In this edition: Republicans yearn for a Midwest upset, a Montana libertarian becomes a kingmaker, “visiting professor” becomes a campaign insult and tight polls remain tight.

I wonder if we'll ever stop comparing ads to the Willie Horton ad, and this is The Trailer.

DETROIT — On Wednesday night after trick-or-treating with his kids, Michigan’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate appeared on Fox News to speak directly to President Trump.

“Mr. President, if you’re watching, please come to Michigan. You have excellent luck on Election Day eve,” John James said, referring to Trump’s surprise 2016 victory in the state.

Also on “Hannity” on Wednesday were Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Republican Senate candidates whose races have attracted tens of millions of dollars in outside spending. Both have led in some polls; both have trailed in some polls.

James, a 37-year-old Army veteran making his first bid for office, has had no such outside spending and, according to private and public polls, is around 10 points behind Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). But in the waning days of the midterms, Republicans, told for months that the election will break against them, are looking for upsets and inspiration. Until the polls close Tuesday, the mantra on conservative media is: Why believe the experts when they blew it in 2016?

“Michigan’s a special place,” James said in an interview before heading to a rally with White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. “This a state where both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won.”

This week’s Republican optimism comes in two flavors. First: There is plenty of evidence, in polling and in turnout patterns, that the party could expand its majority in the Senate. Republicans now talk confidently about defeating Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen; they see themselves in a stronger position than a month ago in Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Montana and Nevada.

The second flavor, the sugar rush conservatives are seeing on Fox News and conservative media, is of an election that could topple Democrats who thought they were safe. James has become the star of that story line, especially since the start of October, when he became the only Republican challenger in the country to double a Democrat’s fundraising for the third quarter. Stabenow has outraised James, with $17.1 million to his $9.8 million, and she beat him to the airwaves, but the Republican has blown past every challenger Stabenow has faced since her first reelection in 2006.

He’s also been nimble. When Democratic activist Abdul El-Sayed made fun of Donald Trump Jr.'s endorsement of James, the Republican candidate tweeted out his life story (“West Point grad and Iraq vet with two masters [degrees]"), got 30,000 RTs, and raised a ton of money online. When Stabenow ran an endorsement video from a craft beer brewer, James tweeted out a video of that same brewer changing his mind to endorse him. That and a steady stream of Fox News appearances, on everything from the fate of the Affordable Care Act to whether Democrats took black votes for granted — James is African American — built a following larger than most other Republican challengers this year.

“We have over 100,000 donors, and the average donation is under $45,” James said. “In the age of digital, nothing beats connecting with people on a personal level.”

In a cycle that has seen Democrats nominate a record number of female, gay, and nonwhite candidates, Republicans have relatively few candidates who'd change the face of their party. Just one black Republican, New Hampshire's Eddie Edwards, has been nominated for Congress in a competitive race; Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), the only black female Republican in the House, has trailed in recent polls after a campaign plagued by spending controversies.

The president has tweeted his praise of James several times, most helpfully before the August primary, and said on Fox News that James was “doing so well that I’m trying to get to Michigan.” Trump Jr. joined Kid Rock for a rally this month, designed to show that James could build on the president's coalition in Detroit’s suburbs; Vice President Pence rallied with James on Monday. One theme of the rallies, and the coverage in conservative media: Why was there so much buzz about Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke in Texas and so little about James?

“One can win his state, the other will not,” wrote columnist Salena Zito in the New York Post, suggesting that James was the one with the shot at victory. “With a little flow of cash and some borrowed time, [James] could be this year’s Larry Hogan.

Ironically, conservatives say that last year’s early buzz about Kid Rock as a Senate candidate — which he later said was a joke — kept Michigan’s race off the map. There were other differences with the Texas race; defeating Stabenow, who rarely seizes the spotlight and has never harbored presidential ambitions, was not as compelling an idea for Republican donors as defeating Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas was for Democrats. 

