Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Senate Outlook 2014: Tossup in the Works

The Senate has been very competitive and conventional wisdom by inside the beltway pundits has suggested that Republicans have a narrow advantage. 2014 was supposed to be the year that Republicans nominated moderates so they could take the Senate unlike in 2010 and 2012 when they nominated far right candidates (we will never forget Todd Akin with his legitimate rape comment and Christine O'Donnell who ran an ad saying she's not a witch).  Many Republicans however have shown extremist views such as in Iowa where Joni Ernst (R) believes that federal agents promoting the ACA should be arrested and in North Carolina where State Senate President Thom Tillis (R) lost his lead with Sen. Hagan (D) due to his extremism in the legislature.

Thanks to these extremist candidates and an Independent candidate in Kansas, Democrats have a stronger chance at keeping the Senate. If I had written a Senate outlook in March of 2014, I would have probably stated that the Republicans would take back the Senate, thanks to the anti ACA numbers in the polls. The anti ACA movement has died down a bit and there is no major issue uniting the Republicans this year unlike 2010 which was about ACA and the economy. About the economy actually; the U.S. under President Obama has gained nearly 10 million new jobs over the last four years so Republicans cannot use the economy as a major issue. They may be able to attack him on foreign policy but they need to offer solutions and show the voters how foreign policy affects them personally. Still, midterm turnout is generally low for Democrats so my assessment is that Democrats have a very slightly better chance of keeping the Senate but not by much. Even if Democrats do lose the Senate, they will retake it in 2016 with winnable Republican seats up in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Anyway, here are the races:

Safe D = Dark blue
Likely D = Blue
Lean D = Bright blue
Tilt D = Pale Blue
Pure Tossup = Purple
Tilt R = Pale Red
Lean R = Orange
Safe R = Red

Safe D

Sen. Chris Coons (D) faced Christine O'Donnell (R) in 2010 who told voters she was not a witch. This seat however is not bewitched, Coons should win easily.

After a bruising Democratic Primary, Sen. Brian Schatz (D) should have no trouble winning the general.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D) will win easily and hopefully provide coattails to Gov. Pat Quinn (D) who is facing a tough reelection.

Sen. Ed Markey (D) will have no trouble winning here.

New Jersey:
Sen. Cory Booker (D) is a rising star and that star will not fall this year.

New Mexico:
Despite being a Republican held seat in 2008, this Senate seat should stay in Democratic hands now that New Mexico has shifted to be a strongly Democratic state. Sen. Tom Udall (D) will have a 2nd term.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) may have faced a competitive challenge from physician Monica Wehby (R) but she's faced issues including problems with her ex boyfriend (she stalked him and harassed his employees) and then plagiarized Republican economic plans, Merkley should win this race easily.

Rhode Island:
Jack Reed (D) will have no trouble winning reelection.

Sen. Mark Warner (D) was supposed to face a strong challenge from former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie (R). Virginia is a Democratic leaning swing state so Republicans should at least run a competitive race? Nope, Warner is extremely personally popular (he won by 30 points in 2008 against former Gov. Jim Gilmore (R)). While Warner's margin will not be as large (the RCP average has him at 13 points,) he will still win easily.

Likely D

Sen. Al Franken (D) had a tough election in 2008 and faced a recount that continued into July of 2009. This year though, polls show him with about a 10 point lead so he should win reelection without any difficulties.

Lean D

This seat used to be a tossup but Michigan showed its true colors and is shifting toward Rep. Gary Peters (D). Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) was nearly tied with Peters early in the year when Obamacare was in the news. The race now has shifted back to Peters with leads in the high single digits. One mistake Land made was running an ad with the message that she would protect women based on the fact that she was one. This ad inspired responses such as this one. Also, the NRSC is pulling out of Michigan, suggesting that Republicans think they will lose. This race may be in the Likely Democratic column next week.

New Hampshire:
Scott Brown (R) was heralded by the inside the beltway pundits as the strongest candidate in New Hampshire and the one that would take down Sen. Shaheen (D). New Hampshire is historically a bellwether state (voting strongly Democratic in 2008 and 2012 and strongly Republican in 2010,) Republicans do not seem to have much luck there this year. Shaheen is consistently posting high single digit leads in reputable polls. Also, the carpetbagging issue is not helping Brown either.

