The Jam’s 2014 Election Extravaganza, Part 3: Senate Races

I conclude my look at the 2014 election picture with a look at the most intriguing Senate races around the country.  The Senate features the most interesting burning question of the entire 2014 season: Will the Democrats retain control?  History would suggest the answer is no, as the President’s party tends to lose seats in midterm elections throughout history.  But our sample size of elections is still pretty small, so Democrats could easily buck the trend in 2014.   Currently, they hold a 55-45 edge, but the playing field is such that Republicans could easily take over.

As I did with the governor’s race, I first want to single out the races where the outcome looks safe or highly likely for one party or another.  This includes seats in New Mexico, Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Delaware for the Democrats and Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Maine for the Republicans.  Republicans have been bullish about their chances in Virginia, New Hampshire, and Minnesota, but I do not believe the incumbents are in any real danger there yet.  Republicans are heavily favored in three other seats, but I will discuss them below since they involve party switches.  Let’s start with those three seats.

Montana: Amanda Curtis (D) vs. Steve Daines (R)- There are many weird elections happening across the country this year (see Kansas below), and Montana is one of them.  This seat was vacated when Max Baucus accepted President Obama’s appointment to become the next US Ambassador to China.  Governor Steve Bullock appointed his lieutenant governor, John Walsh, to the seat and he decided to run for a full term.  He was an underdog to begin with, given Montana’s red tint.  However, it was discovered that he had plagiarized sizable parts of his master’s thesis at the United States Army War College.  This further damaged his candidacy against Daines, a strong candidate in his own right, who currently serves as Montana’s sole Congressman.  Democrats scrambled and threw Amanda Curtis into the fire as a replacement candidate, but her outspoken liberal views probably will not play well in a state like Montana.  Given that and her limited time to fundraise and campaign, Daines will probably coast here.  Prediction: Republican pickup

West Virginia: Natalie Tennant (D) vs. Shelley Moore Capito (R)- West Virginia Republicans have been waiting with bated breath for longtime Congresswoman Capito to run for a Senate seat, and she finally has her opportunity now that Jay Rockefeller (D) has retired.  Capito is the daughter of Arch Moore, who served as Governor and represented West Virginia in the House of Representatives before his conviction on five felony charges ended his career.  Capito has a much better record in office, though, and is a favorite in this race against Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.  Tennant has made waves by running against President Obama, who is a fairly unpopular figure in West Virginia.  While her aggressive style has upset many Democrats, it’s probably the only chance she has to win in what is becoming an increasingly red state at all levels, and against a strong and popular candidate.  Tennant was probably the Democrats’ best candidate to run against Capito, but it doesn’t look like it will be enough.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Natalie Tennant shuts the power off to the White House in a new ad.
Natalie Tennant shuts the power off to the White House in a new ad.

South Dakota: Rick Weiland (D) vs. Mike Rounds (R) vs. Larry Pressler (I)- South Dakota, like the other two states on this list, has always been red territory, having voted for a Republican in every presidential election since 1964.  The fact that a Republican is favored here represents a reversion to the mean more than anything else.  Tim Johnson (D) held this seat for 17 years before retiring this year amid health problems.  Former governor Mike Rounds would be a heavy favorite in a two-man race, but this is complicated by the entry of a third candidate, Pressler.  Pressler served in the Senate from South Dakota as a Republican from 1979-1997, and his political comeback was always rumored but never became a reality until this year.  Since his ouster, he has seemed to hew a middle ground in politics, endorsing Barack Obama for President in 2008 and 2012, and drafting an amicus curiae brief in support of same-sex marriage in the Hollingsworth v. Perry case.  I imagine Pressler would pull more votes away from Rounds than Weiland, but that hasn’t been the case so far, as every poll taken of the race has shown Rounds up by double digits.  Independent candidates also frequently underperform their polls on Election Night, so Pressler probably won’t pull in the 15-25% that some polls suggest.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Larry Pressler is trying to return to the Senate from South Dakota, this time as an Independent.
Larry Pressler is trying to return to the Senate from South Dakota, this time as an Independent.

Now let’s move on to the races where one party may have a slight advantage, but it’s still anybody’s game come Election Day.

Michigan: Gary Peters (D) vs. Terri Lynn Land (R)- Michigan is still relatively blue despite its occasional tendency to elect Republicans.  It’s been a reliably Democratic vote in presidential elections.  So Peters probably holds a slight edge in trying to win back the seat of the departing Carl Levin.  Peters served as commissioner of the Michigan Lottery before winning a House seat in 2009, where he has remained since.  Land has a good pedigree herself, having served as Secretary of State under Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm.  Land got some good polls early, but Peters has since opened up a lead.  I think, due to Michigan’s Democratic lean, Peters should be able to pull this one out if he can avoid making a major misstep.  Prediction: Democratic hold

