Five things to watch for in the run-up to Nov. 3

Down-ballot races, as much as the presidency, will determine the future course of this nation

By Peter Kane

The second-most-important election of our lifetimes is less than two weeks away. (We really whiffed it in 2016.). That means liberal-leaning Americans are frantically refreshing several times an hour in the hopes of reading electoral tea leaves.

It’s looking quite good for Joe Biden, but there’s still uncertainty that polling can’t measure — namely, the prospect of Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining the Supreme Court’s other archconservative members in a grotesque Bush v. Gore redux, effectively stealing an election just as America is primed to explode.

Leaving aside the presidential contest for a second, though, there are a number of down-ballot races around the country worth watching. Here are five things to steady the nerves and bring hope to anyone who’s been left doom-scrolling and exhausted these last four years.

Everybody’s voting

In a number of crucial states, turnout has exceeded all expectations, via mail-in ballots or in-person early voting. Here in San Francisco, stuffing and signing your envelope outside Bill Graham Civic feels like you got a V.I.P. wristband to some Coachella of democracy, but people in Georgia have waited upward of eight hours, and Floridians queued in heavy downpours. Irrespective of the outcome two Tuesdays from now, this should give us all great encouragement, since it signals that people feel invested in the future of the country like never before.

While we don’t know who those determined people voted for, as a rule of thumb, high turnout is said to favor Democrats, while low turnout aids Republicans. This has particularly been true in Texas, whose booming and cosmopolitan cities long ago shed their right-wing flavor. Texas only votes like Oklahoma does because Texas routinely ranks near the bottom in voter turnout. And, well, Texans are voting like hell.

Do mess with Texas

Biden and Kamala Harris don’t need Texas’ 38 electoral votes to claim victory. And honestly, they probably won’t get them. But even a two-point loss in the Lone Star State would be a stunning coup, seeing as it’s been marching steadily leftward since George W. Bush’s 23-point win over John Kerry in 2004. Simply put, without Texas in their column, Republicans are effectively incapable of a national victory in 2024.

Further, Democrats have a solid chance to snap up as many as six House seats, plus control of the Texas State House, giving them a seat at the table in the state that embodies conservative governance. After 2018’s gains, they need only nine seats in that chamber, and they’re well-positioned to secure them.

But if you really want to nerd out on Nov. 3, Google the returns for Collin, Denton and Williamson counties, which are fast-growing and historically Republican suburbs near Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin. If Biden/Harris can win two out of the three, they’ll likely win Texas and maybe — just maybe — break the fever that has gripped the GOP for decades.

The Senate won’t disappoint again

Yes, 2018 was a good year for Democrats almost everywhere. Led by an anti-GOP revolt in the diversifying suburbs, they won 40 House seats, seven governorships and control of a number of state legislative chambers. The exception was the Senate, where cruel timing and a comically asymmetrical map forced them to defend a number of near-impossible races all at once, resulting in a net loss of two.

Now the map is nearly the inverse. Republicans knew they faced steep odds protecting incumbents in increasingly inhospitable states like Arizona and Colorado, but savvy candidate recruitment and off-the-charts fundraising have made underdogs out of longtime GOP incumbents with national name recognition, like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham or Susan Collins of Maine (who was already New England’s lone Congressional Republican).

Purplish Iowa, North Carolina and Georgia (which has two races) are all nail-biters, and Democrats put up stiff fights in red-to-infrared places like Montana, Mississippi and Alaska. Nonpartisan handicappers expect them to win control of the Senate, with gains between three and seven seats.

What’s (no longer) the matter with Kansas?

Kansas has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932, the longest such streak for either party in any state. But this year, there’s a surprisingly competitive race between Dr. Barbara Bollier (a centrist Democrat who switched parties, partly over GOP hostility to trans rights) and Rep. Roger Marshall. It’s an open seat, meaning there’s no incumbent, and while Marshall is slightly favored, national Republicans have had to devote scant resources to get him across the finish line — an earthquake in itself.

Additionally, there’s a Congressional race in Kansas that should be on the radar but isn’t. In 2018, Sharice Davids became one of the first two Native American women — and the first Native lesbian — ever elected to Congress, calling into question stereotypes about the Sunflower State’s retrograde ways. Davids was expected to face a fierce fight this year, but she’s coasting to a second term representing the Kansas City burbs.

This House is clear

Nancy Pelosi has indicated she will surrender the Speaker’s gavel after her next term, and it doesn’t look like her embattled opponent, Shahid Buttar, will deprive her of it before then. But the Democrats’ 32-seat majority is nowhere near in jeopardy; in fact, they’re likelier than not to expand it.

A fistful of Democrats will probably lose, like the rural Minnesota Congressman whose district has grown redder over the years (Collin Peterson) or the freshman who squeaked to a surprise two-point victory in Oklahoma City (Kendra Horn). But court-ordered redrawing of some gentrified districts, suburban dissatisfaction with the GOP, a rash of retirements and the party’s repellent embrace of QAnon have all given Dems the upper hand, from Upstate New York to St. Louis to the Texas border. Expect Democratic gains of five and 15 seats, back-to-back GOP defeats that may cause a genuine civil war among their caucus’ survivors.

You’ve maybe noticed I wrote this without mentioning the president’s name even once. Apart from all these promising possibilities, that is the future liberals want.

Guest columnist Peter Lawrence Kane is, in addition to being a huge politics junkie, the communications manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.

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