Friday, November 10, 2017

About Those Elections on Tuesday...and Roy Moore!

The states of Virginia and New Jersey held gubernatorial races last Tuesday, with some stray races elsewhere in the country that served up the closest thing we've gotten in the past year to a snapshot of the American electorate since the night Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016.  The verdict of voters gave Democrats a lot to crow about.  It was hard to get a good read on New Jersey.  Democratic candidate Phil Murphy had such a dominating lead throughout the cycle that turnout was low, and it likely trimmed his margin by a few points.  Murphy won by 13 points, which is solid if not earth-shattering compared to the New Jersey baseline, but the anemic turnout was probably the worst news the Democrats got Tuesday night in that it once again showed the Democratic base is very hard to motivate to get to the polls.  Outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie was the least popular Governor in the country and one of the least popular in the history of polling, yet his Lieutenant Governor still managed to get more than 42% of the vote in a deep blue state in a race to succeed him.

Virginia was a much more unequivocal success for Democrats.  Polls leading up to election day were showing that Republican Ed Gillespie was closing hard on Democratic Ralph Northam.  I never made a formal prediction, but guessed that Northam would prevail by 1 or 2 points.  My take was that Gillespie would do just as well as Trump did in the rural parts of the state but that Democratic northern Virginia would revert to the numbers Obama got in 2008 and 2012, numbers that were still strong and still enough to barely win statewide even with rural Virginia going a brighter shade of red than it did in the Obama years, but proving an underwhelming rebuke to Trumpian tactics.  After all, Gillespie began embracing Trump-style positions on immigration in particular with hard-nosed ads towards the end of the campaign, and the fact that Gillespie was closing the gap in the polls made it appear as though the tactics were working.

But that didn't happen.  Northam won the state by nearly 9 points, blowing past the predictions of even the most optimistic Democrats and running up the score to unprecedented levels in northern Virginia as well the Richmond area and the Tidewater region of southeastern Virginia centered around Norfolk and Virginia Beach.  Even more shocking was Democrats gaining 15 seats, give or take a couple pending final vote totals, in the Virginia House of Delegates, a body where Republicans held a 66-34 lead a week ago and where they'll go in around 50-50 next year.  Nobody expected that...or anything close to it....and more than any other result of the night it indicated a massive wave may be developing that could wash away hundreds of Republicans nationwide next November.

But there are some important caveats to note here.  First of all, there's no place in Middle America that is comparable to Virginia demographically.  The Democratic surge voters there are most likely to be federal workers and military contractors who embody what Trump refers to as the "Washington swamp".  The voting patterns of upscale white voters in places like Loudoun County, Virginia, may not prove transferable to Democratic candidates in suburban St. Louis or Indianapolis, to take a couple of examples of states that have key Senate races next year.

And even more concerning for Democrats is that nearly every rural jurisdiction in the state, particularly the western two-thirds of the state, went as strong for Ed Gillespie on Tuesday night as they did for Trump last year....and they never went for any Republican as strongly as they did for Trump prior to last year!   There are localized issues in rural Virginia that could account for this, including the ongoing realignment over coal as well as the Virginia-specific Confederate monument debate, but if Trump's baseline in rural areas is the new normal in the rest of the country as it was in Virginia on Tuesday night, the Democrats are in deep trouble in several largely rural states where they're defending Senate seats next November.  Most notably, Tuesday's results in rural Virginia bode poorly for the chances of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

On balance, however, Tuesday's election foreshadowed a substantial anti-Trump protest vote is likely to gain steam for next year's midterms, and even if it doesn't hit every corner of the country, bodes well for Democrats in the House of Representatives and legislative seats in many states next year.  Democrats have some major vulnerabilities on a number of key issues that Trump successfully exploited last year, and those vulnerabilities haven't gone away and could limit the scope of their gains, particularly with as skillful as Trump is at steering the national conversation towards culture war fault lines where Democrats are on the short end of the stick.  But Gillespie made a major effort to replicate Trump's template on culture war touchstones and those efforts flopped, so it's entirely possible that the election fundamentals will hold.  The 2018 midterms could indeed be mostly about voters countering an unpopular President with very low approval ratings and little else.

On more order of business on a race where a lot has changed in the last couple of weeks since I made my most recent predictions, and that's the December 12th special election for a Senate race in Alabama.  Two weeks ago, I predicted impeached judge Roy Moore, disgraced and deemed unthinkable by all but the fringiest players in the Republican Party, would nonetheless prevail by 14 points against Democrat Doug Jones.  Then this past Thursday, the Washington Post released a very credible story alleging Moore as being a pedophile.  Twenty-four hours ago, I would have said this wouldn't matter a bit in Alabama and southern conservative voters would do what they've been doing for two centuries, circling the wagons in defense of their tribemate.  If anything, I figured on Thursday night, Moore would now win by an even bigger margin because conspiracy-minded Alabama conservatives would rally to Moore to spite the Washington Post.  But then Friday happened and Roy Moore opened his mouth.....

Had Moore simply maintained steadfast and indignant denial, with his allies coming up with imaginative new ways to defend his conduct and blame his victims, he'd have prevailed, but instead Moore went on Sean Hannity's radio show today and effectively incriminated himself.  Moore gave multiple different answers to the same questions and squashed his deniability to the charges.  You'd never have believed Moore ever practiced law based on his amateurish answers to softball questions from Hannity who was doing everything in his power to help Moore help himself.  And now the floodgates are opening with high-profile after high-profile Republican calling for Moore to drop out of the race.  It's not in Moore's DNA to drop out, so that won't happen, but it is getting harder to imagine him being the next Senator from Alabama than it was a few hours ago.  There are multiple scenarios that could unfold from here, ranging from other Alabama Republicans waging a write-in candidate to the scenario I see happening, the state's Republican Governor carrying on Alabama's long-running tradition of whatever-it-takes tribalism and delaying the election long enough to where they can legally swap Moore out with another Republican nominee.  Whatever scenario ultimately comes to fruition, I suspect the least likely scenario is that Democrat Doug Jones wins the election on December 12th and is seated in the U.S. Senate.  Not in Alabama.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Early Thoughts on the 2018 Senate Battlefield

If there's any upside to Donald Trump being elected President last year, it's that Democrats are no longer poised for a wipeout of historic proportions in the United States Senate in next year's midterms.  I predicted three years ago that if Hillary won the White House, the Democrats would be poised to lose a dozen or more Senate seats in 2018, a year where they're heavily overexposed with Democrats defending 25 seats and Republicans defending only 8.  Democrats won everything on the table (and a couple that most didn't even consider on the table) in the 2012 Senate races and are now facing an environment next year where even if they win everything in sight again, they'll still fall short of taking control of the Senate.  It's a sobering situation, but it would be far gloomier for Democrats if 40-some thousand people in three swing states had voted differently and a very unpopular Hillary Clinton was now in the White House.  The races are starting to take form now a year before the midterms and while we can be sure many new developments will arise before November 6, 2018, it will be fun to take a long look at the landscape and see how well I ultimately do next year when the results pour in.

And let's actually start with the special Senate election taking place in December of this year.

Alabama--I've mused for years how Alabama is the single hardest state for a Democrat to get elected statewide, particularly to a federal office, and that theory is being put to the test with wildly controversial Republican nominee Roy Moore facing off against Democratic U.S. Attorney Doug Jones to fill Jeff Sessions' vacated Senate seat.  Moore, twice impeached from the judiciary, would be unelectable in most American states, but given the inelastic Republicanism of white voters in Alabama in the post-Obama era, it's almost unthinkable that he could be beaten.  The old Democratic coalition of the 90s and early 2000s is gone as mostly white northern Alabama has intractably realigned to Republicans.  Moore won by two points in 2012 trying to reclaim a state judicial position in Alabama and that wasn't a federal office as the Senate is.  Most early polling suggests a single-digit race, but I suspect the race breaks towards Moore based on predictably rigid partisanship.  His ability to whoop up conservatives over cultural issues will serve him very well in controlling the campaign's narrative down the stretch.  If Moore wins by less than a double-digit margin on December 12th, I'd be surprised.  I'll predict Moore by 14.

Now for the 2018 Senate races...

Arizona--This race got a lot more interesting, but possibly less complicated, just in the last few days.   I can't say I was surprised when freshman GOP Senator Jeff Flake decided against running for re-election.  Having pissed off Democrats by being a reliable Republican vote and pissed off Republicans by being a vocal critic of Donald Trump, everybody had a beef with Flake and he simply had no path to victory in a Republican primary.  Far-right AZ state legislator Kelli Ward gave John McCain a spirited primary challenge in 2016 and was already running against Flake this year.  My suspicion is that with Flake out, the GOP establishment won't just concede the seat to Ward but recruit Tucson-area GOP Congresswoman Martha McSally to run.  Now McSally could still struggle against Ward in the primary given how unhinged Republican primary voters are these days, but she would come to both the primary and general election in a much stronger position than the incumbent Flake.  As for the Democrats, they have a fairly strong candidate of their own with Tempe-area Congresswomen Krysten Sinema as their most likely nominee.  But Arizona is still a Republican state and I suspect its midterm electorate will struggle to match the agreeable demographics of 2016, when Trump won the state by a comparatively soft three points.  It's too early to know how anything shakes out, but I suspect the most likely scenario is that McSally wins the primary and beats Sinema in the general.  That's just a preliminary call with the race nowhere near fully formed, and I still acknowledge that this is one of the Democrats' few real pick-up opportunities, giving them at least 40% odds of capturing this seat from my current vantage point.

