Thursday, December 22, 2016

What I Didn't Expect in Baseball in 2016

There has been a lot to reflect on in 2016. Some of those year-in-review pieces are serious; others are more light-hearted. This is the latter. Having already shared my thoughts on politics, I now turn to another year-end tradition around these parts: revisiting my preseason baseball predictions. Because predicting ball is an exercise in futility, grading my MLB predictions is always a humbling experience; more often, it's a hilarious one, filled with "boy, was I wrong" moments as well as the occasional "jeez, that wild guess was scary accurate." Let's dig into my 2016 American League and National League predictions to see how I did.

Prediction: The AL playoff teams would be the Blue Jays, Rays, Indians, Astros, and Rangers. The NL playoff teams would be the Mets, Nationals, Cubs, Cardinals, and Giants.
What Really Happened: The Blue Jays, Indians, and Rangers made it, but the Red Sox and Orioles replaced the Rays and Astros. In the NL, I missed only the Dodgers, who replaced the Cardinals. Overall, seven out of 10 playoff teams was pretty good! I also estimated the win totals of 14 teams within five; my average error of 6.4 wins was better than any of the five years I've been making official predictions.

Prediction: The Dodgers would lead baseball in days on the disabled list. The injury bug would be particularly devastating to their starting rotation, with only Clayton Kershaw surpassing 200 innings en route to another Cy Young Award.
What Really Happened: One of my eeriest predictions. The Dodgers' snakebitten starting rotation was the story of the summer in Los Angeles, and not even Kershaw was immune: a herniated disk in his back interrupted an historic season and cost him over 10 starts, enabling Washington's Max Scherzer to steal the Cy Young trophy. Kenta Maeda ended up leading the Dodgers with only 175.2 innings, and LA set new major-league records for most players put on the DL in one season (28) and man-days spent on the DL (2,418).

Prediction: Three Indians pitchers would throw no-hitters: Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar.
What Really Happened: Only one pitcher league-wide tossed a no-no in 2016: Jake Arrieta on April 21.

Prediction: The Orioles would slug 250 home runs as a team—a number not seen since the 2010 Blue Jays—but would be led in OBP by slap hitter Hyun Soo Kim.
What Really Happened: Baltimore hit 253, 28 more than the next most powerful team. Kim's .382 OBP led all Orioles with at least 16 plate appearances.

Prediction: Julio Teheran would struggle his way to a 4.00 ERA, clearing a path for Ender Inciarte to be the most valuable Brave. He would even be better than the man he was in part traded for: Shelby Miller. Patrick Corbin and maybe even Robbie Ray would allow fewer runs than their new Arizona teammate.
What Really Happened: Inciarte put up 3.8 WAR, third-best on the Braves. Freddie Freeman (6.5 WAR) led the squad, and Teheran righted the ship to the tune of a 3.21 ERA, 4.07 K/BB ratio, and 4.9 WAR. As for Miller? He was worth just −0.8 WAR for the Diamondbacks. Corbin (5.15 ERA) and Ray (4.90) both had terrible seasons, but not nearly the disaster that was Miller's (6.15).

Prediction: The Royals would have a better record when Raúl Mondesí Jr. starts at shortstop than when Alcides Escobar does.
What Really Happened: Trick question: Mondesí never started at shortstop but instead played almost exclusively second base. Meanwhile, Escobar and his .261/.292/.350 batting line inexplicably started every single game the Royals played. Yet sure enough, Kansas City's record in just Mondesí starts was 23–17, and overall (i.e., in Escobar starts) it was just 81–81.

Prediction: Jon Gray would be dominant on the road—posting a 2.80 ERA—but would be unable to solve Coors Field, stumbling to a 5.20 home ERA.
What Really Happened: The Rockies phenom actually struggled more on the road: a 4.91 ERA. At home, he was a surprisingly good 4.30 ERA pitcher, limiting hitters to an excellent .241/.291/.383 line at altitude.

Prediction: Kevin Cash and Bruce Bochy would be voted 2016's Managers of the Year. Terry Francona would be runner-up in the American League. Buck Showalter would have such a disappointing season he would be shown the door.
What Really Happened: Neither Cash nor Bochy came close to sniffing the award, which went to Francona in the Junior Circuit. Showalter kept his job, but he did take heat after failing to use Zach Britton in a key situation in the Wild Card Game.

Prediction: Age would catch up to Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler in Detroit. Verlander's fastball velocity would tick down until he led the Tigers with the highest WHIP on the team. Meanwhile, Mike Pelfrey would boast the league's highest ERA.
What Really Happened: Verlander's WHIP did lead the team—in a good way. It was the lowest in the entire AL, in fact. According to PITCHf/x, his fastball averaged 93.7 miles per hour, his best mark since 2013. Likewise, the highest ERA in the American League didn't belong to Pelfrey—but rather his teammate, Aníbal Sánchez. Far from deteriorating, Kinsler upped his WAR for the fourth year in a row (to 6.1) and won a Gold Glove.

Prediction: Bryce Harper would disappoint in the follow-up to his insane MVP season of 2015. He would maintain the same beastly rate stats, but he would miss a third of the season due to injury.
What Really Happened: Bryce stayed healthy for the second full season—or at least that's what he claimed. His OPS mysteriously dropped a staggering 295 points to .814, perhaps the result of playing through a right shoulder injury for… yep, a third of the season.

Prediction: Three Twins would finish in the top five for AL Rookie of the Year: José Berríos, Byung Ho Park, and eventual winner Byron Buxton. In the NL, Corey Seager would waltz home with the trophy.
What Really Happened: None of the three Twins even got a single vote. Berríos started 14 games with a hellish 8.02 ERA, Park hit just .191, and Buxton notoriously scuffled through his first two cups of coffee with a .193/.247/.315 slash line before coming to life (.287/.357/.653) in September. The Tigers' Michael Fulmer, of course, ended up winning the award in the AL. In the Senior Circuit, was there ever any doubt? Seager's .877 OPS and 6.1 WAR made him an easy choice.

Prediction: Jay Bruce would be one of the only good hitters on the Reds, earning him a trade out of town. Brandon Phillips, meanwhile, would slip to a .300 OBP and cease to be an asset on defense. His final WAR: 0.0.
What Really Happened: Bruce put up an .875 OPS for Cincinnati, better than anyone not named Joey Votto, and on August 1 he was traded to the Mets. Phillips held on in the OBP department (.320), but for the first time since 2006 he put up a negative DRS (−7) to finish with a 0.8 WAR.

Prediction: The penny-pinching Astros would keep Ken Giles out of the closer's role in an effort to suppress his salary in arbitration—but this would also allow them to use him in the highest-leverage situations.
What Really Happened: Indeed, the Astros handed Luke Gregerson, then Will Harris the closer's role before giving Giles a crack; he finished with 15 saves. Giles didn't lead the AL in leverage index like I predicted, but his 1.83 LI was higher than any other Astro.

