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Midterm 2018: Volatility has become the new normal in American politics

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump's supporters cheer as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Nov. 4, 2018.Evan Vucci / AP

All of the attention on control of Congress, the individual races, and President Donald Trump’s campaign activity has obscured a much bigger story at play in American politics — we’re on the cusp of the House changing hands for a third time in the last 12 years (2006, 2010, 2018?).

Another way to look at it: This could very well be the fourth-straight change midterm election, where at least one chamber of Congress flips (2006, 2010, 2014, 2018?).

We haven’t seen this level of volatility since after World War II, when control of the House changed hands several times in the 1940s and 1950s. And like after World War II and the Great Depression, this country is in the midst of a political realignment that has created this volatility. The contested 2000 presidential election. 9/11. The Iraq War. The Great Recession. Obama. Trump.

We don’t know if Democrats will win control of Congress in tonight’s election, although they’re the strong favorites to regain the House. But we do know how volatile — and divided — our politics have become.

And whichever party wins tonight will have just won a battle and not the war in these politically volatile times.

Who made the better bet: Democrats, with independents? Or the GOP, with the base?

For all of tonight’s central questions (Which party controls Congress? Does Trump get rebuked or rewarded? Just how big is that gender gap?), this might be the most fascinating one of all: What was the better political bet in 2018 — playing to the base or to the middle?

Trump and GOP strategists made it all about that base; just see Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh at last night’s rally with Trump in Missouri. But Democrats — especially in the Senate races in red/purple states like Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and Tennessee — focused their messages on the middle of the electorate.

Maybe the best example of this base-versus-middle divide is the 50-50 Senate race in Arizona between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema (whose message was aimed at the middle) and Republican Martha McSally (who was playing more to the Trump base in this traditional GOP state).

Be sure to see how independents break in Arizona and nationally. If Democrats are winning them by more than 10 points — our NBC/Marist poll of Arizona had Sinema up more than 20 points among indies — it’s hard to see how they aren’t going to win across the country.

On the other hand, if those independent margins are smaller and if GOP turnout and enthusiasm are through the roof, then that base approach will have been the smarter play

One of the hallmarks of Trump’s two years in office is how he’s focused almost exclusively on his base — the 40 percent to 45 percent of voters who approve of his job — at the expense of the rest of the electorate, including the middle.

Does the middle still exist in American politics? Or is it all about that base? We’ll find out tonight.

Which Democrats have more success: The ones who played to the middle? Or the ones who boldly played to the base?

Here’s a related question on our mind: Which Democrats will have more success — the Dems in red/purple states who played more to the middle like Sinema in Arizona, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee?

Or the Dems in red/purple states who made bolder appeals to their base — Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas?

Race by race, here’s the Democrats’ path to winning back the House

As for the battle for the House, we’re re-upping our road map how Democrats get to the net 23 seats they need to win control of Congress:

The Democratic Defense (6)

First thing’s first: Democrats aren’t playing defense very many places, and they can probably afford to (and expect to) lose a few seats. Here are six they currently hold and are most likely to lose. (In order of final poll closing time — all times ET)

NH-1 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Carol Shea-Porter (D). Eddie Edwards (R) v. Chris Pappas (D). Seat went 48-46 for Trump.

PA-14 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Conor Lamb (D) who is running in a new district. Guy Reschenthaler (R) v. Bibiana Boerio (D). Redistricted. New seat estimated to be Trump +29. (Note: Due to redistricting, this is expected to flip)

MN-1 (9pm): OPEN — previously held by Tim Walz (D). Jim Hagedorn (R) v. Dan Feehan (D). Seat went 53-38 for Trump.

MN-8 (9pm): OPEN —previously held by Rick Nolan (D). Pete Stauber (R) v. Joe Radinovich (D). Seat went 54-38 for Trump.

NV-3 (10pm): OPEN — previously held by Jacky Rosen (D). Danny Tarkanian (R) v. Susie Lee (D). Seat went 48-47 for Trump.

NV-4 (10pm): OPEN — previously held by Ruben Kihuen (D). Crescent Hardy (R) v. Steven Horsford (D). 50-45 for Clinton.

The Most Probable Flips (15)

Strategists on both sides of the aisle believe that these races are most likely to flip from Republican to Democratic. Democrats aim to get almost all of these seats in the hunt for a majority.

VA-10 (7pm): Incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) v. Jennifer Wexton (D). Seat went 52-42 for Clinton.

FL-27 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R). Maria Salazar (R) v. Donna Shalala (D). 58-39 for Clinton.

NJ-2 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Frank LoBiondo (R). Seth Grossman (R) v. Jeff Van Drew (D). 50-46 for Trump.

