THE BLOG
10/15/2014 08:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Senate Still Up For Grabs

Welcome back to my intermittent overview of the 2014 midterm Senate races. On that note, I should add that from this point forward I'll be doing these columns on a weekly basis, right up until the Monday before the election when I'll make my final election predictions.

The past week was a busy one out on the various campaign trails, as many candidates participated in televised debates. There were no monumental gaffes or screwups (so far) in these debates -- at least, not ones that gained national attention. Mitch McConnell did (hilariously) try to convince Kentucky voters that Kynect was somehow separate from the Obamacare he's sworn to try to kill "root and branch" (technical note: it is not separate, it is part of Obamacare and would not exist without Obamacare), but that was about it, really.

Some races moved towards Republicans this week, and others moved towards Democrats. A third-party candidate died in a plane crash in Iowa this week, but the media (following the "ignore all third parties, all the time" rule, no doubt) barely took note. The Republican candidate down in Georgia may have torpedoed his own chances of winning, by proudly noting his own personal history of outsourcing jobs, and the Democrat in Kentucky seems to be getting a bit desperate.

The big question is whether Republicans will be able to take the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. This is still a largely unanswerable question, as they've only locked up two pickups and only clearly lead in three others -- leaving them one short.

My picks below have references to last week's column, in case you'd like to check it to see the movement this week. As always, my five categories are: Safe Republican, Safe Democratic, Leaning Republican, Leaning Democratic, and Too Close To Call. Disagree with my picks? Let me know about it in the comments. I keep a close eye on all the polling, but my gut feelings enter into my calculations as well, I freely admit.

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

 

Safe Republican

No change this week in the seats Republicans can consider safe, although it was pointed out to me in last week's comments that there are two special elections that I neglected to count in this category (sorry about that). The full list contains fourteen Senate seats: Alabama, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma (both seats), South Carolina (both seats), Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

This starts Republicans with a net pickup of two seats (Montana and West Virginia) currently held by Democrats.

 

Safe Democratic

This week saw one state move down from Safe Democratic, as due to a few recent polls in New Hampshire it can now only be considered a leaner for Democrats. This leaves eleven states still safely in Democratic hands: Delaware, Hawai'i, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

A number of these states were (at one point or another) considered possible Republican pickups, but none of these panned out for the GOP candidates. Oregon, Minnesota, and Virginia are all solidly in the Democratic column, and while last week I admitted I was overly optimistic about Michigan, it now looks pretty safe for Democrats.

None of these seats are currently held by Republicans, however, so the net pickup for Democrats is zero.

 

Leaning Republican

This week again saw some movement both into and out of this category. Kentucky moves back up to Leaning Republican, as does Arkansas. Georgia headed the other direction, however, down to Too Close To Call.

Arkansas may actually be a tighter race than the recent polling shows, but the movement seems at this point to be towards the Republican candidate. Democrat Mark Pryor is in the fight of his political life here, and having the Clintons do some campaigning for him might have an effect on Election Day. But for the time being, the state looks friendlier to the Republicans, so it has to be considered Leaning Republican for now.

Kentucky has been a ferociously-fought race, but then everyone knew it would be from the get-go, really. Mitch McConnell, no matter what else you think about him, is known for being a fierce campaigner. Add to this the mountain of cash he raised for the race, and he had a decided advantage heading into the general election. Alison Lundergan Grimes has made some missteps of late, including running an ad trying to position herself to the right of McConnell on immigration. Yes, you read that right: Grimes is actually accusing McConnell of supporting "amnesty," and saying she would never consider voting for such a horrible thing. This smacks of desperation, it has to be said. National Democrats coincidentally just announced they're pulling ad money out of this race so it can be used in states where they think they've got a better chance. Grimes isn't completely out of competition quite yet, but Kentucky has to be counted as at least Leaning Republican at this point.

Louisiana shows no change this week. Again, Mary Landrieu cannot be considered out of the running here, but she has to be seen as at least the underdog at this point.

South Dakota is going to get very interesting in the final weeks of the 2014 election, as a multi-party race has broken out and both political parties are funnelling some last-minute money in. Things are indeed heating up in the Black Hills, and the political world breathlessly waits for some updated polling to see what is really going on. The Democrat in the race is only half-heartedly being supported by the national Democrats, who have announced that they'll be running ads -- not for the Democratic candidate, but rather against the Republican candidate (in order to possibly help the Independent candidate, at the same time). Republicans, meanwhile, are planning on running ads against both the Independent and the Democrat, so television in South Dakota is about to get more confrontational. But for the time being, the Republican still holds a lead in the polls, so the state has to be seen as still Leaning Republican. This could quickly change, though.

If Republicans manage to pick up all four Leaning Republican states, it would represent a pickup of three seats from Democrats (Arkansas, Louisiana, and South Dakota). Added to the Safe Republican seats, this would mean a total pickup of five seats -- one shy of gaining control.

 

Leaning Democratic

This category was volatile this week as well. Two states (Colorado and Kansas) moved down from here to Too Close To Call, and New Hampshire moved down to here from Leaning Democratic.