Prediction: Marcus Semien would be one of the Athletics' best players and would even be a net positive on defense.
What Really Happened: Semien slugged 27 home runs and was worth 3.0 WAR, both tops among Oakland hitters. On defense, he was barely an asset (0.1 dWAR), thanks to the positional adjustment of playing shortstop.

Prediction: The worst infield defense in the AL would doom Rick Porcello's second season with the Red Sox. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Chris Sale would sail to his first Cy Young Award with a sub-2.50 ERA.
What Really Happened: The Boston infield actually saved nine runs defensively, helping Porcello along to a 3.15 ERA and the Cy Young. Sale was no slouch either, posting a 3.34 mark for the Pale Hose. By December, of course, who was better is a bit of a moot point: they're now teammates in Boston.

Prediction: Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo would turn in carbon copies of their superb 2015 seasons.
What Really Happened: Fielder had the worst season of his career, hitting just .212/.292/.334 through 370 plate appearances before being forced to retire. Choo had a similarly snakebitten season, going on the disabled list four times with four unrelated freak injuries. On April 10, he was shelved with a calf strain; he returned May 20, and then pulled a hamstring after just three innings. On July 20, he hit the DL again with back inflammation, returning on August 4. On August 15, he was hit by a pitch that broke his forearm and ended his season.

Prediction: Pittsburgh wouldn't need to worry about slipping offensively with the losses of Pedro Alvárez and Neil Walker. John Jaso and David Freese would prove shrewd free-agent signings.
What Really Happened: The Pirates went from a 97 OPS+ in 2015 to a 95 OPS+ in 2016. Jaso hit an above-average .268/.353/.413, and the team also rewarded Freese's .270/.352/.412 line with a two-year, $11 million extension.

Prediction: Mookie Betts would contend for AL MVP, but Carlos Correa would actually win it. The shortstop's 40 home runs would distract voters yet again from Mike Trout. In the National League, Paul Goldschmidt would finally step out of others' shadows and claim his first MVP award.
What Really Happened: Trout deservedly won the AL hardware for just the second time. Correa still turned in a great season, but he slammed just 20 taters. For his part, Betts more than contended for MVP: he came darn close to winning it, with nine first-place votes and a second-place finish. As for Goldschmidt, a down year (for him) doomed him to "just" an 11th-place finish in the NL race.

Prediction: The Diamondbacks would regret the Jean Segura trade. His bat would continue to drag down the lineup, and his poor defense would contribute to Arizona tumbling from 63 DRS to a neutral fielding team.
What Really Happened: Segura had one of the best come-out-of-nowhere seasons in a long time, hitting .319/.368/.499 for a 5.7 WAR. He was average on defense, although the D'backs did fall all the way to −12 DRS.

Prediction: A 5.0 K/BB ratio by Anthony DeSclafani would see him selected to the All-Star Game.
What Really Happened: DeSclafani was injured for much of the first half and did not debut until a month before the All-Star Game, but if he had frontloaded his first 16 starts (8–2, 2.93 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 4.1 K/BB ratio), he surely would have earned a ticket to San Diego.

Prediction: Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ would fall dramatically back down to Earth, with 9.0 hits per nine innings and a 90 ERA+ respectively. Aaron Sánchez would show he belonged in the bullpen all along by struggling as a starter.
What Really Happened: Estrada followed up a 2015 in which he led the AL with 6.7 hits per nine with a 2016 in which… he led the AL with 6.8 hits per nine. All Happ did was win 20 games with a 135 ERA+. Sánchez led the league with a 3.00 ERA as one of the breakout starters in all of baseball.

Prediction: Under the tutelage of hitting coach Barry Bonds, Marcell Ozuna would take his game to the next level, setting career highs in all three slash categories.
What Really Happened: Ozuna had a good year but not quite a full breakout. His .321 OBP was a career high, but his .266 average and .452 slugging percentages were each three points shy of his historical best. Oh, and Bonds was fired at the end of the season for allegedly losing interest in the team.

Prediction: Andrew Heaney would establish himself as the one sure thing in an injury-plagued Angels rotation, while Jered Weaver would shockingly retire midseason when it became apparent he couldn't throw above 80 miles per hour.
What Really Happened: Heaney got in just one start all year—a six-inning, four-run effort against the Cubs—before feeling elbow discomfort. He had Tommy John surgery in July. Weaver did indeed have a tough time getting outs with his 84.0-mile-per-hour "heater," but he stuck it out the whole year and ended with a 5.06 ERA.

Prediction: Ian Desmond would look so lost in the outfield that the Rangers would bench him. He would enter career purgatory, bouncing around on the free-agent market as a utility man for the rest of the decade.
What Really Happened: With −4 DRS, Desmond wasn't an asset in the outfield, but he ably remade himself into a useful player there, amassing 2.7 WAR. As for his financial future, Desmond just signed an inflated five-year, $70 million deal with the Rockies.

Prediction: Domingo Santana would put up a vintage Adam Dunn season: a .230 average but a .340 OBP, 180 strikeouts but 30 home runs.
What Really Happened: Santana lost significant time to two injuries in 2016, but he still did the following in 281 plate appearances: a .256 average, .345 OBP, 11 home runs, and 91 strikeouts.

Prediction: Milwaukee would be the only team in baseball with zero complete games in 2016.
What Really Happened: Indeed, no Brewer starter pitched a complete game. However, three other teams also shared this ignominious distinction: the Marlins, Yankees, and Blue Jays.

Prediction: Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo would all rank among the NL's top 10 position players by WAR. Ben Zobrist, meanwhile, would continue to decline thanks to poor defense.
What Really Happened: Bryant (at 7.7 WAR, the NL MVP) and Rizzo (5.7) ranked first and fifth, respectively, in WAR, but Heyward's contract infamously proved a bust, as he could muster just a 70 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR. Zobrist did cost his team multiple runs defensively for the third straight year, but his excellent hitting (.272/.386/.446) made him Chicago's fifth-best position player (3.8 WAR).

Prediction: The White Sox would be a fountain of youth for Mat Latos, who would be worth 2.0 WAR, and Melky Cabrera, who would begin to justify his $42 million contract.
What Really Happened: Latos bombed out of Chicago, and then Washington, with a 4.89 ERA and 0.1 WAR. Yet in a development no one outside the South Side noticed, Cabrera was great in 2016, putting up an .800 OPS that almost matched his 2014 performance.

Prediction: Sonny Gray's 2015 luck would reverse itself, with a .340 BABIP leading to a 3.95 ERA.
What Really Happened: Gray was unlucky—and then some. He offended A's fans with a 5.69 ERA, far worse than an already poor 4.67 FIP. His BABIP was a not-great .319, but the real culprits were a terrible 64% strand rate and artificially inflated 1.4 home runs per nine innings.

Prediction: Yasiel Puig would rediscover his 2013–2014 form, and Joc Pederson would discover new heights.
What Really Happened: Puig had his worst season in the majors yet, hitting just .263/.323/.416 between hamstring injuries. He fell so out of favor with the club that they demoted him to AAA in August, and they still found room to criticize him for his behavior while in Oklahoma City. Back in California, Pederson continued to blossom, pairing his previous on-base ability and home-run power with more well-rounded hitting: more doubles and more selective baserunning.

