Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Taking a Look at Vote-Splitting

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)
First things first-I want to apologize for my absence from the blog.  I've been very under the weather lately and not in any shape to do anything, much less attempt to write coherently.  I'm also a bit behind on my news right now, so I'll apologize that this story might not be as topical as I initially planned.  However, it was a story that stuck out to me yesterday when I was perusing the internet and thought I would share (it also, after writing, became an extremely long article, so if you've missed me I've come back in a big way).

A recent University of New Hampshire poll had what might not seem at first to have been a shocking set of results, but if you looked below the surface you could find some.  Three-term U.S. Senator Susan Collins, perhaps the most moderate Republican in Congress, leads Democrat Shenna Bellows by an astounding 55-point margin.

Admittedly, Collins has enjoyed a popularity while in Congress that few other politicians could ever really dream of and is hardly what one would consider an outlandish or hard-right conservative, but a 55-point lead is absolutely unbelievable for a state that went to President Obama by 15-points and has two Democratic congressmen.  With the current trend against ticket-splitting, that that many people would be willing to pull the lever for Collins despite going blue for the rest of their ballot is pretty remarkable, and though it could well close, it may well represent the most diverse statewide federal race margin between a Democratic candidate who won and a Republican candidate who won after this election.

This is increasingly important for the Senate control, as with less-and-less people splitting their ballot, the fight over the Senate is increasingly won by the few senators who can buck the trend in their home state.  In 2012, Barack Obama won the national electorate by a strong margin, and the electoral college by over 100-points, but he only won 26 states.  A lot is said about gerrymandering, but the reality is that the Senate is gerrymandered in a way we don't really discuss-a wildly populated state like California gets the same amount of representation in the body that a small red state like Wyoming does, and there are far more of the right-leaning small states than there are small blue states.

This would give the Democrats a slim on-paper advantage of 52-48 for the Senate, but as Collins and a number of the people we're going to discuss below prove, that's not always the case and a state's ability to go against its grains even in one election (a Senate seat lasts for six years, which is several lifetimes in legislative politics) can help decide how the Senate will swing for years to come (if you haven't caught it yet from my posting nearly every single day about this November-the midterms are just as important, if not .  Theoretically the Republicans should have more seats currently, but the Democrats scored big in red states in 2008 and 2012 while they were winning the White House nationally, which helped pad their majority.

I figured it was worth looking at which states had the biggest swings in their federal margins between Democrats and Republicans.  I only looked at the 2012 presidential elections and the most recent Senate elections for each senator (governor's races, while increasingly more likely to go to a party's federal inclinations, are still more decided on local issues and therefore less likely to be influenced by the national atmosphere).  The top ten list takes the highest margin of victory achieved by a Republican and the highest margin of victory achieved by a Democrat and subtracts them, giving an indication of the wildest swings a state can achieve.  I will note that only nineteen states have voted for both parties in their three latest federal elections (that number would have been a slightly higher twelve years ago (22), and could fall dramatically this year if Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, and Kay Hagan were all to lose, as South Dakota going for Mike Rounds will already bring the number down to eighteen).  I'll also note that for the purposes of this write-up Angus King and Bernie Sanders are both considered Democrats and that Mark Pryor's unopposed election result in 2008 doesn't count in the below points since there was no Republican against him (seems unthinkable considering what a top target he is this year, doesn't it?).  With all of that said, here are the ten "swingiest" states in the union.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
1. Montana (59.48 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Max Baucus's 2008 Senate victory (45.84 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Mitt Romney's 2012 Presidential victory (13.64 points)

Thoughts: Montana is the weirdest state in the universe in terms of vote-splitting.  Admittedly in 2008 Barack Obama did have a weirdly close election here that no one seems to remember and the Republicans nominated a gadfly candidate, but still: a 45-point victory for Max Baucus while John McCain is also winning statewide is insane.  Part of what has persistently puzzled me about this state is that it seems resistant to giving Denny Rehberg a promotion (the Jon Tester victory in 2012 made no sense with Mitt Romney already winning) and that their big names never seem to run (Marc Racicot in 2008 for the Republicans, Brian Schweitzer in 2014 for the Democrats).  This year we do seem relatively on-pace to shift at least one of these seats to the Republicans, as appointed incumbent Sen. John Walsh seems certain to lose to first-term Rep. Steve Daines (Brian Schweitzer, having just killed every chance he had at being on a national ticket with his bizarre attacks on Eric Cantor and Dianne Feinstein, must be kicking himself for not taking this easy Senate nomination and what may have amounted to a coronation to the Senate...and considering the amount of strength Mark Pryor's pulling in Arkansas right now, pulling Montana out of the GOP's column probably would have guaranteed Harry Reid a Democratic majority-now Reid continues to struggle with the "getting to 50" and Schweitzer becomes a political footnote).  However, this state will remain on this list, albeit not as high, since both of the seats are currently held by Democrats.

