Monday, October 10, 2016

The State of the Senate

Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R),
two men competing for this year's biggest surprise Senate tossup
I really want to talk about last night's debates, but honestly it would make me viscerally angry to do so, so I'm going to skip it.  The actions by the Trump campaign, plus by their candidate on-stage, were repugnant.  He acted like a third-world dictator, threatening to jail Hillary Clinton in front of millions of people and and taking the side of an actual third-world dictator in Bashar Al-Assad rather than his running-mate.  That some pundits can go out there and proclaim a debate like that a draw, and not worry that we have a fascist running for the White House and is only one woman away from becoming our commander-in-chief-I lost all respect for everyone in the news media save Bob Schieffer (and Martha Raddatz, who rocked last night) for not making that the clear focus of the evening.

So instead we're going to turn our attention down-ballot.  We won't know for a few days whether or not the tapes of Trump boasting of sexual assault (I'm pulling no punches this morning-the past 72 hours have been some of the most shameful in our nation's history-it's not time to cower) and his debate performance (which, it's worth noting, most independent polls show Clinton won) will affect his standings in swing states, but we also are awaiting the results of one of the riskiest moves I've seen in a long time from Republicans: the number of Republican lawmakers that decided to abandon Trump, even if that may hurt their chances at winning.

We're doing our final State of the Senate rundown this morning.  The week prior to the election (if you're voting Hillary, it's November 8th...if you're voting Trump-maybe check out something on Netflix that day) I'll be doing my biannual state-by-state rundown where I predict every race, but this will be my last ranking of the Senate seats.  Without further adieu, here are the ten most competitive Senate races, with Number One being the most likely to exchange hands.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ)
10. Arizona

I wavered, hemmed, and hawed over what seat truly deserved to be in the tenth place spot, because really none of them do-there are nine competitive races, and I don't see that changing.  One could make the argument that it should be Iowa (Patty Judge hasn't done terribly in polling), Ohio (a state that it seems Hillary Clinton is rebounding the hardest in), or even Louisiana (allowing for the possibility that a splintered field allows the two top Democrats Caroline Fayard and Foster Campbell to both, miraculously, make it to the runoff).  I settled upon Arizona because I still think there's the possibility of some strange breaks here, albeit I wouldn't remotely bet on Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick besting Sen. John McCain.  If the floor falls out for Trump in any non-Obama state, it's going to be in Arizona, where Clinton has been competitive most of the cycle.  It's also worth noting that McCain has a tougher time with hard-line conservatives (who view him as too moderate) than your average senator, and that's not going to help with him denouncing Trump this weekend.  It's hard to see him picking up that many more supporters from Kirkpatrick in exchange for the Republicans he will lose if Trump decides to properly challenge McCain by telling his supporters not to vote for him.  No poll indicates that Kirkpatrick could make this competitive again, but the dynamics of the race are such that it's the "safe" race most likely to become Alaska in 2008.  But I wouldn't bet on it. (Previous Ranking: 9)

9. Indiana

I'm moving this seat way down because I genuinely am stumped as to what to do here.  This is a rare seat where I think the Democrats' support is over-stated.  Sen. Evan Bayh, coming out of retirement, has run a ridiculously bad campaign, with the latest story being that he met with lobbying firms while he was a senator...and voting on issues that affected them.  In literally any other campaign environment, that would be the end of this race, even for a longtime Hoosier institution like Bayh.  However, that story broke the same weekend as the Trump tapes, and so it probably got drowned out, even in local media.  I don't think it can stay silent for long, though, which is why I think this may be the equivalent of Richard Mourdock in Indiana a few years back and Bayh probably ended his chance at winning back his old seat.  I could be wrong-polls indicate that Bayh is leading albeit narrowly, and if Trump implodes it may not matter-polling shows Clinton not far off of Trump here-but I'm betting Young is now the frontrunner, even if we don't quite know it yet. (Previous Ranking: 3)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
8. Florida

The singe most frustrating aspect of this cycle is the way the campaign committees are treating Florida.  Perhaps they've realized that Patrick Murphy has more baggage in the trunk and they just don't want to go there?  That's literally the only explanation for me, as Murphy has continually run just a couple of points behind Rubio, and with Clinton gaining in Florida there's no reason to assume that Murphy couldn't close the gap.  I keep thinking of the Nevada Senate race in 2012.  That year, the Democrats largely abandoned Rep. Shelley Berkley because they didn't think she could win.  After all, the Republicans had the better candidate and they had so many more opportunities around the country, even though polling showed a close race.  In the end Berkley lost by just a point while President Obama clobbered in the polls up-ballot.  Had the Democrats taken a more focused approach, Berkley probably would have been elected in Nevada and we wouldn't even be talking about whether the Democrats would be winning back the Senate-only picking up three seats this cycle would be a pretty easy order.  If the same happens for Murphy, it's going to be difficult for me to take Senate Majority PAC's name seriously.  For the time being, though, I still think Murphy could end up on Clinton's coattails.  But the campaign committee's have made this lean toward Rubio. (Previous Ranking: 6)

7. Missouri

I can't figure out this race.  Despite this being a state that Trump still is leading (though I do want to see poll numbers here in particular by end of week considering those numbers out of Alaska this weekend), Sen. Roy Blunt (R) looks to be in serious trouble as Secretary of State Jason Kander has run the campaign of the cycle.  Kander's appeal as a moderate Democrat is rare (it seems we're in a sea of progressives right now), but he has definitely closed the gap with Blunt.  It's hard to gage this race right now, as very little polling has been done here compared to other races since the Show-Me State isn't a swing state like Florida or Pennsylvania.  However, both Republicans and Democrats are crowing about this race, which can't be a good sign for Blunt, and if the winds are on the backs of the Democrats heading into the final stretch, that can only help Kander.  I want to see more polling with Kander actually leading before I switch to him, but I think it's entirely possible that Roy Blunt could end up the strangest loss of 2016. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV)
6. Nevada