California--As of 2012, the top two vote-getters on primary night in California advance to the general election, even if that scenario pits members of the same party against each other.  This happened in 2016 when two Democrats, Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, faced off in an open Senate seat.  It's likely to happen again in 2018.  Long-time Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein is running for re-election but is being challenged by LA-area legislator Kevin de Leon, also a Democrat.  The Republicans currently have no major candidates in the field so the general election battlefield will more likely than not be Feinstein vs. de Leon.  The seat will stay in Democratic hands no matter what but I suspect Feinstein prevails based on loyal constituencies circling the wagons one more time, as well as whatever spattering of Republicans who decide to vote in a Senate race with two Democrats being more likely to opt for the more moderate Feinstein against the more progressive de Leon.

Connecticut--Freshman Democratic Senator Chris Murphy should have no problem scoring a huge victory, probably with a margin of greater than 20 points.

Delaware--Low-profile Democrat Tom Carper has somehow been in the Senate for 17 years now.  Far as I know, he's running for a fourth term and should score another dominating 2-1 victory if he does run again.  Should the seat be open, it's hard to see how anybody but another Democrat wins as the Republican bench in Delaware is nonexistent.

Florida--If Hillary had won last year, three-term Democratic Senator Bill Nelson would likely have been defeated in 2018.  The affable Nelson, who's had excellent political timing for all of his previous victories, now remains in the game for 2018, but can no means breathe a sigh of relief as it looks as if GOP Governor Rick Scott is running against him.  Based on the numbers, Scott wouldn't seem to be that great of an opponent, having barely eked out one-point victories in the very Republican years of 2010 and 2014, but his popularity has risen recently with Florida's economy booming and generally on-point stewardship during recent hurricanes.  A few early polling hypotheticals have come out showing the race a dead heat, and that's not good news for Nelson, particularly since a Florida midterm electorate is always far whiter and more conservative than a Presidential year electorate in Florida...and Democrats couldn't even win with that electorate in 2016!  Scott was only re-elected in 2014 due to weak turnout by heavily Democratic blacks in Jacksonville and Puerto Ricans in Orlando, and if that pattern holds for the next midterm, Scott will win again as the white electorate in Florida, which in previous cycles has been pretty friendly to Nelson, keeps shifting further and further to the right.  If the political environment grows as friendly to Democrats as some suspect, Nelson will pull it out, potentially with ease, but I'm not yet convinced it's gonna be that Democratic of a year, so for now I'm predicting a narrow upset by Scott.   GOP +1

Hawaii--Freshman Senator Mazie Hirono seems like a slam-dunk for re-election.  Even the few Republicans of prominence in Hawaii have given no indication that they're seeking to challenge her.

Indiana--When Democrat Joe Donnelly went into the 2012 Indiana Senate race, he knew two major things had to go right for him to win.  First, long-time GOP incumbent Richard Lugar had to be taken out by a wingnut in the Republican primary.  Second, the wingnut who beat Lugar in the primary would have to make a huge gaffe that rendered him unelectable.  Both of those things happened and Donnelly stumbled his way into the Senate, but even with this unusually favorable set of circumstances, Donnelly only managed to win by six points and only barely crested 50%.  Had Hillary won last year, Donnelly would have lost his re-election bid by double digits.  He has a fighting chance to prevail in 2018 with his party on offense, but I still think it's odds-against. There are three pretty high-profile Republican challengers already in the race, with Congressmen Luke Messer and Todd Rokita currently considered the strongest.   Donnelly has a geographic ace in the hole in that his home base in northern Indiana is the most elastic region of the state and he's likely to overperform in the South Bend, Elkhart, and Kokomo areas where he used to serve in the House.  Messer and Rokita are less likely to see parochial advantages from their GOP stronghold seats in central Indiana.  With all of that in mind though, it's hard to see Indiana being winnable for a Democrat without Presidential year turnout in urban areas and college towns.  The bottom line is that Democrats would have to be having a really good night nationally for Donnelly to prevail in this increasingly difficult state, and I just don't see it yet.  GOP +2

Maine--Independent Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats, seems poised to win re-election handily even as Maine has been lurching to the right in recent years.  I'm sure Democrats would prefer to see an actual Democrat win the seat, King is the safe bet and it seems very likely they will quietly acquiesce and not put up any challenger to King.  The GOP will put up somebody but the race is a huge long shot against the popular King.

Maryland--Two-term Democrat Ben Cardin is probably running for re-election.  Whether he does or doesn't, Maryland is a near impossible nut to crack for Republicans in federal races, as evidenced by the fact that they didn't even bother to seriously contest an open seat last year.  Pretty safe bet this stays in Democratic hands.

Massachusetts--Had Hillary won last year, I suspect Democratic freshman Elizabeth Warren would have faced a serious re-election challenge with an outside chance that she'd lose.  Plenty of clueless national Democrats consider Warren the intellectual mirror image of gruff populist Bernie Sanders, but polling data nationally and even in Massachusetts suggests she's not that popular.  Former GOP Senator Scott Brown's caricature of her as "Professor Warren" seems to have stuck and I suspect she's gonna have a hard time shaking it among the very blue-collar workers who most cottoned to Bernie Sanders.  In Trump's America, it's pretty close to a sure thing that deep blue Massachusetts re-elects Warren, but I suspect the margin will be surprisingly slow to national Democrats, even if her challenger ends up being a blowhard brute like Kurt Schilling.  A soft Warren re-election might be the best thing for Democrats if it helps them figure out she would be a disastrous Presidential nominee in 2020.

Michigan--Three-term Democrat Debbie Stabenow is another member of the Class I Senate cohort who has been lucky enough to run only in favorable Democratic years, making it hard to determine just how strong of an incumbent she is.  Certainly her luck would have run out if Hillary had won last year, but even with her party on offense, Stabenow could well have a race on her hands.  At least for now, Kid Rock is acting like he doesn't plan to run.  It's always a crap shoot with celebrity candidates in terms of how their skill set translates to the campaign trail, but if Kid Rock was any good at this sort of thing at all, he'd have been a contender, and would probably have been a clear favorite had Trump narrowly lost last year instead of won.  Even if Kid Rock stays away, Congressman Fred Upton from southwest Michigan is mulling a run and would have the potential to be a very strong candidate.  Young African American businessman and Iraq War veteran John E. James is already declared as a candidate and also shows signs of being an outstanding sleeper candidate who could potentially rise to the challenge if Upton opts out.  The GOP seems to have a plethora of strong options here, meaning the Democrats better take the challenge to Stabenow seriously.  At this early stage, I'll still predict that she wins, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see this race become competitive down the road, particularly since Trump proved last year that a Republican can win Michigan.

Minnesota--Two-term Democrat Amy Klobuchar has won by more than 20 points twice in her previous campaigns, both in strong Democratic years.  After Trump's near-victory in the Gopher State last year, I think Klobuchar could have found herself struggling running for a third term had Hillary been elected President.  As a former Minnesotan, it would be interesting to see how popular Klobuchar really is and see her have to run in such a defensive environment. Since President Hillary didn't happen though, it's very likely Klobuchar is poised for another blowout victory, particularly since her only GOP challenger so far is a backbencher legislator from exurban Sherburne County.

Mississippi--It's rare that an interesting Senate race in Mississippi is taking shape but 2018 could be just that.  For my money, it's 50-50 on whether Republican incumbent Roger Wicker wins the primary or if right-wing firebrand Chris McDaniel pulls it out.  McDaniel likely squandered some of his goodwill among Mississippians with his monthslong crybaby tour when he got outfoxed by long-time Senator Thad Cochran in the 2014 primary runoff, but the fever swamp in the Trump-era GOP has only strengthened in the years since and McDaniel's pitch still has an audience.  If Wicker wins the primary, then it should be a slam-dunk for Republicans to hold the seat in the general election.  That's probably true even if McDaniel wins the primary, but Democrats could have an interesting nominee in Brandon Presley, Elvis's cousin and twice-elected public service commissioner in the northern district of MS, if Presley ends up deciding to run.  Like Travis Childers in 2014, Presley is well-suited parochially being from northern Mississippi, the only region of the state where the white vote is somewhat elastic and thus amenable to a hometown conservative Democrat.  A Democratic victory in Mississippi would require maxed-out African American turnout, strongly above-average Democratic performance in northern Mississippi, and nearly unanimous support from the small number of GOP moderates in suburban Jackson and on the Gulf Coast.  It's a very tall order, especially in a midterm, and next to impossible if Wicker survives the primary, but it's less of a heavy lift than Doug Jones is currently facing against Roy Moore in Alabama.  The safe money is on the GOP is Mississippi though.

