Will there be a GOP wave in the Senate—or a wipeout?
By LARRY J. SABATO, KYLE KONDIK and GEOFFREY SKELLEY
August 25, 2014
So where’s the wave? This is President Obama’s sixth-year-itch election. The map of states with contested Senate seats could hardly be better from the Republicans’ vantage point. And the breaks this year—strong candidates, avoidance of damaging gaffes, issues such as Obamacare and immigration that stir the party base—have mainly gone the GOP’s way, very unlike 2012.
Nonetheless, the midterms are far from over. In every single one of the Crystal Ball’s toss-up states, (Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina), the Republican Senate candidate has not yet opened up a real polling lead in any of them. Democratic nominees have been running hard and staying slightly ahead, or close to, their Republican foes.
Earlier this year, we published a “wave chart” giving the range of Senate election outcomes, from ripple to tsunami. Sometimes tidal waves, such as the 2006 Democratic swell that gave the party control of both houses of Congress, develop in late September or October. That’s certainly still a possibility for the GOP in 2014. However, the summer is waning, and as Labor Day approaches our estimate remains a Republican gain of four to eight seats, with the probability greatest for six or seven seats—just enough to put Republicans in charge of Congress’ upper chamber. The lowest GOP advance would fall two seats short of outright control; the largest would produce a 53-47 Republican Senate.
A year ago, it was not hard to find Republican leaders who privately believed the party could score a dramatic breakthrough in the Senate, with the GOP emerging with perhaps 55 or 56 seats. This objective was vital not just for the jousting during President Obama’s final two years in the White House. At least as important is the fact that the GOP sees a much less friendly Senate map in 2016, when it will have to defend 24 of 34 seats, including incumbents elected in 2010 in Democratic states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In addition, presidential year turnouts usually draw far more minority and young voters to the polls, most of whom reliably vote Democratic from top to bottom of the ballot. A thin GOP Senate majority created this November could turn out to be very short-lived.
As we’ve said many times, 2014 should be a Republican year, with GOP gains in both houses of Congress. Yet Republicans have a terrible record of beating incumbent Democratic senators, going back to their last good year in this category, 1980. There is no obvious way for the GOP to gain the six seats necessary for control without taking down some incumbent Democrats, a task at which Republicans have struggled—they haven’t beaten more than two Democratic Senate incumbents since that huge 1980 landslide.
This year, it is generally conceded that Republicans will grab three open seats. In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) has consistently led Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D). Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has admitted that former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) will take South Dakota’s open seat. And in Montana, Rep. Steve Daines (R) appears destined to inherit the position being warmed by appointed Sen. John Walsh (D), whose plagiarism scandal forced his withdrawal a few weeks ago. A little-known state legislator, Amanda Curtis, is the last-minute, substitute Democratic nominee.
Democrats are hoping to play offense in Georgia and Kentucky, two states that remain close but where Republican voters appear to be coming home to their nominees (although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s lead is still less than three points).
Assuming the GOP holds all its current seats and wins Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, the party needs three more to take the Senate. At the moment, Republicans appear to have their best chances in these six states, roughly in this order: Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska and Colorado.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) has proven that he’s no Blanche Lincoln, the Democratic senator from the Razorback State swamped in 2010. Given that landslide and other pro-GOP trends, Republicans expected their 2014 nominee, Rep. Tom Cotton, to make short work of Pryor. The incumbent has hung around, keeping this a tied race (or better), but nonetheless the political odds may be stacked against him—he’s an underdog, if only a slight one, because of deep anti-Obama sentiment in the state.
The Hawkeye election to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin is a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t be given the state’s usual competitive nature. This race is close, and candidate performance could decide it. Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat, has suffered from foot-in-mouth disease, although Democrats are convinced that they have the ammo to paint state Sen. Joni Ernst, the Republican, as too far right. If Ernst’s image remains defined by folksiness—meaning the Democratic attacks don’t do much damage—she has the inside track here.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has a very narrow path to avoid a December runoff in the Pelican State, while Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) might not, given the presence of Sarah Palin-backed former Air Force Col. Rob Maness (R) in the race. Louisiana’s unique “jungle primary” system has every candidate for the office run at the same time, which often means that two or more candidates from the same party are on the ballot together (e.g. Cassidy and Maness in 2014). To win the seat, someone has to garner a majority of the vote. If no one wins over 50 percent, the top two finishers advance to face each other—an outcome that may well happen, especially if problems continue to mount for Landrieu. Most recently, she has brought to mind Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D) “Air Claire” controversies from last cycle: The Louisiana Democrat has had to reimburse the government for fundraising trips on private chartered planes that were initially billed to taxpayers. Whether it matters is debatable, but it seems clear that Cassidy—derided by many Republicans as a “boring” candidate—won’t self-immolate like McCaskill’s 2012 opponent, Todd Akin. There’s an upside to being bland.
The December runoff could determine control of the Senate, and both parties and every interest group will jump into the Bayou fray. It could be a political Mardi Gras, with loads of grotesque masks, outlandish costumes and deafening fireworks.
