Down Ticket #26: The outlook for the Senate and House, plus a look at the governors’ races and ballot initiatives — it’s not just about pot

Down Ticket is Yahoo News’ complete guide to the most fascinating House, Senate and governors’ races of 2016. Coming to you every Tuesday and Thursday until Nov. 8. What you need to know today.


With just over 100 hours until Election Day, the list of things we do not know is lengthy. Will the enthusiasm gap between Hillary Clinton and down-ballot candidates cost Democrats, or will Donald Trump’s ground-game disadvantage have a trickle-down effect on Republicans across the country? Can the GOP maintain control of the House (probably) and the Senate (a less certain proposition)? Can Democrats cut into the massive Republican margins at the state level, where so many governors’ mansions and statehouses are red? And on top of all that, how many ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana will have passed late on Nov. 8?

The following is our best guess at the state of play across the country, with a reminder that millions of ballots have already been cast via early voting.

The Senate

In order to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans, Democrats need to (a) hold all the seats they currently control and (b) win four additional races. Prognosticators are giving them a roughly 2 in 3 chance of succeeding, as a pair of contests are trending toward lock, and a bevy of tossups give the party multiple opportunities to earn the other two seats. A closer look:

Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., after the Nevada Senatorial Debate at Canyon Springs High School on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in North Las Vegas. The debate was televised statewide. (Photo: Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

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Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., after an October debate. (Photo: Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP)

The only current Democratic seat that could realistically flip is in Nevada, where Harry Reid’s retirement has provided the opportunity for a Republican pickup by Rep. Joe Heck. He is challenged by former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who has closed what was a 4-point gap in late September to move the race into essentially a tie in the polling average. Nevada political guru Jon Ralston has been keeping close tabs on early voting and sees an advantage for Democrats, but ticket splitting may cause Masto to underperform Clinton.

The safest gains for the Democrats appear to be around Lake Michigan. In Illinois, Rep. Tammy Duckworth has been well ahead of incumbent Mark Kirk, who further hurt his chances by mocking Duckworth’s heritage in a debate last week. In Wisconsin’s rematch of 2010’s race, Russ Feingold has led incumbent Republican Ron Johnson in nearly every poll, although a Marquette University Law School survey released Wednesday showed Feingold’s lead at a single point.

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey has been locked in a tight race with challenger Katie McGinty, but it seems as though the state could be slipping away from the Republicans. As Clinton holds onto a strong lead in the presidential race there, McGinty has led in all of the most recent polls, and a New York Times story earlier this week said Toomey’s campaign was adjusting its strategy to target voters who might split their ticket and vote Clinton-Toomey.

In Florida, meanwhile, Marco Rubio looks to be in a good position. He’s consistently leading Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy in the most recent polling, and the early voting data shows a tight race at the top of the ticket in the state, as opposed to the safe Clinton victory in Pennsylvania. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee pulled out from advertising in the race in mid-October, leaving Murphy to fend for himself.

There are tight races for Republican-held seats in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana. Even with a loss in Nevada, Democrats have a chance to regain control of the chamber, but it might be a short-lived majority: Of the 33 seats to be defended in 2018, just eight are currently held by Republicans.

The House

In order to win back the House for the first time since the tea party surge of 2010, Democrats need to shave 30 seats off the Republican majority. Although there are enough districts currently held by the GOP in play for the flip to occur, it would require a giant wave equivalent to their 2006 gains. To do so, Democrats will have to win more than 75 percent of the approximately 40 competitive House races.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan slams down the gavel as he declares that Donald Trump has won the Republican presidential nomination after announcing the results of a roll call vote at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 19, 2016. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

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House Speaker Paul Ryan slams down the gavel as he declares Donald Trump the Republican presidential nominee at the GOP convention in July. (Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters)

“I haven’t seen an array for House-race polling since the Comey letter,” said Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report and an expert on the congressional races. “But we do know the presidential race was tightening before then, and it helps down-ballot Republican candidates if more Republicans are motivated to go the polls.”

“Republican skepticism [toward Trump] has actually funneled a lot of money into saving down-ballot Republicans, and Paul Ryan is engaged in an all-out effort to protect the members who are most valuable to him and his leadership role. It’s not just control of the House that matters, it’s also the size of the Republican majority, because the lower the Republican number goes, the less margin for error Ryan has for keeping his job and passing legislation.”

Wasserman added that the competitive House races are mostly in suburban areas, so increased Republican turnout would likely have a larger effect on them than on Senate contests, which include urban areas more likely to vote Democratic.

“Our official outlook is a 10- to 20-seat Democratic gain,” said Wasserman on Tuesday, “but the last several days make it more likely that if it were outside of that range, it would be on the lower end.”

Governors’ mansions

Republicans currently hold a significant margin in the gubernatorial standings, with 31 states to the Democrats’ 18 (one, Alaska, is independent). Of the four Republican seats being defended, two appear to be locks (North Dakota and Utah), while two others have strong ties to the presidential race.