Prediction: Mike Leake would be the one weak link in the Cardinals' rotation, with a 100 ERA+, and Jaime García would land on the DL yet again.
What Really Happened: García pitched a full season for the first time since 2011, starting 30 games. Leake had his worst season yet: an 87 ERA+. He wasn't even the worst St. Louis pitcher, though, as Michael Wacha spat out an 81 ERA+ despite a pretty good 3.91 FIP.

Prediction: Trea Turner would grab ahold of the Nationals' shortstop job so surely that Stephen Drew wouldn't even collect 100 plate appearances.
What Really Happened: Turner had nothing to do with Drew amassing just 165 plate appearances for Washington's $3 million investment. The infield prospect remained exiled to AAA until mid-July, when he finally came up… only to be moved to the outfield. He certainly made a statement, though, with his .342 average and 33 stolen bases.

Prediction: Rich Hill would prove to be an illusion, finishing with a 4.00 ERA.
What Really Happened: Hill extended his four-start dominance from the end of 2015 into his first 14 starts of 2016 with Oakland, posting a 2.25 ERA. Then he was traded to the Dodgers as one of the deadline's biggest gets and did even better: a 1.83 ERA. He went into the offseason as the top pitching prize on the free-agent market.

Prediction: Led by Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, the Red Sox bullpen would strike out a quarter of the batters it faced, second in the league only to the hated Yankees.
What Really Happened: It took Smith just 2.2 innings to succumb to season-ending injury, but the Sox bullpen still struck out 25.4% of batters. That's not as impressive as it sounds, though; five other bullpens, including the Yankees' (27.1%), fanned more.

Prediction: Tanner Roark would be mediocre, and Noah Syndergaard would go under the knife at midseason.
What Really Happened: Both Roark and Syndergaard garnered downballot Cy Young votes. Roark finished with a 2.83 ERA, and Syndergaard had the game's strongest peripheral stats (a 2.29 FIP) in his 30 starts.

Prediction: Yovani Gallardo and Kevin Gausman would swap 2015 ERAs, with Gallardo finishing at 4.25 and Gausman at 3.42.
What Really Happened: The two Orioles hurlers did undergo a freaky Friday situation, with Gallardo regressing to a 5.42 ERA and Gausman improving to 3.61, establishing himself as the team ace.

Prediction: Ray Searage would not be able to fix what ails Ryan Vogelsong or Jon Niese, but Juan Nicasio would thrive in Pittsburgh.
What Really Happened: All three reclamation projects fell flat. Vogelsong pitched to a 4.81 ERA in 82.1 innings, and Niese mustered just a 4.91 ERA before being traded back to the Mets. Nicasio boasted strong strikeout numbers (10.5 per nine innings), but he had just a 4.50 ERA in a swingman role.

Prediction: PETCO Park would help James Shields to a bounceback season of a 3.30 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 2.0 walks per nine innings.
What Really Happened: Shields limped through 11 starts in San Diego with a 4.28 ERA before getting traded to the White Sox, where he was lit up in the bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field. He finished with a 5.85 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, and 4.1 walks per nine—all career worsts.

Prediction: Breakout seasons by Steve Pearce, Blake Snell (who would strike out 10 batters per nine innings), Drew Smyly, and Chris Archer would lead the Rays to the World Series.
What Really Happened: Pearce did return to his 2014 self, slashing .288/.374/.492, and Snell struck out 9.9 per nine (so close!). However, Smyly finished with a 4.88 ERA and Archer lost 19 games, the most in baseball. The Rays stunk up the joint to the tune of 94 losses—my biggest whiff on any team.

Prediction: Even-year magic would strike again. New ace Johnny Cueto would make up for free-agent bust Jeff Samardzija (0.5 WAR), and the Giants would win the World Series for the fourth time in seven years.
What Really Happened: Samardzija did not disappoint (2.7 WAR), and Cueto was even better (5.6 WAR), but the Giants were bounced from the playoffs in four games by their atrocious bullpen and the eventual World Series winners—the Chicago Cubs.

Friday, December 9, 2016

What I Didn't Expect in Politics in 2016

This year was a bad one for people in the political prognostication business. I'm not afraid to say that I failed as spectacularly as anyone: throughout the Republican primary, I clung to the orthodoxy that "the party decides" and that the GOP would never let Donald Trump become its nominee. Throughout the general election, I dismissed Trump's chances of winning over a country with sexism, racism, and scare tactics. Now, we're 41 days away from him taking the oath of office.

I believe that any responsible pundit must reflect on such a failure before reengaging in the profession. We—or at least I—make our predictions based on past information. The election of Donald Trump represented a new piece of information that we must add to our calculus going forward. But we also must avoid overreaction. Throwing our hands up and declaring elections unpredictable is an overreaction. Saying that polling and other hard data are useless is an overreaction.

The truth is that Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by about two percentage points, as predicted by the national polls. Under different rules of the game, that would be enough to hand her the presidency, and none of this Democratic and media handwringing would be happening. That's right—not a single person could have voted differently and everyone who currently looks so dumb would actually have been totally correct. Not a single person could have voted differently and the prevailing narrative would have been the implosion of the Republican Party instead of the meltdown of the Democratic. But because the votes were distributed just right, and because we use the Electoral College, not the popular vote, we got the outcome we did.

To me, the lesson of 2016 was randomness. Sometimes, data have errors. Sometimes, you have bad luck. Sometimes, unlikely things happen. In looking back at my predictions, I have a hard time seeing what I should have done differently. To predict a Trump win (in the general, at least) would have required a series of assumptions that, at the time, would not have been well grounded in fact or theory. Given the information I had before the election, I actually still think I made a sensible call in expecting Clinton to win. But my mistake was being so sure of it. In an effort to draw attention and project confidence, I treated an event that was likely to happen as one that was certain. I didn't fully appreciate that we live in an uncertain world. I didn't properly allow for the possibility of a polling error or something else weird happening. I didn't stop to think that a 90% chance still comes up empty 10% of the time.

On May 21, 2010, with two outs in the third inning, the Los Angeles Angels intentionally walked St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Skip Schumaker to load the bases for pitcher Brad Penny, a career .157 hitter. Six out of seven times, Penny makes the final out of the inning, preserving the 4–4 tie. On this occasion, though, Penny promptly hit a grand slam for what proved to be the winning hit. Was it the wrong decision by the Angels? I would argue that it was the right call; it just didn't work out this time. Sometimes, the right strategy can still lead to a bad result (and vice versa). It doesn't automatically discredit the strategy, as long as the strategy has been proven sound over a larger sample size. Data and political science remain the most accurate tools for predicting elections over the long term; one bad year doesn't change that.