In North Carolina, Republicans are hopeful that now that the state’s dreadfully unpopular state legislature has finally adjourned (barring a special session), the state House speaker, Thom Tillis, will see his numbers improve in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. A Tar Heel Libertarian, Sean Haugh, is polling in the mid-to-high single digits. He probably won’t get more than a few percent of the vote in the end, but in a race with two damaged candidates it’s theoretically possible Haugh could determine the winner. Few doubt that he hurts Tillis disproportionately.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska is running perhaps the smartest campaign of all the endangered incumbents. Is the Last Frontier conservative? You bet. Is it as quirky and unpredictable as it is conservative? Yes indeed. Begich is leading an “Alaska First” trek, and he’s made deep tracks in the snow for months while three prominent Republicans fought one another in the party primary. At last he has an opponent, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who was the preference of both D.C. Republicans and outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth. The GOP must make up ground fast, though they have the voter base and money to do it, potentially.
Then there’s Colorado, which has been something of a surprise. So much had been made of its growing Hispanic vote and Democratic conversion that many analysts had forgotten the state’s color is purple, not blue. Freshman Sen. Mark Udall (D) has an incumbent’s edge, but not much of one, over Rep. Cory Gardner (R). If Gardner can manage to overcome his past record of social conservatism, which no longer plays well in the moderating Centennial State, he can win. Gardner will also need at least a modest national Republican groundswell in the fall, and Udall is a tough, experienced, give-no-quarter politician. He remains the favorite here, albeit slightly.
To fulfill their Senate goal, Republicans will need to win three or four of these tight contests (or a surprise or two somewhere else). All of the polls in these races are remarkably close: According to the HuffPost Pollster averages, no candidate in any of these six states is up by more than three points.
Not only do the polls point to a nail-biter, history does too. In the seven post-World War II midterms where the out-of-White House party gained at least four net seats, only in 1994 did the president’s party manage to win more than half of the close races—those decided by less than 10 points. And the median percentage of such races won by the president’s party in the seven midterms in question (1946, 1950, 1958, 1986, 1994, 2006 and 2010) is 33 percent.
At the moment, there are 11 Senate contests (two seats held by Republicans, nine by Democrats) with polling margins of less than 10 points, so history suggests Democrats might be expected to win just three or four of those contests, with three victories giving Republicans a one-seat majority and four wins leaving Democrats in power via a 50-50 tie and Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote.
Obviously, much can change over the next two months, and with such small sample sizes, this historical analysis is anything but certain. Still, it’s further evidence of how tight the battle for Senate control could wind up being this cycle.
Almost always, there is a surprise or two in final weeks. Races that did not appear to be competitive turn in that direction. The contests most often mentioned by the GOP are for Democratic seats in Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire—though we are far from convinced any of these will produce a turnover to the GOP. A recent poll in the Granite State race showing Republican Scott Brown down just two points got a lot of attention, but we’ll need to see some secondary confirmation of those numbers before we reconsider Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s advantage in the contest. Both parties now see Oregon and Virginia as being on the periphery of the competitive map. In recent days, Republican-held Kansas has featured a bizarre, three-way split with incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts leading but pulling less than 40 percent in some polls. Roberts may have been weakened by his unimpressive primary performance, but in a state where Republicans haven’t lost a Senate race since 1932, the incumbent still has the edge.
What about other Senate races? Unfortunately for us campaign junkies, they really aren’t vigorously contested in most places. As a large majority of states have turned predictably red or blue, most of the 36 Senate contests this year are uncompetitive and pretty much guaranteed not to keep us up late on election night.
But here is a scenario to consider: There’s a slight, but real possibility that we might not know who controls the Senate until Jan. 6 (yes, three days after the 114th Congress is set to begin), when Georgia could potentially hold its runoff. For that to happen, the GOP would have to win the three open seats and two others. Then, Amanda Swafford, the Libertarian candidate, would have siphon enough votes from Republican David Purdue to keep him under 50 percent, precipitating a runoff with Democrat Michelle Nunn. Wouldn’t that be something?
The U.S. House of Representatives
The Senate may be up for grabs, but the House, where democracy has been wrung out of the process by gerrymandering and partisan geographic sorting, is stagnant: Of 435 seats, just 37 sit in the most competitive Toss-up or Leans Democratic/Republican categories in our Crystal Ball ratings. And that may be generous.
The real intrigue in the House is not who retains control: Republicans will. Rather, it’s how many seats the GOP can add, particularly seats in swing districts.
Consider this: There are just 55 seats where President Obama got between 47 percent and 53 percent of the vote (an arbitrary but useful measure of competitiveness). Of the 199 seats where Obama got under 47 percent, Republicans hold all but five of the seats; of the 181 where he got over 53 percent, Democrats hold all but four. Of the seats where Obama won 47 percent to 53 percent of the vote, Republicans hold 36 of 55 seats. The ones they don’t hold are some of their best targets: Seven of the 10 Democratic-held seats we call Toss-ups are included here.