KS-3 (8pm): Incumbent Kevin Yoder (R) v. Sharice Davids (D). Seat went 47-46 for Clinton.

NJ-11 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Rodney Frelinghuysen (R). Jay Webber (R) v. Mikie Sherrill (D). 48-47 for Trump.

PA-5 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Patrick Meehan (R). Redistricted. Pearl Kim (R) v. Mary Gay Scanlon (D). New seat estimated to be Clinton +28. (Note: due to redistricting, this is extremely likely to flip)

PA-6 (8pm): OPEN — previously held by Ryan Costello (R). Redistricted. Gregory Michael McCauley (R) v. Chrissy Houlahan (D). New seat estimated to be Clinton +9. (Note: due to redistricting, this is extremely likely to flip)

PA-7 (8pm): OPEN —previously held by Charlie Dent (R). Redistricted. Marty Nothstein (R) v. Susan Wild (D). New seat estimated to be Clinton +1.

PA-17 (8pm): Incumbent Keith Rothfus (R) vs. Conor Lamb (D). Redistricted. New seat estimated to be Trump +1.

AZ-2 (9pm): OPEN — previously held by Martha McSally (R). Lea Marquez-Peterson (R) vs. Ann Kirkpatrick (D). 49-44 for Clinton

CO-6 (9pm): Incumbent Rep. Mike Coffman (R) v. Jason Crow (D). Seat went 50-41 for Clinton.

MN-2 (9pm): Incumbent Jason Lewis (R) v. Angie Craig (D). Seat went 46-45 for Trump.

MN-3 (9pm): Incumbent Erik Paulsen (R) v. Dean Phillips (D). Seat went 50-41 for Clinton.

IA-1 (10pm): Incumbent Rod Blum (R) v. Abby Finkenauer (D). Seat went 48-45 for Trump.

CA-49 (11pm): OPEN — previously held by Darrell Issa(R). Diane Harkey (R) v. Mike Levin (D). Seat went for 50-43 for Clinton.

The Majority Makers (23)

These are mostly toss-up races with recent momentum for Democrats. If Democrats have won all of the “probable flips” and lost only two of their own Dem-held seats, they need ten of the below to win the majority.

KY-6 (6pm): Incumbent Rep. Andy Barr (R) v. Amy McGrath (D). Seat went 55-39 for Trump.

FL-26 (7pm): Incumbent Carlos Curbelo (R) v. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D). Seat went 56-40 for Clinton.

VA-2 (7pm): Incumbent Scott Taylor (R) v. Elaine Luria (D). Seat went 48-45 for Trump.

VA-7 (7pm): Incumbent Dave Brat (R) v. Abigail Spanberger (D). Seat went 50-44 for Trump.

OH-1 (7:30pm): Incumbent Steve Chabot (R) v. Aftab Pureval (D). Seat went 51-44 for Trump.

IL-6 (8pm): Incumbent Peter Roskam (R) v. Sean Casten (D). Seat went 49-42 for Clinton.

IL-12 (8pm): Incumbent Rep. Mike Bost (R) v. Brendan Kelly (D). Seat went 54-40 for Trump.

ME-2 (8pm): Incumbent Bruce Poliquin (R) v. Jared Golden (D). Seat went 51-41 for Trump.

MI-8 (8pm): Incumbent Mike Bishop (R) v. Elissa Slotkin (D). Seat went 50-44 for Trump.

MI-11 (9pm): OPEN — previously held by Dave Trott (R). Lena Epstein (R) v. Haley Stevens (D). Seat went 49-45 for Trump.

NJ-3 (8pm): Incumbent Tom MacArthur (R) v. Andy Kim (D). Seat went 51-45 for Trump.

NJ-7 (8pm): Incumbent Leonard Lance (R) v. Tom Malinowski (D). Seat went 48-47 for Clinton.

PA-1 (8pm): Incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick (R) v. Scott Wallace. (D). Redistricted. New district estimated to be Clinton +2.

TX-7 (8pm): Incumbent John Culberson (R) v. Lizzie Fletcher (D). Seat went 48-47 for Clinton.

TX-32 (8pm): Incumbent Pete Sessions (R) v. Colin Allred (D). Seat went 48-46 for Clinton.

NM-2 (9pm): OPEN — previously held by Steve Pearce (R). Yvette Herrell (R) v. Xochitl Torres Small. 50-40 for Trump.

NY-19 (9pm): Incumbent John Faso (R) v. Antonio Delgado (D). Seat went 50-44 for Trump.

NY-22 (9pm): Incumbent Claudia Tenney (R) v. Anthony Brindisi (D). Seat went 54-39 for Trump.

