Expert Weighs in on Alumni Congressional Midterm Races

GSPM political scientist Michael Cornfield analyzes the races of eight candidates from GW running in the upcoming congressional midterm elections.

October 22, 2018

U.S. Capitol

(William Atkins/GW Today)

By Tatyana Hopkins

The 2018 midterm elections might seem to be unusually heated, but the main factors driving this year’s elections are the same factors that have driven midterms for decades, said Michael Cornfield, Graduate School of Political Management professor and political researcher.

Dr. Cornfield, an author and research director for the Global Center for Political Management, also directs the Public Echoes of Rhetoric in America (PEORIA) Project, a research initiative that seeks to quantify how voters react to campaign messaging.

He shared his expert analysis on November’s approaching congressional elections, including the races of eight candidates who are former George Washington University students.

He said the first midterm during a new presidency traditionally tends to be a battle against the incumbent in the White House, and this election will not deviate from that norm.

“Donald Trump has very low job approval ratings despite a robust economy,” Dr. Cornfield said. “Most polls and poll aggregators forecast the Democrats retaking the House because of an expectation that voters will seek an institutional check on Trump.” 

As Democrats show strength in dozens of suburban congressional districts, he said, the Senate likely will maintain its Republican majority due to the number of open seat in states where Republican support is high.

Of the eight former GW students on the ballot for national office on Nov. 6, half of them are incumbents. The other half are seeking first terms in congressional districts.

Incumbents Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), B.A. ’75; Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.), M.D. ’79; and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), J.D. ’04, are seeking re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In addition, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a former GW student and a fervent critic of Trump, is running to keep her seat in the U.S. Senate. Her chief opponent is former Trump state campaign co-chair Geoff Diehl.

Dr. Cornfield said political conventions will more than likely work in Ms. Warren’s favor in her contest. “Incumbents win more than 90 percent of the time,” he said. “That will probably be the case for Sen. Warren.”

Dr. Cornfield said the alumni incumbent representatives are all likely to prevail in their races.

He said even Ms. Brownley is likely to win in her “Malibu-centered district despite having an entertainer as an opponent” in her race against Republican soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. 

Forecasts from poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight support Dr. Cornfield’s analysis.

Based on the site’s projections Ms. Brownley in California and Mr. Dunn in a Florida panhandle district both have about a 99.9 percent chance to win their elections with each of them expected to get just over 66 percent of the vote.

Similarly, Mr. Soto is predicted to take a majority of the vote in his district just south of Orlando against Republican Wayne Liebnitzky.

Here is a look at other congressional races of GW alumni:

Tatiana Matta: California’s 23rd District

Ms. Matta, who completed work toward her master's degree in strategic public relations in spring 2018, is making a Democratic bid in California’s 23rd District, the south-central portion of the state that includes part of Los Angeles, Kern and Tulare counties. Poll projections put her behind her incumbent challenger Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a “solid Republican” race, predicting she will get just over 35 percent of the vote share.

Tatiana Matta [is] in a near hopeless race against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy,” Dr. Cornfield said.

Gretchen Driskell, M.B.A. ’87: Michigan’s 7th District

Dr. Cornfield said Gretchen Driskell, M.B.A. ’87, in her second try to unseat Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) in the congressional district in the state’s southeastern region, has “a chance.”

In the latest FiveThirtyEight data, Ms. Driskell trails her incumbent competitor by a small margin and is projected to get 49 percent of the vote. “Driskell has a chance for an upset, being close to even in cash-on-hand,” Dr. Cornfield said.

Gil Cisneros, B.A. ’94: California’s 39th District

Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros, B.A. ’94, is in a toss-up race against Republican Young Kim in California’s 39th District, where Republican incumbent Rep. Ed Royce is retiring. The congressional district includes part of Los Angeles and Orange and San Bernardino counties.

“Cisneros has more money, thanks in part to having won a huge lottery a few years back, but he lacks political experience, whereas Kim worked for Rep. Royce for more than 20 years,” Dr. Cornfield said.

Susan Wild, J.D. ’82: Pennsylvania’s 7th District

Democratic candidate Susan Wild, J.D. ’82, has good odds of beating Republican opponent Marty Nothstein in their House race in the Allentown, Pa., area where courts recently redrew district lines and incumbent Republican Rep. Charlie Dent retired.

Ms. Wild has a 97 percent chance of winning with about 55 percent of votes, according to poll predictions.

“Wild has a narrow lead in the polls and more cash-on-hand in her contest against Nothstein,” Dr. Cornfield said.

Two other members of Congress who are alumni--Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.), J.D. ’73, and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), M.S. ’74, --are retiring at the end of their terms.

Dr. Cornfield said the poll projections from FiveThirtyEight are not likely to change. “The numbers are not likely to change much,” he said. “They respond to big news events such as the Kavanaugh nomination, but after a few days return to the narrow band where they were.”