Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Quarter Century of Sioux Falls Trips: What's Changed And What Hasn't

Over this past weekend, I took my annual pilgrimage to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a rite of passage dating back to the very early 1990s when my dad covered much of this territory doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout southern Minnesota.  I had a distressing revelation a few miles into South Dakota on I-90 when I discovered Lanti's Fireworks had closed.  I had been visiting Lanti's every summer since 1991 to pick up some fairly low-rent bottle rockets and other fireworks at discount prices to smuggle across state lines and set off in Minnesota at my folks' place over 4th of July weekend.  There's a fireworks store across the street that I don't like nearly as much yet was still open, so I had to my hold my nose and go over there to buy $28 worth of junk to shoot off.  But my heart still aches for the loss of Lanti's, a mainstay on my Sioux Falls pilgrimage for a quarter century.

Generally speaking I'm not someone who deals with change well, and I really circle the wagons when it comes to institutions I have a personal connection to, and anything related to those early 90s visits to southwest Minnesota and Sioux Falls are hallowed ground.  I want everything to be locked in place to preserve my memories from the early 90s, in defiance of the constantly changing world and the fact that most of these towns are losing population and can't sustain the same businesses they were able to 25 years ago.  With that in mind, I thought I'd evaluate each county seat and its neighboring rural areas over the course of my 25 years of journeys there and identify what has and has not changed during that time, heading westward on I-90 to Sioux Falls and then coming back on Highway 60.

Blue Earth

Changes have been plentiful and mostly for the worse.  The community was going strong through the 90s, adding a McDonald's and Subway to the already decent selection of eating places for a town of its size just south of the interstate, but things started falling apart in the early 2000s when my beloved Hardee's closed down, the one whose sign could be seen hovering high above the freeway from nearly two miles away when heading westward.  Just as bad, within the last few years, a series of God-forsaken roundabouts have replaced stoplights on Highway 169, turning the nice relaxing drive into town into a stressful navigation of roundabouts.  Another heartbreaking development over the last few years has been the demolition of a charming old barn that used to hover just off the freeway about five miles east of town.  The barn site has been completely plowed over now with no indication that it ever existed.

Thankfully, Blue Earth still has its share of charms despite its declining population and city fathers' efforts to derail it with the roundabouts.  The 55-foot Jolly Green Giant statue still towers over the community and the Dairy Queen next to it.  The Faribault County Courthouse still shines a bright red a few blocks north of downtown.  And even as Pizza Huts have been closing throughout the region, the Pizza Hut just off of I-90 in Blue Earth is still in business, and I let out a silent cheer every year when I drive by and it stays open.


Fairmont
I've always been impressed by how strong the business selection has been in this small city of 10,000, and while there's been a fair amount of turnover they still have a pretty good thing going.  Most prominently missing is the closing of Gunther Foods, the local grocery store run by the community's long-time state House representative.  Also gone is Reco Motors, an old Lincoln-Mercury dealership on the west side of town that my dad got a lot of business at during his time doing vinyl repair work, and the dealership's very friendly old manager who is almost assuredly either deceased on in elder care by this point.  The KFC next to that dealership has also closed, but the old-fashioned front-counter order only Dairy Queen on the other side of it remains.  Just off the freeway, I recall having my choice between Perkins and Happy Chef for the occasional breakfast back in 1990, but Happy Chef closed at some point around 2000, originally replaced by a Wendy's and recently reopening as a Hardee's.  Fairmont went without a Hardee's for several years during Hardee's leanest years when the old Hardee's on the southeast side of town became an Arby's.  The Perkins off the freeway is still there.

More remarkable than what's different is what's the same. Aside from the aforementioned Reco Motors, it's car dealership selection has remained the same.  The town still even has a mini-mall with an operational JCPenney's for crying out loud, along with an impressive selection of retail that only recently lost its K-mart.  Beyond that, most of the restaurants, fast food places, and other businesses in town have remained around and largely in the same location as they were 25 years ago.  Their small frozen foods business Fairmont Foods did close last year, and that's relevant because they were at one time producing a vegetarian product line from Linda McCartney, and actually had an oddball visit from Linda and Paul McCartney who held a press conference in the small, crummy conference room of this frozen foods plant in 1993.


