Senate Elections' Homestretch

We have now entered the homestretch of the 2014 midterm election season, with less than a week to go before Election Day. Many Senate races remain incredibly close, and Democrats got some welcome news this week from far up north.

As always, I interpret these races individually without resorting to "probability modeling" the way some professional poll-watchers do, so I am not going to definitively state that one party or the other has anything like "a 52 percent chance of winning control." Instead, I take a close look at the most recent polling and then contemplate any other factors (which is a fancy way of saying "seeing what my gut tells me") before assigning a state to any particular category.

Feel free to disagree with my picks in the comments. And, for reference, here's what I had to say about the races last week. OK, let's get on with it, shall we?


Safe Republican

Republicans add one state to their safe list this week, as South Dakota increasingly looks solid for Mike Rounds. The independent candidate had one good poll, but has sunk back down to third place, and the Democrat hasn't come anywhere close to leading the race yet. With less than a week to go, South Dakota has to be seen as pretty close to a lock for Republicans.

With this addition, the list in our Safe Republican category grows to fifteen seats: Alabama, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma (both seats), South Carolina (both seats), South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Three of these (Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia) are pickups for Republicans.


Safe Democratic

The list of Safe Democratic seats did not change in the past week: Delaware, Hawai'i, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

However, none of these eleven safe races represent a pickup for Democrats.


Leaning Republican

There was some movement in this category, as South Dakota moves up to Safe Republican and Kentucky moves back to Leaning Republican from our rating of tossup last week.

The Arkansas race has gotten tighter in the polling, but not tight enough to give Democrat Mark Pryor the lead in any poll. Perhaps there's a late-breaking trend that could save Pryor next week, but that's more wishful thinking than anything solid. For now, Arkansas has to remain probable for the Republicans.

In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes had one good poll which showed she was within one point of Mitch McConnell. Since that time, however, McConnell has shown a bigger lead in the polls. Grimes has waged a tough battle, but it looks like she's going to fall short next Tuesday. While an upset is still possible, the state has to be seen as Leaning Republican.

Louisiana is a tough race to call, because there are really two questions to answer: who will win next Tuesday, and will they win by over 50 percent? If the answer to the latter question is "no," then there will be a runoff election in December. Right now, the chances of a runoff happening are very high, so predicting the outcome of the race is really calling the December election. Mary Landrieu could win on Tuesday only to be defeated in the runoff. Head-to-head polling (with only their two names) shows the Republican with a lead, so for now the race has to be seen as Leaning Republican, no matter who gets more votes next week.

These three races represent a pickup of two states (Arkansas and Louisiana) for Republicans. Overall, this puts them up five seats.


Leaning Democratic

The biggest news from this past week was a few surprisingly good polls for Mark Begich, current Democratic senator from Alaska. All along, I've said that Alaska is a state where polling is not very accurate, so perhaps these numbers aren't as valid as they seem. But also all along, I've been saying that Alaska might be a surprise to everyone on Election Day because of Begich's ground game, which has largely gone unnoticed in the national press. I don't think I've ever rated Alaska as worse for Democrats than a tossup as a result, and this week I'm optimistically moving the state up to Leaning Democratic based on the three recent polls (two of which showed Begich with leads over five percent). If this prediction comes true, it will be very welcome news for Democrats next Tuesday.

I almost moved Georgia down to the tossup category, but still think Michelle Nunn has the edge. The polling is very tight, with both Nunn and David Perdue posting small leads in the past few days. But, like Louisiana, if neither candidate gets over 50 percent next week, there will be a runoff election (in January). So predicting the race means possibly predicting two separate elections. I think that if a runoff happens, Nunn will retain her edge, mostly because of all the late gaffes by Perdue, which will have two months to be fully aired (millions of dollars will be spent here if the runoff election will determine control of the Senate). So I'm leaving Georgia as a Leaning Democratic state for now.

The New Hampshire race seems to have tightened considerably in the polling, but in the majority of the polls Jeanne Shaheen still retains an edge over Scott Brown. An argument could be made that this race is a tossup, but for the time being I'm betting on Shaheen keeping her seat.

