Author Archives: Jim Ellis

The Senate: Post-Labor Day

Now that we have moved past the Labor Day weekend, the traditional general election cycle has officially begun. That being the case, what is the current status of our nation’s Senate races especially now that all 33 campaigns have official, or soon-to-be official, nominees?

According to our latest PRIsm Information Network count, the majority Democrats, who must defend 23 of the 33 in-cycle seats, are ahead in 18 races. Republicans, who need to gain four net seats in order to establish a new majority, lead in nine states. Six feature races that are too close to call. If the ratings prove correct, Democrats would control 48 seats and Republicans 46 with the six “toss-ups” coming from a trio apiece of Republican and Democratic states.

Starting with the toss-ups, even though the Missouri race between Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) and Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO-2) has been the topic of recent political conversation; the polling swing seems to be reverting back to the Republican, so the race must again be placed in the outcome unclear column. McCaskill is the weakest Democratic incumbent standing for re-election and Akin stumbled badly, as did the national Republican leaders who immediately pounced on him, but the polls are again showing an even race despite major controversy over his rape-related abortion comment.

The Virginia (open: Tim Kaine-D, vs. George Allen-R), Montana (Sen. Jon Tester-D vs. Rep. Denny Rehberg-R) and Massachusetts (Sen. Scott Brown-R vs. Elizabeth Warren-D) contests are all dead even and have been for some time. Recently, the Bay State race has turned in more favorable numbers for Sen. Brown, but the Democratic voting history here clearly will give Warren a strong push.

The Indiana and North Dakota races are proving interesting. Both should be solidly Republican this year, but polling consistently shows neither performing as such.

The defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary has certainly opened the door for Democrat Joe Donnelly (D-IN-2), but how far? With Lugar losing a landslide renomination effort to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, it has become apparent that the congressman would have likely fared better had Lugar eked out a close victory. More traditional voting patterns should take hold here as we move closer to Election Day, especially with President Obama not targeting the state. This should help Mourdock.

When Sen. Kent Conrad (D) announced his retirement early this year, it was assumed that at-large Rep. Rick Berg (R) would succeed him with little fanfare. Quite the opposite is occurring as popular Democratic nominee Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, continues to perform well in polling. After being rated as decidedly lean Republican, this race now must be considered a toss-up.

Six more states are in the lean Democratic column, two of which show signs of heading toward toss-up status. Both the Florida and Ohio contests feature Democratic incumbents that polling shows are in competitive races in states that will probably play a defining role in the presidential contest. Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Sherrod Brown (OH) may see their own political futures determined by an end-of-campaign wave either for President Obama or challenger Mitt Romney. The flow of the campaign currently suggests that both of these Senate races will be subjected to final trends.

The Connecticut open (Rep. Chris Murphy-D vs. Linda McMahon-R), Hawaii (Rep. Mazie Hirono-D vs. former Gov. Linda Lingle-R), Michigan (Sen. Debbie Stabenow-D vs. former Rep. Pete Hoekstra-R), and New Mexico (Rep. Martin Heinrich-D vs. former Rep. Heather Wilson-R) campaigns are also trending close but decidedly toward the Democrats. They are each competitive enough where significant movement could occur late in the cycle.

Three seats are in the Lean Republican column, one of which, the Wisconsin open (former Gov. Tommy Thompson-R vs. Rep. Tammy Baldwin-D), just recently moved from the toss-up category. The other two lean R states are Arizona, where Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ-6) overwhelming victory in the GOP primary makes him a clear favorite over former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D), and Nevada where appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R) continues to hold a defined edge, though one that is becoming slimmer according to the latest surveys, over Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV-1).

Four Democratic seats are in the Likely D column, including those in New Jersey (Sen. Bob Menendez), Pennsylvania (Sen. Bob Casey Jr.), and Washington (Sen. Maria Cantwell). Maine’s Independent former Gov. Angus King should win retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R) seat, and it is likely that he will caucus with the Democrats. Polling suggests some competition exists in this quartet of states, but the voting history supporting the current numbers gives an even more decided advantage to each Democratic incumbent. Sen. Cantwell, in her race against state Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R), is moving closer to the safe Democratic category.

Just one race is in the Likely Republican category, the open Nebraska (Sen. Ben Nelson retiring) campaign between former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) and state Sen. Deb Fischer (R). All polling gives Fischer overwhelming leads, suggesting that the most likely outcome here is a Republican conversion.

Thirteen states are rated as safe: eight for the Democrats (CA, Feinstein; DE, Carper; MD, Cardin; MN, Klobuchar; NY, Gillibrand; RI, Whitehouse; VT, Sanders (I); and WV, Manchin), and five for the Republicans (MS, Wicker; TN, Corker; TX-open, Cruz; UT, Hatch; and WY, Barrasso).