Jackson
My dad never got much vinyl repair business at either of the two car lots in Jackson so I don't have a lot of memories of the town compared to others on this list.  Only one of the two car lots have survived the past quarter century though, and beyond that the impressive Hardee's just north of I-90 back in 1990 morphed into a Burger King around 2000 and has remained such, losing some of its cache for me as I'm a Hardee's man.  The rest stop overlooking the Des Moines River valley remains but the cluster of highway signs in the valley itself have mostly come down.  Beyond that, not much to report that has changed or hasn't changed in Jackson other than there seems to be road construction every damn time I try to drive into town.


Worthington
Few towns in the entire state have changed as much as Worthington has since 1990.  Back then it was in the early stages of a huge demographic shift as cheap labor was imported en masse to fully staff their Swift pork packing plant as well as the now-defunct Campbell's soup plant.  The town would have still been about 90% white back in 1990 but in the 2 1/2 decades since has transformed into one of only three towns in Minnesota with more than 5,000 people that is majority-minority.  The business landscape has thus changed considerably as well with a healthy spattering of new stores serving the Latino, Asian, and East African populations.  Until the last couple of years the town had a mall that was fading quickly and went completely when their JCPenney closed down.  As of yesterday the entire mall had been bulldozed and a new business of some sort seemed to be going up in the considerable lot.  Worthington has also been blighted by a couple of those absurd and confusing roundabouts in the last few years too.

With all of those changes, there are a few mainstays including the town's weird layout, one of the few Hardee's that never closed that I recall stopping for ice cream at back in 1990 on a blistering hot day, and two of the three car lots where my dad got vinyl repair work remain open.  The list of changes in Worthington nonetheless vastly exceeds the list of things that have stayed the same.


Luverne
I was most fascinated back in the day with the fast food selection in these towns and Luverne had a good selection for the size of the town a quarter century ago.  Nowadays, things aren't going so well.  Hardee's...gone.  Country Kitchen....gone.  Pizza Hut....gone.  Dairy Queen....gone.  A McDonald's and Subway have come to town but beyond that all that remains is the franchise that seemed the most unlikely to be in small-town Luverne in the first place...Taco John's.  Beyond that, there's a new Pamida south of the freeway and a veterans home on the north side of town.  Luverne looks and feels the same outside of that.


Sioux Falls
The hardest change to deal with from Sioux Falls was the closing of Lanti's Fireworks this year as cited above, but beyond that, it's been generally good news for the city, which has grown by nearly two-thirds in the 25 years since I first visited there.  Back in the day, there was almost no development off of I-90 but at some point in the mid-90s an interstate exit emerged with a flurry of businesses that from the freeway looks like it goes on quite a distance.  But it was only when I got off the freeway to explore that I discovered this was a stand-alone development that is at least two miles from the northeastern fringe of the city itself.  A freeway shortcut linking I-29 to I-90 (229) has been added in the last 15 years, wrapping around the east side of the city.

Most of the city's development has been along I-29 running north and south, and I explore a pretty good chunk of the city every year.  The freeway itself keeps adding lanes and the busiest exits such as the 12th Street exit off of 29 that I usually take has been altered to accommodate higher traffic volume in the last 10 years.  Obviously businesses have come and gone along my typical route through town since 1991 but there are mainstays that always help me identify my location.  Best of all, the Arby's on 41st Street across the street from the Empire Mall, both of which I first visited in 1991, are still exactly the same, and the continuity there is even more important to me than Lanti's Fireworks.


Windom
Getting off the freeway at Worthington and heading northeast on Highway 60, the collection of "elevator towns" that run along the tracks have seen substantial change, most prominently due to Highway 60 upgrading from two lanes to four and diluting some of the rural charm the stretch of highway had.  Hurt the most was Heron Lake, the largest of this string of small towns which the old two-lane went right through but the current four-lane lurches west to avoid.  The gas station that used to be front and center in town on the old 60 has long ago closed.  The gigantic grain elevators on this stretch have remained though, and if anything have only increased in capacity.

The town of Windom itself looks remarkably close to what it did 25 years ago.  Even though it added a McDonald's, its original Hardee's co-existed along with it even as so many other Hardee's closed.  Godfather's Pizza has thrived there for years along with an old Dairy Queen near downtown.  Even the small Happy Chef that used to occupy a site on 60 held on until the last three years or so.  Windom also has the purest "town square" of any county seat in Minnesota, entirely unchanged in a quarter century.  Its car lot seen has changed some, and the Ford dealer with a block of new trucks encircling his store has scaled back considerably.