Colorado: Mark Udall (D)* vs. Cory Gardner (R)- The Udall family is one of the most successful in politics today.  Mark’s cousin Tom is a Senator from New Mexico and their fathers Stewart and Mo served at the highest levels of politics as well.  Mark faces a slightly more uphill battle in purple Colorado in his first reelection bid since moving up from the House of Representatives.  Gardner seeks to do the same, having represented Colorado’s 4th Congressional district since the Republican wave swept him into office in 2011.  Both candidates are fairly mainstream within their respective parties, and Colorado is the kind of state that could elect either of them, having a statewide Cook PVI of D+1.  In this instance, I would probably slightly favor the incumbent, and that’s precisely where recent polling of this race has it.  Udall has maintained a slim lead, and the race seems to be trending in his direction.  Gardner still has plenty of time to close the gap, but for now I’m forecasting a Democratic hold.

Arkansas: Mark Pryor (D)* vs. Tom Cotton (R)- Like the gubernatorial race here, Mark Pryor is seeking reelection as a moderate Democrat.  Like Natalie Tennant, he’s also doing so by aggressively running against President Obama.  I’m not sure his strategy will be any more successful.  His lack of charisma and stiff presentation make him unrelatable to voters.  Add in that he’s one of the last surviving red-state Democratic senators, and you have a recipe for defeat.  Cotton appears to be running a competent campaign, aided by his Arkansas First tour of the state, a takeoff on the “Arkansas Comes First” plaque that Pryor famously keeps on his desk.  Pryor would probably have been favored to hold onto this seat even 4 years ago, but I think Arkansas is trending away from him.  That, along with a Cotton campaign that doesn’t make any major mistakes, should be enough for a win here.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Georgia: Michelle Nunn (D) vs. David Perdue (R)- The Georgia elections this year are often referred to as the “legacy elections,” as Michelle Nunn, daughter of longtime Senator Sam Nunn, is trying to get elected to the same office.  Meanwhile, Jason Carter, grandson of former governor and President Jimmy Carter, is trying to get elected governor himself.  For awhile, it looked like Carter might be better positioned to win his race, but now I have no idea.  The polling here has been all over the map, showing anything from a 7-point Nunn lead to a 10-point Perdue lead.  I’ve often thought Perdue was the Republicans’ best candidate here; he has positioned himself as something of a moderate in relation to the other candidates, and a noncontroversial Republican like him probably holds the edge in Georgia, which is still a red state.  Nunn is banking on increased minority turnout, which is always difficult to do in a midterm year.  Prediction: Republican hold

Michelle Nunn is trying to return to the Senate seat formerly occupied by her father in Georgia.
Michelle Nunn is trying to return to the Senate seat formerly occupied by her father in Georgia.

Kentucky: Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) vs. Mitch McConnell (R)- Democrats have really, really wanted to knock off Mitch McConnell for years since he rose through the ranks to become Senate Minority Leader.  They’ve come close a few times, most recently in 2008, when Bruce Lunsford came within six points.  McConnell’s approval ratings back home were bad then, and they’re bad now, sinking into the 30s in some polls.  Unfortunately for Alison Lundergan Grimes, President Obama’s approval rating in the state is just as bad.  She’s also been distancing herself from the President through her ads and actions, shooting skeet in one of them.  The national Republican Party is going to spend like crazy if they believe their minority leader is in danger, and McConnell already has a substantial war chest.  I think that, plus the extra-strong incumbency advantage he enjoys, will push McConnell over the top once again.  If the Democrats couldn’t beat him in 2008, they won’t in 2014.  Prediction: Republican hold

Kansas: Pat Roberts (R)* vs. Greg Orman (I)- This race is crazy.  The Republican primary provided enough political theater, where incumbent Roberts faced off with physician Milton Wolf.  When you’re best known for posting x-rays on your Facebook page and making morbid jokes about them, you’re generally not going to win a primary.  Wolf, though, actually almost beat Roberts, losing by only 7 points.

Then, Independent and former Democrat Greg Orman entered the race, producing another three-way battle between him, Roberts, and Democrat Chad Taylor.  Amazingly, despite polls showing him within striking distance of Roberts, Taylor dropped out of the race, leaving Orman to face Roberts himself.  Orman has behaved like a typical Kansas Democrat, moderate but slightly left of center.  He has said that he will caucus with whichever party wins the majority, complicating the calculus of prognosticators such as myself.  What will be interesting will be if we end up with a 50-49 Senate without Orman, leaving him to decide control of the chamber.  I think he will probably caucus with the Democrats in that case, since his ideology is closer to the Democrats’ traditional positions and he used to be one.  I think the NRSC will spend enough money here to bail out Roberts, but it may hamper their efforts to win in other states.  For what it’s worth, the only poll taken since Taylor dropped out showed Orman up by a single point.  Prediction: Republican hold

Independent Greg Orman has completely scrambled the Kansas Senate race.
Independent Greg Orman has completely scrambled the Kansas Senate race.

Finally, we’ll wrap up with the true toss-up races, ones where neither party has a clear edge.

