The Shape of the 2018 Elections: New Volunteers, New Movements?

by Betty O’Shaughnessy and Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century

Results of the primary elections held during April through June begin to paint a picture of an evolving politics in the country. The results of the May and June primaries show that grassroots campaigns with women activists can be successful, although heavy financial support of the national parties’ leadership often gives victory to their endorsed candidates regardless of gender. For instance, in May, the Georgia Democratic primary for governor showed charismatic, heavily endorsed Stacey Abrams crushing Stacey Evans, whose campaign strategy seemed geared toward winning back poor rural voters.  Incumbent and heavily backed Dianne Feinstein easily won the Democratic nomination for California’s Senate seat; a Democratic takeover of the Senate would make her chair of the powerful judiciary committee. Pundits are now predicting that women in Congress will reach at least 25% representation from their current level of 20%.

While grassroots efforts are not always successful, they are effectively harnessing the renewed political awareness spreading – in both parties.  In Kentucky, schoolteachers came out to support one of their own, Travis Benda, to defeat the GOP state House leader, Jonathan Shell.  In the Democratic primary for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district, former fighter pilot Amy McGrath won over DCCC endorsed Jim Gray. found that in Texas, more than half of the 50 women running for Congress in both parties won their primaries. In California, Katie Hill, a grassroots progressive, won the Democratic primary for the 25th District Congressional seat.

While the “Blue Wave” of winning Democrats likely to turn districts from Red to Blue is continuing through the summer, nonetheless, pundits are commenting that the Republican party is now really the party of Donald Trump, whose tweets are effective in supporting his followers, and that many Republicans in Congress are reluctant to counter him for fear of losing in the November election. While some extreme candidates – such as former coal executive and ex-con Don Blankenship of West Virginia – have been defeated in Republican primaries by more moderate candidates, others are still winning important elections. In June, for instance, longtime incumbent Mark Sanford lost South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District’s Republican primary, to Katy Arrington, a vocal Trump supporter, and white-supremacist-backed Corey Stewart gained the Republican nomination for the Virginia Senate contest.

So although Democrats will clearly make gains in 2018, it is still problematic whether they can take back either house of Congress and probably will remain unpredictable until November. The final primaries will be held in August, after which we will know most party slates for the midterm election in November. It is important to remember that a lot can happen in the five months between now and then.

As we write in our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century (Kansas University Press, 2016), the theme of the campaign is critical.  In 2016, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Bernie Sanders theme of fixing income inequality both resonated with the country.  In 2018, both the women’s movement and disgust with Washington are working for candidates, and is reflected in both the campaign themes and the number of volunteers in especially many grassroots campaigns. This year, 422 women are at this date running for US House seats, and 49 women are running for the Senate.  And they are often winning, especially in close races. In the May 15th Democratic primaries, women won one US Congressional district in Nebraska, two in Pennsylvania as well as two contested state house races, and won one of two highly contested state senate races in Oregon. Many of the women ran in Democratic primaries but more Republican women are running and winning as well. Most women candidates have the help of grassroots local groups, using the strategies described in Winning Elections. These (mostly) women are active mainly in local groups that are similar but not closely connected across the country.

This is not just a case of a reverse Tea Party on the left taking over. As Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol relate in a recent article, Progressive candidates have clearly won some elections but much of the change – especially the movement from Red to Blue is taking place in the suburban areas and being led by people who are pragmatic about winning. The new activists are not primarily leftist ideologues but retired teachers, librarians, and community leaders who don’t like the way the 2016 elections turned out or the Trump policies since then. Moreover, issues that have sat dormant, such as gerrymandering, ERA, and doing away with the Electoral College, are mobilizing activists. Some activists are addressing the fairness of wealthy candidates — such as the gubernatorial nominees for both parties in Illinois — self-financing their primary campaigns. But these volunteers — whether supporting candidates, issues, or both — as part of the “Me too” movement, the resistance, or just unhappy with the state of the country, are using their skills to do the old fashion precinct work, phone calling, and neighbor-to-neighbor contact that we recommend as essential for winning elections in the 21st century.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.

Following the 2018 Election – A Preview

by Betty O’Shaughnessy and Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century.

Two major events of January 20 set the stage for the 2018 election: the massive second Women’s March represented a nationwide upwelling of grassroots activism; and the partial government shutdown affirmed a dysfunctional government in Washington. Both portend a showdown at the polls in 2018.