And then there were the campaigns, with different lessons about the state of the parties. O’Rourke has run as an unabashed liberal, portraying Cruz as an absentee senator focused on running for president. James has run two campaigns — a primary, in which he highlighted his support from Trump, and a general election, in which he has recast himself as an independent.

In paid TV ads, he’s never mentioned that he’s a Republican nominee; the closest he came, in a 60-second spot, was an appeal to black voters to leave the Democratic Party and “have a seat at both tables.” Democrats were especially confused by a 30-second spot that had James explaining that he “hated politics” but did not mention that he was running for Senate.

“It was like, wait, what are you running for?” said Gretchen Whitmer, the state's Democratic nominee for governor.

“I didn’t mention the Republican Party in the primary,” James said. "I said I was a conservative. I’m a Republican because I’m a conservative. I’m a pragmatic and practical, and I realize that the way the system is set up, to make positive change you have to run on the inside, with the party that aligns with your values."

In his two debates with Stabenow, where he made a sharp contrast with the 68-year-old incumbent, James responded to the senator’s statements about her record — bailing out the auto industry, getting funding for local infrastructure — by asking: “What took you so long?” When Stabenow brought up James’s endorsement by Trump, the Republican said it came with no strings: “I’ll work with the president when it benefits Michigan and against him when it goes against Michigan.”

The debate also clarified why 2018 was going to be a tough year for any Republican in Michigan. The president’s 2016 campaign did better than Democrats wanted to admit in blurring the distinctions between the parties, portraying Hillary Clinton as the candidate of big banks and portraying Trump as the candidate of fair trade and universal health care.

James is one of several 2018 insurgents working on the same sort of rebrand. In New Jersey, Republican Bob Hugin has run ads describing him as a “different kind of Republican” who’ll stand up to the president. In Minnesota, Republican Karin Housley’s latest ad accuses Sen. Tina Smith (D) of having “abandoned women who were victims of abuse,” while Housley will “always show up to protect seniors, to secure our border, and to protect coverage for preexisting conditions.” The border security line is the only clue that Housley is a Republican.

The problem in each race: The president is who the president is. National Democrats, who’ve invested in Minnesota and New Jersey, are running ads that link Hugin and Housley to the effort to repeal the ACA. Stabenow, who has run no negative ads against James, is simply running on her record and reminding voters that she’s stood up to Trump.

James has said that's a distortion of the campaign he's running. “I’ve told the president to his face that I can agree with him without worshiping him and disagree with him without attacking him,” he said.

In 2016, that message worked for a number of Republican candidates. In 2018, it's more of a struggle, even — perhaps especially — for a candidate that the president calls a “rock star” on Fox News.

TURNOUT WATCH

Here are two numbers to remember: 31,892 and 262,425.

In 2012, when Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) won his second term, 31,892 voters cast ballots for Jon Cox, the Libertarian Party nominee. That was bigger than the margin Tester won by, in a state with around 700,000 registered voters.

So far this year, 262,425 voters have already cast their ballots. That's 70.2 percent as many votes as were cast in the entire 2014 midterm, and it's a bit more than half as many votes that were cast in the 2016 presidential election.

Why does any of that matter? Because yesterday, the Libertarian nominee in Montana dropped out of the race, saying he was furious that a shadowy group had sent mailers to Republicans urging them to vote for him instead of GOP nominee Matt Rosendale.

This is a lucky break for Republicans. But the early vote number is a problem for them. Half of the electorate, maybe more, has already voted in an election that had Libertarian Rick Breckenridge on the ballot. Montana is one of 17 states where this year's early vote has surpassed 2014's already; it's one of nine states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee and Texas, where the early vote this year is more than half the size of the total vote from 2014.

Breckenridge is one of several third-party candidates who's closed up his campaign to endorse a stronger candidate, and a narrow Rosendale win would have to share some of the credit with him. The irony: Montana may be the worst state to make an 11th-hour announcement and move votes.