Going forward, I will continue to use factors like polls and demographic trends in predicting elections. But I will change my attitude to be more humble about my own fallibility. Never again will I declare anything as a "slam dunk" or a "sure bet"; the fairest analysis acknowledges that anything can happen while still pointing toward the overall likelihood of one outcome. To those who heeded my political advice in 2016, I apologize for being overconfident. In the future, I promise that I will retain a more open mind and always be aware of my own limitations as a soothsayer.

One way to do that is to move away from the language of "calling" states and toward a probabilistic election forecast. The Cook Political Report uses such a system through its Solid-Likely-Leans scale of handicapping races. Every year, I use the same scale to make my annual constitutional-office election predictions, with much more favorable results than my failed presidential prognosis. Indeed, while I wasn't perfect in calling downballot races this year either, my more nuanced assessments of each campaign stand up better to post factum scrutiny.

In 2016, I issued Cook-esque race ratings for 52 downballot races: lieutenant governors, attorneys general, secretaries of state, treasurers, auditors, superintendents of public instruction, commissioners of insurance, commissioners of agriculture, a comptroller, a commissioner of labor, and a commissioner of public lands. In the 40 races where I gave one party the edge, that party prevailed 37 times. Specifically:
  • Democrats won all 11 races I rated as Solid Democratic, including three that lacked a Republican opponent.
  • Democrats won five of the six races I rated as Likely Democratic.
  • Democrats won five of the seven races I rated as Leans Democratic.
  • Republicans won 10 of the 12 races I rated as Tossup.
  • Republicans won all five races I rated as Leans Republican.
  • Republicans won all three races I rated as Likely Republican.
  • Republicans won all eight races I rated as Solid Republican, including two that lacked a Democratic opponent.
Here is the Democratic margin of victory or defeat in each of the elections (save Washington treasurer, which was a Republican-on-Republican contest). Note that these numbers are unofficial election results from the Associated Press.

As in 2014, I underestimated Republicans across the board, but not egregiously so. Democrats' average 3.2-point margin of victory in Leans Democratic races, for example, is right where you want it to be, and it isn't a shock that one or two (OK, two) of the elections I rated thusly actually flipped the other way. However, the same can't be said of the races I dubbed Leans Republican. The GOP won them all, by at least 7.1 points (an average of 15.5). My Tossup races behaved more like Leans Republican should: the GOP won them by an average of 6.1 points, losing only two of the 12. That's what happens in a wave election, though: close races all tend to break the same way.

I can console myself with the fact that my biggest errors were isolated to just a few states. Misread the political climate in just one state, and you can blow several races, even as you accurately predict the rest of the nation. For me in 2016, that state was North Carolina. The Tarheel State was responsible for my biggest miss: declaring Democrat Wayne Goodwin and Republican Mike Causey's battle for state insurance commissioner a Likely Democratic contest. Instead, Causey defeated the two-term incumbent by 0.9 points. Almost as embarrassingly, Democratic Auditor Beth Wood—whom I deemed Likely to beat Republican Charles Stuber—prevailed by only 0.1 points in initial returns. (The race isn't even officially called yet, as Stuber has requested a recount.) North Carolina also played havoc with my projections by almost ousting Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall (Solid Democratic) and rejecting Superintendent June Atkinson (Leans Democratic).

Oregon and Missouri were two other states that I misjudged. Democrat Tobias Read won the Oregon auditor's race by only 1.9 points, even though I had dismissed the contest as Solid Democratic. Meanwhile, my third and final incorrect "call" came in the Oregon secretary of state election, where Republican Dennis Richardson defeated Democrat Brad Avakian in a Leans Democratic competition. Farther inland, Missouri singlehandedly goosed the average Republican margin of victory in my Tossup and Leans Republican races when it swung much farther to the right than anyone was expecting. Its Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor lost a supposed Tossup race by double digits, and, while I expected its attorney general and secretary of state races to Lean Republican, I didn't anticipate them doing so by 17.4 and 19.5 points, respectively.

Elsewhere, I called most races right on the money. I'm especially proud of my performance in West Virginia, where I correctly foresaw a close race for secretary of state (presumed favorite Democrat Natalie Tennant was stunned by a 1.8-point loss) and GOP wins for agriculture commissioner and auditor, despite the state's ancestral Democratic tone. Clearly, handicapping downballot races is my calling more than presidential forecasting is—and that's OK by me. I'm looking forward to bringing these understudied races even more into the light as we turn the page to 2017 and the busy midterm year of 2018, when the biggest batch—over 140—of constitutional offices are on the ballot.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

If a Team Did Nothing but Sign Free Agents, How Would They Do?

Last winter, I embarked upon an experiment: build a hypothetical baseball team entirely from free agency. The rules were straightforward. I would simulate, as faithfully as possible, the circumstances of the offseason and the economic constraints that real GMs work under. I set a budget of $200 million and "signed" players to the same contracts they received in real life. I required myself to make decisions in real time, as quickly as possible after news broke of a new signing—like real GMs, I could not benefit from the hindsight of knowing that, say, Dexter Fowler would sign a bargain $13 million contract after Alex Gordon signed his $72 million one. I forced myself to find two players to play each position on the field—one to start, one to back up—and a full complement of five starting pitchers and a seven- or eight-man bullpen. It was harder than I expected—but I did ultimately field a roster of 25 for a combined salary of $193,990,833. Here's my 2016 "fantasy" team:

Now for the big question—how did I rate as a GM? Did I score some good bargains, or did I saddle my franchise with regrettable megacontracts? Most importantly—did I build a winning team?

It was a good lesson in the unpredictability of baseball and the dangers of the free-agent market: for the most part, I crashed and burned as a GM. But my team wasn't totally hapless, and there were some pleasant surprises in the bunch.

Overall, my players amassed 17.5 wins above replacement (using the FanGraphs version of WAR, including RA9-WAR for pitchers), which would theoretically translate to a record of 65–97. My team exhibited a capable offense, slashing .263/.335/.419. That would have been the fourth-best OBP in baseball but the 15th-best slugging percentage, as my hitters couldn't keep up with 2016's home-run-happy scoring environment. However, my team was miserable at pitching, posting a 4.63 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 4.76 FIP. Even worse, many of my pitchers, including C.J. Wilson, Henderson Alvárez, and Kris Medlen, were injured and barely played. My pitchers only amassed 947.1 IP, compared to the MLB average of 1444. If you use replacement players to fill in the gap, my team's stats would rise to a 4.72 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and 4.77 FIP.

Easily the worst contract on my books is James Shields's $75 million deal. He actively harmed my team this year with a 5.85 ERA, 10.3 hits per nine innings, and the worst peripheral stats of his career. My attempts to cobble together a bullpen on the cheap also fell flat. My best signing was Yusmeiro Petit, who gave me a 4.50 ERA in 62 innings for the $3 million I paid him. Meanwhile, Matt Albers stunk up the joint to the tune of a 6.31 ERA, and Carlos Villanueva wasn't much better at 5.96 despite pitching in PETCO Park. The rest of my bullpen, Jason Frasor and Neal Cotts, didn't pitch in the majors at all.

