Senate Still in Limbo

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 3, 2016 — Entering the last week of campaigning, the Democrats are on the cusp of re-claiming the Senate majority they lost in 2014, but virtually no competitive outcome is yet secure.

The latest Hillary Clinton email revelations may cause irregular Republican turnout to increase, which should help the GOP Senate candidates. A demoralized Republican voter base, thinking that Donald Trump would have no chance to prevail against Clinton, is about the only way Democrats could have gained a wave effect, but that is no longer expected.

It appears that nine of 10 Democratic in-cycle states will remain in party control. Only Nevada is competitive on their side of the ledger. Republicans look to have 15 safe seats of their own, with another five: Arizona (Sen. John McCain), Iowa (Sen. Chuck Grassley), Georgia (Sen. Johnny Isakson), Florida (Sen. Marco Rubio) and Ohio (Sen. Rob Portman) all trending either strongly or nominally their way.

Democrats are in favorable position to convert incumbent Republican states in Illinois (Rep. Tammy Duckworth-D, unseating Sen. Mark Kirk-R) and Wisconsin (former Sen. Russ Feingold-D, re-claiming the seat he lost to Sen. Ron Johnson-R in 2010), in addition to being favored in the open Indiana seat (former Sen. Evan Bayh-D ahead of Rep. Todd Young-R).

This leaves five key races that will determine which party controls the new Senate. They are: the aforementioned open Nevada (D) contest, Missouri (Sen. Roy Blunt-R), New Hampshire (Sen. Kelly Ayotte-R), North Carolina (Sen. Richard Burr-R), and Pennsylvania (Sen. Pat Toomey-R).

Assuming our current prognostications are correct, and adding the holdover seats, Democrats would now have 48 seats and Republicans 47, leaving the five toss-ups. This further means that Democrats would only need to win two of the five toss-ups to claim the majority, assuming that Clinton is elected president and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, vice president. To retain their chamber advantage, the GOP would have to win four of the five toss-ups, a task that might exceed realistic expectations.

A new Monmouth University poll (Oct. 28-31; 405 likely Missouri voters) in the Missouri race shows Sen. Blunt-R holding only a 47-46 percent lead over Secretary of State Jason Kander-D. While Blunt is leading in margins similar to previous polls, his danger point comes when looking at the companion presidential numbers. This same sampling group, though very small for a state the size of Missouri, chose Trump over Clinton by a whopping 14 percentage points, 52-38 percent.

The Nevada numbers have been bouncing around for the past couple of weeks, with both Rep. Joe Heck (R-Henderson) and former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto-D at different points gaining significant leads. The most recent survey, from the Emerson College Polling Society (Oct. 26-27; 550 likely Nevada voters), finds Rep. Heck surging back into a 48-44 percent advantage. This race, however, remains a toss-up because the polling has been so volatile since mid-October.

The University of New Hampshire’s polling unit has been unreliable in the past because their sampling groups were too small, and questioning period too long. But, their new Granite State poll, with media partner WBUR-TV, Boston’s public television station, employs better techniques. The survey (Oct. 26-30; 641 likely New Hampshire voters) finds Gov. Maggie Hassan-D taking a two-point, 46-44 percent, lead over Sen. Ayotte. The presidential numbers are consistent with the Senate race finding: Clinton, 47-44 percent.

Recently, we’ve seen Sen. Burr-R claim a small edge over former state Rep. Deborah Ross-D. The latest poll, from Elon University (Oct. 23-27; 710 likely North Carolina voters) finds the senator holding a three-point advantage, 45-42 percent, which is consistent with several other recent surveys.

Pennsylvania Sen. Toomey-R is in a tough battle with former gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty-D. Like Nevada, this race continues to bounce back and forth between the two candidates. The most recent data portends McGinty as a slight front-runner.

All five of these latter races can still go either way, and their cumulative outcome will determine the party that controls the body in the next Congress. With a week to go, we still have few concrete answers.

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