North Carolina has been close all along, but Kay Hagen seems to have held onto her slight edge. The state still has to be seen as Leaning Democratic.

The Democrats' situation improved considerably with the addition of Alaska (again, if it comes to pass -- I could always be wrong about it). Adding Alaska doesn't change the overall math, though, since Begich winning wouldn't be a pickup for Democrats. The only state in the Leaning Democratic list which would be a pickup is Georgia.

This would cut the overall lead of Republicans down to plus-four. If I've called all the leaners correct, the total count of Senate seats before considering the tossups would be: 49 Democrats to 48 Republicans.


Too Close To Call

Which leaves only three states that are still Too Close To Call. This category shrank by two states this week, as Kentucky moved to the Republican column and Alaska moved to the Democrats' side.

In Colorado, the polls have given the Republican a slight edge (although the polling remains very close). Democrats are hoping that two things will prove this polling wrong on Election Day: Latino turnout and mail-in voting. Colorado is one of the few battleground states this cycle where Latino voters matter a great deal, and the telephone polling may have been consistently undercounting them. And the state went to all mail-in voting this year, which could boost turnout (although it's not certain which party would benefit). Democrats are also pointing to how Colorado polling has been weighted too far Republican in the last few elections. By the polling itself, the Republican has the edge, but the polling could be wrong.

In Iowa, the polling is pretty much an absolute tie. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see a recount in Iowa, because the margin of victory may be incredibly thin. Republicans have a very slight edge overall in the polling, but it's so small it could be illusionary. My guess is that the vote-counting in Iowa won't be over when everyone goes to bed next Tuesday.

Kansas is still very much up in the air as well. Independent candidate Greg Orman is showing a lead in the polls, but not nearly as big as it first was. Pat Roberts could be in trouble here, but Kansas is one state where a lot of voters still haven't made up their minds. Meaning late-breaking momentum is possible, either way.

As I mentioned, before scoring the Too Close To Call races, the scoreboard stands at 49 Democrats, 48 Republicans. What this means is that Republicans have to sweep this category to gain control of the Senate (assuming all my other guesses pan out, of course). If the Democrat wins in either Colorado or Iowa, it will put control of the Senate out of reach of the Republicans. If Greg Orman wins in Kansas, then there is going to be a very unseemly bidding war between the two parties to entice him to caucus with the majority (he will become the pivot if Republicans pick up Colorado and Iowa, since Republicans need 51 seats for control, whereas the Democrats only need 50).

The picture is even more complicated when considering possible runoff elections in both Louisiana and Georgia. Either or both of these races may also tip the balance of control in the Senate, so look for a monumental amount of money and television ads to be pumped into the runoff races by both sides if this turns out to be the case. We may not know who controls the Senate until after the new Senate convenes in January, in fact (Georgia's runoff would happen after the traditional opening of Congress date).

Early predictions of the midterm Senate races were optimistic, from both sides. After the government shutdown -- which happened only one year ago -- Democrats were confident that the public was disgusted with Republicans and that they'd have an advantage in the midterms. Republicans were later overconfident that this election would be all about Obamacare. Neither has turned out to be true. Republicans were confidently predicting a "wave" election this year, but that too may fall far short. Republican candidates were (according to them) going to win in unlikely Democratic states such as Michigan, Minnesota, and Oregon -- none of which is now in jeopardy for Democrats. Republicans may lose Georgia and Kansas, which would have been considered unthinkable just a few short months ago.

Nevertheless, Republicans are almost guaranteed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate next week. The wave election might not happen -- it may be more of a small ripple -- but Republicans are still going to post gains. The question, though, is whether they can pick up enough to wrest control away from Harry Reid in the Senate -- and from where I sit, that question has not yet been definitively answered.


[Program Note: The final column in my "pick the Senate races" series will be posted on Monday. In it, I will make my final calls for every state and attempt to predict who will control the Senate.]


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