President Trump, portraying the election as a referendum on his policies on immigration and promising to help him continue to implement his agenda.  These five southern California races could decide the balance of power in the House:

  • California 25th – Rep. Steve Knight (R) vs. Katie Hill (D).  Despite the historic Republican advantage in this northern Los Angeles County district, reliable polling has this race as a statistical tie.  Hillary Clinton won the district in 2016.
  • California 39th (Open Seat to replace retiring Congressman Ed Royce) – Gil Cisneros (D) vs. Young Kim (R).  Limited credible polling shows the candidates in a dead heat.  Turnout among young people and Latinos (favoring Democrats) and Asians (favoring Republicans) will likely determine who wins.  (INTERESTING FACT:  in 2010, Cisneros won a $266 million Lottery jackpot.)
  • California 45th – Rep. Mimi Walters (R) vs. Katie Porter (D).  Recent polls give Walters a slight edge though all are within the margin of error.  In 2016, Walters won the district by 17 points, while Hillary Clinton won by five points. 
  • California 48th – Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) vs. Harley Rouda (D).  Congressman Rohrabacher, an unabashed Trump supporter, won the district in 2016 by 17 percentage points.  Polling has the race in a statistical tie.
  • California 49th (Open Seat to replace retiring Rep. Darrel Issa (R)) – Mike Levin (D) vs. Diane Harkey (R).  Mr. Levin, a former environmental lawyer, is the strong favorite to win this race and pick up a longtime Republican seat for Democrats. 

New York

There are several Republican-held seats in New York that Democrats are hoping to pick up.

Congressman John Katko (R) is favored to hold on to his Syracuse-based seat, while Congressman John Faso (R) is in a tighter race in his suburban Manhattan district.  Both members sit on the House Transportation Committee and are strong allies of the travel center industry.  So too is Rep. Claudia Tenney (R), whose Binghamton-centered 22nd district is generally a reliably Republican area but Rep. Tenney is up against a strong Democratic opponent that has represented much of the district in the New York state assembly. Representative Tenney has vocally supported NATSO’s efforts to protect the longstanding ban on rest area commercialization.

Longstanding NATSO Allies in Tight Races

A number of Members of Congress that have also been staunch allies of the truckstop and travel plaza industry are in very tight races this year.

California Republican Jeff Denham (R) is in an extraordinarily close race in this politically moderate, agriculture-heavy central California district that has dozens of truckstops along I-5 and “The 99” (as the locals call it).  If he wins, Rep. Denham will compete with Missouri Republican Sam Graves (R) to be the top Republican on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  Rep. Denham has been a longtime ally of the travel center industry (as has Rep. Graves).

Alaska Congressman Don Young, who is consistently the first member of Congress to enter NATSO’s world-famous Pie Reception held in conjunction with our Washington, D.C., government affairs conference / Day on Capitol Hill, is in a tighter race than he’s had in years.  A super PAC aligned with House Republican leadership is mounting a final weekend effort to save Rep. Young from defeat on Tuesday, underscoring just how far Republicans are being pressed to defend their own territory. Rep. Young has held his at-large seat for 45 years, and President Trump won Alaska in 2016 by nearly 15 points.  But a recent poll showed young leading his Democratic opponent, public education advocate Alyse Galvin, by a single point.

Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis (R) is one of NATSO’s greatest allies on Capitol Hill and is in a tighter-than-expected race in a traditionally Republican district.  Rep. Davis, like several other Illinois Republicans, is hampered by an unpopular Republican governor running for reelection at the top of the ticket. 

North Carolina Congressman George Holding (R) is a strong advocate for the biodiesel tax credit on the House Ways and Means Committee.  His district includes some left-leaning areas of Raleigh and he had a mid-cycle scare when some unfavorable polling numbers were released but he is considered the strong favorite to win on Tuesday.  If Rep. Holding loses, it is a sign of a strong Democratic wave. 

The same goes for Washington state Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R), NATSO’s champion on a variety of important policy issues on Capitol Hill and the only female member of House Republican leadership.  “CMR” (as she is known) faced some early difficulties during primary season but national Democrats are not strongly contesting this race down the stretch. 

Transportation-Related Ballot Initiatives

Beyond candidates for public office, a plethora of interesting and important ballot initiatives will be decided on Nov. 6 that are worth watching to get a sense of how voters feel about issues of importance to the travel center industry.

California will consider Proposition 6, a measure to repeal the state gas and diesel tax increases enacted in 2017 and require voter approval for future increases.

Connecticut will consider Amendment 1, which would prohibit state lawmakers from using the state transportation fund for anything other than transportation purposes. 

Florida voters in Hillsborough County will consider Referendum No. 2, which would allow the county to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent for 30 years, with the funds designated for transportation and road improvements.

Louisiana will consider Amendment 4, which would end the dedication of revenue from the Transportation Trust Fund to state police for traffic control.

Missouri will consider Proposition D, which would increase the state gas tax by 10 cents per gallon, with revenue dedicated to the state highway patrol and create a dedicated fund for certain road projects that reduce traffic bottlenecks that affect freight. 

Utah will consider Nonbinding Opinion Question 1, which would support advising the state legislature to pass a gas tax increase of 10 cents per gallon to fund local road construction and maintenance.  

Conclusion: It May Be a Long Night… 

This Election Day promises to be an important day in American history.  But if you plan to stay awake on election night until you know who controls the House and Senate (as I do), it may be a long night for us.  That’s because many key races are expected to be extremely close, and these races often take a while to sort themselves out.  Sometimes candidates have the right to demand recounts, other times the margin of victory may be smaller than the number of outstanding provisional and/or absentee ballots.  Voting irregularities and polling-place or voting machine glitches could lead to lawyers getting involved, etc.  It’s quite possible that we may not know which party will control the House until well after Election Night.

Whatever the outcome is, and whenever we know it, the entire NATSO team looks forward to working with you to help the travel center industry continue to grow and prosper long after ballots are cast. 

NOTE: BE SURE TO CHECK OUT LATER THIS WEEK NATSO’S POST-ELECTION ANALYSIS IN BIZ-BRIEF, WHERE WE WILL ANALYZE HOW THE ELECTION RESULTS IMPACT CONGRESS’S AND NATSO’S POLICY AGENDA FOR THE COMING YEARS.

Photo credit: Carol Jean Stalun/NATSO



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