GOP Panic Premature in Missouri?

Rep. Todd Akin

Missouri Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO-2), who won the Republican Senatorial nomination and the right to oppose Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) on Aug. 7 and then turned around and made what most said were ludicrous abortion-related rape comments during a St. Louis TV station interview 12 days later, is surprisingly clawing his way back into contention.

You will remember that the Akin interview gained prolonged national media coverage and was swiftly denounced with outrage from Democrats, as well as many Republicans. The race, which GOP strategists initially believed to be a contest against the weakest of Democratic incumbents seeking re-election, seemed to snap strongly in favor of McCaskill as Akin immediately took a nosedive in the polls following the interview.

The GOP establishment was quick to respond by publicly pushing Akin to exit the campaign, however he refused to do so. Now running without the institutional support he once had from the party and business allies in Washington, as well as having seen many state and local candidates separate themselves from his comments, new polls are revealing increased viability despite his troubles.

According to polls released this week, the Missouri Senate race could be returning to “toss-up” status. Public Policy Polling released a research study yesterday showing McCaskill to be holding only the slightest 45 percent to 44 percent edge over Akin. PPP surveyed 621 likely Missouri voters Aug. 28-29 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. The study revealed that approximately 77 percent of Missouri Republicans say they accept Akin’s apology. While only 33 percent of voters view Akin favorably, even that number is up 11 points from the PPP survey released the week before.

Another poll by the Family Research Council, a socially conservative group supporting Akin, actually projects the embattled congressman to be leading McCaskill 45 percent to 42 percent (surveyed Aug. 27-28; 828 likely Missouri voters; +/- 3.38 percent error margin). Conversely, however, Rasmussen Reports released their poll on Aug. 26 posting the senator to a 10-point, 48-38 percent, advantage (surveyed Aug. 22; 500 likely Missouri voters; 4.5 percent error margin).

Now national Republican leaders are in a quandary. Immediately upon Akin making his comments, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn (R-TX) publicly called for him to withdraw from the race. Karl Rove, who had previously promised a substantial advertising campaign to support Akin and disparage McCaskill, quickly said his American Crossroads organization was canceling their Missouri media reservations. Democrats are, of course, left with video tape of the Republican leaders’ comments, which will assuredly air in commercials as we head down the stretch. As a result, Akin’s own campaign fundraising apparatus came to a screeching halt.

Though the first deadline to withdraw from the Missouri ballot without cause has come and gone, Akin still has until Sept. 25 to formally decide if he will step down and allow his party to nominate a new candidate. At this point, now armed with more encouraging polling data, it appears that he is even less likely to exit. With his seeming rebound, will those aforementioned Republican leaders so willing to pile on him before the dust settled now be in a position to absorb as much criticism as Akin himself? While the seat still appears winnable, even for Akin, the Republican brain trust has made that task all the more difficult.

There is no question that Rep. Akin has taken a substantial hit from the comments he made over a week ago, but the damage may be subsiding. His own massive stumbles, and those of the Republican Party leaders’, have made Akin’s return to credibility much more difficult; however, it appears this race is not yet over. Continued polling results as we have seen in the past few days will shortly force this campaign back into the “toss-up” domain.

Texas Maps Tossed

For the better part of this year, the Texas congressional and legislative maps have been before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The state submitted their proposed district lines to this body for pre-clearance purposes, in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, instead of the Obama Department of Justice.

Clearly Attorney General Greg Abbott and the Texas Republican legal brain trust felt their approval chances were better going this route than the traditional one – the DoJ. It turns out they were wrong. The Court, yesterday, rejected all of their submissions: congressional, state Senate, and state House. Abbott said Texas will immediately appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, so the interim maps, ironically drawn by a different federal panel, will hold for the 2012 general elections.

The DC high court ruled that the state eroded the Latino community’s “clout” and took the “economic guts” from the African-American districts. The decision was broader than many believed would be the case, particularly because the San Antonio federal three-judge panel had already drawn interim maps based upon US Supreme Court direction as it pertained to legislative intent. The main areas of concern are the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, particularly as it relates to new District 33 (open seat), which stretches between the two major cities, the Austin-San Antonio corridor, and District 23 (Rep. Quico Canseco) that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. But, if the African-American districts are also affected, then Houston could come into play, as well.

This ruling suggests major changes will come next year, as Texas redistricting will apparently, once again, begin anew.