North Carolina:
Infusion after infusion of cash from Republican Super PACs has hit Incumbent Kay Hagan (D) but is she far behind in the polls? Nope, since September 2nd, not a single poll has shown Hagan behind her opponent. Hagan has been successful so far because her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis (R) represents the unpopular North Carolina Legislature. While President Obama is unpopular in North Carolina, the Legislature is more unpopular.  ratings. Also, many Republicans believe that Hagan is driftwood from 2008. She is not because she won in rural counties in east NC that are traditional Dem areas that Obama lost. This is enough to shift the race into Lean Democratic for now but it could easily shift back to Tilt D.

Tilt D

Colorado: This is another race which is over hyped by the establishment. Originally, Cory Gardner (R), a representative of a conservative exurban and rural congressional district, was the Republican savior candidate. People keep saying he is an amazing contender but I have yet to see what makes him such a strong candidate. All Gardner has done since he stepped into the race is flip flop and stumble over the personhood issue (Colorado has a ballot initiative deciding whether a fetus is a person or not). With women's issues at the forefront this year with the Hobby Lobby ruling, Gardner needs to be careful. He should also take note that the 2010 Republican losing Senatorial candidate, Ken Buck (R) said he should be elected because he doesn't wear high heels. Gardner also released an ad saying one may like Udall but that does not mean one should vote for him. This may seem to be a strong attack according to pundits but the pundits need to look at North Dakota Senate in 2012. Republicans tried the exact same attack on Heidi Heitkamp (D) which failed. A PPP poll came out showing Gardner with a 2 point lead and while PPP is almost always right, the poll also shows the President with a 35% approval rating. With the President having an approval rating in the low-mid 40s nationally and Colorado has mirrored the national average, 35% seems a bit low so the sample may have skewed more conservative. If the poll showed the President with a low mid 40s approval in Colorado, this poll probably would be an accurate picture of the Senate race. Plus, Colorado polls always underestimate the Democratic performance. In 2010, Dem Gov. Hickenlooper was supposed to win by 4 points and U.S. Senator Michael Bennett (D) led in only one poll since Sept. 14th but Hickenlooper won by 14 and Bennett won by 2.

Lean I:

Senator Pat Roberts (R) was originally a shoo in for reelection but Kansas Republicans have faced a backlash. Kansas' Republicans are divided between a conservative and moderate wing and Gov. Sam Brownback (R) offended the moderate wing. He's down in the polls and appears so desperate that he released an ad attacking his opponent for going to a strip club. The unpopularity of Republicans seems to be hurting Roberts, who also is under fire for claiming his Kansas home was a laz-boy place. Also, Greg Orman (I) is an Independent candidate and former Democrat who persuaded Chad Taylor (D) to drop out of the race (even though the Secretary of State found the relative of a Republican campaign staffer to sue Taylor,) and Orman is ahead in every single poll but one since August and led in a Marist poll by 10, shifting this race to Lean Independent. Roberts does not appear to be recovering so Orman should be able to win this. Orman though has stated he will caucus with whatever party is in the majority. If he is a tiebreaker though, history suggests he will go with the Democrats because of his views and the fact that the Democrat dropped out of the race.

Pure Tossup

This seat has bounced back between Tilt R, Tilt D and Tossup but if the election were held today, the Republican would have a very minor edge but not quite enough for Tilt R (thanks to a poll from Suffolk which does not have a Democratic bias showing Pryor leading by 2 points). Pryor is from a political family and in 2008 faced no opposition. Arkansas has changed as Republican gained all congressional seats and the Legislature. In February, Obamacare was extremely unpopular and Pryor was being tied to it. In July though, Pryor seems to have regained his footing. While Arkansas may vote Republican nationally (supporting Romney with 61%,) it is open to voting for Democrats locally if those Democrats connect with the voters. Pryor's style is folksy and resembles Arkansas while Cotton went to Harvard and may appear too wooden and East Coast for Arkansas. Also, Pryor has been campaigning on a minimum wage increase, an important issue in Arkansas which will be on the ballot this year. Cotton got into hot water on income inequality issues by recently comparing food stamp recipients to drug addicts and voting against farm bill funding and the only pediatric hospital in Arkansas. While Arkansas is socially conservative, many voters here agree with Democrats on economic issues.