Democrat John Gregg, Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb participate in a debate for Indiana governor at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (Photo/Alex Slitz, Pool/AP)

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Democrat John Gregg, left, and Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb in an October debate in the race for Indiana governor. (Photo: Alex Slitz, Pool/AP)

In Indiana, where state law prohibited Gov. Mike Pence from running for reelection while also appearing on the Republican presidential ticket, it looks as though Democrats could win for the first time in more than a decade. Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb is the Republican candidate, but polls show him consistently trailing in a state Trump is expected to win comfortably. His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, is a former state speaker of the House who lost to Pence by 3 points in the 2012 election. Pence’s approval rating was already below 50 percent in the state, and that number has gone down since he was announced as the Republican vice presidential candidate.

North Carolina has been a focus of the 2016 race with tight races for governor and senator and its position as a presidential swing state. The controversy about HB2 — the anti-LGBT “bathroom bill” that has resulted in businesses and sporting events pulling out of the state — looks as if it could cost Republican incumbent Pat McCrory his job. The latest polling average has him behind state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who received support from Clinton and Michelle Obama at a rally last week.

Democrats have eight states to defend with four likely locks for retention (Delaware, Montana, Oregon, Washington), one race possibly trending their way (West Virginia, where the state’s only billionaire is the Democratic candidate and polling has been scarce) and three tossups. The coin-flip races in Missouri, New Hampshire and Vermont are all to replace vacant seats and are polling within the margin of error as we close in on Election Day.

Ballot initiatives

From background checks for gun purchases to minimum-wage increases, there are scores of state and local ballot initiatives across the country. There are simple matters of taxation — such as the four states deciding whether to increase taxes on tobacco sales — while residents in Colorado have the opportunity to vote on the funding of a universal health care system within the state.

Sustainable cannabis famer Dylan Turner applies fertilizer to a crop of plants at Sunboldt Farms, a small family farm run by Sunshine and Eric Johnston in Humboldt County, California on May 5, 2016. (Photo: Robert GauthierLos Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Sustainable-cannabis farmer Dylan Turner applies fertilizer to a crop of plants at Sunboldt Farms in Humboldt County, Calif. (Photo: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In California alone, there are enough propositions that the voting guide is a robust 223 pages. There are two separate death penalty propositions — one that would abolish it within the state and another that would streamline the process. According to the Intercept, more than $100 million has been raised to fight another initiative that could lower prescription drug prices. Another is an attempt to regulate the use of condoms in pornographic movies shot in the state.

California is also one of nine states that have a measure on the ballot to expand the legal use of marijuana. Yahoo News’ Michael Walsh and Dylan Stableford did a deep dive on weed’s place on the ballot. From their report:

Election Day might be a major turning point for the marijuana reform movement because five states have ballot initiatives that would legalize cannabis for adult use, regulating and taxing it like alcohol. There are also campaigns in three states to legalize medical marijuana — which would bring the total to 28 — and a slew of local, citywide initiatives.

The vote to watch is in California, where polls suggest the “Adult Use of Marijuana” referendum has a substantial lead.

“When you see voters from San Diego to San Francisco coming together in support of this type of policy shift, it suggests that it is also likely to appeal to a broad swath of voters in other parts of the country,” Mason Tvert, a spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Yahoo News. “At the federal level, it will inspire more members of Congress to take a closer look at the issue. At the state level, it will help legislators recognize the writing is on the wall and start thinking about their own prohibition exit strategies.”

You can read their full rundown — which also includes Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas and North Dakota — here.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most outspoken anti-immigrant, pro-Trump officials in the country. He’s held the position since 1992 but is facing a stiff test against Democratic challenger Paul Penzone. Some of Penzone’s biggest supporters? Undocumented immigrants, who are helping to turn out the vote against Arpaio. From Yahoo News’ Caitlin Dickson:

Now, as Arpaio runs for a seventh term, Rita is one of several undocumented immigrants working with the Bazta Arpaio campaign to put an end to Arpaio’s long-running reign as the self-appointed ‘America’s Toughest Sheriff.’ .

Where other community-based groups, such as OneArizona, have been focused on registering Latino voters, Bazta Arpaio’s mission is to get registered voters to the polls.

“We canvass neighborhoods and talk to [people] about Arpaio and all the ways he has impacted our community negatively,” Ernesto Lopez, a field director for Bazta (a play on “Enough” in Spanish) Arpaio, told Yahoo News.

For the past few weeks, Bazta has been focused on assisting early voters with every step of the process, from answering questions about how to fill out ballots, to making sure they get dropped into the mailbox or sending reminders to those who pledge to send their ballots themselves. 

“We try to reduce all barriers to voting,” Lopez said, adding that next week, Bazta will shift its focus to getting voters to the polls on Election Day.

“At the doors we remind people that Arpaio is on his way out and their vote will make a difference,” Lopez said.

Read her full story on the Maricopa County race here.






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