Offensively, I caught lightning in a bottle with Mike Napoli, who led my team with 34 home runs, although it only translated to 1.0 WAR; still, at $7 million for one year, I'll take it. Steve Pearce was another great bargain signing. For $4.75 million, I received a .288/.374/.492 batting line, positional flexibility, and 2.0 WAR. Carlos Beltrán anchored my lineup with an .850 OPS and 2.3 WAR. Finally, my faith in Hyun Soo Kim was validated when, after a terrible spring training for the Orioles, he bounced back by hitting .302/.382/.420 over half a season. Even Jason Heyward produced 1.6 WAR, although this was far below everyone's expectation when he signed with the Cubs for $184 million and eight years. He slashed just .230/.306/.325 and was the most disappointing member of my lineup. His is another contract that could cripple my pretend franchise, although personally I think Heyward was more unlucky than bad last year and would reserve judgment for one more year.

So let's find out, shall we? I'll carry over my imaginary team into this offseason and again try to build it into a contender—on budget—using only free agents. Like in real life, though, I'll have to do it while operating under existing payroll commitments: the handful of players on my old team still under contract for 2017 and beyond. It's a list that includes some bad—Heyward and Shields—but also some good—Kim, John Lackey, and José Abreu. Stay tuned to see which players from this winter's historically shallow free-agent class I decide to roll the dice on this time.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Your Guide to 2016's Competitive State Legislatures

Looking for a cheat sheet for which state-legislative chambers might flip control tonight—and which seats in them will make the difference? Look no further.


Colorado State House

Currently: 34 D, 31 R
Flips If: Republicans gain 2 seats
Competitive Districts: HD-03, HD-17, HD-30, HD-31, HD-33, HD-40, HD-47, HD-59

Iowa State Senate

Currently: 25 D, 23 R, 1 I, 1 V
Flips If: Republicans gain 2 seats (maybe 1, if the GOP-leaning independent sides with them)
Competitive Districts: SD-08, SD-26, SD-28, SD-30, SD-32, SD-34, SD-36, SD-46

Kentucky State House

Currently: 53 D, 46 R, 1 V
Flips If: Republicans gain 4 seats (plus getting a new body into the red vacant seat)
Competitive Districts: HD-03, HD-07, HD-08, HD-10, HD-12, HD-13, HD-14, HD-15,HD-16, HD-20, HD-23, HD-24, HD-33, HD-38, HD-39, HD-46, HD-49, HD-50, HD-62, HD-70, HD-74, HD-78, HD-84, HD-91, HD-92, HD-94, HD-95, HD-99

Maine State House

Currently: 78 D, 69 R, 4 I
Flips If: Republicans gain 7 seats
Competitive Districts: HD-03, HD-04, HD-05, HD-07, HD-09, HD-19, HD-21, HD-25, HD-29, HD-33, HD-44, HD-45, HD-55, HD-64, HD-68, HD-70, HD-91, HD-95, HD-101, HD-106, HD-108, HD-111, HD-113, HD-114, HD-116, HD-118, HD-121, HD-125, HD-126, HD-128, HD-138, HD-139, HD-140, HD-147

Minnesota State Senate

Currently: 38 D, 28 R, 1 V
Flips If: Republicans gain 6 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-01, SD-02, SD-04, SD-14, SD-17, SD-20, SD-21, SD-24, SD-36, SD-37, SD-44, SD-48, SD-53, SD-54, SD-58

New Mexico State Senate

Currently: 24 D, 18 R
Flips If: Republicans gain 3 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-09, SD-10, SD-15, SD-29, SD-36, SD-37, SD-39

Washington State House

Currently: 50 D, 48 R
Flips If: Republicans gain 2 seats
Competitive Districts: LD-19A, LD-28B, LD-30A, LD-30B, LD-31B, LD-44A, LD-45A


Arizona State Senate

Currently: 18 R, 12 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 4 seats
Competitive Districts: LD-02, LD-06, LD-08, LD-13, LD-18, LD-28

Colorado State Senate

Currently: 18 R, 17 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 1 seat
Competitive Districts: SD-19, SD-25, SD-26, SD-27

Iowa State House

Currently: 57 R, 43 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 8 seats
Competitive Districts: HD-38, HD-43, HD-55, HD-56, HD-57, HD-58, HD-60, HD-68, HD-91, HD-92, HD-95

Maine State Senate

Currently: 20 R, 15 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 3 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-01, SD-02, SD-03, SD-06, SD-07, SD-09, SD-11, SD-12,SD-13, SD-14,SD-16, SD-18, SD-20, SD-21, SD-22, SD-23, SD-25, SD-30, SD-33

Michigan State House

Currently: 62 R, 45 D, 3 V
Flips If: Democrats gain 9 seats (plus 2 of the vacancies where they are heavily favored)
Competitive Districts: HD-23, HD-36, HD-39, HD-52, HD-62, HD-66, HD-71, HD-76, HD-83, HD-91, HD-99, HD-106

Minnesota State House

Currently: 73 R, 61 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 7 seats
Competitive Districts: HD-02A, HD-10B, HD-11B, HD-12A, HD-14A, HD-14B, HD-17B, HD-21A,HD-24B, HD-25B, HD-27A, HD-28B, HD-36B, HD-42B, HD-44A, HD-48A, HD-49B, HD-50B, HD-52B, HD-56B, HD-57A

Nevada State Senate

Currently: 11 R, 10 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 1 seat
Competitive Districts: SD-05, SD-06, SD-15, SD-18

Nevada State Assembly

Currently: 24 R, 17 D, 1 L
Flips If: Democrats gain 5 seats
Competitive Districts: AD-01, AD-06, AD-08, AD-09, AD-10, AD-15, AD-21, AD-25, AD-29, AD-34, AD-35, AD-41

New Hampshire State Senate

Currently: 13 R, 10 D, 1 V
Flips If: Democrats gain 3 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-02, SD-06, SD-08, SD-09, SD-12, SD-16, SD-23

New Hampshire State House

Currently: 230 R, 157 D, 1 L, 12 V
Flips If: Democrats gain 44 seats
Competitive Districts: Too many to list!

New Mexico State House

Currently: 37 R, 33 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 3 seats
Competitive Districts: HD-04, HD-07, HD-15, HD-23, HD-24, HD-30, HD-32, HD-36, HD-37, HD-39, HD-43

New York State Senate

Currently: 31 R, 25 D, 6 IDC, 1 V
Flips If: Democrats gain 7 seats (or gain 1 and make a deal with the IDC)
Competitive Districts: SD-05, SD-06, SD-07, SD-08, SD-09, SD-37, SD-39, SD-40, SD-41, SD-46, SD-60

Washington State Senate

Currently: 26 R, 23 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 2 seats
Competitive Districts: LD-05, LD-17, LD-25, LD-28, LD-41

West Virginia State Senate

Currently: 18 R, 16 D
Flips If: Democrats gain 2 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-02, SD-04, SD-06, SD-08, SD-09, SD-11, SD-14, SD-16, SD-17

Wisconsin State Senate

Currently: 18 R, 14 D, 1 V
Flips If: Democrats gain 3 seats
Competitive Districts: SD-10, SD-12, SD-14, SD-18, SD-24, SD-30, SD-32

Monday, November 7, 2016

Loose Ends: 2016 Comptroller, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner of Labor, and Commissioner of Public Lands Race Ratings

If you're still with me, congratulations! You've made it to the final installment of my 2016 race ratings. Below you'll find a grab bag of orphan executive offices—a comptroller, two agriculture commissioners, a commissioner of labor, and a commissioner of public lands—that weren't numerous enough for their own standalone articles. But what they lack in quantity they make up for in excitement. Every race profiled below is competitive to some degree, and two of them rank among the most-watched downballot races of the 2016 cycle. And a third involves the one and only Elevator Queen.