Oklahoma, Arizona Results

Rep. David Schweikert

As the Republican National Convention belatedly got underway in Tampa Tuesday, voters in four states went to the polls but only two of those places, Oklahoma and Arizona, hosted races of significance.

A run-off election was held in Oklahoma’s 2nd District for both parties in order to continue the replacement process for retiring Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK-2). Former Democratic district attorney Rob Wallace knocked off local Farm Bureau executive Wayne Herriman by a 57-43 percent count. Wallace will face businessman Markwayne Mullin who won the Republican nomination by the same margin. Democratic turnout, however, was much higher than that for the GOP, about 44,000 voters to just over 21,000. The Eastern Oklahoma 2nd District is viewed as a strong Republican conversion opportunity. Though the 2nd is the most Democratic seat in the state, Oklahoma voters are expected to support Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in such landslide proportions that additional momentum will be generated for Mullin in the congressional contest.

But the big prize in last night’s primary contests was Arizona. As expected, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ-6) easily captured the Republican Senatorial nomination, defeating businessman Wil Cardon by capturing more than two-thirds of the Republican vote.

In the Scottsdale-anchored new 6th Congressional District, in a paired major battle of two incumbent freshmen Republicans, Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ-5) defeated his GOP colleague, Rep. Ben Quayle (R-AZ-3), by a 53-47 percent margin. This has been a hotly contested campaign since the beginning, with each candidate attempting to sell himself as the more conservative stalwart. Schweikert will easily win the general election and should be able to hold this seat for the remainder of the decade, barring any type of further significant primary challenge.

In the expansive eastern 1st CD, also producing no surprises, former representative Ann Kirkpatrick took the Democratic nomination and will face former state senator Jonathan Paton who was a landslide winner on the Republican side. The 1st is a highly marginal district, so expect a fierce battle in the general election.

In the new southeastern 2nd District, formerly numbered 8, newly elected Rep. Ron Barber (D), fresh from his recent special election victory, will attempt to win a full term against former Gulf War veteran Martha McSally (R).

The western 4th District was drawn as Arizona’s safest Republican seat, which explains why freshman Rep. Paul Gosar moved here from the marginal 1st District despite only representing one-third of the new constituency. The ploy worked as Gosar defeated state Sen. Ron Gould and GOP businessman Rick Murphy, while overcoming more than $800,000 in conservative independent expenditure targeted against him. The congressman should now have an easy ride in the general election, even though he only notched 51 percent of the vote against his two Republican opponents.

Back in suburban Phoenix, former Rep. Matt Salmon looks like he has won a ticket back to Congress with a solid victory over former Arizona state House Speaker Kirk Adams. The 5th District is another safe Republican seat, so Salmon now appears to be a lock for victory in November.

In the new marginal 9th District, also in the Phoenix suburbs, Democratic former state senator Kyrsten Sinema won her party’s nomination, defeating state Senate Minority Leader David Schapira and former state party chairman and Clinton Administration official Andrei Cherny. On the Republican side, Paradise Valley Mayor and former congressional candidate Vernon Parker won a very close Republican primary contest, as he placed first against six other candidates.

Republicans had hoped Sinema would become the Democratic nominee because they believe she can be painted as too liberal for the CD-9 constituency. Expect a hot race here in the fall. Democrats should enjoy a slight advantage, and an edge that will likely expand throughout the rest of the decade due to demographic changes but, for now, the 2012 congressional battle must be considered a toss-up.

Presidential Race Tightening

Last week’s polling is now reflecting what the national trends have been reporting for some time: The presidential race continues to get closer.

During the past week, 12 polls were conducted in nine different places, all top and secondary battleground regions. The locations are, as you would expect by this time: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Colorado and the 2nd Congressional District of Nebraska. You will remember that Nebraska splits its Electoral Votes, thereby allowing each of the state’s three congressional districts to award their own vote. In 2008, President Obama carried the 2nd District, giving him an extra national tally. In at least one 2012 scenario, the NE-2 vote could determine the difference between a tie or a two-vote win for one of the contenders, hence it remains important. In the dozen polls pulled from these domains, President Obama leads in nine of them, Mitt Romney two, and one place, the Commonwealth of Virginia, records a tie.

Two points merit attention. First, the average distance between the two candidates from this latest myriad of polls is only 3.75 percent.

Second, the peripheral target states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Nevada are already coming into range. Historical standards, despite the president holding small leads in almost all of these polls, suggest that Romney is actually in favorable position as a challenger.

Be cognizant of the fact that we are still in the pre-Labor Day period and that the crystallizing movement in a presidential race normally comes much later in the election cycle, usually in October. With Obama and Romney already running about even, this campaign promises to pack quite an exlplosive finish.