St. James
I have a much more comprehensive history with this town since I started my professional career here and lived in the town for three years (2002-2005) but going there every year since I left town 11 years ago I can safely say that the things that meant most to me about the town disappeared before I moved there since I moved away.  There was a Ford and a GM dealership in St. James in the summer of 1990...in fact the very first two dealerships where my dad got vinyl repair business.  And there was a Hardee's on the west edge of downtown where we went to eat after finishing up our work and returned again a few times.  As the years went on, both dealerships managed to get snuffed out on weird technicalities, and the Hardee's closed in the months before I moved to town in 2001.

There's still plenty to like about St. James, including its scenic lake setting and still-vibrant business sector (as long as you're not in the market for a car!) which expanded to Highway 60 once 60 expanded to four lanes.  There aren't too many towns of 4,500 that still have two small-town grocery stores but St. James does.  The community also seems to have had better luck than most in assimilated a very large Hispanic population which was in its relative infancy back in 1990.


Even in the tiny towns along I-90 or on state highways coming back from St. James, there are still things I pick up on driving by....things that either changed considerably since 1991 or haven't really changed much at all.  And this particular route only constituted one stretch of what my dad did for his vinyl repair route, as towns such as Mankato, New Ulm, and St. Peter, among several others, constituted towns I navigated thoroughly that summer and still revisit annually, albeit on a different road trip.  Not sure if it's more therapeutic to see the things that have stayed the same or more depressing to see the things that have changed but since I keep going back I must get far more positive than negative vibes revisiting these communities.  Hopefully that will continue as I keep visiting even as things I held dear about that era continue to change.




Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Quarter Century Since the 15-Game Streak

I had a chip on my shoulder about the Minnesota Twins in the spring of 1991, a chip I had been carrying since the summer of 1989 when they traded away Frank Viola, former star pitcher and 1987 World Series MVP.   The team did poorly in 1989 and even worse in 1990.  In April 1991, I happened upon a magazine display where the Sports Illustrated baseball preview was lurking and I gave it a gander.  Sports Illustrated predicted the team standings for season's end, and predicted to be in dead last in the old American League West was the Minnesota Twins, denigrated for their unimpressive roster of rookies and has-beens.  Those Homer Hankies, said the Sports Illustrated, were about to become crying towels.

Suffice it to say things didn't work out that way for the 1991 Minnesota Twins, although the first couple of months of the season sure made it look like it would.  What happened?  The streak happened!  Starting on June 1, the still below .500 Twins began winning...and winning...and winning.  I was checked out of the Twins, but my dad was home for the summer and listening to a lot of WCCO AM radio, passing along reports about the streaking Twins.  As the streak kept going into a second week, I finally had to set aside my hard feelings and get in on the excitement, starting to listen to the games on the radio with the wins continuing to pile up to a full 15 games.  The streak appeared to continue to a 16th game but the Baltimore Orioles came from behind to win in the ninth inning and end the longest winning streak in Minnesota Twins history.  But the good mojo kept rolling from there, into October when the Twins went from worst to first in their division and went on to win what most consider the greatest World Series of all-time, with four of the seven games decided on the final play.

This Cinderella story was cobbled together with the assortment of rookies and has-beens belittled in Sports Illustrated all coming together for above-average years.  Veteran pitcher Jack Morris signed on for his (sadly) only season in Minnesota in 1991 following a couple years of decline in Detroit.....but rebounded to win 18 games in 1991 with the Twins.  Rookie pitcher Scott Erickson won 12 games in a row in May and June, going on to be a 20-game winner.  Rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch put up batting and fielding numbers impressive enough to be chosen as rookie of the year by season's end.  Veteran designated hitter Chili Davis, considered past his prime, went on to have one of his better seasons, hitting 29 homeruns.   Journeyman third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, signed on when well into his 30s, also had one of the better years of his career.  Kirby Puckett has another great year hitting well over .300.  Even veteran pinch hitter Randy Bush hit over .300, indicative of a team that was delivering in the clutch.  There were no Babe Ruths or Walter Johnsons on this team, but there was an entire roster of players who were collectively doing what was needed to win most of their games.  I believe left fielder Dan Gladden's batting average slipped below .250 in the last weekend of the season, but beyond that the 1991 Twins' entire roster was batting above .250.

