Thursday, September 25, 2014

Six Thoughts on the Senate Midterms

I am aware that I talk about the Senate a lot on this blog, but honestly-there hasn’t been an election quite like this in a while.  The last truly tossup race of this nature (where it decided an entire branch of the government) was probably the 2004 presidential election, and that was almost a decade ago (in 2006, when the Democrats won the Senate, oddly enough no one actually thought the Democrats could pick up all six seats necessary to win the Senate, so that wasn't really a thought until right around the time Claire McCaskill beat Jim Talent).  It’s exciting, and something that I partially wish my home state was competitive in a way that I felt like part of this, but am also glad that it isn’t because my side is winning in that particular case.  I’m not going to make this one of my “State of the Senate” articles (and I’m well aware that we haven’t had a “State of the House” article yet this month…there will be one before September ends, I promise), but I do want to put out six thoughts I’ve been having in the past week about a variety of races for the Senate.

1. What is “the seat?”

This is the billion-dollar question (anyone know if that number isn’t an actual joke at this point?).  While you see people consistently argue the GOP will win anywhere between 5-8, you see more and more pundits hovering right around that key number of six, which means that there is one seat that is going to decide this race for the Democrats or Republicans.  Is it Alaska, which has seen a bit of a hemorrhage for Mark Begich’s support?  Is it Arkansas, where Mark Pryor’s personal support could potentially carry him (limping) across the finish line, even if that is continuing to be an uphill battle?  Is it Lousiana, by virtue of Mary Landrieu’s runoff?  Is it Kansas or Georgia, with the Republicans perhaps picking up six seats but risking their majority with a critical loss?  In my opinion, if this is a 5-6 seat pickup for the Republicans, the sixth seat has to be one of those five seats, but it’s anyone’s guess which.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)
2. Are Pryor, Landrieu, and Begich still viable options?

One of the most popular sayings from the Democrats has been that since 2004, they’ve only lost three incumbents (Tom Daschle, Blanche Lincoln, and Russ Feingold, all in GOP waves, the former two in red states).  If Pryor, Landrieu, and Begich all lost, that number would double this election.  Democrats historically hold seats better with an incumbent than the GOP (while the GOP does better in an open seat)-is this possible?

According to Real Clear Politics, Landrieu is the most in peril, with Cassidy up 5.6 points in their spread (enough for the race to no longer be considered a tossup), while Pryor is in the closest race, with an average of 2.4 points under Rep. Tom Cotton (Sen. Mark Begich is in a 3.6-spread state, but Alaska is notoriously hard to poll).  While it’s too soon to write any of these senators obituaries, it becomes nearly impossible for the Democrats to retain the Senate if they lose all three (they’d have to pick up a seat at that point).  Meanwhile, if the Democrats can hold just one of these seats, the math for the GOP becomes exponentially harder (not impossible, or even improbable, but considerably harder).

3. The Obama 2008 Strategy

Earlier on in the cycle, it felt like the DSCC was running a slightly odd race, trying to shore up their incumbents in red states more than they were the blue states.  I think at that point they figured they’d lose 4 seats or so, not five or six.  As a result, they’ve shifted their gears in large part to ensure that North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Michigan, and New Hampshire all stay in their column.  This has been a mixed bag for the party.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC)
At this point it would be foolish to assume the Democrats don’t have a strong upper-hand in Michigan-the Republicans have about as much of a chance of winning there as the Democrats do in Kentucky.  This was expected though-this is a blue state where Obama isn’t entirely unpopular thanks to the auto bailout.  The more surprising turn-of-events has to be North Carolina.  While Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is still in a tough fight for reelection, her polls are the envy of anyone in a “tossup” election-she’s been in in the lead in the last seven polls, and if I were a Republican strategist, I’d rather we spend money in more competitive states, quite frankly.  Finally there’s New Hampshire, which may be the biggest question mark of the cycle in terms of margin-I’d believe anything from 1-2 point win to a double digit win for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (perhaps the only person in a competitive race who is still relatively popular), but I would be floored if Shaheen were to lose in November.

