Senate Election Overview -- Democrats Hanging On?

Sorry for the overly-provocative title, but I'm a little surprised at how all the big media election-predicting sites have apparently decided to just call the whole Senate for Republicans and clock out early. Because I just don't see it as quite the slam-dunk everyone else does, at this point.
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Sorry for the overly-provocative title, but I'm a little surprised at how all the big media election-predicting sites have apparently decided to just call the whole Senate for Republicans and clock out early. Because I just don't see it as quite the slam-dunk everyone else does, at this point.

Partly this is because I eschew the whole "percentage prediction" model everyone else seems so enamored of. My columns rely a lot more on state-by-state analysis than computer modeling, to put this another way. And I do listen to my gut feelings, which is a big no-no in the world of professional statisticians. But, hey, at least I admit it up front.

There are a few changes in my state rankings from last week's column, including one very important piece of good news for Democrats down South. We've got less than two weeks to go, the debates are in full swing, and early voting has started in many of these states already. One caveat is that I'm starting to pay closer attention to how old the polling data is -- a poll from ten days ago isn't going to capture anything which has happened in the meantime, to put this another way. And we've got several states which weren't on anyone's radar as a possible close contest, so in some places polling data is very thin on the ground.

Having said all that, let's get to my picks for this week. As always, share your thoughts and your picks (where you think I'm laughably wrong) in the comments section.

OK, that's enough intro, let's get on with this week's picks, shall we?

Safe Republican

The Safe Republican list didn't change from last week: Alabama, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma (both seats), South Carolina (both seats), Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

There are fourteen Senate seats in that list, and two of them (Montana and West Virginia) are pickups for Republicans.

Safe Democratic

Likewise, the list of Safe Democratic seats didn't change any from last week: Delaware, Hawai'i, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

These eleven safe seats, however, do not include a single pickup, leaving the Democrats' net score at zero.

Leaning Republican

One state (Kentucky) from last week's list of Leaning Republican states moved down into tossup status. This leaves three Leaning Republican states this week: Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Dakota.

Arkansas hasn't shown much movement in polling, as incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor seems to be steadily trailing. The Democrats have deployed their secret weapon (whose name is Clinton) here, but so far it hasn't had much effect in the polls.

One recent poll in Louisiana showed the race tightening a bit, with incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu pulling within three points of Republican Bill Cassidy. But Republicans have a clear edge here. The real question is whether either candidate could pull in the majority needed (50 percent plus one vote) to avoid a runoff. Right now, that doesn't look likely, so no matter who wins on Election Day, the seat might not be decided for another month.

South Dakota is one of those states where we're all relying on polling data that is quite likely past its freshness expiration date. This is no surprise, really, considering that nobody had pegged it as a race to watch even as recently as a few weeks ago. Given the volatile nature of the three-way race there, a strong argument could be made for moving this state down to Too Close To Call, just on the lack of up-to-date polling alone. For the time being, we'll keep it as Leaning Republican, based on the last poll taken. Keep a close eye on any poll results which may appear here, though.

Every one of these Republican leaners is currently in Democratic hands. So taking all three states would mean a pickup of three seats for Republicans. Added to their Safe Republican pickups, this means Republicans are up a net five seats -- one short of taking control.

Leaning Democratic

Then again, maybe not. To last week's two states (New Hampshire and North Carolina) we have to add a surprise. Because Georgia has moved up from Too Close To Call to Leaning Democratic.

Georgia is, so far, the one bright spot for Democrats late in the election cycle. In this race between dynastic candidates, Democrat Michelle Nunn is showing herself to be a much better campaigner than Republican David Perdue. Nunn's been holding her own in the ad wars, and Perdue's "I'm proud to be a job outsourcer" stand is going over like a lead balloon with the voters. Since the gaffe was made public, Perdue has lost his lead over Nunn, and Nunn's numbers have climbed. We really could use some new polling here, but at this point it's a pretty good bet that the more recent the polling is, the better Nunn's numbers are going to look. The trendline is clear, so for the time being Georgia has to be considered Leaning Democratic. Georgia is another state we might have a late runoff contest, it is also worth mentioning.

It's looking like one favorable poll for Scott Brown in New Hampshire was nothing more than an outlier. Since that point, Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen has regained her edge, and seems headed for victory.

The story is similar in North Carolina, where incumbent Democrat Kay Hagen also seems to be holding onto her slight edge over Thom Tillis. Hagen is looking confident, and she just turned down a fourth debate in a show of strength.

