The midterm elections of 2014 look tailor made for the GOP. The President has low approval ratings, the public is in fear mode over ebola and ISIS, Democrats are structurally in an election that would be difficult anyway. They are defending 21 Senate seats, the Republicans are defending only 15. The Democrats are defending seats in traditional Republican and “split” states, while the GOP is defending in states that went for Romney in 2012. Three states the Democrats are defending: South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia look all but certain to go to the Republicans.
Given all this one would expect November 4th to be a huge blow out victory for the GOP. And it certainly could be just that. However, the Democrats remain tantalizingly close in the polls, and there are many scenarios in which the GOP makes up on November 5th disappointed. Instead of a wave, which many Republicans expect, the water could turn out to be still and flat.
Three things should give the Democrats hope: 1) In Senate elections the candidates matter more than the party to swing voters; 2) in close races voter turnout is likely to be higher than usual – Democratic enthusiasm has rebounded, unlike 2010; and 3) the polls are so tight that get out the vote efforts could make a difference.
Currently the Senate is split 53-45 in favor of the Democrats. Two independents caucus with the Democrats, so it’s really 55-45. That means Republicans need to win six seats to gain control (Vice President Biden would be the tiebreakers if they won only 5). Of the 21 seats they are defending, the Democrats look secure in only 11 of them. Of the ten remaining, Republicans look like they are coasting to victory in three of them (though with a three way race, South Dakota could surprise).
Currently there are ten seats “in play” – three Republican seats have the potential for a Democratic pick up. Each of the two parties each can only be reasonably sure of 45 seats at this point. To gain a majority Republicans need to win 6 of those 10 races, Democrats need to win five.
Assessing the individual races
Alaska: Republican Dan Sullivan seemed to eek out a slight lead in recent polls, though the most recent poll (with a low sample size) showed Democratic incumbent Mark Begich up by 6. Given the advantage incumbents have, Begich has a real shot. Going strictly with the numbers the Huffpost pollster (here after HP) gives Sullivan a 62% chance to win.
Arkansas: Republican Tom Cotton pulled ahead of incumbent Mark Pryor in recent weeks, but hasn’t been able to sustain a lead. This is why the GOP isn’t making this a slam dunk, they can’t seem to pull away from the Democrats. The latest poll has Pryor up by 1 – it’s close. Again, given the advantage incumbents have, this is winnable for the Democrats. HP also has this as a 62% likely GOP win.
Colorado: Another race giving Republicans both hope and headaches. Cory Gardner appeared to polling solid leads, even up 7% in one poll. But four of the last five polls show incumbent Mark Udall with a 1% lead. With Colorado’s mail in voting, this may be one where voter turnout helps the Democrats. It’s definitely winnable for Udall, though HP gives Gardner a 61% chance.
Georgia: Two new polls tell starkly different stories. One has Republican David Perdue up 8%, another (Rasmussen, with twice the sample size) has the race tied. Polls have shown Democrat Michelle Nunn or Perdue up 2 or 3, no one has had a sustained lead. Given demographic change in Georgia and high minority voter turnout in early voting, Nunn has a good shot. HP gives Perdue a 64% to win.
Iowa: Another race that seems to be shifting. Republican Joni Ernst had a week or so of consistent leads in the polls. Small, but consistent. In the last week Democrat Bruce Braley has polled better, the latest poll has him up 4. It appears Iowa may be shifting towards the Democrats, though HP still gives Ernst a 56% chance of victory.
Kansas: A deeply red state with an incumbent Republican running, this should be a no-brainer. Yet right now Greg Orman, running as an independent, looks like he’s holding a small lead over Pat Roberts. This race is too close to call, even HP has both with a 50% chance of winning.
Kentucky: Another sign of GOP trouble – that Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is in trouble! Lately his well oiled machine has put him ahead in almost all the polls, between 2 and 8%. This is a longer shoot for Democrat Alison Grimes, but it’s close enough that it can’t be seen as likely Republican. HP has a 66% chance of a McConnell win.
Louisiana: Due to the fact that the top two vote getters compete in a run off, it’ll be December before we know who wins, but it is looking increasingly unlikely that Mary Landrieu will save her seat from Republican challenger Bill Cassidy. However, Landrieu has appeared dead before and the race may shift in tone once they go into run off mood. At this point, though, it looks good for the GOP, and HP gives Cassidy a 68% chance of victory.
North Carolina: Kay Hagan has managed to stay ahead of Republican challenger Thom Tillis, but not by much. HP gives Hagan a 58% chance to keep her seat, but it would not be a shock of Tillis pulled off a victory.
New Hampshire: Democrat incumbent Jeanne Shaheen has also managed to stay ahead of Republican challenger Scott Brown in most polls, though as with Hagan it remains too close to call. HP gives Shaheen a 59% chance of victory.
What do we make of these ten races? At this point the Democrats only look ahead in two of them, according to the polls. If Orman won Kansas as well, that would be three of the ten for the Democrats, seven for the GOP, and the Republicans in control of the Senate 52 – 48 (assuming the two independents continue to caucus with the Democrats). However, the Democrats would only need two of the remaining seven to hold on to their control. And at least five of the seven look very possible for the Democrats.
In other words – this election is going down to the wire. If the last week does bring forth a Republican wave, the GOP could win some that look good for the Democrats now, and have up to 55 seats. If the Democrats manage to pull ahead in these close races, they could end up with a more comfortable majority, maybe as much as 52 or 53 seats. Neither is a sure thing.
A wave seems unlikely because the economy is good, people give the Democratic party higher approval ratings than the Republican party, and there is no tea party zeal or raw anger like there was in 2010. But even if there is no wave, it’s an uphill battle for the Democrats to try to hold the Senate.
That the Democrats are this close in so many races should give them heart, even if they end up losing the Senate. That’s because in 2016 it’ll be the Republicans defending twice the seats as the Democrats! I will make predictions the day before the election, I want to see if there is any momentum shift in the polls in this last week. But with so many close races, election night should be exciting!