Missouri--The only thing that has kept me from completely writing off the rapidly GOP-trending Show Me State is that last year, Democratic Senate nominee Jason Kander ran as an unapologetic liberal against stale GOP incumbent Roy Blunt and got within three points of victory even when Donald Trump was winning by 19 points at the top of the ticket.  Still, Kander was a blank slate, so I'm thinking there will be a difference between him and incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, running for a third term having already governed as an unapologetic liberal in defiance of the direction her state is going.  McCaskill has proven herself incredibly wily in the past, particularly in 2012 when she gamed the GOP primary to help choose her own opponent who self-immolated right on cue shortly after getting the nominated, allowing McCaskill to win by a shocking 17-point margin.  This year, she's unlikely to have the framework to similarly game the race as the Republicans appear to be consolidating around young Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is young and inexperienced and may possibly prove to be a bad candidate, but this time McCaskill is more likely to have to figure out how to win on her own the way she did in 2006.  I won't underestimate McCaskill, but I still consider her the most endangered among so many endangered Democratic incumbents this year.  A look at Kander's county map in 2016 spells out the magnitude of McCaskill's challenge.  He scored only six county victories, all in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia and with Presidential year turnout, still managing to lose every square inch of rural Missouri and get smashed even in the college towns despite his personal profile.  The biggest problem for McCaskill and any Missouri Democrat is the trendline in the southern suburbs of St. Louis, which is the home base of former Democratic House Leader Dick Gephardt and vital to any chance of statewide victory for a Missouri Democrat.  But it's trending hard to Republicans and was out of reach for Kander.  With all of these key jurisdictions becoming so impenetrable for Democrats, it's nearly impossible to imagine what a path to victory for McCaskill looks like in 2018.  GOP +3

Montana--There are five Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in deep red states, and of the five, the only one I think is better positioned for victory than defeat next year is two-term Democrat Jon Tester.  For one thing, Montana remains an elastic state where Democrats manage to win a disproportionate number of close races even in very Republican years, such as Governor Steve Bullock who was re-elected in 2016.  Tester is a survivor himself, successfully cobbling together Montana's wobbly Democratic coalition of retired union workers, Native Americans, and college students to eke out victory on two occasions, and remains personally popular.  The GOP's relatively uninspired cohort of declared candidates at this stage of the race gives Tester additional grounds for optimism, with State Auditor Matt Rosendale the strongest of the bunch at this stage.  Tester would have been toast had Hillary won last year, but as far as I'm concerned he's in the catbird seat for another term right now.  With that said, his margin for error is close to zero and it wouldn't surprise me if he lost given the partisan tide he's up against.

Nebraska--The real contest here is likely to be the Republican primary.  Freshman Republican Deb Fischer may be a completely reliable Republican vote but Steve Bannon is still scheming to dethrone her in the GOP primary, with former state treasurer Shane Osborn as the most frequently cited challenger.  The Osborn name is golden in Nebraska and it's not clear whether Fischer has made enough of an impact on voters in the Cornhusker State to avoid being vulnerable.  I'll take the safe call and bet on Fischer prevailing, but whoever wins the primary is almost certain to win the general election as Democrats are to the point of not even bothering to compete in Nebraska any longer.  Theoretically, either Scott or Jane Kleeb could be a viable contender in a perfect storm, but even in the very strong Democratic year of 2008, Scott Kleeb lost an open seat contest by double digits so it's hard to see him winning now with Nebraska having consolidating even harder into the Republican column.

Nevada--There is no question that one-term Republican incumbent Dean Heller is very vulnerable both in the primary and the general election.  Honestly, I'd be surprised if he survives his primary challenge from the right by perennial candidate and lovable mega-loser Danny Tarkanian.  By all conventional metrics, either Heller or Tarkanian would seem to be the underdogs against Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, the likely Democratic challenger in this blue-trending state, but as with every election in Nevada in the last decade, Rosen's fate will be determined by whether the Reid machine is sufficiently mobilized.  When the union-fueled Reid machine shows up to vote in Nevada, Democrats are pretty close to unbeatable.  When it doesn't show, Democrats get slaughtered up and down the ballot.  Democrats had better hope that anti-Trump hysteria motivates the base and gets that vote out.  Tarkanian's losing streak could end if it doesn't, and if Heller survives the primary, he shouldn't be underestimated being the only Republican from a battleground Senate race in 2012 who prevailed.  Dem gain (GOP +2)

New Jersey--It's telling how challenging of a map 2018 will present for Democrats when they even have a vulnerability in the deep blue Garden State.  Two-term incumbent Bob Menendez has been on the periphery of unsavory rumors for his entire Senate tenure and is currently in the midst of a corruption trial.  It would be best for Democrats if he was found guilty and forced to resign next year, giving Democrats time to replace him well before election day, although given the culture in New Jersey politics it wouldn't necessarily be an easy task to find a replacement less corrupt than Menendez.  A different Democratic nominee would certainly win in Jersey in the current political climate, but if Menendez is found not guilty, there will still likely be a taint of scandal that lingers in voters' minds.  It probably won't be enough to defeat him in New Jersey, but it could be unnecessarily close.  If Hillary had won and the Democrats were playing defense, it's not unthinkable that Menendez could be genuinely vulnerable.

New Mexico--Freshman Senator Martin Heinrich is yet another Democrat would be incredibly vulnerable heading into 2018 had Hillary won, with a couple of GOP heavy hitters such as Heather Wilson and Susanna Martinez at the top of the list of challengers that could take him out.  But with the Democrats on offense this year, it seems less likely a top Republican will step up and even less likely still that Heinrich could be defeated.  It's still too early to know for sure but I'm pretty confident that Heinrich will be safe.

New York--Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will win re-election with another large and comprehensive victory, and unlike so many other states, that would be true even if Hillary had won last year and was deeply unpopular.  The real question is how this sets Gillibrand up for a likely Presidential bid in 2020.  She's an attractive and articulate candidate but her electoral history--getting elected as a Blue Dog in a conservative upstate New York district and then getting appointed to the Senate and reinventing herself to the left of Bernie Sanders--comes across as a bit too opportunistic to easily explain away.  Still, looking at the weakness of the Democratic Presidential field, they could and likely will do worse than Gillibrand.

North Dakota--As recently as a decade ago, I doubt I'd be sweating an election in North Dakota in an environment like 2018 seems to poised to be.  But a lot has changed in North Dakota in the last decade, and what was then a Republican but elastic state with a deeply progressive history is now a petro state whose fortunes rise and fall with the deeply conservative oil and gas industry.  Donald Trump won here by an astonishing 38 points last year.  With that context, it's even more amazing to speculate on the fact that Democrat Heidi Heitkamp found a way to win her open seat in 2012, a year Mitt Romney was winning by 20 points at the top of the ballot and when the state was at the peak of its oil boom.  Can she do it again?  I'm not gonna understimate Heitkamp after what she pulled off in 2012, but her approval ratings are lukewarm and her opposition is taking her more seriously than they did back then when nobody believed she could win.  Her path to victory was already narrow six years ago but in a midterm cycle she'll likely have fewer college students in Fargo and Grand Forks to offset what has become a lockstep Republican wall in the western half of the state where all the oil growth is.  If Hillary had won last year I suspect Heitkamp would even bother trying for a second term, but she seems poised to put up a fight for 2018.  There are a few viable Republicans running against her, but whichever one gets the nomination has an unmistakable advantage in the general.  GOP +3

Ohio--Two-term Democrat Sherrod Brown is one of the most liberal Senators in the country representing a state trending increasingly Republican now that the GOP is Trump's party.  It was telling that in 2012, even as Obama won Ohio 51-48, Brown only prevailed 50-45 against a very weak challenger in State Treasurer Josh Mandel.  If Hillary had won last year, Brown's career would be over.  Even now, Brown's re-election is no better than even money next year.  Working in his favor is the fact that the execrable Mandel seems poised to be his challenger again.  Several GOP contenders, particularly Governor John Kasich, would be much stronger opponents but the field seems all but cleared for Mandel.   Last year, another Democrat with tremendous blue-collar appeal--former Governor Ted Strickland--was crushed in his bid for a Senate seat against Rob Portman, and Strickland even managed to lose the union strongholds of northeastern Ohio where Democrats have almost always won big in the past.  If a Democrat of Strickland's pedigree can't even beat George W. Bush's former outsourcing czar in the Mahoning Valley then I question if Brown's similar brand of left-populism has continued resonance in the areas that have always been his base or if it's hopelessly realigned to Trumpism.  For now, I'll say Brown ekes it out, but only because Mandel is such a flyweight.

Pennsylvania--Six years ago, two-term Democrat Bob Casey phoned in his re-election campaign and while he still won comfortably, a random coal baron named Tom Smith managed to hold Casey to single digits.  Since then, every corner of Pennsylvania outside of the Philadelphia area has taken a sharp turn towards Trumpism, and the GOP is running a strong challenger against Casey this year in Congressman Lou Barletta, who got a head start on Trump's brand of right-populism long before Trump burst onto the political scene.  So if Trump and Barletta are cut of the same cloth, Barletta should be well positioned to follow Trump's path to victory right?  I'm still leaning towards Casey in this race as he's always had more of an appeal to rural voters and old-school union Democrats, particularly in comparison to Hillary Clinton.  Casey is from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area and has dominated there in the past, but Barletta also hails from the same area and will likely limit the parochial advantage.  Still, if Casey can hang on in places like Erie and Bethlehem, while maintaining a lopsided advantage in metropolitan Philadelphia and limiting his losses in southwestern Pennsylvania, he is likely to win.  I wouldn't bet on a particularly big margin at this point though.