Another key ingredient to the Twins success came from.....the players they received in the 1989 Frank Viola trade, which included 16-game winning starting pitcher Kevin Tapani and closer Rick Aguilera.  As for Viola, he never completely collapsed but his career was past peak and finished with a 13-15 record in 1991, meaning the Twins general manager made the right call to go for the trade.

The Minnesota Twins team of 25 years later is having the reverse scenario this summer, falling disastrously short of expectations with a record that puts them on track to be the worse team in franchise history, and one of the worst teams in the history of the game.  Even if the Twins had a 15-game winning streak tomorrow, they'd still be nearly 10 games below .500!  And it's not even the All-Star break!  This makes me appreciate the 1991 team that much more, as it was good for me personally to get the Twins back on my good graces that year.  Best yet, I was at about the perfect age to really appreciate a world champion baseball team that pulled off one of the most unexpected rallies ever seen in baseball.  And it all started this very week 25 years ago.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The 10 Best Short-Lived Series From The Past Decade

We've all been there, finding ourselves attached to a new series and really getting into it only to discover that the rest of the world doesn't share our enthusiasm for the show.  A cancellation headline hits us like a punch in the gut and our mind scrambles for any possible lifeline that may be possible to save the show.  As television programming--even network TV which for all the badmouthing it takes from pay-per-view-cable snobs has offered more sophisticated storytelling in recent years--it's become easier to really, really get into a show when its legs get cut off in a way that wasn't quite as tangible as when more conventional series got canceled 25 years ago.  With that in mind, here's an homage to the 10 series from the last decade that were let go after one full season or less that left the biggest mark when they were formally canceled.

#10. "Life on Mars" (2008-2009)--A great cast featuring Harvey Keitel, Jason O'Mara, and Michael Imperioli along with some very clever writing helped make this police drama set in 1973 New York City sparkle, its gimmick being a modern-day cop suddenly wakes up 36 years before his time and applies his modern sensibilities working a beat within the framework of the rules (or lack thereof) of the mid-1970s, unable to understand why he's lost in this time warp.  It was comparable to "Quantum Leap" in a number of ways even though the character stayed in the same role week to week.   The series only lasted 17 episodes but was a lot of fun while it was on.  For better or worse, it lasted long enough to have closure and explain the context of the lead character's time warp, insane and unsatisfying (to most) as the resolution ultimately was.

#9. "The Good Guys" (2010)--Matt Nix, the showrunner of USA's long-running action-adventure show "Burn Notice" came to network TV in the summer of 2010 on Fox with a silly but fun cop show about a hapless middle-aged detective who remained on the police department payroll for decades exclusively because he happened to save the mayor's daughter's life in the 1970s.  Bradley Whitford played the annoying and incompetent Dan Stark, partnered with youthful straight-man Colin Hanks.  There were moments the show got too silly for me, but it brought back memories of the classic over-the-top police comedy "Sledge Hammer!" from the 1980s, only with the budget of a modern action show.  It lasted 20 episodes which was probably a sufficient run for the one-joke series but was a lot of fun while it lasted.

#8. "Vegas" (2012-2013)--CBS pulled out all the stops in 2012 with a period piece set in 1960s Las Vegas featuring a collision of worlds between the cowboy law enforcement culture represented by Dennis Quaid and the emerging mob culture represented by thuggish casino boss played by Michael Chiklis.  Carrie-Anne Moss and Jason O'Mara supplemented a strong cast and the three-dimensional chess game playing out between Quaid and Chiklis was the backbone of the show.  And it started out with considerable success, getting boffo ratings Tuesday nights.  But at some point in the midseason ratings started to dip and CBS wanted to test out a new show in that time slot, relegating "Vegas" to Friday nights where ratings collapsed and where the creative energy began to wane, reverting to standard CBS procedural fare.  It was a bad combination and led to a cancellation that seemed unthinkable only a couple of months earlier.  "Vegas" actually finished as the #20-rated show of the 2012-2013 season yet still got canceled because of the late-season collapse.  Frankly though, if the showrunners were running out of inspiration to the degree those last several outings indicated, the network probably did them a favor by not bringing it back.