Alaska: Mark Begich (D)* vs. Dan Sullivan (R)- Mark Begich is another Senator that took advantage of favorable conditions to win in 2008, taking out scandal-drenched Ted Stevens, who had been convicted before the election of failing to report several gifts from political supporters.  Begich has voted as one would expect an Alaska Democrat to, most notably angering many liberals by breaking with his party to vote against increased background checks for gun sales.  However, the “D” next to his name is still a liability.  Begich’s Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, has mostly run ads touting his own record as Attorney General.  Begich, on the other hand, has taken a more negative approach with his ads, including some that were of dubious veracity.  Polling is razor-thin, but if I had to pick a winner right now, I’d tab Sullivan.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Dan Sullivan has my favorite campaign logo of this cycle, featuring an image of the Big Dipper.
Dan Sullivan has my favorite campaign logo of this cycle, featuring an image of the Big Dipper and Polaris.

Louisiana: Mary Landrieu (D)* vs. Bill Cassidy (R)- Senator Landrieu has survived two stiff challenges since winning her Senate seat in 1996.  Landrieu is a member of another prominent political family; her father, Mitch, was a popular former Mayor of New Orleans.  Her brother Moon is the current Mayor and former Lieutenant Governor.  Those attributes make her hard to defeat, but Bill Cassidy may be able to do it.  This is the first competitive election he has run in, which makes his task a little more difficult (the district he represents in Congress is R+19), but in a state that is getting redder at all levels, that may not matter.  Cassidy holds a slim polling lead as of now.

This is one election where the way it is run could give one candidate or another an advantage.  Louisiana is one of a few states that uses a “jungle primary” where all candidates of all parties run on the same ballot, and the top two advance to a runoff election if no one receives a majority of the vote.  Landrieu survived without a runoff in 2008, but it is almost guaranteed here.  Notably, Cassidy is polling ahead of Landrieu even in surveys where all the Republican candidates are included, which leads me to believe that enough of their voters will throw their support behind Cassidy to prevail in a runoff.  I feel weird picking against Landrieu here… she’s built up a fairly good reputation in Louisiana and is a stellar campaigner.  But in a bad Democratic year, I think Louisiana’s partisan gravity is going to be just a bit too much for her to overcome.  Prediction: Republican pickup

Iowa: Bruce Braley (D) vs. Jodi Ernst (R)- This race wasn’t supposed to be competitive.  Outgoing Senator Tom Harkin was well-respected in this state, and that was supposed to be enough to lift Braley to the seat.  However, Braley put his foot in his mouth earlier this year when he made comments that were construed as offensive to farmers, which is a very risky proposition in a state like Iowa.  A further search revealed further evidence of Braley’s gaffes, and Joni “Hog Castrator” Ernst seized the opportunity.  Like Colorado, this is a race between two mainstream candidates from the two parties.  Since there is no incumbent, I would defer to the demographics of the state in predicting who has the edge.  Unfortunately, Iowa is one of the purplest of purple states, with its D+1 partisan voting index making it hard to predict.  Democrats have had some success here in recent years, as President Obama won the state twice.  I have to think Braley still has a slight edge here, though Ernst has stayed on message well and has proven a better campaigner than Braley.  I think Braley will squeeze this one out, but it won’t be easy at all.  Prediction: Democratic hold

Joni Ernst

North Carolina: Kay Hagan (D)* vs. Thom Tillis (R)- Kay Hagan ran my favorite political ad of 2008, where she stared right into the camera and forcefully responded to an Elizabeth Dole ad attacking her religious faith.  Hagan has shown the same toughness on the campaign trail this year, grunting and sweating her way to a small polling lead against Thom Tillis, current Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.  Hagan also has the sizable money edge that comes from being an incumbent Senator.  If I were forecasting this race even a week ago, I probably would’ve predicted a Tillis victory.  But Hagan will likely draw reinforcements from national Democrats, allowing her to keep the advantage on the airwaves and in the polling.  I’m picking Hagan to retain her seat here.  Prediction: Democratic hold

As you can see, the Democrats are not in a great position going into the Senate elections.  Their position has improved in recent days as polling has gotten better, but as I said in my gubernatorial post, the state of the political polling industry is anywhere from bad to awful, and I’m not sure how much we can rely on the results pollsters are getting this year.  Right now, I have the Republicans projected to gain a net of six seats, which would give them a 51-49 edge.  But this result is tenuous… if anything goes wrong in any of the races here, it could mean Democrats retain control, or the Republicans could add to their margin.  The race in Kansas provides yet another wrinkle that could decide Senate control.  I’ll be following these races with interest, and will update you if any other crazy developments take place.

But no matter where you are and who you support, please, please vote.  Generations of people fought and died for our right to choose our leaders, and if we don’t use our rights, what’s the use of having them in the first place?  Elections have consequences; they determine the direction our country goes from here on out.  So if there’s any message I want you to take away from my last three posts, it’s get out there and vote.

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