Rhode Island--One Democrat who will almost certainly have a safe glide into a third term is Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.  Democrats will really have a trainwreck on their hands if this one were to become competitive but it's hard to imagine it would.

Tennessee--When Republican Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement last month, the floodgates opened with possible candidates to fill his vacant seat, with everybody from NFL quarterback Peyton Manning on the Republican side to country singer Tim McGraw on the Democratic side.  It looks now as though the race will take on a more conventional tone, however.  A couple of Republican House members, current and former, have announced they're running, but the frontrunner would certainly seem to be right-wing Marsha Blackburn, who has long represented a Republican stronghold district that links the darkest red Memphis suburbs to the darkest red Nashville suburbs.  She even has the Bannon seal of approval, and in a state with a tea-flavored GOP primary electorate as Tennessee has, I like her chances.  On the Democratic side, there's talk that popular former Governor Phil Bredesen might get in, but I'm skeptical that he will.  So far, attorney and Iraq War veteran James Mackler is the best the Dems have going.  I don't know anything about him but he seems like a huge long shot to run a viable campaign in a state that has moved so far out of Democrats' grasp.  Even if Bredesen runs I suspect he'd lose by double digits.  Tennessee has just become too inhospitable for Democrats, and Trump wouldn't be much of a liability there.  The biggest reason Corker is retiring is because Tennessee voters don't think his head is sufficiently up Trump's ass!

Texas--A little over a year ago, Donald Trump accused Republican Senator Ted Cruz's father of being involved in the JFK assassination and Cruz was booed off the stage at the Republican National Convention when he didn't formally endorse Trump.  At the time, the media assured us Cruz's political career was over.  Fast forward to present tense and all appears to be forgiven on all sides, to the point that the only incumbent Republican Senator that Steve Bannon is not targeting with a primary challenge is former chief rival Cruz.  And Cruz remains popular in Texas, making him a cinch for re-election.  The Democrats have an interesting candidate on a kamikaze mission running against him in El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke, but I'm guessing O'Rourke is pursuing this race primarily to raise his statewide profile for a more winnable race down the road as it's very hard to see him beating Cruz next year, particularly with the famously hard-right turnout model in Texas midterms.

Utah--All the buzz this past week is that long-time Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is preparing to retire, bequeathing his seat to former GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  Given Utah's nominating process, Hatch could find himself denied the nomination if he doesn't retire, but the field would likely clear for Romney, who is wildly popular in the Beehive State.  Either Hatch or Romney would easily win the general election as well in this dark red state.

Vermont--There's no indication that left-wing Independent Bernie Sanders plans to throw in the towel on his Senate seat so I'm operating under the assumption that he runs for a third term and scores another dominating victory.  If Sanders does retire, his seat will almost certainly stay in Democratic hands.

Virginia--If Hillary Clinton had been elected last year, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine would now be Vice-President and whoever was appointed to fill Kaine's seat would be defending it.  And given the Old Dominion's modern Democratic coalition and it's vulnerability in low-turnout midterms, I wouldn't like his or her chances to hold the seat in a defensive cycle.  Seeing as how none of the above scenarios ended up playing out, however, Tim Kaine is likely to run for a second term without top-tier opposition and is well-positioned for a comfortable victory.  Even in the best-case scenario, however, it would surprise me if Kaine wins by double digits because as the state grows and becomes more Democratic, the old guard is becoming more inelastically Republican.

Washington--When Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell beat a Republican incumbent by around 1,000 votes in 2000, Washington was still a swing state.  Not only has the state been trending heavily towards Democrats ever since, Cantwell has always run in strong Democratic political environments making it somewhat difficult to get a read on her popularity.  In Trump's America, Cantwell will likely have the wind at her back again in 2018 and win a fourth term by more than 15 points.

West Virginia--Many Democrats have been breathing a premature sigh of relief about Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in recent months because his approval rating is still strong and he's had decisive leads in head-to-heads against the two Republicans challenging him, Attorney General Patrick Morrissey and Congressman Evan Jenkins.  But I still consider Manchin the most vulnerable Democratic Senator and a dead man walking whose fortunes will turn on a dime once the race gets litigated.  Now I underestimated Manchin in both 2010 and 2012 and he managed to win handily both years, so it's entirely possible I could be wrong again, but he was still a blank slate conservative Democrat back then and West Virginia hadn't fully realigned the way it has now into Trump's second best state in the country.  Furthermore, Manchin had a really terrible challenger both cycles with carpetbagging rich guy John Raese, who got little in the way of assistance from the party.  Either Morrissey or Jenkins would likely make for stronger challengers and would get more institutional support from the GOP, a party whose Presidential nominee just won the state by 42 points last year.  Manchin is particularly vulnerable on two issues.  Primarily, he co-authored a theoretically popular background check bill on guns in a state that is unwaveringly pro-gun.  When Manchin is demagogued as leading a national effort to "take our guns away", the air in his approval rating balloon will very rapidly deflate.  Furthermore, the GOP will make the race a referendum against both Trump and coal, and no Democrat can win that referendum in West Virginia.  Again, Manchin exceeded my wildest expectations twice before so I may well be underestimating him again, but I believe he'll lose by double digits.  GOP +4

Wisconsin--It would be generous to refer to the Badger State as politically schizophrenic in recent years, electing Obama very handily twice and electing liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the Senate while also electing the radically conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker and Tea Party Senator Ron Johnson.  But the reality is that Wisconsin has been trending deeply conservative.  If Hillary had won last year, Senator Baldwin--who has lukewarm favorables--would likely be poised for defeat.  But I'm inclined to give her a slight edge because of the way the national environment is shaping and the lack of top-tier opposition.  Neither Bannon-endorsed businessman Kevin Nicholson nor State Representative Leah Vukmir looks overly intimidating from afar, but then neither did Ron Johnson when he burst onto the scene in 2010 to score a huge upset.  Baldwin is by no means out of the woods but at least for now I think she's more likely to win than lose next year.

Wyoming--The action in this race could well emerge in the primary.  Incumbent Republican John Barrasso is threatened with a Bannon-endorsed challenged from former Blackwater thug Erik Prince.  In a small state like Wyoming where politicians are more likely to have a personal relationship with their constituents, these kinds of primary challenges tend to be less successful so I'm predicting Barrasso survives the primary.  Whoever emerges from the Republican primary is almost certain to win the race, however, given that Wyoming is Trump's best state in the country.

That's the ugly state of the battleground.  Even presuming a year with a moderately decent Democratic environment, the party is almost certain to lose seats and the battleground is such at this stage of the cycle that a 10-seat loss is not entirely inconceivable.  Shortly after Trump won last year, Charlie Cook put out a Senate map that predicted all of these battleground races to be at worst "leans Democrat", expecting a Trump Presidency would protect just the vulnerable Democratic incumbents.  I suspect he's scaling back those predictions now as he's seeing just how tribal the country has become.  Obviously there's a year to go and the political climate could get even worse for Trump and the Republicans, giving more of these Democrats cover than they have now, but even in a political climate as strong as 2006 or 2008, I suspect the Democrats would have taken some losses with this map.  Next spring or summer, when the races are more settled, I'll give these races another look.  And while it's tempting to make some early guesses on the 37 gubernatorial races on deck for 2018, the candidate fields are way too unsettled at this stage to do so.  I'll punt those predictions for at least a few more months.











Saturday, October 21, 2017

October Following a Presidential Election: The Cruelest Month of Every Four-Year Cycle

Just as it's a sure bet every fall that the leaves on the trees will change colors and drop, it's a sure bet that I will have a huge dose of campaign season nostalgia every October.  The smells and colors of the season instinctively take my mind to the peak of election campaign season, and the thrill of counting down the days till the first Tuesday in November.  Presidential election years come with the biggest adrenaline reward for election junkies like me, but midterm elections certainly deliver the needed payout for fall campaign fever too.  The odd-numbered year before the Presidential election offers up some deferred gratification since, particularly where I live in Iowa, the Presidential primary campaigns are well underway and come to fruition with votes taking place in January of the following year.  Those Octobers aren't as exciting as Presidential general election and midterm election years, but there's nonetheless something for an election junkie to latch onto.

But then there's October 2017, the year after a Presidential election.  Last fall's election night result was an unthinkable disaster and has helped me repress election campaign cravings almost entirely for most of the past 10 months.  But as is the case every year, autumn comes and my mind starts lusting for a campaign season, only without any prospect for a payout on that craving for another year.  Sure, there's the gubernatorial races in New Jersey in Virginia on November 7th, and while I'm damn glad I have that on the horizon in a couple more weeks, it definitely won't give me the electoral reward I desire.  Making matters even more painful, it's typically the fall months leading up to the next midterm where Senate candidacies declare for the following year and races really start to take shape.  Knowing it's a full 12 months away before these Congressional and gubernatorial races come to fruition is sheer torture to an election junkie like myself, and I suspect thousands of us would concur.