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin
2. Iowa (56.44 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Tom Harkin's 2008 Senate victory (25.39 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Chuck Grassley's 2010 Senate victory (31.05 points)

Thoughts: Grassley and Harkin are two of the oddest pairs currently in the Senate.  Both of them are from extreme polar ends of the political spectrum, and from a state that relishes and follows its politics pretty religiously.  Though Iowa swings the slightest of blues in presidential elections (it did, it's worth noting, side against John Kerry though in 2004, being one of only two states to migrate over to President Bush's camp from 2000), Grassley's margins of victory have always been more impressive than Harkin's.  While Iowa may stay on this list for a while, it won't be able to top it for another decade or so after this year, as with Harkin retiring, either the Republicans win his seat with State Sen. Joni Ernst (who is running a very good campaign) or the Democrats will hold it but hardly with a 25-point margin with a Bruce Braley victory.  The real question for Iowa is 2016, where Chuck Grassley keeps insisting he will stay on, but Richard Lugar/Thad Cochran has to make him nervous in a state that has people like Brad Zaun and Steve King on the bench.  That race, in a presidential year, could give the Democrats a crucial pick-up as Iowa tends to love keeping their incumbents.  My money would be on State Sen. Staci Appel, if she wins in the third district, making a quick jump into the higher office as neither party has a particularly robust bench here.

Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp
3. North Dakota (54.82 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Heidi Heitkamp's 2012 Senate victory (0.91 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: John Hoeven's 2010 Senate victory (53.91 points)

Thoughts: I know that I talk about Heidi Heitkamp a lot on this blog, but that victory in 2012 remains one of the most out-of-the-blue, impossible to predict on paper victories I've ever seen.  Just compare it to the 53-point margin of victory achieved by her fellow senator two years earlier!  The Dakotas have a long history of electing Democrats to Congress, but with Tim Johnson retiring and Stephanie Herseth not picking up the baton, that leaves Heitkamp as the sole Democrat left to fend for the seat.  She's not up for election until 2018 (though she is not shy about her true ambition of being governor, and that seat will open up in 2016 which could put this spot in jeopardy), but this state's position on this list remains almost exclusively the job of the DSCC to keep Heitkamp happy and wanting to stay in Congress.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)
4. West Virginia (54.23 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Jay Rockefeller's 2008 Senate Victory (27.47 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential victory (26.75 points)

Thoughts: This race will obviously change later this year, as Natalie Tennant won't lose by a 26.75 point margin, but she'll certainly lose Jay Rockefeller's seat. That said, the Democrats still have one other seat with Joe Manchin, who is probably going to be able to hold onto that seat for as long as he possibly wants (he's the Susan Collins of West Virginia), but that is increasingly looking like it's not very long.  Manchin has vocally spoken about how little he cares for Washington, and his old job as governor will open up in 2016.  The Democrats could still win the seat in an election in 2018, of course, but this might be a Heidi Heitkamp situation-only one person can hold the seat.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME)
5. Maine (44.9 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Angus King's 2012 Senate Victory (22.15 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Susan Collins's 2008 Senate Victory (22.75 points)

Thoughts: The dual Maine seats have been perhaps the most coveted but unreachable prizes for Democrats for years in the Senate.  Long held by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, they picked up one of them (sort of...with a left-leaning independent) in 2012 when Snowe retired, but Collins at a mere 61, could hold onto her seat for decades if she wanted to do so.  Theoretically this could change (someone like Gordon Smith or Tom Daschle fell apart in a wave), but Collins survived 2008 against a sitting congressman by a stunning 22-point margin-she's not a lightweight campaigner.  This could very quickly become the highest-ranking state on this list next year.  What causes this is a better question-blue states seem more inclined to go party line than red states in recent years, but Maine is the clear hold-out.  Will that change, and can Collins hang on if it does?

