Saturday, July 19, 2014

De-Constructing the Senate Wall

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC): The Most Important Senator of 2014?
Washington is a tough place to build a consensus, but one seems to building there as the Midterm elections fast approach: Republicans seem more and more likely to reclaim the Senate majority in November.  Despite stronger than expected economic numbers and 8 million people signed up for the ACA, the President cannot find a way to rebound his numbers, particularly in the dark red states where most of the battle for the Senate is being waged.

The problem, though, for pundits and analysts is that there’s no specific set of races that are obvious when it comes to which seats will turn.  Mathematically it seems that the momentum is with the Republicans, but the question is what seats are the ones that magically add up to six to get the majority, and perhaps more importantly, how many more seats can the Republicans grab to insulate themselves from 2016, when the map takes a decided turn against their majority?

Almost everyone agrees that South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia are goners for the Democrats.  Montana Sen. John Walsh seems to still be well-received by Washington Democrats and Natalie Tennant has finally gotten some fire into her campaign, but neither have seen any sorts of polls headed in their direction to make us assume these won’t get the Republicans halfway to their goal.

The four Democratic senators running in Romney states are the seats most cited as the next most likely to contribute to the majority for the Republicans, and when it comes to reaching six, there’s a decent chance that they will be the ones that do it, but none of the races have entered slam dunk territory.  A lot depends on what the Democrats can do to draw distinctions with the President.  Even a five-point jump in the President’s national approval could make a world of difference for Kay Hagan (NC), Mark Begich (AK), Mary Landrieu (LA), and Mark Pryor (AR), but they are definitely the four senators that will decided whether or not Harry Reid remains in charge.

If larger momentum stays with the Republicans, they could well all go to the Republicans, but if you look at each individual race the Democrats have reason for optimism.  Arkansas has long been the outlier of these races, but polling has closed so that Rep. Tom Cotton is within the margin of error of Pryor.  Still, Pryor is certainly not Blanche Lincoln, and continues to maintain a better retail politicking style than his Republican opponent (switch their labels and Pryor would be clobbering Cotton).  Mary Landrieu seems to be in tougher shape than Pryor, but the dynamics of her race are very strange because of the runoff that Louisiana has if no candidate reaches 50%-she’s buoyed by the fact that she’s the only candidate with a shot of winning outright in November, and with another minor candidate dropping out (even if it’s a Republican), she is helped.  Mark Begich has arguably the toughest demographics of the bunch (even in good years with good candidates, Alaska rarely goes blue for a federal office).  Begich, though, is running a stellar campaign that even Republicans are worried about.  And finally, there’s Hagan, arguably the least of these candidates, but the one who has slowly emerged as the safest of the bunch.  Polling has shown her gaining on some really poor polls earlier this year and with one candidate to focus on, the Democrats have started to run a more cohesive campaign.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA)
These are generally thought to be the main races, but there are three Democratic races in Obama-won states that the Republicans are salivating over: Iowa, Michigan, and Colorado.  Democrats have reasons to be worried in Iowa in particular.  Their candidate Rep. Bruce Braley, though an outstanding fundraiser, has turned out to be a disappointment on the trail, whereas State Sen. Joni Ernst has done the Republicans proud.  If Braley wins here, it’s entirely due to the blue nature of the state.

The same cannot be said for Colorado and Michigan.  While Sen. Mark Udall is likely enjoying stronger name recognition in the state, the polls have shown him to have a small lead and Hobby Lobby/immigration reform are going to help him more than almost any other Democrat in the country against Rep. Cory Gardner.  Gardner’s past support of personhood and poor record in the House on immigration is going to give Udall some major tools to drive up supporters from women and Latino voters.  This will be key as he cannot win without either. 

Michigan, on the other hand, has also shifted toward the Democrats in recent days.  Terri Lynn Land, a former statewide officer running as a Republican (she was Secretary of State) has run a better campaign than one would expect, but Rep. Gary Peters has reclaimed the lead in the race, and the blue nature of this state (and Peters strong numbers with women) give him an edge and arguably this is the least competitive seat of these three right now.

Republicans like to say things like New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, and Oregon, but none of these races seem to have materialized and the incumbents have the edge.  This could change, especially if the national environment shifts against the President, but these are worth paying attention to, but not worth talking about flipping.

I’d like to point out, though, that these blue states are key for the Republicans as a barometer for success in the future.  The Democrats in these states (with the exception of perhaps Braley) appear to be ahead right now, despite a national environment that should be bringing them down.  This is important, because these states are going to be crucial for a Republican to take the White House in 2016.  While the loss of the Senate would be big for the Republicans, that doesn’t mean that it would make a lot of difference for actual legislation.  It would just mean the buck would stop at Barack Obama’s desk rather than Harry Reid’s.  If the Republicans cannot translate Iowa and Colorado in particular to their side, how likely is it for them to be able to win it 2016 when higher turnout will favor Democrats?  Not very likely.

Finally, it’s always worth pointing out that the Republicans do have seats to defend, even if they’re small in number.  For a while there it seemed like Georgia might be one of those such seats, but Michelle Nunn, despite a strong campaign, is looking less and less likely to be following in her father’s footsteps.  The Republicans avoided the Todd Akins in their race, and appear on-track to elect the better of the two Republicans (Jack Kingston) in the runoff.  This seat is starting to turn into New Hampshire in terms of the Democrats’ ability to pick it up.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY)
Kentucky, though, still is the great question mark of 2014.  Alison Lundergan Grimes is giving Mitch McConnell his best race in decades, and he has not been able to get his numbers to a point where an incumbent would be the favorite (his numbers are poorer than Mark Udall’s, for example).  McConnell is still the favorite to win because of the red nature of his state, the national mood, and the fact that he is a relentless campaigner, but Grimes is hardly milquetoast and continues to be a real threat for a pickup, which would deeply complicate the Republicans’ shot at the majority.

So, finally, it’s time to answer the question of where’s the wall?  It’s not where either the Democrats or the Republicans would like, quite frankly.  With seats to defend in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire two years from now, the Republicans cannot reasonably hope to keep their majority past 2017 if they only win six seats this cycle, but that’s roughly where they look to be headed in November.  Meanwhile, the Democrats cannot be happy that they have Braley in particular still completely in the fray.  I’d argue at this point that the Republicans would pick-up AK, WV, LA, SD, AR, and MT (Begich and Pryor having the best shot at comebacks), and the wall is now a combination of KY/IA/NC.  Republicans would need just one of these seats to win, but which one?  Headed toward Labor Day, these three races are the ones to watch to see who is building a stronger wall.

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