While New Hampshire seemed fairly safe last week, a few new polls have shown Scott Brown gaining a bit of ground against Jeanne Shaheen this week. This could represent only a few outlier polls, or it could be the signs of real movement for Brown. Either way, at the present time, New Hampshire can only be considered Leaning Democratic, at best.

North Carolina stays in the same place as last week, as Kay Hagen continues to maintain a very slight edge in the polling. This is going to be a close race to watch on election night, as victory will come down to which side can better turn out their voters.

Neither North Carolina nor New Hampshire would be a pickup for Democrats, however, leaving the party with no gains either here or in the Safe Democratic category.

 

Too Close To Call

Two states moved out of this category this week, and three states moved in to take their place. Arkansas and Kentucky moved up to Leaning Republican, while Colorado and Kansas moved down from Leaning Democratic and Georgia moved down from Leaning Republican.

Alaska should, by the polling alone, be considered Leaning Republican. I'm still not so sure, though. Democrat Mark Begich has fielded the largest, most extensive get-out-the-vote operation the state has ever seen, which doesn't really show up in raw polling numbers. And, as longtime poll-watchers know, public polling is notoriously unreliable here and upsets often happen. So in my eyes at least, Alaska remains a question mark.

Colorado is also an interesting state this time around, because of a big change in the way their citizens are voting this year. The race is close, and the Republican seems to have gained a very slight edge in recent days. But this year will be the first where everyone in the state votes by mail -- ballots have already been sent out and are starting to be returned. Will this significantly change the electorate's demographics (the makeup of people who actually bother to vote in midterms)? No one knows, at this point. If it does change, who will it benefit? Again, nobody knows. Colorado could also be the pivotal state this year, and the influence of the all-mail voting will doubtlessly be studied afterwards, that's about all that can be said about it now.

The news from Georgia is about the best news Democrats got this week, as Democrat Michelle Nunn is gaining momentum against David Perdue. This momentum may persist to Election Day, especially when you consider that the money that Democrats pulled out of Kentucky is going to be spent here. Nunn got an incredible break when Perdue was caught in a "47 percent" style gaffe, and then actually doubled down on it, by saying he was "proud" of his history of personally outsourcing jobs. This, it should be noted, is not exactly the brightest position to run on for any politician. Democrats are set to remind Georgia voters of this, by running eleventy-gazillion ads featuring Perdue's "proud" outsourcer comments. Not much polling has been done since the gaffe was exposed, and the ad barrage has just started, but Nunn is gaining momentum which may increase in the next few weeks.

Iowa has been seen as a possible pivot for control of the Senate for months now, and this week hasn't changed that calculus much. Republican Joni Ernst has held on to a razor-thin edge in the polling over Bruce Braley (or "Bruce Bailey," as Michelle Obama put it), which continued this week. One wildcard in an already wild contest is not getting much media attention, though -- the Libertarian candidate died last week in a plane crash (he was flying his own small plane). Now, the Libertarian wasn't registering much in the polls, but in a contest where one or two percent might wind up deciding things, it at least has to be considered a factor. Conventional wisdom is that when Libertarians are forced to vote for the two main parties, they usually vote Republican. Ernst has some Tea Party credentials, so she might pick up this thin sliver of the electorate (assuming they don't just stay home in frustration). Still, you'd think such a political story in such a closely-contested state would have gotten a little more airtime, but you'd be wrong (so far, at least). Democrats are feeling good about the early voting that is happening in Iowa, but at this point it is still way too close for anyone to call (with any certainty).

It's debatable whether Kansas belongs in the Too Close To Call category, because of so many odd factors in the race. If Republicans manage to gain control of the Senate, then it won't matter whether Pat Roberts is defeated by Independent Greg Orman or not, because Orman has stated he'll caucus with "the majority party" should he get elected. If Kansas isn't the pivotal state, this means the seat will go Republican no matter which candidate wins. The polling has been volatile since the Democrat bowed out of the race, but Roberts seems to have bounced back somewhat from the initial polls (some of which showed him down by double digits). Right now, Orman still shows a slight lead, but even winning might not mean a pickup of any sort for Democrats (depending on what happens elsewhere).

That's a lot of uncertainty, so close to Election Day. Of these five states, three are currently Democratic seats (Alaska, Colorado, and Iowa) and two are Republican (Georgia and Kansas). Our running tally so far (assuming both parties get all their safe and lean seats) shows Republicans picking up five seats already, before the Too Close To Call seats are added in. If Republicans hold on to Kansas and Georgia, that would mean they'd only have to pick up one of the three Democratic states to gain control of the Senate. However, if Republicans lost either of their own states, they'd have to pick up two. If Republicans lose both Kansas and Georgia, they'd need to pick up all three of the Democratic states to win control of the Senate. From the Democratic perspective, they've got to either hold onto all three of their seats, lose one and pick up one Republican seat, or only lose two and pick up both Republican seats. The math clearly shows a Republican advantage outside of the Too Close To Call category, but there are a number of ways the final five races might shake out. Including the possibility that Greg Orman of Kansas will have to personally decide control of the chamber.

That's it for this week. Maybe things will become clearer next week, that's about the only solid conclusion that can be drawn at this point.

 

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