Like Missouri, this one I can't figure out either.  I'm going to say, though, that I think this one may be a little bit easier to figure out in coming weeks.  Up until this point, Rep. Joe Heck has led by a couple of points in almost every major poll against former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.  It's pretty apparent by now that this is one of those races where the Democrats clearly have the poorer candidate-Heck has run a solid, traditional campaign and in a neutral cycle would be looking at a promotion.  What may be the issue is if Trump support falters, this is one of the states that it could be very detrimental down-ballot.  It's worth noting that up until the tapes Nevada has been one of the more competitive swing states for the Republican real estate magnate, and that has surely helped Heck.  With Heck now denouncing Trump, and polls starting to swing a little harder toward Clinton, that can only help Catherine Cortez Masto.  If even a fraction of Trump supporters go with "None of the Above" (an actual option and not just a hypothetical one in Nevada) instead of Heck, that would probably hold the seat for Democrats.  It's also worth noting that Democrats have traditionally out-performed polls in Nevada due to it being a hard state to survey.  If this is a tied race on Election Day, assume the Democrats win. (Previous Ranking: 6)

5. North Carolina

Roy Blunt up top may have some sympathy in terms of being caught sleeping-no one expected him to be competitive, even in the worst of circumstances for Donald Trump.  Sen. Richard Burr, however, will have only himself to blame if he loses his seat.  State Rep. Deborah Ross has run a pretty good campaign, but what has really helped her is that her opponent largely skipped out on a campaign-Burr clearly doesn't like the long, arduous road of a swing state senator, and with North Carolina looking more and more blue up-top (both in the presidential and gubernatorial races), it's only helping Ross here.  Ross, unlike Kander, has regularly led in different polls (although it's worth noting that Burr has also led in roughly the same amount of polls), but the Democrats' organizational skills here is why I think this is probably going to go blue.  Democrats are already, through Hillary Clinton, making massive inroads into this state in terms of early voting, and I suspect that continues as Trump's organizational efforts are pretty poor and the RNC won't be able to do as well if they aren't trumpeting for Trump, as it were.  As a result, I think the Top 5 seats on this list (as of today) would all go to the Democrats in a month. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH)
4. New Hampshire

No one has had a worse two weeks in politics than Sen. Kelly Ayotte (well, Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus, but they probably had it coming more than the New Hampshire senator).  First she flubbed badly at a debate, calling Donald Trump a role model, and then after the Trump tapes leaked she finally ended her extremely awkward endorsement of Trump.  She can (and will) play the card of "you're running against me, not Trump," but the damage is done.  It's hard to see Ayotte not losing massive support, particularly considering she's running against a popular incumbent governor in Maggie Hassan, and it's worth noting that Hillary Clinton is clobbering at the top of the ticket in the Granite State.  I could be wrong here-Ayotte has led in most polling by a slim margin, but my gut is telling me that if any senator is going to lose support as a result of this past weekend's fiascos, it's going to be Ayotte.  We probably won't have to wait long-I suspect most major polling companies will make this Priority #1 in terms of getting a gage over whether the defections have cost Republican senators.  I would be stunned in 29 days, though, if Ayotte were to get a second term. (Previous Ranking: 4)

3. Pennsylvania

It's been said (by me, at least) that Katie McGinty may be the luckiest person running this year for the Senate.  In an even cycle, Sen. Pat Toomey would enjoy a healthy lead-he has a moderate enough profile on select issues, particularly guns, and has run against Trump just hard enough, that I would have suspected him to win.  But Pennsylvania in 2016 isn't really a swing state-it's a blue state Hillary Clinton may win by high single-digits.  It's hard for a Republican to out-run that, and while Toomey is ahead of Trump, it's not by enough.  It's hard to say that McGinty has done better than Joe Sestak would have (a wild card compared to the more traditional McGinty, so he could have blown away the race by running a populist message or been a disaster), but it doesn't matter now-McGinty's consistent leads in the polls mean she's almost certain to be the next senator from the Keystone State, marking the first time since 1944 that Pennsylvania has chosen to be represented by two Democrats in the Senate concurrently. (Previous Ranking: 5)

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
2. Wisconsin

Republicans can cling to the idea that they are making up some ground in Packer Country, as some polls have shown Sen. Russ Feingold up slightly, but let's keep in mind that, despite what some may think, Feingold is not the incumbent here: Ron Johnson is.  Feingold has led in basically every poll since this race began, and has done so in most situations by high single-digits.  Even if he ends up winning by only 3-4 points at the end of the day (I think that's the best the GOP can hope for here), that's still a loss for the Republicans-you don't gain style points when it comes to a Senate election.  It should be noted that Wisconsin and Illinois being such blowouts for the Democrats, thus allowing them a significant head-start on the GOP, has been the biggest hit the Republicans had to endure this cycle-it's hard to imagine us talking about the Democrats winning the Senate if these two seats were in the same competitive column as North Carolina. (Previous Ranking: 2)

1. Illinois

It's the bluest state currently held by a Republican in the Senate, and it's easy to see Hillary Clinton winning here by 15-points.  Sen. Mark Kirk can do everything he tries, but you can't make up that kind of a margin, especially when you have consistent foot-in-mouth issues like the Republican.  Rep. Tammy Duckworth has had a meteoric rise through politics in the past few years, and at only 48 could be in a position to become a national player someday.  She's going to be helped in that quest by destroying an incumbent senator at the polls on November 8th. (Previous Ranking: 1)

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