Sens. John Thune and Tim Johnson
6. South Dakota (43 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Tim Johnson's 2008 Senate Victory (24.98 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Mitt Romney's 2012 Presidential Victory (18.02 points)

Thoughts: Technically John Thune's victory in 2010 is the highest, but he didn't run against a Democrat so I'm not counting it.  That being said, this state is the most certain to be off the list in January, as the Democrats couldn't get any of their A-listers to run for the Senate, and as a result will certainly void this seat.  This is a pity for the Democrats, as the Dakotas were long the counterpoint to Maine, but Johnson's leaving the Senate will mean that the Democrats will have to look elsewhere to win advantage, as none of these seats seems remotely likely to alter back to blue in the near (or even far) future (this is also a good point about how important it is to turn out when you're in the minority in your state and you have the remotest of chances of winning an election-it's rare in a red state like South Dakota or Nebraska for the Democrats to have even a conservative Democrat like Tim Johnson or Ben Nelson to get behind).

Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk
7. Illinois (40.87 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Dick Durbin's 2008 Senate Victory (39.27 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Mark Kirk's 2010 Senate Victory (1.6 points)

Thoughts: If there's one seat that Barack Obama must kick himself over in the 2010 midterm losses that turned out to define his presidency (think of how much that redistricting and the change of tone cut down on what was some intense momentum on a large swath of issues), it's Mark Kirk in 2010 just barely taking over the former president's seat against State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.  This seat starts the Democratic wish list of 2016, where they will be playing a whole host of offense two years after playing a ton of defense, and could be the quickest to get off the list, despite Kirk's popularity.  Names such as Reps. Tammy Duckworth and Cheri Bustos, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and yes, even First Lady Michelle Obama (can you even imagine she and Hillary running in the same year?) have been mentioned for the seat, and Kirk starts 2016 as the biggest potential target of the cycle.

Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio
8. Florida (32.2 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Bill Nelson's 2012 Senate victory (13.01 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Marco Rubio's 2010 Senate victory (19.19 points)

Thoughts: Florida is the weirdest state on this list, not because it shouldn't be on a list of states with mixes in their statewide federal races (as the biggest swing state in the country, it most definitely should), but because those Senate victories are wildly different and in the case of Rubio's, a tad bit skewed since the left had two candidates running that cycle (former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the Democrats as governor this cycle was an independent, and Rep. Kendrick Meek the actual nominated Democrat).  While not all of Crist's votes would stay with Meek had he not run or vice versa, this certainly wouldn't have been a 19-point blowout, even in 2010.

That said, Florida is a strange case here-the question is can a Democrat who isn't Barack Obama actually carry it?  With the exception of Iowa, the other states we've profiled so far have all been swing Senate elections, but hardly are competitive on the presidential level-Florida could quickly swing to the GOP without a candidate who can drive up strong support amongst black and Latino voters, and with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both potential native son candidates on the ballot, Florida may prefer someone from their part of the country.

As for the Senate elections, the question remains if the Democrats can ever figure out a way to cultivate a bench.  I wrote about Florida's governor's race being one of my most fascinating races of 2014 last week, but part of that is that the Democrats are in dire need of a leader.  Many state parties have a famous reputation for being poorly-run (AL Democrats, MN GOP and WI Democrats all spring to mind), but almost no one rivals the Sunshine State Democrats in terms of incompetence (I'm aware that the DNC Chair is from this state, but look at the DNC's fundraising and tell me that she isn't part of the problem).  Business-minded Charlie Crist could work on the bench there, and his retail politicking skills are legendary if he decided to use them to campaign to get stronger numbers in the State House or Senate.  Otherwise, the more vulnerable of the two Senate seats is Bill Nelson's, as he's likely a big retirement risk in 2018 (I was kind of surprised the extremely quiet incumbent, most noted for his work as an astronaut even after over 25 years in Congress, even ran in 2012 to begin with) and the Democrats have a slim bench whereas the Republicans have a big one.  Either way, though, Florida U.S. Senate elections are generally closer than these two let on (2000 was a 4.9-point margin and 2004 was a 1.1-point margin), so this should drop off the top ten unless the number of states gets much smaller.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte
9. New Hampshire (29.56 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Jeanne Shaheen's 2008 Senate victory (6.34 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Kelly Ayotte's 2010 Senate victory (23.22 points)

Thoughts: This may be the first state I say this about, but at least in November of this year, I could see this margin growing, not shrinking.  Jeanne Shaheen took on an incumbent senator in 2008 who happened to have beaten her six years earlier (rematches rarely workout for the initial loser) and who was the son of the most powerful man in New Hampshire politics.  Six years later, she's stronger in the polls, far more established in the state, and running against a man who recently represented another state in the Senate and while not Todd Akin, continues to put his foot in his mouth.  Scott Brown may still win this race, but if the election were held today 6.34 points seems a bit low for Shaheen-she may well pull off 8-10.