Iowa: Longtime Senator Tom Harkin (D) is retiring and Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is running against Joni Ernst (R). Ernst is most famous for being 2014's version of Sue Lowden (she was a Nevada Senatorial candidate suggesting that people should trade chickens for healthcare,) and ran an ad about castrating pigs.  However, in the last few weeks, polls have shifted and shown Ernst has taken a narrow lead. There is no explanation for the leading shifting suddenly to Ernst after polls in August and early September showed Braley leading. In the first week of October though, three polls have been released, one showing Ernst ahead by two, one showing them tied and another showing Braley leading by one point. This shows the race as basically a complete tie. It may shift toward Braley. Democrats have booked extra airtime for late October so it is possible Braley might pull a Joe Sestak and start spending heavily in the very end and win over voters (but hopefully unlike Sestak, Braley will win). Also, the polls showing Braley behind show the undecideds and Democratic leaning voters, suggesting that Braley may need to consolidate his base. One way to do that is add a more personal tone to his ads and his newest ad on bipartisanship does that to an extent. Also, Democrats are underpolled in Iowa. The RCP final average had Obama winning by two points and he won by six.

 Senator Landrieu (D) may be from a political family (her brother Mitch is mayor of New Orleans) and has survived close elections in 2002 and 2008 but this may be her last year. Polling shows this race to be close. One potential negative for Landrieu is the jungle primary system. All candidates run in one election on election day and if no one gets 50%, there is a runoff in December. While conventional wisdom suggests runoffs have lower turnout rates, especially for Dems, turnout during the 2002 Senate runoff where Landrieu was expected to lose (she won) was only down by 1%. Also, Landrieu is running close because she is supported by voters who support Republicans nationally but personally like Landrieu and her moderate views. Landrieu though does have support from oil companies which are powerful in Louisiana and could help her campaign immensely. What is keeping Landrieu in the running though is that her opponent, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) has made a few stumbles on the campaign trail.

Tilt R

Sen. Mark Begich (D) is running a strong campaign as a moderate in a state President Obama lost by 13 points. In order to win, Begich needs a strong margin among Native American voters who generally have low turnout rates as well as keeping his strength in the Anchorage area (he's a former mayor). Dan Sullivan (R) has been leading a few polls however. Alaska seems to have a problem of having polls that underestimate Republicans at a first glance. This helped Stevens in 2008 and Murkowski in 2004. What the difference in those races were that they favored incumbents. Alaska seems to have support for incumbents and one fact analysts tend to forget was that in 2010, Joe Miller (R) was in the lead but Lisa Murkowski (R) came from behind in the general election to win, even though Miller was more conservative than her. Also, President Obama lost Alaska in 2012 by only 13 points, (he lost 2008 by 20) and polls were predicting a loss closer to 20 points. This suggests that Alaska's underpolling favors incumbents, not necessarily Republicans but since most Alaska incumbents are Republicans, the underpolling favors them. Also, Native Americans in Alaska usually favor Republicans and they are hard to poll but Begich has worked aggressively to court them so there is a strong likelihood they will support him. Remember, if a Democrat seems to be tying Murkowski in the polls in 2016, the chances of Democrats winning it are very small because Alaska polls underestimate incumbents. Still, Sullivan's lead puts this race in the Tilt R category for now.

This race has been close for awhile. Republican David Perdue (R) is the strongest candidate the Republicans could find unlike some of his primary opponents (who believed that evolution was a lie and that Todd Akin's rape comments were partially right). Perdue is less conservative though. This means that daughter of Senator Sam Nunn (D), Michelle Nunn (D) the Democratic candidate does not have a major chance to win this seat. Nunn though has an extensive registration program looking at registering African Americans and has the ability to reach out to conservative rural white voters. Nunn's goal is to win 30% of Georgia white voters which can be done by appealing to southern rural white voters in Georgia that voted for Sam Nunn and upper middle class white voters in the Atlanta area who used to be strongly Republican but are turned off by the Republicans' shift to the right. Polls continue to show Nunn in the high 20s with white voters and enough undecideds to get her to 30%. What the polls do not say is where those undecided white voters are located. Also, Nunn's campaign is undergoing a large registration operation among African American voters so it is possible they will have a higher percentage in the electorate and Nunn can win with white support in the high 20s. While polls throughout September showed Perdue with a small lead, he recently released an ad linking Michelle Nunn's organization, Points of Light to terrorism. The ad has been criticized and even one of the Bushes criticized the ad. This could change the trajectory of the race. Also, David Perdue said he is proud of outsourcing (let's ask Mitt Romney how comments like that help win votes). The only problem though is that if no candidate gets 50%, there is a runoff and Democratic turnout tends to drop in runoffs in Georgia. This runoff is in January, after a possible runoff for the competitive Gubernatorial race. Nunn has been spending heavily on November turnout, suggesting they feel pessimistic about the runoff turnout and believe the only way to win is by increasing November turnout.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has maintained a consistent small lead throughout the summer. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes (D) has run a strong campaign in a state that President Obama lost by 24 points. This race would have been Lean R if I wrote it in late September.  However, this race barely makes it in the Tilt R category thanks to two new polls. The first is from the Melman group which showed Grimes ahead by 2 points. Melman famously predicted the Democrats' wins in North Dakota and Nevada Senate races in 2012 and 2010 respectively despite other polling firms showing Republicans in the lead. Also, SurveyUSA which does not have a reputation for any Democratic bias showed Grimes ahead by 2 points (they showed McConnell ahead by four points in late August in line with most pollsters at the time). This shows that Grimes may be winning traditionally Democratic voters in eastern Kentucky who usually back Republicans in federal races but Democrats must win in order to win statewide.