The other two races are gigantic question marks.  In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall has a measly .6 spread with RCP (weighed down heavily, admittedly, by what could be an outlier poll from Quinnpiac that showed Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner up by eight-points).  Udall is being hampered by what is starting to look like a lost cause for the Democrats for governor-John Hickenlooper’s approval continues to sink compared to Bob Beauprez, and there may be a legitimate worry that Democratic enthusiasm will be down if they don’t think they can hold the governor’s mansion.

The Iowa Senate seat is probably the biggest question mark in the country.  It has a .1 spread with RCP, making it the truest tossup there is.  Again with the exception of Quinnipiac (which is weighing down Braley a bit, as it gave Ernst a six-point spread), Braley has been tied or in a slight lead in every poll, but this could go either way, which is why both Clintons and Michelle Obama are going there in the next month.

If the Democrats can hold these five seats, the Republicans will be in a very precarious situation-they could still hold the Senate, but they have to defeat three incumbents who have won a grand total of nine times statewide in the past, where their opponents have never won.

Greg Orman (I-KS)
4. The Kansas/Georgia Dilemma

It goes without saying that Kansas is one of the most fascinating races in the country, with Greg Orman clearly in the lead in the polls, and Pat Roberts the underdog.  There is a very real chance that this race decides the majority of the Senate (and both sides know it), which means Greg Orman is about to become the most scrutinized man in America.  The Republicans would be smart to make any information they have on Orman an early-October surprise.

Meanwhile, in Georgia we’ve seen what is clearly looking more and more like a closing gap between Michelle Nunn and David Perdue.  While Perdue is in the lead, he has a 3.4 margin spread and is being helped pretty solidly by an outlier InsiderAdvantage poll (otherwise he’s be around 1.8 spread).  This race is almost certainly going to a runoff that the Democrats are going to almost certainly lose, but this race is too close to ignore.  Do the Democrats go all-out in trying to get Nunn elected in November (Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford is more likely to take votes from Republican David Perdue)?  A Nunn victory would be a death blow to the Republicans, but most pundits consider it unlikely despite, at least on paper, this being closer than North Carolina, Alaska, New Hampshire, or Louisiana.

5. The October Surprise

You know there’s one coming, and it’s probably going to be coming pretty quickly.  My gut says that one of the candidates is going to say something terrible in a debate (the only candidate who could still have a significant number of skeletons in their closet would be Greg Orman, though that could be the surprise as well).  Randomly throwing a few names out under the bus, Orman, Thom Tillis (R-NC), Bruce Braley (D-IA), and David Perdue (R-GA) are the four candidates that have had the loosest lips in the past and are my bets for if we see a hit in the future.

6. Who is Most to Blame for the Democrats Losing the Senate?

Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD)
Is it Barack Obama?  Harry Reid?  The Koch Brothers?  Honestly, if they lose, and lose by just six seats, there are two people who are largely responsible for the Democrats losing the Senate: Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT) and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD).

Schweitzer is the easier of the two to for Democrats to loathe.  He essentially threw the idea of a primary against Max Baucus out there, largely causing Baucus (who hadn’t run a close race in almost twenty years) to retire.  Had he not retired, it seems likely that Baucus would have been able to hold or at least make Montana competitive, meaning the Republicans would have had to defeat four incumbents to win back the Senate, a very tall order.  The fact that Schweitzer threatened Baucus and then didn’t run in his place is one of the critical reasons the Democrats are currently behind in the math for the Senate.

Herseth Sandlin is a little easier to forgive, but not completely.  She was the de facto nominee when Tim Johnson announced his retirement, as she easily could have dispatched Democrat Rick Weiland in a primary and then gone on to the general.  She decided against it once Weiland entered the race, however, but now has to assume that she shouldn’t have.  Since then, a major third party candidate has emerged in former Sen. Larry Pressler, meaning the bar to win is probably around 40%, not 50%, a number Herseth Sandlin could have achieved, particularly considering Gov. Mike Rounds (R-SD) is running a pretty abysmal campaign.  Her absence, though, means that Rounds will probably win by a 10-12 point margin over Weiland and Pressler, and what could have been a pivotal comeback for a red-state woman who isn’t yet 45 (that’s code for future White House contender) now is the end to her promising career.

Those are the thoughts I’m having right now about the upcoming Senate election-how about you?  What seems to be of particular interest to you?

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