The 2018 party primary elections begin in March. As set forth in our University Press of Kansas book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century, the first key to the outcome of any election, including these primaries, is money. The 2018 election will be the most expensive off-year elections in American history. Already billionaire candidates for Illinois governor are on track to spend over $50 million each. All congressional candidates will have to raise more than $2 million to be competitive.

Although money is most important, what candidates do with it and how they campaign is also vital. Contenders must have a message that resonates with voters, and a well-organized campaign successfully using both traditional and tech-savvy methods to find and contact potential supporters in person and get them to the polls on Election Day.

U.S. Senate:

The election of a Democrat, Doug Jones from Alabama in a special election victory has already realigned the balance of power in the Senate. Republicans now hold a 51-49 majority; John McCain’s illness makes the margin even closer. With 26 Democratic senators up for re-election and only eight Republicans, the Democrats would have to retain all their seats and pick up Republican seats in Nevada and Arizona. It is unlikely that they can achieve that unless there is truly a massive “anti-Trump” groundswell.

U.S. House:

As with most midterm elections, pundits are predicting that the party out of power (this year the Democratic) is likely to gain seats in Congress. At present, House Republicans have a 241-194 majority in the House, which means that the Democrats need to gain 24 seats to retake the Speakership. Open seats are the easiest to capture, and as of late January, there are 14 Democratic House seats and 27 Republican seats in which the incumbent is not running (not including three vacant or soon-to-be-vacant Republican seats).

Races to Watch in March:

During March, only Texas and Illinois are holding primaries. Some key congressional races in both states will shed light on possible trends in the rest of the country in November.


A true “battleground” district in Texas is the 23rd. In 2016, Republican Will Hurd narrowly defeated Democrat Peter Gallego. At present, five democratic candidates are running in the primary. Of these, Jay Hulings and Gina Jones have the largest campaign chests and are considered strong candidates to defeat Hurd in November.

Although at present the 7th Texas Congressional District race is considered “likely Republican,” The Hill, Mother Jones, Politico and several news outlets consider this election as one of the top 10 House races to watch; Republican incumbent John Culberson was reelected in 2016, Hillary Clinton carried his district. The Hill identifies Alex Triantaphyllis and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher as the top Democratic contenders.

There are seven open House seats in Texas, five of which are “red.” Only the 21st District seems vulnerable to Democrats. Both parties are running a field of candidates here, with businessman and Army veteran Democrat Joe Kopser and former US Congressman Republican Francisco Canseco raising the most money.

Because Texas has been such a strong Republican state, the ability of viable Democratic candidates to win their primaries and knock out some Texas Republican Congressmen in the 2018 November general election will be a harbinger of whether or not the grassroots groundswell of support will change the balance of power in Washington.


Illinois is the opposite of Texas. Despite having a Republican governor who is up for reelection, it is a “blue” state. Several districts currently held by Republicans face strong challenges from Democrats and none of the currently Democratic seats seem likely to be lost.

The Illinois 6th District is marked by Politico as a “race to watch.” Democrats like to say that suburban DuPage County, long considered a stronghold of Republican politics, is turning “blue.” Despite changing public opinion in parts of his district, Republican Peter Roskam generally voted Trump’s position and could be facing a serious challenge. Among the many Democrats running in the primary, the top contenders, fund-wise, are Emily’s List-endorsed Kelly Mazeski and environmental scientist and businessman Sean Casten. If the Democrats elect a strong candidate in the primary, they may defeat Roskam in an upset.

Many observers believe Southern Illinois’ 12th District is the most likely to flip from “red” to “blue.”  St. Clair County State’s Attorney and Navy veteran Brendan Kelly is challenging Republican incumbent Mike Bost and has outraised him by $100,000 for the first quarter. Although President Trump won the district by 58% of the vote in 2016, Democrats see this race as winnable, as U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth won by 8% and Obama won this district twice.

Yet in the end, these critical races and the control of Congress depend on turnout. In off-year elections like 2018, turnout is generally only 25-30%, with Millennials voting even less. To defeat enough Republicans to regain Congress, the anti-Trump voters will have to turn out in much higher numbers. The primary elections will provide the first indication of whether that will happen.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.