Below are my final batch of race ratings for 2016's constitutional-office elections. To see all 54 campaigns I've profiled and handicapped this year, click on the 2016 Ratings tab. Thank you for following along, and happy downballot election watching on Tuesday!


  • Illinois: Leans Democratic. We've saved one of the most interesting constitutional-officer elections for last. Just after being elected to a second term as comptroller, Judy Baar Topinka died of a sudden stroke in December 2014. Newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner appointed fellow Republican Leslie Munger to the post ahead of a special election in 2016. It was just one of the ways that Rauner tried to radically reshape Illinois in his image during his first two years—but it was the only one that would be put to the test on the ballot. Now, Munger's campaign to finish out the rest of the turn has become a referendum on Rauner's governorship. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Susana Mendoza is a protégée of Democratic State House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner's nemesis in Springfield. The campaign has gotten as icy as the Rauner-Madigan relationship itself: Mendoza is accusing Munger of "laundering" campaign funds through the Illinois Republican Party to pay for Rauner's campaign to weaken Madigan's legislative majority, while Munger has attacked Mendoza for taking a double salary as both a legislator and an employee of the City of Chicago. Thanks to their wealthy patrons, the comptroller race has become more high-profile and expensive than many U.S. Senate and governor's races on the ballot this year. Mendoza has raised $3.5 million and has spent $2 million of it on a statewide ad blitz; Munger has raised $8.9 million and dumped $4.6 million into TV. A full $8 million of Munger's donations came from just three donors, one of whom was Rauner himself. Illinois's blue hue, made even worse this year by Donald Trump, would normally make Mendoza a heavy favorite, but it's hard to look past that spending gap.

Commissioner of Agriculture

  • North Carolina: Likely Republican. Republican Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler was reelected in both 2008 and 2012 by five percentage points—consistent, right? In 2012, his win even came against his 2016 Democratic opponent, Walter Smith. The environment for Republicans will be a mite more challenging this year, but Troxler is prepared. He is on the airwaves with a modest television campaign, while Smith has spent nearly every cent in his bank account and still has put out less than a third of Troxler's $312,035 spent. If Smith wins, it won't be because of anything he did, but rather a deep-penetrating Democratic wave in the Tarheel State.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. It's another rematch in West Virginia: in 2012, Democrat Walt Helmick beat Republican Kent Leonhardt 51.6% to 48.4%, and Leonhardt has spent the last four years plotting revenge. He worked up a fundraising head start, and now he has outspent the incumbent $107,790 to $26,193. The big issue in the campaign? Potatoes. Helmick has invested a lot of his department's shrinking budget into helping West Virginia develop a potato-growing industry, but Leonhardt says it won't work and it's a waste of funds. The narrow margin last time strongly suggests that West Virginians haven't accepted Helmick the way they have other conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, and the state has only gotten more Republican since 2012. If Leonhardt does indeed win, Republicans will own all 12 agriculture commissioners in the U.S.

Commissioner of Labor

  • North Carolina: Tossup. Everyone in North Carolina knows the face of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, a.k.a. the Elevator Queen. In 2005, Berry decreed that a portrait of the labor commissioner—who is in charge of elevator inspections in North Carolina—should adorn every elevator in the state, and thus a cult figure was born. As friend of the blog Jacob Smith has researched, Berry's free publicity has been good for a few extra votes in elevator-dense communities across the state—which very well may have made the difference in the Republican's extremely close 2008 and 2012 re-election campaigns. She's in for another tough one in 2016 against Democrat Charles Meeker, the former mayor of Raleigh. He has outspent Berry $317,450 to $138,648, and North Carolina appears to have migrated leftward this year in other races.

Commissioner of Public Lands

  • Washington: Leans Democratic. In case you haven't gotten the hint, land is a pretty big issue in the West, so it's not surprising that this open-seat race has erupted into a hyperbolic war of words and a sinkhole of special-interest money. Either Democrat Hilary Franz, an environmental nonprofit executive, or Republican Steve McLaughlin, a rancher and Navy veteran, will soon take charge of Washington's 5.6 million acres of public land—a whopping fourth of the state's total land area. McLaughlin has aligned himself with the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest's long-running fight over deforestation, saying proceeds should go to funding schools. Franz and her allies at the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) have accused McLaughlin of being a climate-change denier and opposing public ownership of land. A cable TV ad by the LCV has used McLaughlin's coziness with timber and alleged support of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation (McLaughlin agreed with their grievances but opposed their lawbreaking) against him. The LCV has been merely the second-biggest spender of the five Democratic independent-expenditure groups that have sunk almost $300,000 into the campaign. That has helped break a rough tie in the candidates' spending ($464,493 by McLaughlin, $420,570 by Franz) to give the Democrat a slight edge; she led 36% to 31% in a late October poll. If McLaughlin wins, there will be no elected Democrats serving as public-lands commissioner anywhere in the country.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Insurance Runs: 2016 Commissioner of Insurance Race Ratings

No issue has been a bigger political football over the past eight years than health insurance. Yet for all the sweeping reforms done at the national level, and the implementation executed (or not) on the state level, the nitty-gritty of insurance policy lies in regulation. The commissioner of insurance is the one who regulates—not just health insurers, but car insurers, property insurers, life insurers, and more. These little-known state officers' actions have the power to increase or decrease your premiums—and even to go after insurance companies that are scamming you.

Eleven states elect insurance commissioners, and it's the constitutional office where Democrats are closest to a majority: they hold six of the posts to Republicans' five. In 2016, five states will elect insurance commissioners, and Democrats will play defense in four of those races. The one Republican-held seat, North Dakota, is unlikely to go blue, so you can set aside those long-held dreams of a Democratic majority of insurance bureaucrats.