On top of that, Breckenridge told Reason magazine today that although he has endorsed Rosendale, he has not ended his own campaign.

AD WATCH

California Governor. How confident is Gavin Newsom that he'll win this race for Democrats? His campaign took the time to make a 60-second rhyming cartoon about the opportunity voters have to banish the Republican majority from Congress, a cartoon that features Newsom wearing Michael Jackson's leather get-up from the “Thriller” video.

Kansas Governor. The independent candidacy of Greg Orman has never taken off here, and Orman's treasurer quit his campaign this week to endorse the Democratic nominee, Laura Kelly. This pro-Orman PAC ad, which portrays all three candidates as trains (and the two parties going “off the track"), explains the problem; even a “pox on both sides” argument posits this as an uneven choice between a Democrat who will raise taxes and a Republican who's a “national disgrace.”

Minnesota Senate. The first independent expenditure in the special election to replace Al Franken came, surprisingly, from Democrats. Appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D) has led in polls and doubled up Republican Karin Housley in fundraising. But as discussed above, Housley has kept the race close, in part, by attacking Smith from the left, accusing the Democrat of betraying seniors and vulnerable women. The DSCC's response: $1.1 million behind TV and digital ads that kitchen-sink Housley for backing repeal of the ACA which would — take a deep breath — “gut protections for preexisting conditions, raised premiums on Minnesotans by over $3,000 a year, and slap an age tax on seniors.” Smith's own ads have been almost uniformly positive, so the DSCC is doing the dirty work.

New York 24. The only polling in this district has put Rep. John Katko (R) far ahead of Democrat Dana Balter, but the NRCC has landed with a buy designed to bury Balter. It features one of the year's most subtly acidic insults of a candidate: “Visiting Professor Dana Balter.” It also makes use of a small tax problem in Balter's past, a theme of attack ads this year. (One of the least convincing GOP closing arguments? That probing President Trump's tax returns will backfire on Democrats.)

Wisconsin Governor. The closing weeks of this race became an arms race, a question of who had the spottier record. Gov. Scott Walker attacked Democrat Tony Evers over instances of apparent plagiarism in some of the budgets Evers filed as the state's chief education officer. Evers collected the names and endorsements of former Walker administration officials who had soured on the governor. In 2014, Walker used plagiarism allegations in his opponent's jobs plan to hammer her in the final days. He's not putting this year's story on the air; Evers, meanwhile, is closing by bringing up all those Walker exiles.

POLL WATCH

Arizona Senate (CNN/SSRS, 702 Likely Voters)
Kyrsten Sinema (D) - 51%
Martha McSally (R) - 47%

Republicans don't see Sinema cracking 50 percent, but the Trump approval numbers for likely voters (47 percent) are within the boundaries of what both parties expect. If there's bad Republican news here — considering that Sinema's lead has shrunk since September — it's that a month of attention on Sinema's snarky comments about Arizona as the "meth lab of democracy" didn't solve McSally's likeability issue. Both candidates saw their unfavorable numbers jump by 11 points. That left Sinema with an eight-point positive rating and McSally underwater by three.

Missouri Senate (Fox News, 741 Likely Voters)
Claire McCaskill (D) - 43%
Josh Hawley (R) - 43%
Craig O'Dear (I) - 3%

This is the third Fox News poll of the state and the second to show a literal tie, even as Republicans point to their own numbers that suggest Hawley began to break through last month. Any idea that Hawley had pulled away, though, was belied by the White House scheduling two presidential rallies in the final days. Democrats are watching two factors — whether O'Dear, one of this year's many independents who hasn't caught on, pulls more from Hawley than McCaskill, and whether voters pay attention to what's been a tough two weeks of stories about Hawley's brief and politically ambitious career as attorney general. 