Holding New Hampshire and North Carolina won't represent any net gain for Democrats, but winning Georgia will put Democrats up one overall. This means the absolute lead for Republicans is cut from plus five to plus four -- meaning they will have to pick up an additional race to take control of the Senate. If Michelle Nunn wins and Democrats keep the Senate, they'd better give her whatever plum committee assignments she asks for, because she will have earned some sort of prize.

Too Close To Call

We have five states in the Too Close To Call category this week, but not the same five as last week. Kentucky moved down here from Leaning Republican this week, and Georgia moved up to Leaning Democratic.

Alaska's race seems to be getting closer in the polls (even though they're slightly outdated), although incumbent Democrat Mark Begich is still the underdog by a few points. However, I've always gone with gut feeling here, and not trusted the polls as much as in other states (polling in Alaska just isn't as accurate as elsewhere, for a variety of reasons). Begich has launched a monumental get-out-the-vote effort in Alaska -- the biggest the state has ever seen. He may very well be reaching precisely those voters who aren't registering in the polls. I may be going out on a limb, but I truly think Begich may surprise some poll-watchers on Election Day. I could always be wrong, though.

Colorado polls are tightening, and incumbent Democrat Mark Udall seems to be in a virtual tie right now with Cory Gardner. This race could go either way, and in addition the electorate might be different than what the statisticians expect, due to Colorado's new "all-mail" voting this year.

Iowa's polling is neck-and-neck, and Bruce Braley seems to have regained the ground he lost in September. The latest poll shows him up, but within the margin of error. This could be an outlier, and it could be the indications of a trend. At this point, it's impossible to say. A few more polls might answer the question, but probably not decisively. For months now, we've all known that the Iowa race is going to be one of the closest-watched races on Election Day, and that hasn't changed at all.

Kansas has settled down somewhat after the shock of the Democratic candidate pulling out of the race, but it has settled down into a virtual tie. Incumbent Republican Pat Roberts seems to be running a tiny bit behind Independent Greg Orman, but Orman seems to have lost the large edge he got immediately after the Democrat dropped out. Kansas is currently the front lines of the civil war raging within the Republican Party, both in this race and in the governor's race. Right now, the edge goes to Orman, but just barely.

Kentucky was the other surprisingly good news for Democrats this week, as Alison Lundergan Grimes employs a "throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks" last-minute take-no-prisoners ad effort. What surprised everyone is that it seems to be paying off for her. The latest poll shows her only down one point from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- which, if accurate, would put her back into contention. The national Democrats pulled their money out of the state when it was looking like McConnell had the race sewn up, but they just announced that they're reversing their position and will be pouring some money in for last-minute ads. Whatever happens, the race cannot be seen as Leaning Republican any longer, and so belongs here in Too Close To Call.

Before taking into consideration any of these tight races, Republicans are up four seats and Democrats are down by the same four. In absolute terms, this means 47 Republican seats and 48 Democratic. Meaning Republicans need to pick up four of the remaining five states, while Democrats will retain control by winning only two of them. Three of these states (Alaska, Colorado, and Iowa) are currently in Democratic hands, while two (Kansas and Kentucky) are currently Republican. This doesn't really matter in the absolute math, though, because Republicans need a total of at least 51 to win control, while Democrats only need 50 to retain control (because they have Joe Biden's vote to break any tie).

Now, I realize that this is a lot more optimistic for Democrats than a lot of other wonky election-calling sites right now. And this scenario really hinges on Democrats holding on to North Carolina and taking Georgia -- both of which are still rather bold assumptions (especially Georgia). If Michelle Nunn's polling trendline continues, however, some of these other forecasts may change.

Even if my assumptions come true, Democrats could still indeed lose control -- that's worth mentioning too. And there's always the Independent wildcard in Kansas to consider -- if Greg Orman wins and becomes the pivotal vote, he may very well decide to caucus with the Republicans, and thus swing control of the chamber. In that case, Republicans would only need three wins from the other states to gain control. Plus, there's the uncertainty of possible runoff elections in Louisiana and Georgia.

But (at least from where I'm sitting) the election doesn't seem to be quite the slam dunk many others are now predicting for the Republicans. If Democrats can hang on, the media storyline will be to their benefit, as a result of pollster predictions right now. The headlines will be "Dems Hang On!" which isn't really completely deserved because they're still going to lose four or five seats overall. But my guess is it'll be seen as a huge victory, if it comes to pass.

[Program Note: I'll be running two more of these "call the Senate" columns, one next Wednesday, and then one on the Monday right before the election, where I will make my final picks for all of these races.]

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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