"Election campaign withdrawal syndrome" may not be a formal clinical condition, but it should be.  This October, I'm feeling an emptiness in my soul like I haven't felt since October 2005, the year after George W. Bush's re-election, rehashing tapes of election year past and counting down the days until my very limited fix from the NJ and VA gubernatorial contests in 17 days.  The fact that 2005 comes so readily to mind for me and not 2009 reinforces the long-standing narrative that you hunger for victory most when your party's out of power.  By contrast, I'll just bet Republican-leaning election junkies don't have the same level of energy right now than they did in October 2009 when they were setting the stage for their comeback.

So for 17 days, I'll have the two aforementioned gubernatorial races to hang my hat on, but I'm not confident that will whet my appetite.  With that in mind, definitely expect some previews and early predictions for the 2018 Senate races at some point in November.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

How Much of This is Fox News's Fault?

A study came out last month in the "American Economic Review" attributing much of the nation's recent drift to the populist right directly to the rise of Fox News, and served up numbers to back them up.  John Kerry, they claimed, would have performed 3.6% better in 2004 and won the popular vote if not for the impact of Fox News.  In 2008, Barack Obama would have supposedly gotten 6.3% more of the popular vote and won by a Reagan vs. Mondale style blowout.  The election fundamentals of those years, especially 2008, did back up the notion that Democratic Presidential nominees should have performed stronger than they did.  On the other hand, it seems impossible to control an experiment that could quantify the findings of the published study with any scientific credibility.  I'm inclined to give Fox News some credit for fometing a larger and more rigid conservative movement, but will document in the paragraphs ahead why I think the situation is more complicated than the study indicates.

Supporting the study's findings are the demographic shifts of long-standing Democratic strongholds into the GOP fold during the Bush years, which coincided with Fox News' meteoric rise.  There are regions of the country ranging from western Pennsylvania to middle Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma that stubbornly clung to the Democratic Party through Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and two terms of Clinton.  Despite these voters being intuitively conservative, they endured the Democratic Party through turbulent culture wars such as Vietnam, abortion, and the "welfare queen" debate.  Conservatives won the arguments on these issues but Democrats were still winning the war.  Yet once Fox News came on the scene, the tide shifted in these ancestrally Democratic regions....despite the lack of pressing culture war touchstones beyond the Iraq War.   And even as the Iraq War became widely unpopular in nearly all corners of the country, the conservative tide nonetheless kept rising in most of Middle America, even places that had been voting Democratic for generations.

And while it's mostly anecdotal, it's hard to imagine that Fox, combined with the ever-enlarging role of conservative talk radio over the same period, didn't play a role.  Suddenly, the aging, conservative-leaning denizens of the heartland had easily accessible voices offering an eloquent viewpoint that validated a few of their pre-existing views, providing a foot in the door for a more wholesale transformation that led to a switching of parties. There is data down to the county level of who watches what and where they live, and Fox News viewers disproportionately dwell in dozens of counties that have flipped from 2-1 Democratic strongholds to 2-1 Republican strongholds over the past generation.  That would indicate the network has largely succeeded in reaching its target audience and affecting political affiliation of potentially millions of Americans who may well be voting with their granddaddies' political party had the Fox News Network never existed.

But it strikes me that there's a lot more going on here.  It's not as if the conservative message wasn't getting out in the pre-Fox News era when the country hitched its wagon overwhelmingly to Nixon and Reagan.  Perhaps Hazard, Kentucky, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, stayed blue during those challenging cycles for Democrats, but the suburbs of just about every big city in America didn't.  Overwhelming numbers of suburban voters swung to a crimson shade of Republican red and did so without any organized conservative media beyond obscure academic publications.  Are we to believe the Democrats' electoral arguments were that much less persuasive in the lean 70s and 80s elections that they managed landslide defeats even without this media machine with its thumb effectively on scale for the opposition, as the aforementioned study alleges was the case during the Fox News era?

What else may have happened to swing large segments of the electorate so rigidly conservative during the era of Fox News's rise?  The mass attrition of the liberal and reflexively Democratic World War II generation is no small matter.  And the even more comprehensive attrition of labor unions is arguably an even bigger deal, particularly in some of the same socially conservative redoubts where Fox News viewership has soared.  A generation ago, the prime political message that voters in West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania, as a couple of key examples, got came from their union literature and phone banks.  When the jobs and the unions went away, the vacuum was filled by conservatives on talk radio and cable news, serving up a diametrically opposite message.  Had the unions existed to the same degree in 2004 and 2008 as they did a generation earlier, there would have been competing messages and a diminished vulnerability for the Democrats to losing millions of Clinton and Gore voters for whom casting a ballot for a Democrat today would be unthinkable.

The Fox News impact study focused on the 2004 and 2008 cycles, which makes its findings a bit dated in regards to its conclusion of maximal disruptive impact.  One could certainly argue that a candidate like Donald Trump could never have ascended to power without an assist from a Fox News nation, but there's no real way to quantify that and it doesn't give enough credit to the uniqueness of Trump's victorious message comparative to what the two major parties had served up at any prior time in the lifetimes of most current voters.  The two major pillars of Trump's message were opposition to immigration and trade policy, issues that have long defied traditional partisan affiliations.  And as Trump proved with the winning coalition that he cobbled together which included many millions of Obama voters, the message almost assuredly broke through without the persuasive powers of a cable news network that averages about 2.3 million viewers a day amidst a declining and rapidly aging cohort of cable subscribers.

Issues of key political importance are constantly changing in America and political coalitions change with them.  The suburban voters of the 70s and 80s swung to conservatives without the help of an organized right-wing media while the heartland hardened in support of conservatives a generation later in tandem with the rise of a right-wing media.  And an entirely new conservative coalition is taking shape now even as Fox News often finds its lineup in third place in a three-network cable news field.....a coalition with large segments that voted consistently in opposition to Fox News' leanings up until November 8, 2016.  A dynamic electorate in a constantly changing issue landscape is the driver of the overwhelming majority of our increasingly inelastic political environment.  I'm not inclined to give Fox News as much credit and its critics would like for this transformation.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tenney Continues To Take It On The Chin Even After Unincorporating

A few years back, I wrote an entry about Tenney, the smallest incorporated town in Minnesota in the west-central part of the state near the North Dakota border with a population of 4 at the time, disbanding as a town when the last remaining residents decided to leave.  In the last couple of years, they even removed the sign for Tenney on Minnesota State Highway 55.  But even with zero remaining residents, Tenney at least maintained its marquee feature, the massive Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Elevator along the highway.  It was a huge complex, visible from several miles away amidst the flat landscape, with as many as 10 large bins for grain storage, adjacent to a railway with trains speeding by at 50 miles per hour.  Or at least until last month....

From afar, I could tell something wasn't right as I approached the structure from the south.  The closer I got it was more visible that some significant storm damage had tore up several of the grain storage bins.  Sure enough, a June storm smashed the majority of the grain bins, leaving the elevator structure about half the size it had been.  Driving into the "town" was even more apocalyptic than usual as in addition to the few remaining abandoned houses in town, shards of metal from the destroyed grain bins had been gathered and piled up in what used to be the center of town.  It would be a great setting for a horror movie.

Despite Tenney no longer being a town, the stated intention is to rebuild the Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Elevator.  We'll see if it happens as planned but it's a prime location and I'd be surprised if they moved it or just dismantled it, and thus leaving no evidence of what used to be the town of Tenney.  Most striking about Tenney is that it continues to seem predictive of the future of several small western Minnesota towns in the decades to come.  The population in the area is in freefall and plenty of places on the map that I visit every year when I go to the region seem very unlikely to outlast me.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The "Gig Economy" And The Inevitability Of Single-Payer Health Care

It's only when one takes the time to assess the various crosscurrents playing out in the American economy and public policy sphere that they realize how hopelessly conflicted we are.  One of the biggest stories of 2017 that's not being told sufficient to its long-term consequences is the all-at-once collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry.  Every day, I read new headlines of long-time retail fixtures big and small either filing bankruptcy or bleeding cash to the point where their endgame is inevitable and right around the corner.  From small operations like Payless Shoes and Gander Mountain to national institutions with storied histories like Sears and J.C. Penney, cutbacks and store closings are aplenty and the official end times are not far off.  Even the heaviest hitters in the retail sector like Walmart and Target are adjusting their business models to account for the reality that their best days are behind them.  America's outsized retail footprint compared to every other country on the globe coupled with insurgent online competition are driving a nail in the coffin of American retail even amidst an eight-year economic expansion, and with it will come a loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs for American workers who skew downscale, female, and middle-aged.  Most of these jobs aren't great in terms of pay or benefits, but they will be damn hard to replace for many of those who work at them.

And that's where we're at in America today....even the jobs that our parents lectured us to go to college so we could avoid are no longer gonna be an option for those who didn't go to college....and for plenty who did go to college but are stuck working retail anyway.  So what happens to these dislocated workers from the demographics least sought after by modern employers? 

