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Senate Poll Shockers

A series of surveys was just released for key US Senate races in several states. Two studies produced especially surprising results, those in Florida and North Dakota.

Rasmussen Reports (Nov. 17; 500 likely Florida voters) now gives Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL-14) an unexpected 43-39 percent lead over Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D). This is the first poll of the election cycle that shows Nelson in a deficit position to any potential Republican opponent.

After saying he would not run in March, Rep. Mack did an about-face late last month and his decision appears to be paying off, at least in the short term. Prior to recent polls showing Rep. Mack within two, six, and now leading by four points, Sen. Nelson posted consistent 15-point margins against the other two main Republican candidates, former interim Sen. George LeMieux and ex-state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner.

It was always believed that the Ft. Myers congressman and son of former Sen. Connie Mack III could make this race competitive, and the last three polls certainly confirm that supposition.

In North Dakota, The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released the results of the Mellman Group poll (Nov. 12-16; 600 likely North Dakota voters) it commissioned for newly announced candidate Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general. The data give Ms. Heitkamp a 47-42 percent lead over Rep. Rick Berg (R-ND-AL). This is a stunner in that Berg is thought to be the prohibitive favorite to convert the open seat (Sen. Kent Conrad is retiring) for the GOP. North Dakota is projected to be the Republicans’ best opportunity to take a Democratic seat.

Since this tabulation conflicts with other North Dakota polls, it is possible that the survey is an anomaly. In its defense, however, are the presidential numbers. As one would expect, a prospective Republican nominee is ahead of President Obama in the Peace Garden State, even according to these same Mellman Group numbers. Mitt Romney has a 47-33 percent advantage over the President within this polling universe, which is perfectly in line with North Dakota presidential election voting behavior. If further surveys show a similar pattern in this Senate race, a new competitive race could be on the horizon.

According to a brand new Epic MRA poll of the Michigan Senate race (Nov. 13-16; 600 registered Michigan voters), former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI-2) has decreased his deficit against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). Their latest survey shows only a six-point 48-42 percent advantage for the two-term Democratic incumbent. This is a net gain of three points for Hoekstra over the firm’s August poll that gave Stabenow a 47-38 percent edge.

The Michigan race is another critical contest for the GOP. Thought to be vulnerable at the beginning of the year, the Republicans were slow to find a credible opponent against the senator, finally convincing Hoekstra to launch a campaign after the former congressman had publicly announced that he would not run.

One of the slower races to take shape is the open Arizona seat of retiring Senate Majority Whip Jon Kyl (R). New polling information is now available for the Republican primary in this state and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ-6) is off to a big lead, as expected. According to a new Public Policy Polling survey (Nov. 17-20; 400 registered Arizona Republican voters), Flake has a huge 53-7 percent lead over businessman Wil Cardon. Magellan Strategies found a similar pattern. Their latest Arizona study (Nov. 16; 722 registered Arizona Republican voters) gives Flake a similar 55-3 percent margin against Cardon.

Democrats have a large field in the Grand Canyon State, including former Surgeon General Richard Carmona and ex-Arizona Democratic Party chairman Don Bivens. Right now, it appears the race is Flake’s to lose.

Weekly Redistricting Outlook

Significant redistricting action occurred in the following six states during the past week: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia.

ARIZONA (current delegation: 5R-3D; gains one seat) – The Arizona state Supreme Court failed to grant impeached Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) chair Colleen Mathis (I) a stay over the state Senate and governor’s decision to remove her from office. The Court has agreed to hear Mathis’ motion to overturn her removal, but the judicial body won’t allow her to return to the Commission before the case is heard. Thus, the Arizona congressional map is on hold for an indefinite period of time.

Mathis supporters and the Democratic Party were hoping the high court would reinstate her so the Commission would have time to pass the map that had been previously laid out for comment. The public is allowed 30 days to express opinion after which changes can be made. That period ended just days after Mathis was removed, thus denying the panel a clear majority to enact the plan. Over the course of time, the Mathis map would likely produce a 5D-4R Democratic majority in the Arizona delegation.

Should she lose her legal maneuvering, the process to fill the Mathis vacancy would begin anew as a different chairman would be chosen as defined through the procedures governing commission membership. By law, the IRC must have two Democrats, two Republicans, and an Independent who becomes the chairman.

COLORADO (current delegation: 4R-3D) – The state court drawing the de novo map released its plan and basically adopted the Democratic outline. This is not a surprise, as the Colorado courts have repeatedly favored the Democrats in previous decades. The most endangered member of the delegation now appears to be sophomore Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-6), as his Arapahoe County-based district now wraps around into Adams County, northeast of Denver, and adds a much higher number of Democrats to what was his safe Republican seat. The 6th District goes from 46 percent Obama in the 2008 presidential contest to 54 percent Obama, suggesting that the district will become highly competitive in the 2012 election and likely beyond.