Florida Governor (CNN/SSRS, 887 Likely Voters)
Andrew Gillum (D) - 49%
Ron DeSantis (R) - 48%

CNN's last poll here helped drive the impression that Gillum was ahead by a mile. That's never been seen in the Democrat's polling, and he's faced a unique problem in the final stretch — the attorney for his former treasurer publishing reams of documents from an ethics probe into Gillum's administration. 

 

New Jersey 07 (Monmouth, 356 Likely Voters)
Tom Malinowski (D) - 47%
Leonard Lance (R) - 44%

This is the East Coast district that will determine whether 2018 is as rough on Republican moderates as 2010 was tough on Democratic Blue Dogs. Lance has run an error-free campaign and cast votes against the most unpopular Republican bills of 2017. But he remains a Republican in a district where a majority of voters disapprove of the president.

Pennsylvania Governor (Franklin & Marshall, 214 Likely Voters)
Tom Wolf (D) - 59%
Scott Wagner (R) - 33%

Is it really possible that a swing state lost by Democrats in 2016 could go so strongly for a Democratic governor? It is: Wagner has run one of 2018's worst campaigns, drawing national attention for a rambling video in which he promised to stomp on Wolf's face with golf cleats. Wolf has run a safe, defensive and effective campaign, most memorably by agreeing to just one televised debate in which moderator Alex Trebek wasted time describing his own policy positions. The only question here is whether Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have coattails that help Democrats maximize their House gains and change the makeup of the state legislature. Wagner is doing so poorly in the Pittsburgh area, in particular, that Democrats believe they could oust the state House speaker.

2020

Oprah Winfrey. She says she's not running, and she has campaigned for other candidates without ever running for office herself. Nonetheless: It's noteworthy that she campaigned in Georgia for Stacey Abrams.

Joe Biden. He's continuing to stump for Democrats in places where other Democrats might not be popular; in Michigan's 8th District today, in Pennsylvania's 8th District Sunday. The first is a suburban gerrymander where Democrats see opportunity; the second is a newly redrawn district that's trending Republican but where Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) has been ahead in polls. 

Cory Booker. A Democratic defeat in New Jersey's Senate race, unlikely as it seems, would be devastating to any future Booker campaign. The senator will be back in New Jersey on Sunday, holding a rally for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

Eric Garcetti. He's also staying close to home, traveling this weekend from Los Angeles to San Diego to campaign for Ammar Campa-Najjar, the challenger to indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

Elizabeth Warren. She campaigned in Ohio on Thursday and will stump with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) on Friday.

Marianne Williamson. The lifestyle guru, who, yes, has taken trips to Iowa and, yes, considered a run for president, endorsed Democratic activist Nomiki Konst in the race for New York City public advocate. (That election will happen in 2019 if, as expected, Public Advocate Tish James is elected attorney general of New York next week.)

READING LIST

"With $30 million, obscure Democratic group floods the zone in House races," by Alexander Burns

This look at the Hub Project, a "dark money" group that has surprised Republicans in a number of off-the-map House races, does not fully explain who funds it. What it does is preview a future of Democratic operatives welcoming mystery cash and using it to fund innocuous-sounding causes, while the Democratic candidates themselves run against shady campaign finance.

"For a groundbreaking candidate in West Virginia, big money and attention come with downsides," by Greg Jaffe

Richard Ojeda's campaign for Congress has been irresistible to the press; a muscled military veteran who campaigns in combat boots and denounces big banks is the character profile writers dream of. But how has national buzz affected his campaign? NB: The president's final pre-midterm visit to West Virginia is in Ojeda's district.
 

Where the money is going in the final push before Election Day, by John Muyskens, Anu Narayanswamy, Shelly Tan and Monica Ulmanu

Outside money means incumbents are being outspent in a number of Senate races, and the number of competitive House districts is bringing in tons of money, too. It’ll update against Friday and Monday.

COUNTDOWN

... five days until the midterms
... 14 days until House GOP leadership elections
... 34 days until House Democratic leadership elections
... 63 days until the election of the next House speaker