Certainly a large share of them will go the same direction as the first wave of dislocated, middle-aged, semi-skilled workers.....scrambling to find their way onto disability before it goes bankrupt and seeking out a chemical vacation from their miserable lives via opiods.  Others might be able to find work in the industry displacing them, landing jobs as pickers at online retailer warehouses with Dickensian working conditions that will be all the more taxing on the body to those used to years of working retail.  And, alas, those warehouse jobs are on the chopping block for automation as well, with factory floors full of robots not too far on the horizon, denying American workers one more venue to scratch out a subsistent living on their achy breaky joints.  But a third option is quickly emerging for the most enterprising amongst them....the ascendant "gig economy" embodied by ride-sharing service Uber, an economy full of independent contractors likely to cause as much disruption in other economic sectors, skilled and unskilled alike, as Uber has caused among licensed taxi cab drivers.

I suppose in theory, this sort of mercenary economy provides an option for people whose services the traditional economy no longer has a use for to hustle up a semblance of a living.  But it will come at a steep price to every basic notion of middle-class life in America for all but the lucky few.  Workplace benefits, weekends, and vacations, among other things, all become antiquated notions for those stuck in the "Hunger Games"-like environment of the "gig economy", where it's every man for himself in a competition for crumbs.  The wildest example I've come across is a story of a pregnant woman driving for Uber ride-sharing competitor Lyft who went into labor on the job, but still felt compelled to pick up a couple additional customers before driving herself to the hospital.  And most amazing of all, Lyft actually cited this woman on their website in a favorable light, not even pretending that there's something dysfunctional about a business model that promotes such behavior.

Again, this is where we are in America today, and ironically it's the politicians and free-market ideologues most prone to peddle the empty rhetoric of "family values" who have long fetishized this notion of a nation of entrepreneurs that may finally be on the cusp of being realized.  The most tangible recent example was George W. Bush's "ownership society" template, but it hardly began there.  And it's also the same politicians and free-market ideologues who, last week, responded to the insurgence of the gig economy by passing a health care reform bill that strips away the security Obamacare brought to the health care system and replaced it with the unrelenting risk that defined a past American health care system that had far fewer "gig economy independent contractor" types who needed to roll the dice.

The volatility of the individual health insurance market is an abstraction for the majority of Americans who work for an employer that offers group rates, but if the "gig economy" blossoms at its current pace and more workers from old-line industries get displaced by a changing economy, participation in the individual health insurance market will inevitably boom right along with it.  Every other nation in the world recognized long ago that the concept of a "health care marketplace" simply doesn't function in the way that a "cereal marketplace", for example, does and that they have followed one of two models towards universal health care.  Obamacare was a diluted version of Germany and Switzerland's health care model, except with far more conceits to a "marketplace" that leaves gaping coverage holes the likes of which we've witness leak like a sieve in the past several months.  Rather than closing those loopholes, the United States House with the President's support has voted to revert back to the dysfunctional model of the 1950s that only worked then because just about everybody had coverage through employers in the post-World War II pax Americana. 

Simply put, in a nation where fewer people get their insurance through employers and where fewer yet are likely to have it a generation from now, the "health care marketplace" that Congress just doubled down on is increasingly antithetical to the reality of the ground, and eventually there will be a price to pay for it.  Some analysts said Obamacare succeeded in changing Americans' perception towards the liberal viewpoint that "health care is a human right", and that voters will now not accept, among other things, the notion of insurers denying people coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  There's some truth to this, and as more people become foisted into the individual insurance market with less and less security and an insurance industry more likely to deny claims and discriminate based on more metrics than ever before, it seems like single-payer is inevitable.

I wouldn't have believed this even two years ago, and it still won't come easily with politicians dedicated to the preservation of a profit-driven insurance industry middleman in the health care market above all else whenever the topic of health care reform comes up.  But the successful dark horse candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump last year proved that we have likely reached a tipping point where the central pillars of our system are vulnerable to change by a people who won't accept the status quo that our masters have resigned us to.  And the health insurance "marketplace" that was a fiction to begin with is simply not sustainable in a nation of independent contractors.

It's hard to see much good coming from just about any trend in the American economy.  But the sooner we can discard of the health care "marketplace" fantasy and move to a universal coverage scheme of some sort, the better off we'll be.  There's no such thing as a painless health care coverage model.  There are winners and losers to every approach, and we can be sure a vigorous debate would ensue before any transition to single-payer or even a more robust version of Obamacare like Germany has, but nothing could possibly work less for the American economy of tomorrow than the model that was crafted in the immediate aftermath of World War II.  That economy is gone forever, as we're reminded every day we drive past shuttered factories and shuttered Sears stores, so the health care coverage that served that economy needs to go away too.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The 20 Worst Country Songs of All-Time

It's only fair.  I just revised my list of the best songs to ever come out of country music.  Now it's time for the worst.  This is an incomplete list of course, limited to my lifetime.  Even the hardest-core fans of old country music readily admit that catastrophically terrible music was recorded and released as singles back in the 1960s and 1970s, but most of those bad songs have been excised from most peoples' memories and are pretty scarce even in the oldies' country radio show circuits I've come across.  Thus, I will limit this list, save one, to songs from my lifetime.

Now I'm somebody who complains a lot about how bad country music has gotten and, for that matter, how much crap one had to wade through even in the genre's mid-90s heyday to find the sparkling gems, but most of what I define overarchingly as "bad" is merely bland and soulless.  It's a relatively small lineup of songs I will categorize as viscerally awful.  When Rick Trevino's horrendous 1995 song "Save This One for Me" fails to make the list by one position, you know you have a horrible list.  But below are 20 songs that meet the criteria, for a variety of different reasons....

#20.  Okie from Muskogee--Merle Haggard (1969)...............It's hard not to put a black mark on Merle Haggard's impressive and distinguished multi-decade career in country music when looking back at the way he stoked societal divisions during the Vietnam War, and never more than with the flag-waving, hippie-baiting anthem "Okie from Muskogee".  Haggard redeemed himself in the final couple decades of his life, when he became a pretty liberal cat, vocally opposing the war in Iraq and then endorsing and repeatedly standing up for President Obama amongst incessant criticism.  Nonetheless, it feels like he's rewriting an embarrassing prior chapter of his life when he said the narrator of "Muskogee" and other songs like it didn't reflect his own view, but were merely giving voice to a point of view of the silent majority.  I'm not really buying that, but it makes it even worse if he did, lending cover to closed-minded assholes.  The ultimately irony is what became of both the city and the singer who lionized it in this song 40-some years after its release.  Haggard, the guy who proclaimed that "we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee", recorded a duet with Willie Nelson a couple of years ago called "It's All Going to Pot", where the video shows Merle and Willie passing the joint around in the studio.  Meanwhile, the mythically puritanical Muskogee, Oklahoma, is so ravaged by drugs that the city of 38,000 has nine drug treatment facilities and one of the highest rates of single-parent homes in the nation.

#19.  She's My Kind of Rain--Tim McGraw (2003).....I've always admired Tim McGraw's instinct for experimentation.  He's never been one to play it safe, and that's part of what's kept him relevant for nearly 25 years now.  But as is always the case with singers who are more experimental, they semiregularly find themselves releasing some real crap.  McGraw is certainly not immune to that and has at least a half dozen cringeworthy trainwrecks to his name going back to his mid-90s origins.  In terms of sheer unintentional comedy though, it's hard to top the manure pile that was 2003's "She's My Kind of Rain", which nearly manages to gloss over its herculean levels of sappiness and gloppiness with its lyrical pretentiousness and high-pitched falsetto vocals.  I know of few people who didn't fall out of their chair laughing at how silly this song was, but McGraw nonetheless got it up to #2 on the charts!

#18. One, Two, I Love You--Clay Walker (1997)..........I've cited before that country music hit a wall in the mid-1990s, very rapidly getting fat and lazy after the spectacular creative spurt it enjoyed in the first half of the 1990s.  The "sensitive guy" takeover was one of the worst offending trendlines, and specific to that trend were love songs with lyrics commingled with nursery rhymes.  One came blame 20-year-old "sensitive guy" pioneer Bryan White for this trend with his 1995 #1 hit "Rebecca Lynn", but for as off-puttingly gooey of a song as "Rebecca Lynn" was, it seemed sincere to who White was as a barely-out-of-high-school artist.  But it was another story altogether when Clay Walker continued this pattern a year later with a far worse song.  Walker was an artist who came out of the starting gate with a fantastic debut album in 1993, showcasing a stylistic and narrative range capable of belting out above-average contemporary uptempo fare while skillfully selling a sad country ballad like "Where Do I Fit in the Picture" and "My Heart Will Never Know" as good as anyone of his era.  Unfortunately, as his career proceeded, Walker mostly steered in the safe lane of commercial country music and occasionally stumbled into the worst gimmicks of the era, such as this smarmy and infantile love song referencing the impact of Mother Goose on a couple's trajectory.

#17. Comin' to Your City--Big and Rich (2005)........The oddball pairing of liberal hippie Big Kenny Alford and archconservative West Texas cowboy John Rich was just crazy and provocative enough to work when they came out in 2003.  As clunky as the songs on their debut album were, nobody could accuse them of being generic.  Unfortunately, right out of the starting gate on their sophomore album a year and a half later, they managed to combine their annoying genre-bending sound with the hollow, self-indulgent lyrics of a song that was pretty much an ode to their own awesomeness.  The outcome was not good, and it killed the modest momentum the duo had on the charts based on their first album.  At least at the time, it looked like the Big and Rich story was already nearing its end, but they got the last laugh, latching on to a few more mainstream songs and scoring bigger hits, breaking up as a duo based on personal grievances, and then reuniting a few years back and are STILL on the charts.  If anybody had told me 10 years ago that Big and Rich would still be on the charts come 2017 I'd have thought they were nuts....yet somehow they still are.