IA-3 (10pm): Incumbent Rep. David Young (R) v. Cindy Axne (D). Seat went 48-45 for Trump.

CA-25 (11pm): Incumbent Steve Knight (R) v. Katie Hill (D). Seat went 50-43 for Clinton.

CA-45 (11pm): Incumbent Mimi Walters (R) v. Katie Porter (D). Seat went 49-44 for Clinton.

CA-48 (11pm): Incumbent Dana Rohrabacher (R) v. Harley Rouda (D). Seat went 48-46 for Clinton.

WA-8 (11pm): OPEN — previously held by Dave Reichert (R). Dino Rossi (R) v. Kim Schrier (D). Seat went 46-43 for Clinton.

The Wave-Builders (18)

These are races that will help determine if Democrats have a relatively slim majority or a more substantial one. More than a few wins here means that we’re probably heading for a 35+ Dem pickup.

VA-5 (7 p.m.): OPEN — previously held by Tom Garrett (R). Denver Riggleman (R) v. Leslie Cockburn. Seat went 53-44 for Trump.

FL-15 (7 p.m.): OPEN – previously held by Dennis Ross (R). Ross Spano (R) v. Kristen Carlson. Seat went 53-43 for Trump

FL-16 (7 p.m.): Incumbent Vern Buchanan (R) v. David Shapiro (D). Seat went 53-43 for Trump.

NC-2 (7:30 p.m.): Incumbent George Holding (R) v. Linda Coleman (D). Seat went 53-43 for Trump.

NC-9 (7:30 p.m.): OPEN — Rep. Robert Pittenger defeated in primary. Mark Harris (R) v. Dan McCready (D). Seat went 54-42 for Trump.

NC-13 (7:30 p.m.): Incumbent Ted Budd (R) v. Kathy Manning (D). Seat went 53-44 for Trump.

WV-3 (7:30 p.m.): OPEN — previously held by Evan Jenkins (R). Carol Miller (R) v. Richard Ojeda (D). Seat went 73-23 for Trump.

IL-13 (8 p.m.): Incumbent Rep. Rodney Davis (R) v. Betsy Dirksen Londrigan (D). Seat went 49-44 for Trump.

IL-14 (8 p.m.): Incumbent Rep. Randy Hultgren (R) v. Lauren Underwood (D). Seat went 48-44 for Trump.

KS-2 (8 p.m.): OPEN — previously held by Lynn Jenkins (R). Steve Watkins (R) v. Paul Davis (D). Seat went 56-37 for Trump.

TX-31 (8 p.m.): Incumbent John Carter (R) v. M.J. Hegar (D). Seat went 53-49 for Trump.

TX-23 (9 p.m.): Incumbent Will Hurd (R) v. Gina Ortiz Jones. (D). Seat went 50-46 for Clinton.

WI-1 (9 p.m.): OPEN — previously held by Paul Ryan (R). Bryan Steil (R) v. Randy Bryce (D). Seat went 52-42 for Trump.

UT-4 (10 p.m.): Incumbent Mia Love (R) v. Ben McAdams (D). Seat went 39-32 for Trump.

CA-10 (11 p.m.): Incumbent Jeff Denham (R) v. Josh Harder (D). Seat went 48-45 for Clinton. n

CA-39 (11 p.m.): OPEN — previously held by Ed Royce (R). Young Kim (R) v. Gil Cisneros (D). Seat went 51-43 for Clinton.

WA-3 (11 p.m.): Incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) v. Carolyn Long (D). Seat went 48-41 for Trump.

WA-5 (11 p.m.): Incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) v. Lisa Brown (D). Seat went 50-38 for Trump.

Tsunami Alert !!! (19)

If several of these races are close or breaking Democrats’ way, expect an historic wave.







GA-6 (you could make a good argument to move this race to Wave-Builders)













Don’t forget about the races for governor and state legislature

For all of the attention on control of the House and Senate, don’t forget about the gubernatorial contests, as well as the races for state legislature.

Currently, Republicans hold 33 governorships, Democrats hold 16 and there’s one independent (Bill Walker in Alaska, who dropped out of his race). This election cycle features 36 gubernatorial contests, giving Democrats the chance to pull even with Republicans in governorships — particularly in key presidential battleground states like Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Trump isn’t on the ballot. But he’s on the line.

NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald: “Voters may reject President Donald Trump and the nationalist vision for America he's championed in the closing weeks of the race, or they could signal assent by returning Republicans to power in both chambers of Congress ... Trump is not on the ballot, but the president has explicitly sought to make this election a referendum on his agenda as he campaigns for Republicans across the country. ‘I need you to vote for a Republican House and a Republican Senate so we can continue this incredible movement,’ Trump told supporters in Indiana on Friday.”