The State of the Senate

Much has been written about which party will control the US Senate in the next Congress and, with seven pure toss-up races on the political board, there’s plenty of room for conjecture on both sides of the ideological aisle.

Let’s take a look at the aggregate Senate campaign picture, remembering that the Republicans must retain all of the seats they currently possess (15 in this election cycle) and convert six Democratic states just to reach the minimum majority level. Democrats will maintain control if the two parties deadlock at 50-50 (including the Independents who will caucus with one party or the other). The Dems hold power in such a situation because Vice President Joe Biden (D), the constitutional Senate president, will break any tie vote in his party’s favor.

The model also assumes Republican conversion victories in three Democratic retirement seats, Montana (Sen. John Walsh), South Dakota (Sen. Tim Johnson), and West Virginia (Sen. Jay Rockefeller). A three-way contest in South Dakota could lead to predicting a more uncertain result in late October, but the outcome is projected in favor of former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) at this point in time.

First, the majority Democrats have five seats in the Safe D category and an additional two in a Likely D grouping, including senators Al Franken (Minnesota) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon). Republicans have 11 races in the Safe R category, and another two – Sen. Thad Cochran and the Montana open seat, Rep. Steve Daines (R) vs. State Rep. Amanda Curtis (D) – are considered Likely R.

Second, the seats leaning to either party are:

• Georgia (Open): Two-term Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) is retiring. The Democrats most likely lost their chance for an upset when David Perdue, and not one of the veteran congressmen, won the Republican nomination. Five September polls have been released; four post Perdue to a lead. As the election draws nearer, expect Perdue to continue to gain strength against Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn. Also remember that Perdue exceeded his polling numbers in the primary, and especially the run-off, which could be a precursor for his general election performance.
Clear Advantage: Republicans

• Kentucky: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has been in a re-election dog fight for well over a year. All polling now gives him a clear edge, and he is winning the airwaves war. Try as Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) might, she likely comes up short in the battle against the veteran politician. All of the atmospherics, particularly relating to the EPA regulations governing coal and President Obama’s unpopularity throughout Kentucky, are cutting McConnell’s way.
Clear Advantage: Republicans

• Michigan (Open): Veteran Sen. Carl Levin (D) is retiring. Democrats field Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI-14) while Republicans turn to former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. This race has been close for the better part of a year, and Land still cannot be counted out, particularly if Republican Gov. Rick Snyder gets hot in the final weeks and rebounds for a sizable win. But, it is clear that Rep. Peters has clear momentum right now in polling and message, putting a discernible distance between he and Land.
Clear Advantage: Democrats

• New Hampshire: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) defends her seat against former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R). Now that the primary has finally concluded, this race is starting to catch fire. Nine public polls have been released here since Sept. 1, six of which give the incumbent a clear advantage. Momentum, however, seems to be gravitating toward Brown as Shaheen’s vote with the Republicans on Sen. Jeff Sessions’ measure to tie President Obama’s hands over immigration suggests. The numbers still give Shaheen an edge, but the situation could change very quickly.
Discernible Advantage: Democrats

The seven toss-up campaigns will decide the majority. They are:

• Alaska: First-term Sen. Mark Begich (D) defends his seat against former Attorney General and Department of Natural Resources director Dan Sullivan (R) in a race that is turning nasty. Begich’s campaign has featured some of the best and worst campaign ads of the election cycle. Sullivan does not have a long Alaska history, which Begich is attempting to turn into a major issue. The race is clearly not decided. Begich is opening up a small polling lead, but Alaska survey history suggests that a traditional Democratic skew exists.
Slightest Advantage: Democrats

• Arkansas: Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR-4) and veteran Sen. Mark Pryor (D) continue to go back and forth against each other. Cotton hits Pryor for being the deciding vote for Obamacare; Pryor attacks Cotton as an ideological extremist, way to the right of the average Republican. In September, two of three public polls project the GOP congressman to a lead.
Advantage: Tenuously Republicans

• Colorado: The contest between Sen. Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO-4) has been stagnant for weeks. Both candidates and their outside allies are hitting each other hard. Udall continues to maintain an average two-point lead, and now is beginning to see some better numbers. Four of six September polls project Udall to an edge, averaging 3.5 points, from a low of two to a high of six. The latest two studies find Gardner up, but the Quinnipiac University survey (Gardner +8) appears to be an outlier.
Advantage: Democrats

• Iowa: This could be the tightest Senate campaign as both Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA-1) and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) continue to draw equal levels of support. Such a situation is more positive for Ernst because the Democrats should have a clear advantage in this state. Five September polls have been released, two posting Braley to small leads, one outlier (Quinnipiac) giving Ernst a six-point lead, while the two most recent surveys result in a flat tie. However, Republicans are exceeding their average performance, which is a good sign for them. Pushed for a call, the Iowa race could end in a Republican upset.
Advantage: Pure Toss-up

• Kansas: The crazy happenings in the Sunflower State put a reliably Republican seat in jeopardy. The Kansas race could change the national election cycle’s entire complexion. A series of mistakes from Sen. Pat Roberts (R) and the Democrats and Independents coalescing behind unaffiliated candidate Greg Orman makes this contest something that it shouldn’t be: a competitive toss-up campaign. Most believe the situation will right itself for Republicans before voters begin casting ballots, but three of four September polls give Orman the lead. Independent candidate Orman has a clear advantage today, but projecting forward to the election should yield the opposite situation.
Advantage: Republicans.

• Louisiana: The preponderance of polling suggests that neither Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) nor Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) can win this race outright considering there are nine candidates on the ballot. This means the campaign will progress to a Dec. 6 run-off that will either decide the majority or be anticlimactic. Four September polls flip-flop the two major party candidates. Each is ahead in a pair of surveys. Due to Landrieu’s proficiency in winning previous December run-offs, the incumbent should be given a slight advantage in such a format. Her margin will be even lesser if the contest will decide the majority.
Advantage: Democrat.

• North Carolina: Up until the past two weeks, this looked like the best Republican conversion opportunity in the nation. Incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D) could not exceed 42 percent in any poll, and North Carolinians have a strong history of denying their senators re-election. In September, however, seven consecutive polls post Hagan to a lead over state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) and her preference standing has also improved.
Advantage: Now clearly for Sen. Hagan and the Democrats

If this analysis model is precise for all races, the Democrats would retain the Senate majority at 50-50.

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