Below are my race ratings for commissioner of insurance; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Delaware: Solid Democratic. We missed all the action in this race. It came in September, when New Castle County Sheriff Trinidad Navarro upset incumbent Karen Weldin Stewart in the Democratic primary. Weldin Stewart had never been particularly popular with the state Democratic Party, and Navarro hammered her for not being aggressive enough with Delaware insurance companies and for spending exorbitant sums on travel. By contrast, Navarro need only apply the lightest touch to defeat Republican Jeff Cragg, who has less than $1,700 on hand, in this blue state.
  • Montana: Tossup. The Montana state auditor is actually not an auditor at all—it's an insurance commissioner, as the job's full title ("Commissioner of Securities and Insurance, State Auditor") implies. Democratic Auditor Monica Lindeen sought a promotion to secretary of state this year, leaving her chief counsel, Jesse Laslovich, to defend the seat for the Democrats. A mid-October poll gave Republican State Senator Matthew Rosendale a 43%-to-33% lead, but Laslovich dismissed it as coming before the bulk of his campaigning, unironically saying, "The only poll that matters is November 8." He kinda has a point, though; Laslovich has very aggressively spent over $200,000 on television ads, which began the same day the poll went into the field. Rosendale has only dabbled in TV advertising and indeed has struggled to fundraise, so maybe the campaign isn't over after all.
  • North Carolina: Likely Democratic. In 2012, Mike Causey came within 3.7 percentage points of being the first Republican insurance commissioner in North Carolina history. He's back for a rematch in 2016 against two-term Democrat Wayne Goodwin, who has stayed above water in the state as a vocal critic of Obamacare. He's also a fundraising fiend, racking up $1.1 million (including, Causey points out, from insurance companies) to Causey's $61,011. However, a similar (albeit smaller) money gap existed in 2012, so I'm not ready to say Goodwin is out of the woods yet.
  • North Dakota: Solid Republican. Republican Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm is retiring, providing perhaps a glimmer of hope to Democrat Ruth Buffalo; the first time Hamm ran for the post, in 2008, it was a 1,833-vote race. However, it's far more likely that 33-year-old Republican Jon Godfread will walk away with the election. Godfread has been able to spin his career as a lobbyist for the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce as an asset, and it certainly has been financially: he's raised almost twice as much as Buffalo. And it's unlikely he's going to lose many votes to potential spoiler Nick Bata, the Libertarian candidate, who set off a firestorm when he wrote on Facebook a few weeks ago, "Make America Rape Again." Yes, that really happened.
  • Washington: Solid Democratic. Democrat Mike Kreidler is gunning for a fifth term as insurance commissioner, and there's no reason to think he won't get it. He received 58% of the vote in the top-two primary despite a three-way race, and he took a 16-point lead in an October poll over Republican Richard Schrock.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Schoolhouse Rock the Vote: 2016 Superintendent Race Ratings

Depending on Springfield's system of government, before Gary Chalmers could become superintendent, he might have had to be elected to it. On the state level, superintendents of public instruction are placed in charge of our most precious resource: sloppy joes. Oh, and children, I guess. State superintendents are responsible for the day-to-day management of the entire state school system—often a billion-dollar enterprise—and make highly sensitive policy decisions on things like curriculum that hit close to home for many families. Superintendent elections have been some of the most contentious and downright unbelievable campaigns of the past few cycles, and yet they still get a disproportionately low amount of voters' attention. They are the battlefield where the controversy over Common Core plays out; they become bloated with campaign cash from special interests just looking for one inch of progress in the long-running trench warfare over charter schools. In Indiana, the superintendent's office has been a tense place to work in the last four years, as its occupant and Governor Mike Pence played tug-of-war with the fate of Hoosier education. In this year's election, control over North Dakota schools will go either to a candidate who had complimentary words for Adolf Hitler or an incumbent who has had multiple brushes with the law.

Superintendents of public instruction are elected in 13 states. Six of the elected superintendents are Republicans, and three are Democrats; four are nonpartisan, because apparently more states think it's important that education not be a political issue than who runs our elections, but we'll leave that aside for now. In a remarkable display of the presidential vs. midterm divide, all three Democrats were elected in 2012 and are up again this year; all six Republicans were elected in 2014, so none are on the ballot in 2016. Two of the nonpartisan offices are up in 2016 as well. With most of this year's races competitive, it's entirely possible that Democrats will exit 2016 with control of no state superintendent offices in the entire country. With the election only days away, we'll know the results sooner than you can say, "SKIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNERRRRRRRRRR!"

Below are my race ratings for superintendent of public instruction; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • Indiana: Tossup. Glenda Ritz sent Democrats into delirium in 2012 when she unexpectedly toppled Republican Tony Bennett (the superintendent, not the singer), who had earned the enmity of many during his term for shady use of public resources, his closeness to his wife's charter-school company, and manipulating the state's A–F grading system for public-school performance to benefit a political donor. During her term as Indiana's only Democrat in the executive branch, instead of building up her bipartisan bona fides, she clashed with Governor Mike Pence (to be fair, he attempted to strip her office of some of its powers) and even briefly intended to run against him for governor in 2016. Instead, she will run for reelection against less flawed Republican competition than she encountered in 2012: Yorktown, IN, superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Like many superintendent elections, this one has become a battle between teachers' unions, who support Ritz, and education reformers, who have donated thousands to McCormick. Indeed, the very donor Bennett was accused of favoring is in McCormick's corner, and Ritz has found success continuing to use Bennett as a bogeyman. Although Ritz has outspent McCormick, each candidate has roughly the same depth of resources, and it's one of the few constitutional-office elections where both candidates are up on TV.
  • Montana: Tossup. Montanans have long entrusted their public schools to Democratic control—it hasn't been since 1984 that a Republican has won the post—but with incumbent Democrat Denise Juneau waging a long-shot bid for Congress, the job is wide open here in 2016. Both Democrat Melissa Romano and Republican Elsie Arntzen (also a state senator) are teachers, though only Romano has the support of the Montana Education Association–Montana Federation of Teachers, which has even gone up on TV on Romano's behalf. The union's total $300,000 in independent expenditures has helped make this the most expensive superintendent's race in Montana history. Both campaigns are also advertising on broadcast, and Romano has outspent Arntzen $247,000 to $123,000. However, Arntzen still clung to a 42%-to-38% lead in the race's only poll.
  • North Carolina: Leans Democratic. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson appears to have found a niche. In 2012, she won her third straight election for the office, by a close but comfortable eight points, even as Mitt Romney was carrying North Carolina in the presidential. Atkinson will likely have even more of a buffer this year, with North Carolina competitive on the presidential level, so she only needs to run a couple points ahead of the top of the ticket. However, her Republican opponent, Forsyth County Education Commissioner Mark Johnson, is no Some Dude and has kept it competitive with healthy fundraising totals.
  • North Dakota: Not included in the chart above, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction is technically a nonpartisan position, although both candidates identify as Republicans. Incumbent Kirsten Baesler is challenged by teacher Joe Chiang, who himself is, er, challenged. Chiang went to jail for embezzlement 30 years ago, a charge that he calls "ancient history." More recent, however, was the August 2015 Facebook post in which he said God answered prayers to heal "a sickly Austrian boy"... who turned out to be Adolf Hitler. "As a result millions of Jews died, punished for their disobedience to God." Amazingly, when the North Dakota Republican Party voted on whom to endorse in the race, Chiang still almost won, with 46% of delegates to Baesler's 54%. Baesler is no angel either; she pled guilty to shoplifting in 1997, and just last year she was arrested for allegedly assaulting her then-fiancé. (The charges were soon dismissed.) Despite this, Baesler should be safe in her quest for reelection; Chiang has less than $4,000 in campaign funds, and the incumbent dominated the June top-two primary, winning almost three times as many votes as Chiang.
  • Washington: Unlike elsewhere, in Washington it doesn't take a nonpartisan position to pit two members of the same party against each other—but the Evergreen State's superintendent of public instruction is nonpartisan anyway. Democratic State Representative Chris Reykdal and Assistant State Superintendent Erin Jones, who is also a registered Democrat, square off for this open seat. Both profess to be progressives, and they even come down on the same side of the big issue in education these days: charter schools. Both say they oppose them, but pro-charter forces such as Stand for Children have chosen sides by donating generously to Jones, and the Washington Education Association is in Reykdal's corner. With little else to distinguish them in this blue state, however, polls have shown massive numbers of undecideds (the race went from a 16–16% tie in August to 18–17% in October). That's kind of concerning, considering the Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that Washington public schools are receiving an unconstitutionally low amount of funding, and the deadline to act falls in 2018—smack-dab in the middle of the new superintendent's term. Maybe that's why almost $300,000 in independent expenditures have been invested in the race. This is pretty much the definition of a tossup: totally unpredictable.