The big winner for the GOP is freshman Rep. Cory Gardner in the 4th District. Formerly a safe Republican seat, the 4th went Democratic for one term prior to Gardner’s victory in 2010. His eastern Colorado seat goes from 49 percent Obama to 42 percent Obama, representing a substantial jump in Republican voters.

The other districts remain in about the same partisan ratio as they were during the previous decade. This means the 3rd District of freshman Republican Rep. Scott Tipton remains as a swing seat. CD-4 changes from 47 percent Obama to 48 percent. The map, which is unlikely to be challenged, will create an even more competitive plan than in the past decade.

The state court was forced to draw the map because the legislature deadlocked over the congressional plan during the regular session.

NEVADA (current delegation: 2R-1D; gains one seat) –
It appears the Republicans will not challenge the lower court-drawn congressional map. Petitioning the state Supreme Court would be the next step in the process. It is unlikely the high court would overturn what the lower court devised, so such action is futile, Republican leaders apparently believe. The court created a 1D, 1R map with two seats rated as competitive.

OHIO (current delegation: 13R-5D; loses two seats) – Republicans are still trying to put a two-thirds coalition together in both houses of their legislature to pass a modified congressional map. At this writing, the chances of forming such a consensus appear slim. Failure to pass a new map means reverting to the previous enacted plan over which Democrats are currently gathering petition signatures to force a ballot referendum. If successful, the map will go to the voters in the general election of 2012, meaning a court will draw an interim 16-seat Ohio map for the current election cycle.

SOUTH CAROLINA (current delegation: 5R-1D; gains one seat) –
A new Voting Rights lawsuit was filed against the state’s recently enacted congressional map that should return six Republicans and one Democrat to Washington. The lawsuit, brought by a group of African-American voters, claims that too many black voters were packed into Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D) 6th District. Because the US Justice Department has already granted pre-clearance to the South Carolina congressional plan, any lawsuit charging illegalities over minority representation is unlikely to succeed.

VIRGINIA (current delegation: 8R-3D) –
As expected, now that Republicans will assume control of the state Senate, the new leadership announced they will wait until the next legislative session, when they are officially in control, to move a congressional map. Expect the 8R-3D ratio to be strengthened and remain locked for the ensuing decade. The new session begins in January.

Florida’s Rep. Mack Within Two Points of Sen. Nelson

On Friday, Quinnipiac University released the results of their latest regular large-sample Florida poll (Oct. 31-Nov. 7; 1,185 registered Florida voters; 513 self-identified Republicans), the first public statewide survey fielded since Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL-14) announced his challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson (D). The results are quite promising for the Ft. Myers/Naples representative. According to the Q-Poll, Sen. Nelson holds only a two-point (42-40 percent) lead over Rep. Mack.

Late last month the congressman reversed his previous Senate decision, doing an about-face on his March decision not to run. After state Senate Pres. Mike Haridopolos dropped out of the race and it became clear that former interim Sen. George LeMieux and ex-state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner were showing no signs of exciting the GOP electorate, Mack began reconsidering his decision. With his party still needing a strong Senatorial candidate, and with the Republicans currently looking relatively strong in Florida against President Obama, suggesting a potential positive GOP push for the down-ballot elections, Mack felt his best chance to win statewide is in the current election.

With the new Q-Poll supporting the assertion that Mack would be Nelson’s strongest challenger, the numbers are indeed encouraging for the GOP because the Democratic senator has positive approval ratings. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed approve of his job performance. Just 27 percent disapprove, which is one of the better ratios of all senators standing for re-election in 2012. Florida’s other senator, freshman Republican Marco Rubio, has a similar rating. His ratio is 49:29 percent favorable to unfavorable. Therefore, if Mack is within two points of Nelson when the incumbent’s favorability is high, then the challenger’s ability to grow will be substantial once the contrast strategy begins to take hold.

In previous polls testing LeMieux and Hasner against Nelson, the senator enjoyed a substantial lead. Usually, the spread was in the 15-point range with the incumbent hovering around the 50 percent mark. The latest Q-Poll results already bring Mack within two points, and place both candidates in the low 40s, which casts this race in a new competitive light. For the GOP to recapture the Senate majority and reach even a moderate level of strength within the body, the Florida seat will have to move into the highly competitive realm.

While Mack’s late start puts him behind in the money contest, he is clearly the strongest Republican both in the GOP primary and against Nelson. The candidates’ financial standing, however, should be of concern to Mr. Mack. The senator has more than $7.5 million in his campaign account. LeMieux has raised $1.3 million and Hasner just over $1 million. Rep. Mack has $347,000 in the bank, by contrast. His long period of deciding to run has certainly hurt him in fundraising.