#16.  Live Forever--The Band Perry (2015)......From the outset of their 2010 debut, there was just something really weird about the two-brothers-and-a-sister trio The Band Perry.  They had a few above-average songs during their half decade of country hitmaking, but by and large it was an unsettling ride of oddball tunes that were more annoying than endearing and usually didn't sound like country.  There was always a pop crossover undercurrent with The Band Perry, but rarely has a mainstream act been so bold in attempting to sell a Katy Perry-style histrionic pop anthem as a "country" song the way The Band Perry did in 2015 with the first single from their fourth album, a shrill, self-indulgent, and overproduced assault on the ears that predictably flopped on the country charts and laid the ground work for their formal transition to the pop charts in 2017.  Nothing personal guys, but after trying to get away with this hot mess as a country song, good riddance!

#15.  Little Miss Honkytonk--Brooks and Dunn (1995)......This can probably be said about any act that had a two-decade career, but the legacy of country's most successful duo of all-time, Brooks and Dunn, is a decidedly uneven one.  Lead vocalist Ronnie Dunn has a soulful voice with a considerable range, and that range served the act well on a long list of songs with a variety of different styles over the years.  But Dunn's voice also often had the ability to make a crummy, gimmicky song all the more unbearable...the equivalent of putting sauerkraut on top of spinach.  This criticism applies to at least a half dozen of Brooks and Dunn's hits, but none were as embarrassingly intolerable as "Little Miss Honkytonk", a steaming pile of shit that emerged during the height of country's music line dance era.  As a general rule in the 90s, if a song had the word "honkytonk" in the title it was almost certainly going to suck (the one exception to that rule is Sammy Kershaw's eloquent 1998 ode to the small-town watering hole "Honkytonk America").  But at no other time did it suck worse in the 90s than when Ronnie Dunn was wasting his vocal talents bellowing out "I'm her big cat daddy...she's my little miss honkytonk".

#14.  Bob That Head--Rascal Flatts (2008)......The legacy of country-pop boy band Rascal Flatts is very similar to that of Brooks and Dunn for me, for many of the same reasons.  They've found some good songs over the years and the range of lead singer Gary LeVox has lent some additional emotional resonance to songs like "Here", "Skin (Sarabeth)", "Stand", and the Natasha Bedingfield duet "Easy".  With the help of a fierce closing electric guitar riff, Levox's vocals even came close to salvaging the lyrically empty unsung hero anthem "Every Day".  The flip side is that Levox's range and general vocal style have a tendency to make bad songs that much more shrill.   The annoying "Mayberry", and the even more insufferable "Summer Nights" and "Payback" were all viable contenders for this worst-song list, but nothing Rascal Flatts ever recorded (at least that I've heard) can compare to the combination of stupidity and aural punishment as "Bob That Head", a song that's just as empty as its title suggests, about partiers bopping to the music.  Ironically, the song's generic musical arrangement will have nobody "bobbing their head" to the sound even as they twist facial muscles cringing at the awful lyrics.  Most insulting of all is that in a music scene where literally hundreds of thousands of struggling singer-songwriters can't catch a break, Rascal Flatts can release a piece of garbage called "Bob That Head" in their peak hitmaking years and get to #15 on the charts with it.

#13. Hey! Baby!--Anne Murray (1982)......Somewhat lost among the female country singer legends of yore is Anne Murray, who combined satin-smooth vocals with a number of great songs for a very successful career spanning 20 years in the 70s and 80s, frequently crossing over into the pop charts.  Working against Murray's legacy is her fondness for dated and overly sentimental ballads like "You Needed Me" and "I Just Fall in Love Again" that were popular at the time but don't hold up that well now because of their gooieness, although we may still enjoy listening to those songs behind closed doors with our curtains drawn and headphones on!  But even if those syrupy 70s ballads of Murray's remain a guilty pleasure, one of her hits most certainly does not.  The childish exclamation points in the title of "Hey! Baby!" pretty much tell you all you need to know about the immaturity of this song, and in this case you can judge a song by its title.  It's not saved by a bouncy beat or sophisticated musical arrangement either as the sound is as generic as the sentiment.  Even a teenage Taylor Swift wouldn't have written or recorded a "girl wants boy" ditty this banal, but the fact that Anne Murray was 36 when she recorded it makes it that much more of an embarrassment looking back.

#12.  Get Over Yourself--SheDaisy (2002)......The sister act trio SheDaisy had a more impressive run than one may have expected when they first popped up on the country music scene in 1999, their relentless gimmickry being just clever enough and sprinkled in with just enough above-average songs to keep country listeners interested up until 2006 when they faded away.  It also didn't hurt that all three women were incredibly hot and marketable.  But they almost blew their early momentum with the first single from their second album, "Get Over Yourself", an ironically fitting title for the auteurs of this headache-inducing three minutes of noise, representative of country-pop at its most stereotypically bubblegummy.  The first two versus and choruses are bad enough but the song saves its worst moments for the bridge portion.  Anybody who can make it through that bridge to the song's closing notes is a stronger person than I.

#11.  Wrapped Up in You--Garth Brooks (2001)......There are no other examples I can think of where a successful artist had two phases to their career as diametrically opposed in terms of quality.  For Garth Brooks, the pivot point came after the release of his 1994 "The Hits" anthology.  Pretty much everything he put out before that was inspired, provocative, and memorable, on the front lines of taking country music to a different place than it had been before.  Pretty much everything Brooks put out after "The Hits" was shallow, unmemorable, and lacking soul, not just failing to live up to his prior hits, but well below average even compared to what the new generation of pretty boy crooners of the late 90s and early 2000s were putting out.  Brooks hit bottom with the release of his eighth studio record, "Scarecrow", in 2001, where the first single "Wrapped Up in You" was just a mealy-mouthed mess all-around, lacking anything even remotely attractive in either its sound or lyrics.  How was it possible that the man who had such a great ear for so many memorable songs in his early 90s heyday was now reduced to repeatedly chanting "ba-ba-bababa-ba-ba, ba-babababa-ba" as the LEAD SINGLE from a new album?  Needless to say, his days of consistent hitmaking were nearly at their end.

#10.  Bobbie Sue--Oak Ridge Boys (1982)......Another country act that had two pretty distinct "chapters" was the Oak Ridge Boys, who had a mainstream late 70s country sound in their first few years and had their fair share of quality material.  Their career record, "Elvira", came in 1981, and although it was silly, I'd have been happy to let them get away with it if they returned to more mature material afterwards.  Instead, they doubled-down, releasing a significantly dumber and more annoying ripoff of "Elvira" called "Bobbie Sue" a year later, and were regretfully rewarded with another #1 hit.  The Oak Ridge Boys just got weird from there, releasing a litany of "can't-we-all-just-love-each-other"-style anthems of varying degrees of dorkiness throughout the rest of the 80s, but never did they match the level of insipidness of "Bobbie Sue", which is effectively an avatar of what a terrible country song sounds like in the minds of the genre's critics.

#9. Vacation--Thomas Rhett (2016)......When I was in high school, there was no other country singer I connected to more than Rhett Akins, a young guy with a debut album that seemed to directly cater to guys my age both lyrically and musically, with the most convincing hybrid I've come across of mainstream 90s country and late 80s hair band rock.  Rhett Akins had only modest success with the few albums he released in the mid-90s and nothing else he recorded matched the stunning accomplishments of that 1995 debut album.  However, Rhett Akins went on to be a prolific Nashville songwriter with dozens of hits for other artists on his resume....and his son has gone on to have the career that his father didn't.  After a shaky start a few years back, Thomas Rhett has gone on to become one of the biggest things going in country music today.  He shares his father's diverse musical tastes and inclination to experiment and push the country music boundaries, but for the most part he doesn't share his father's song quality.  Never was that more clear than last year when Rhett attempted to get away with a mindless pile of shit called "Vacation" that makes The Go-Gos 1982 namesake seem downright cerebral by comparison.  Even though Thomas Rhett has been unable to do anything wrong of late, country radio drew the line and kept "Vacation" from becoming a hit.  It takes a lot for country radio these days to say "that ain't country" to a song from one of its biggest hitmakers, but three and a half of minutes of incessantly repeating "hey...let's party like we're on vacation" with a decidedly non-country backbeat was apparently a bridge too far even for them.

