The first primary of the 2018 midterm elections, in Texas, is barely eight weeks away. It’s time to ask: Will the Russian government deploy “active measures” of the kind it used in 2016? Is it possible that a wave of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter could nudge the results of a tight congressional race in, say, Virginia or Nevada? Will hackers infiltrate low-budget campaigns in Pennsylvania and Nebraska, and leak their e-mails to the public? Will the news media and voters take the bait? By most accounts, the answer is likely to be yes—and, for several reasons, the election may prove to be as vulnerable, or more so, than the 2016 race that brought Donald Trump to the White House. Part of the explanation is political: the 2018 midterms are shaping up to be extraordinarily competitive. Consider the spectacle currently unfolding in Virginia. Before the most recent election, on November 7th, Republicans controlled Virginia’s House of Delegates by a comfortable sixteen-seat majority. In a wave of Democratic wins, propelled by the state’s highest turnout in twenty years, the Republican majority nearly evaporated. Final control of the House now rests on the results of the 94th District, which is deadlocked at 11,608 votes apiece. The Virginia Board of Elections planned to draw the name of a winner out of a pitcher, a tactic unused in Virginia in more than four decades, but, on December 26th, the state postponed the plan, because of pending court challenges. If the Republican incumbent David Yancey loses to the Democrat Shelly Simonds, the House will be tied fifty-fifty, and the two parties will share power.
Nationwide, voters will have similar motivations to turn out in 2018, an election with higher stakes than any midterm in memory. Voters could determine control of both chambers of Congress, and, indirectly, the fate of President Trump. If Democrats take control of the House, they are likely to face pressure to embark on an impeachment. Party leaders still say that discussion is premature—and, perhaps, counterproductive, if talk of impeachment inspires Republican voters to come out in defense of Trump. In polls, however, three out of four Democrats already favor impeaching Trump. In December, fifty-eight House Democrats—nearly a third of their caucus—voted to start debate on impeachment.
For Democrats to win control of the House, they will need to gain twenty-four seats. Historically, a President’s party loses twenty-five seats in a midterm, which would give the Democrats control by one vote. When I reported, in May, on the outlook for 2018, the chances of a Democratic victory looked small, because gerrymandered districts have reduced the number of competitive elections, and morale among Democrats was low. Seven months later, the chances of Democrats taking the House are still modest, but less so: The President remains uniquely unpopular, and Democratic surges, like those in Virginia and Alabama, have produced results that were once thought impossible. By the end of the year, political analysts figured that as many as forty races will be competitive in 2018, and Republicans hold thirty-two of the seats in question. That is the makings of a brutally tight year—and a perfect setting for hackers to make mischief.