If this poll is an accurate depiction of the Florida electorate, and Quinnipiac has a reliable record in the state, then it looks like this Senate race is on the precipice of becoming as competitive as many believed it would when the election cycle begun.

Florida’s Sen. Mack Makes a Move … Again

On Friday, Florida Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL-14) again reversed his political course and declared his candidacy for US Senate. Back in March, when he scheduled a news conference that even his own aides were saying was a Senatorial announcement address, the 44-year-old, four-term congressman abruptly changed his mind and instead said that he would not run statewide.

Late last week, Rep. Mack made another 180-degree pirouette and officially entered the race to challenge two-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D). With polls remaining stagnant for the better part of a year – Nelson leading either former interim Sen. George LeMieux and ex-state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner by consistent 13-15 point margins (Nelson is almost always in the 47-49 percent range while the Republicans scored 33-35 percent), Mack believes he still has the opportunity to close that margin and put the state in play for the GOP.

He might be right, but it won’t happen overnight. Because of his father, Sen. Connie Mack III who held the seat for two terms before Nelson won in 2000, the Fort Myers congressman has substantial statewide name ID. Sen. Mack was originally elected in a very close 1988 election, and was easily re-elected in 1994. He retired with high job-approval ratings and appeared to be a cinch to win a third term had he so desired.

So, despite being behind both LeMieux and Hasner in campaign resources (LeMieux has over $1 million cash-on-hand according to the Sept. 30, 2011 campaign disclosure filing, while Hasner has $785,000; Mack starts the race with $347,000 in his congressional account), Mack’s name ID will very likely put him atop the Republican primary polls when they are next released. In the last Quinnipiac University poll of Florida Republicans (released Sept. 22nd), both LeMieux and Hasner were only in the teens or single-digits (LeMieux leading his rival 17-5 percent, with businessman and college professor Mike McAllister registering a surprising 11 percent).

Though he has created a rocky political road for himself in getting into the Senate race, his decision may prove to be the right move.

It is clear that several major factors cut against the senator. First, there’s the overall political climate to consider, in which voters may have the highest anti-incumbent fever ever. The right track/wrong track directional polling questions designed to detect a respondent’s optimistic or pessimistic view of the country’s future are reaching all-time negative lows, as we covered in our Friday edition of the PRIsm Political Update. Nationally, the wrong track answer tops 80%. Among Republicans, that score, in some places, is incredibly high – up into the mid- to high-90s.

Secondly, with President Obama’s approval ratings trending upside down nationally and in Florida, and the poor economy unlikely to improve substantially before the next election, the Democrats’ ability to carry the state is questionable. In order to defeat the President, the eventual Republican nominee will have to carry Florida, and that could bring a strong US Senate candidate over the finish line, too.

Third, while Sen. Nelson’s ratings are good, in fact strong when compared to many other senators standing for re-election, they are not stellar, and plenty of time remains to turn the race.

Therefore, Rep. Mack’s decision to launch his candidacy, even after repeatedly changing his mind, is understandable. Despite losing seven months of fundraising and campaigning, he does have a chance to win the GOP nomination and defeat Nelson. It is clear that Rep. Mack is betting on the long-term now, but his gamble might pay off.

The Cain Surge

Two days ago we covered presidential candidate Herman Cain’s climb to overcome even President Obama in the latest Rasmussen Reports national survey (43-41 percent; Oct. 14-15; 1,000 likely voters), but now even more data is coming up roses for the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO. A series of new Public Policy Polling Republican primary surveys shows him not only leading the GOP race nationally, but he now places first in six different states. Our premise in the last piece was that even if Mr. Cain continues to poll well, his lack of financial support could still leave him on the outside looking in. Such analysis may in fact prove correct, but these new results certainly give one reason for pause.

According to PPP, Cain has substantial leads over Mitt Romney in Hawaii, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. His highest plateau is attaining 36 percent in Hawaii. His biggest spread over Romney is 15 points in delegate-rich Ohio, also a critical swing state in the general election. The other surprise mover, as we also noted on Tuesday, is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Without an organization or strong financial backing, it is Gingrich who is now placing second in three states; tied with Romney in North Carolina, and surpassing everyone but Cain in Nebraska and West Virginia. Even nationally, at least according to the PPP findings, Gingrich has captured third place, with 14 percent, equal to or better than when he started the race. On the other end of the spectrum: Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have dropped all the way down to mid-single digits.

This race has a long way to go, but already the wild twists and turns have been enough for an entire campaign. What can come next?