New Hampshire is a famously sporadic state, one that has seen a decided swing to the left in the past ten years (they have gone blue for President the last three elections and blue in federal races in 75% of the last four elections, not to mention they haven't elected a Republican governor since 2002), but occasionally goes hard right (they are the most conservative state in New England).  The question for 2014/16 is will this year's wave reach New England, and if it doesn't, how much danger is Kelly Ayotte in?  I would wager that if Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in particular (a one-time gadfly candidate who won in a truly bizarre election result in 2006, she's now a bit more polished but still not a consummate campaigner by any means even after nearly three terms in the House) can win in 2014 that Ayotte is toast, as it will prove that New Hampshire is no longer locked into the national mood like it was in 2010.  That's because Democrats have incumbent Gov. Maggie Hassan gunning for Ayotte's seat.  Hassan seems to enjoy the national stage (she's become fast friends with Vice President Biden, and I would wager would be a major early endorser of his presidential campaign if he makes a run of it), and about the only thing stopping her from taking on Ayotte is if she decided to forgo the Senate and make a run for the White House herself.  That seems unlikely with Hillary in the race, though, so I suspect it will be Ayotte v. Hassan, which will be a nightmare scenario for the GOP in a state they weren't even able to turn around with a New England governor on the ticket in 2012.

Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt
10. Missouri (29.3 points)

Biggest Democratic Margin of Victory: Claire McCaskill's 2012 Senate victory (15.7 points)
Biggest Republican Margin of Victory: Roy Blunt's 2010 Senate victory (13.6 points)

Thoughts: Missouri is on this list in large part thanks to Todd Akin.  Claire McCaskill likely wouldn't have won in 2012 (certainly not by a 15-point margin) had Akin not made his now infamous "legitimate rape" remarks.  McCaskill isn't up until 2018, which is a lifetime in politics, and though she claims she won't run again, her bravado in the national spotlight clearly shows there's still a thirst to remain in public office so I'll believe her in 2017, but not now.

Either way, the question here becomes the inverse of Florida: can someone who appeals to blue-collar white voters in the way that Hillary Clinton did during the 2008 primaries turn them out enough to swing a state like Missouri back to the Democrats, or is it too far gone?  Clinton's obviously going to focus on the Obama swing states if she runs in 2016, but I suspect she's going to try and prove she can one-up him, and while states like North Carolina or Arizona make more sense on paper, I suspect she'll have better luck in places like Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky.

The other question is regarding Blunt-will the Democrats get a decent candidate against him?  The House bench is poor and it's an embarrassment that the State Auditor's race doesn't have a Democrat running (this is how McCaskill got her statewide start), but Democrats do have three statewide constitutional officers that could run.  Most importantly, the Democrats have a sitting governor in Jay Nixon who enjoys decent enough approval ratings and has been raising his national profile in a way that suggests he may take on Blunt in 2016 (and considering his dealings with the state legislature, is probably delighted by the prospect of taking on the Missouri Republicans at the ballot box again).  That being said, Roy Blunt is a terrificly skilled politician (he was House Majority Leader before John Boehner) and is already a member of the GOP Senate leadership after one-term: he's not a gadfly by any means.

And those are the top ten.  The remaining nine states are (in descending number of points): Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, and (thanks to Pryor's uncontested election, in last place) Arkansas.  As you can tell, six of these states feature the race that keeps them on this list this year on the ballot, so the number could get lower (though on the inverse, states like Kentucky, Georgia, and Michigan could theoretically get added to the list depending on November).  It's also worth noting that since the 2010 defeats of Stephanie Herseth and Earl Pomeroy (and the retirement of Mike Castle) no at-large House seat is held by the party that didn't win the presidential election in that state.  What are your thoughts on the increased amount of straight-ticket voting?  Will presidential candidates take a stronger hand in recruiting candidates to increase their chances of turnout (such as George W. Bush did with incredible success in 2004)?  And what do you think causes those rare instances such as Susan Collins where the state persistently overlooks party label when voting for federal office?  Share in the comments!

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