Lean R

South Dakota:
Sen. Tim Johnson (D) retired and Democrats nominated Daschle aid Rick Weiland (D). Republicans however got one of their strongest candidates in former Gov. Mike Rounds (R). Also, former Republican Larry Pressler (I) is running as an Independent and getting about 25% of the vote. Polls show that Pressler is actually taking more votes away from Weiland than Rounds surprisingly. Weiland though has been attacking Pressler as a conservative in order to win back Democrats. Rounds also has been facing trouble from the EB-5 scandal. Also, a super PAC supporting campaign finance reform (yes they exist) just announced they are spending 1 milllon on behalf of Rick Weiland. A poll was released showing Rounds with 35, Pressler with 32 and Weiland with 28. Pressler is an Independent with little funds so he could easily lose because Independents tend to fizzle (at least unless there's no Democrat or Republican on the ticket like in Kansas). The support would likely go to Weiland because Pressler tends to align with the Democrats (he endorsed President Obama in 208 and 2012). Also, on October 8th, the DSCC just announced a $1 million ad buy in South Dakota. $1 million goes a long way in a small state such as South Dakota and that $1 million could be used in competitive races such as Iowa and Arkansas but the DSCC clearly sees something in South Dakota. Therefore, this race is at Lean Republican for now but if more polls show a close race, it will move to Tilt R or even Tossup.

Safe R

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) will not have any trouble here.

There are rumors Governor Butch Otter (R) may have a closer than expected reelection but all Senator Jim Risch (R) should worry about whether his margin is closer to 20% or 40%.

Democrats are expected to takeover the Maine Governorship.  Sen. Susan Collins (R) fans however have taken over Maine.

Democrats won the Senate and Governorship here in 2012 but this time, they lost their main candidate after a plagiarism scandal and will be unable to win. Also, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) was supposed to run for the seat but declined.

This seat may not be a 20 point win for Republicans but it will be still be a solid win.

Despite calling global warming one of the biggest hoaxes on American people, poll numbers showing Sen. James Inhofe (R) in the lead are not a hoax.

Oklahoma 2:
Tom Coburn (R) is leaving, another Republican is replacing him.

South Carolina:
Lindsey Graham (R) loves to talk about the embassy attack in Benghazi (but not about the 13 embassy attacks that occurred while George W. Bush was President,) and will have six more years to mention it.

South Carolina 2:
Tim Scott (R) should win his special election to Senate.

Lamar Alexander (R) got above 60% even in 2008, the most Democratic year since I was born, nothing to see here...

John Cornyn (R) is facing David Alameel (D) who may not be a weak candidate but is no Wendy Davis (and while I even see Davis doing better than most pundits predict, she will not win).

West Virginia:
Sen. Jay Rockeller IV (D) vacated this seat and despite nominating Sec. of State Natalie Tennett (D), Democrats will lose a Senate seat in West Virginia for the first time in decades. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is extremely popular and does not have the baggage that McConnell does in neighboring Kentucky.

There may have been some drama when Senator Michael Enzi (R) would face a Liz Cheney (R) but after some misshaps, she dropped out of the primary and Enzi can win easily in heavily red Wyoming.

Overall, the Senate battle will be extremely close either way. By looking at the poll numbers though and the fundamentals, it seems that Democrats have an extremely narrow advantage. They will have to win at least one of the Pure Tossups in order to win (assuming they hold all the Democratic Leaning states and Orman caucuses with them). It could easily shift direction though and it is possible Republicans will sweep all three pure tossups.

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