If Republicans take some of these seats, the new incumbents will naturally want to maximize their ability to get reelected. And in contested seats such as these, sipping wine with Speaker John Boehner seems like a surer path to that goal than strategizing with Sen. Ted Cruz at the Capitol Hill Tortilla Coast. In the Democratic caucus, members from more moderate and conservative states or districts (such as Landrieu and Pryor in the Senate) sometimes calculate that their best political bet is to vote against leadership. But given the Republican House majority’s penchant for dysfunction—an inability to count votes and keep the caucus together—new members from swingy districts might calculate that the best way to position themselves is to vote with leadership. In the coming 2015-2016 legislative maneuvers, the speaker needs more reliable votes. Perhaps they will come from some of these districts.
Overall, the Republicans have set a goal of 245 House seats, or a net gain of 11. As of now, we see them falling just short, netting somewhere around five to eight. If Democrats hold them under that, it would be a small consolation, given the natural disadvantages the president’s party almost always faces in House midterms.
Despite an array of competitive contests, the overall gubernatorial environment looks very level: The Crystal Ball currently projects somewhere between a Democratic net gain of two statehouses and a Republicans net gain of one. This is in part because of the different geography of gubernatorial contests, compared with the Senate races. Democrats are defending 21 of 36 Senate seats on the most Republican map of the three Senate classes, but the GOP holds 22 of the 36 governorships after its bumper 2010 cycle. Naturally, the party defending more seats will have vulnerabilities the opposition can exploit. Moreover, the issues and focus of gubernatorial contests tend to be more localized, leading to results than can run counter to the national narrative.
As our outlook shows, a net-zero result is also possible, especially because each side currently has the upper hand in two seats held by the opposition. In Maine, Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud leads Republican Gov. Paul LePage slightly, though independent Eliot Cutler (who finished behind LePage in 2010 and was just endorsed by independent Sen. Angus King) might help the incumbent survive. In Pennsylvania, first-term Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is in a world of trouble against Democrat Tom Wolf, jeopardizing the Keystone State’s long practice of the parties trading the governorship every eight years. Meanwhile, Arkansas has moved sharply to the right over the last couple of decades, assisting Republican Asa Hutchinson in his contest against Democrat Mike Ross for an open seat. And in Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner has the resources to capitalize on incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s various millstones.
Toss-up races could offer some surprises that run counter to partisan tendencies. In deeply red Kansas, intraparty dissatisfaction with Gov. Sam Brownback’s leadership manifested itself in the GOP primary, where political nobody Jennifer Winn won 37 percent, signaling a division that could help Democrat Paul Davis pull off a remarkable upset. The massive, record-setting defeat of Gov. Neil Abercrombie in Hawaii’s Democratic primary by state Sen. David Ige augments that race’s uncertainty. Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, the GOP nominee, may have a path to victory in the heavily Democratic Aloha State, perhaps aided by the candidacy of independent ex-Democrat Mufi Hannemann. In two other toss-up contests, Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida and Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy in Connecticut face formidable opponents—particularly Scott, opposed by his predecessor, now-Democrat Charlie Crist—but Scott’s enormous war chest and the Nutmeg State’s Democratic tilt may save this pair of incumbents.
Some other races, featuring mostly Republican-held seats, are also competitive. But overall, contests such as those in Illinois, Hawaii and Kansas demonstrate that the gubernatorial playing field is more idiosyncratic than its federal counterparts, and thus harder to predict.
To summarize, the overall picture is this: A Republican Senate gain of four-to-eight seats, with a GOP Senate pickup of six-to-seven seats the likeliest outcome; a GOP gain of somewhere around a half-dozen seats in the House; and little net party change in the gubernatorial lineup even as a few incumbents lose. So what could shift these projections in a significant way, beyond candidate implosions that move individual races on and off the board?
For Democrats, the road to a better result than what we’ve sketched out is Republicans’ ideological disunity and their refusal to march together tactically and strategically. (The destructive sideshow over potentially impeaching President Obama is a prime example.) Last October, Democrats saw, briefly, how the government shutdown boosted their numbers. When Congress returns next month, Democrats hope Republicans will act foolishly just before the election, perhaps during consideration of a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government that Speaker Boehner will have to get through the House.
For Republicans, a further curdling of President Obama’s approval ratings would be welcome. Foreign crises haven’t really moved the needle yet, but one wonders if the racial passions unleashed by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, combined with international strife, could have some cumulative effect. The president’s approval rating—though low—has remained fairly stable in 2014, ranging between about 41 and 44 percent. That could change as crises develop and partisan rhetoric escalates in the campaign’s concluding months.
For political junkies, the election season never ends. But Labor Day, the traditional starting point of the general election for most normal people, draws near. The state of many key races, including enough Senate seats to decide the majority, remains fluid, and it is the Senate that will define this midterm. Given electoral conditions and the red-leaning geography of the map, Republicans have few credible excuses if they don’t take Senate control in January. GOP hopes in the Senate have been dashed in the previous four elections; if there’s a fifth this November, Republicans will have only themselves to blame.