#8.  Bumper of My SUV--Chely Wright (2004).......There were quite a few eye-rollingly dumb patriotic anthems to arise at the outset of the war in Iraq, some of them directly endorsing military action, but most of them I was able to dismiss as the ignorant musings of a jingoistic entertainer who was simply offering his own opinion, however worthless that might be.  But it was the cases where the chickenhawks started belittling those who don't share their opinion where I cried foul.  In the case of Chely Wright, she was inspired to write this song based on a lady in traffic giving her the finger, her assumption being that it was based on her U.S. Marines bumper sticker in honor of her brother.  Through the course of the song, the narrator demagogued the motives of the story's antagonist with lame strawmen and ad hominem attacks that reduced the narrator to the level of the woman flipping the bird.  And as other critics of the song have pointed out, it's ironic that the driver cluelessly pointed to the bumper sticker on her "SUV" in reference to a war that was fought over oil.  As was the case with so many of the country crooners responsible for the most egregious one-dimensional pro-war songs, Chely Wright was quite three-dimensional herself.  Sean Hannity embarrassed himself when he invited her on his show during the peak of the 2004 election campaign, assuming he had an ally but discovering that Wright was actually a liberal and did not support George W. Bush.  A few years later, she was the first major country artist to come out of the closet as gay.  Nonetheless, she definitely shamed her legacy by aligning herself with supporters of an indefensible war and using the most mindless arguments to attempt to discredit its critics.

#7. Honkytonk Badonkadonk--Trace Adkins (2006)........One of the best examples of a guilty pleasure in country music history is Mel McDaniel's 1985 hit "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On".  Despite its almost cartoonish chauvinism ogling over a woman's body, it was an undeniably catchy song that's hard not to crank up when it came on the radio.  But McDaniel's song seemed comparatively feminist next to its counterpart 20 years later, which begins and ends with a bunch of guys in a dance club ogling over the female form with the crudest and most comically infantile lyrical language.  As a straight heterosexual male, it was hard not to watch the even more offensive video of a bunch of faceless women shaking their "moneymakers" in front of the singer and other generic guys.  I don't consider myself a prude on these matters, but in the pantheon of objectifying women, this song and its accompanying video managed to insult my intelligence more than it was able to pacify my male instincts.  When country music starts going to strip clubs for its narrative inspiration, we have a problem.

#6.  I'm in Love With a Capital U--Joe Diffie (1995)......One prolific country singer of the 1990s I was never a huge fan of was Joe Diffie.  I just didn't like his voice that well.  His vocals took some of the power away from great songs like "Ships That Don't Come In", put an asterisk of diluted potential next to good songs like "John Deere Green" and "A Night to Remember", and made otherwise merely lackluster songs like "Pickup Man" and "Bigger than the Beatles" sound like grating dreck.  Diffie managed to find some genuinely God-awful songs like "Honkytonk Attitude", "C-O-U-N-T-R-Y", and "Poor Me" that further stains his legacy for me, and any one of them would have fit right in on this list of the worst songs ever....at least if he had never released "I'm in Love With a Capital U", a song from Diffie's catalog that stands in a league of its own on the spectrum of aural assault and lyrical larceny.  The song's celebration of an illiterate suitor's misspelled and grammatically challenged love letter to his girlfriend would be painful enough in the hands of a smooth-toned crooner, but Diffie's vocals make it absolutely wretched.

#5.  Kiss This--Aaron Tippin (2000).......If there was one country singer of the 90s whose vocals annoyed me more than Joe Diffie, it was Aaron Tippin, the gruff and nasally toned South Carolina redneck who nonetheless dragged his hitmaking career out for more than 10 years.  Unlike Diffie though, Tippin's raw sound lent an air of blue-collar authenticity to some of his better songs like "I Got It Honest" and the bluesy "Without Your Love".  But few crooners in Nashville were capable of making an already terrible song sound more grating than Tippin, which he proved on numerous occasions, but never more so than "Kiss This".  Tippin seriously turned a story about a couple getting into a fight and the wife telling the husband to kiss her ass into a three-minute song.  And it was a #1 hit!  It becomes easier to understand why Donald Trump was elected President when you look at some of the public's questionable choices that led up to that moment!

#4.  1994--Jason Aldean (2013)......This song starts with a great premise....an ode to 1994, the best year in country music history.  How can one possibly go wrong with a song that pays tribute to that great year?  It's easy to tell in the first five seconds that this is a painfully bad redneck rap song disguised as country, immediately betraying the legacy of the year the song waxes nostalgic towards with a sound not at all reflective of the music of the time.  And then the song proceeds to pay tribute primarily to one of the mid-90s least impressive artists....Joe Diffie....going so far as to not-so-subtly include the titles of a dozen or so of Diffie's songs in the lyrics and then rap out Diffie's name specifically as what qualifies as a "chorus" for the song.  It has to be heard to be believed.....for anyone with a high enough threshold for pain to endure four minutes of this monstrosity.  In general, Jason Alden is not my kind of country music, but most of his music is at least listenable.  With "1994", he managed to find a song so bad that country radio couldn't catapult it into the top-10 the way it has every other song he's released since 2008.

#3.  Friend Zone--Danielle Bradbery (2015)......I've only watched a few random hours of "The Voice" over the years but I do know that in the show's most highly rated season, mid-teen country cutie Danielle Bradbery was the winner.  Bradbery oozed a special kind of innocence and wholesomeness that almost certainly contributed to her win and defined her brand.  She released two singles from a rushed album right after her "Voice" victory that were semi-hits and stayed in her lane.  But when Bradbery returned a year or so later for her sophomore effort, somebody in her orbit opted for a wholesale departure.  The final product of that effort was the toxic waste dump that passed for a "country" song "Friend Zone", a soul-draining hip-hopped mess where the country cutie gets superficially sassy and brassy in describing to a male friend how he needs to step up his game.  Even worse than the crime against mankind that was the song was the video.  Presumably Bradbery had just turned 18 when the video was produced, and spent half the video shaking her ass into the camera at extremely close range, in the accompaniment of a bunch of skanky, tattoo-covered barely legal female friends behaving just as inappropriately.  It's hard to think of another scenario where an artist and her handlers so badly misjudged their audience.  It was way too early to turn Bradbery's image into a slutty sex kitten in the minds of the "Voice" viewers who voted for her yearning for a sweet, innocent girl singing virtuous songs.  There was plenty of time for her to morph into a "naughty girl" in the years ahead, but after jumping the gun in doing so, they probably ruined her career. 

#2. Planet Texas--Kenny Rogers (1989)......When Kenny Rogers went country in the late 70s, he came out of the starting gate with several classic songs that gave him considerable leverage to proceed the directions he wanted to creatively from there.  He dominated country's early 80s "urban cowboy" era with the pop-sweetened love songs produced by Lionel Richie, and then really ventured in some strange directions in the second half of the 80s.  He went full-on Bruce Springsteen rock with "The Pride is Back", a patriotic anthem co-opted in an ad campaign for Plymouth cars.  But in 1989, he released the most surreal song in country music history with "Planet Texas", which plays more like a children's tale set to music describing an alien invasion of cowboy boots-wearing spacemen who descended upon a dusty West Texas town.  The video was even more surreal, with 80s-era graphics depicting Kenny riding in outer space on horseback over the rings of Saturn, and later with his cowboy hat covered in ice after riding past Pluto.  It's impossible to imagine who could have thought this was a good idea for a commercial country song, but clearly somebody did as it was the debut single from a new album and a pretty healthy budget appears to have been spent on that hilariously bad video.  I usually give some bonus points for songs outside the box, but when they're outside the solar system, I tend to think the Nashville writers should probably have snorted a little less cocaine in the studio while musing over song ideas.

#1. Have You Forgotten?--Darryl Worley (2003)......I've cited in some of the previous write-ups how most of the singer-songwriters of country's most jingoistic anthems are more three-dimensional than you'd think in their political views.  Even Toby Keith has described himself as a conservative Democrat and has been fairly active in the Oklahoma Democratic Party over the years.  But one guy who is every bit as much of a cartoon character as his lyrics indicate is Darryl Worley, writer of the country song that more than any other song in American history is responsible for us getting involved in a war.  Like "Bumper of My SUV", "Have You Forgotten's" poison stems from its sneering judgments, strawmen, and non-sequitirs aimed at critics of the war rather than merely stating "one man's opinion".  Worley insists that the song was written about US military involvement in the war in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, and that may be true, but if so it makes matters worse because the song was hastily recorded, rapidly rushed to radio stations, and timed for an album release just as the war in Iraq began in the spring of 2003.  That certainly made the interpretation of the lyrics transferable to waging war against Saddam Hussein to avenge 9/11.  For the longest time, a majority of the public bought into the never-spoken-but-always-implied association between Hussein and the attacks on 9/11.  Even more than the Bush administration, the chart success of "Have You Forgotten?" cemented that false narrative.  "Have You Forgotten?" was a garbage song all-around, but given that it was intractably linked to the advancement of the biggest foreign policy blunder in our nation's history, it stands alone at the bottom of the sewer as country music's all-time worst song.


Oh I suppose I could have done a "bottom-25 list" here.  As I was compiling the list, I just remembered Jerrod Niemann's 2014 howler "Donkey", which Niemann himself admitted may have been the worst song ever, but the very fact that it's performer concedes that the song is that bad oddly takes it out of contention.  So I think I'll let the list stand by itself.  Unlike my top-300 list which there aren't that many songs from the past several years, you may notice that this list is pretty heavily weighted towards the last several years.  Unfortunately, the trajectory of country music today suggests that my list is likely to be obsolete in a year or two.