Friday, November 4, 2016

An Audit of Auditors: 2016 Auditor Race Ratings

Thirty-two down; 22 to go. State auditors don't make for the sexiest election campaigns; the job is usually reliant on being as nonpartisan as possible, not fiery and competitive. Auditors are the watchdogs of state government; they audit the books to make sure taxpayer money is being spent legally and efficiently. Sometimes, they bask in the sunlight for uncovering fraud, waste, and abuse; other times, as you'll see below, they themselves are committing those crimes.

Thirty-four states have auditors, but fewer than half of all states—23—elect them, making the job an awkward middle constitutional office between the ubiquitous AGs and SOSes and the obscure one-off public-lands commissioners and mine inspectors. Republicans currently occupy 14 auditor's offices, and Democrats sit in nine. However, thanks to very different Democratic fortune in presidential years vs. midterms, that party is defending a huge share of the seven seats on the ballot in 2016: five, compared to two currently held by Republicans. Most of the races are predetermined, but in my estimation, the GOP does have a clear shot at sniping one state away from their rivals—a seat they haven't won in 88 years.

Below are my race ratings for auditor; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.

  • North Carolina: Likely Democratic. There's so much action in North Carolina this year—every big race is too close to call—that maybe there just wasn't enough to go around for the state auditor's race. Democratic incumbent Beth Wood faces former FBI agent Charles Stuber in what has so far been a quiet race. Stuber has barely had a cent to spend, and in this anti–HB 2 environment, there's not much reason to think he could topple a Democratic incumbent without much stronger tailwinds. Nevertheless, the state's closeness at least leaves open the possibility of an upset.
  • North Dakota: Solid Republican. Although five-term Republican incumbent Robert Peterson is finally retiring this year, no Democrat filed to try to replace him. As a result, this is a lock for GOP candidate Josh Gallion.
  • Pennsylvania: Likely Democratic. We know Pennsylvania is a swing state (kind of), and that the offices of attorney general and treasurer were recently stained by unscrupulous Democrats, but Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has remained above the fray. The incumbent doesn't seem to face much of a threat from Republican John Brown, who has raised only $77,112 all year, but DePasquale is taking the challenge seriously enough that he's run a steady stream of campaign ads. If the GOP unexpectedly surges in Pennsylvania this year, DePasquale could certainly lose, but for now he's the favorite.
  • Utah: Solid Republican. You have to go back to the 1996 attorney general election to find any Democrat, at any level, who has won statewide in Utah. That's why Republican Auditor John Dougall is at no risk of losing his first re-election campaign.
  • Vermont: Solid Democratic. Incumbent Doug Hoffer seeks his third term in 2016 under the banners of both the Democratic and Progressive Parties. His Republican opponent, Dan Feliciano, is a former Libertarian candidate for governor (he got 4.4%) and hasn't even raised enough money to trigger a campaign-finance report. Be ready to feel the Hoff on Election Day.
  • Washington: Leans Democratic. In 2012, Washington elected Democrat Troy Kelley to be its watchdog against fraud and abuse. Little did they know that Kelley had committed fraud himself—stealing $3 million from his clients during his prior gig as a real-estate investor. He wasn't much better as an elected official; Kelley also hired an old friend to work for Washington's auditor office... remotely, from California. Kelley's trial is ongoing, and he has managed to avoid resignation so far, but he's sure as hell not running again for Democrats in 2016. That task falls to former Pierce County Supervisor Pat McCarthy, who will work to combat the perception of Democratic corruption. She has her work cut out for her against well-known Republican Mark Miloscia, who first ran for the auditor's office in 2012—as a conservative Democrat. A 14-year veteran of the State House, he finally switched parties in 2014 and won a seat in the State Senate. Miloscia represents a Democratic-leaning suburban Seattle district and has a proven ability to grab crossover votes. The Republican finished in a comfortable first place in the August all-party primary, though the two Democrats combined would have beaten him 53% to 37%. An October poll gave McCarthy a 39%-to-29% lead, but of course, with that many undecideds, this one could still go either way.
  • West Virginia: Leans Republican. For the first time since 1977, someone named Glen Gainer is not auditor of West Virginia. Democrat Glen Gainer III held the post from 1993 through this year, when he resigned to take a job in the private sector. Prior to that, his father, Glen Gainer Jr., sat in the big chair for 16 years. The open-seat race the younger Gainer leaves behind will be very interesting. Republicans have not won this office for close to a century (since 1928), and West Virginia is, of course, an ancestrally Democratic state. But the Democratic candidate, self-employed auditor Mary Ann Claytor, has no political experience, and she won the primary almost by accident against a better-funded candidate who was endorsed by most of the state's prominent Democrats. By contrast, her Republican opponent, JB McCuskey, is already a state delegate. (Point: McCuskey.) Donald Trump will also have huge coattails in West Virginia (I'm thinking it will be his best performance in the entire country), and the state showed in 2014 that it was fed up with being a slave to candidates with "Ds" next to their names. (Point: McCuskey.) If Claytor were a well-established Democratic incumbent, I'd say inertia would keep her alive. As is, I would personally bet on McCuskey, who has spent $166,356 to Claytor's $18,518. However, West Virginia's schizophrenic political identity makes the contest very unpredictable, especially without any polling. Was the Republican sweep of West Virginia in 2014 a one-time occurrence thanks to the national political environment and low turnout? Or has the switch finally been flipped in West Virginia where the Democratic Party has permanently lost its grip on the Mountain State, not only in federal races, but in state government as well? Perhaps more than any other, the result of this race will be very instructive as to the answer.