#7. "Game of Silence" (2016)--This is kind of the show that inspired my list since it is ongoing (four remaining episodes) yet was just formally canceled by NBC last week.   The premise is an original, with a group of adult males pushing 40 who were involved in a fatal car accident while joyriding when they were young boys and were sentenced to a boys detention facility called Quitman that was a peyton place of abuse and pedophilia run by a monstrous warden who is now running for Congress on a "family values" platform.  The four men decide to reunite to try to take down the warden and all the corrupt and enabling guards on his payroll.  Six episodes in, it's been very suspenseful and well-crafted, with a number of nicely played twists and revelations that make for great television.  I hope there's some closure at the end of its limited run this summer because the series deserves it.

#6.  "Traveler" (2007)--TV was really starting to get good again in the mid-2000s and the success of modern classics such as "24" and "Prison Break" seemed to inspire a new wave of fast-paced and suspenseful serialized shows.  One of the best was "Traveler" which opened with a trio of college guys partaking in what they thought was an innocent prank that led to a terrorist bombing at the Smithsonian, with an intense manhunt to follow and a wave of plot twists that played out nicely.  I'm not sure what ABC's problem with this show was but they sidelined it until summer and then cut its episode order from 13 to 8 before it even aired.  It generally got good reviews so it wasn't like I was the only one who found this show interesting.  Whatever the case, it ended with an unresolved whimper in July 2007, never to be heard from again.  It deserved at least 13 episodes, if not 22, to fully play out the storyline.

#5. "Chicago Code" (2011)--Fox got in on the wave of harder-edged cable-style police dramas back in 2011 and had a winner on their hands with the three-dimensional "Chicago Code", documenting the seedy underbelly of corrupt local government machinations in the city of Chicago, particularly the brilliantly corrupt Alderman Ronin Gibbons played by character actor Delroy Lindo who used an elaborate ring of patronage to keep a tight grip on friends and enemies alike.  Jennifer Beals played the new Police Superintendent who naively tried to do right and change the crooked culture of the department and its connection with corrupt politicians (none more than Gibbons).  Great performances throughout and it was always thrilling to see the chess match between the police and Alderman Gibbons, who always seemed to be one step ahead of them.  It lasted an all-too-brief 13 episodes following its premiere in February 2011 and regrettably did not get renewed for the next season.  I figured for sure it would come out on DVD and was hopeful to at least pick that up, but strangely, it never did get released.

#4. "Chase" (2010-2011)--Even with the reinvention of the crime drama/action show on network television in the 2000s, most of the shows were more serialized and had a different feel than the 80s era action shows from my youth that I so enjoyed.  But perhaps more than any other show of the last decade, "NBC's Chase" stood out as a throwback to the action shows of a bygone era, featuring a team of US Marshals chasing after a new target each week in Texas.  The cast was solid, the stories were clever, and the action was well-produced for network TV.  The show got off to a decent start ratings-wise but didn't survive a timeslot change from Monday to Wednesday and was rather abruptly cancelled in January 2011.  There were five episodes left in the can that eventually aired on Saturday nights in the spring of 2011, and I'll have to concede those last episodes didn't live up to the standard of the early episodes and perhaps made NBC's decision to cancel easier.  I was pleased to get 18 episodes out of the show, most of which were great, but still would have liked to have seen what the show could have done with a second season had the opportunity arose.  I'd have been even more pleased if it came out on DVD, which unfortunately it did not.

#3. "Do No Harm"  (2013)--Few shows in recent years have had as absurd of a premise as the NBC drama "Do No Harm", a modern-day take on Jekyll and Hyde with actor Steven Pasquale playing the split personality role of righteous brain surgeon Jason and ruthless drug dealer Ian, but the previews looked so ridiculous I just had to check it out.  Sadly, I was one of few who did as the ratings were absolutely disastrous, but the country missed out on a masterfully crafted 13-week adventure with outstanding performances that made you laugh, roll your eyes, and sit on the edge of your seat in gripping suspense almost every episode.  NBC pulled the poorly rated series after only two weeks but I kept a close eye on it knowing it would likely return in the summer to burn off the remaining episodes, and thankfully it did, playing out its entire run firing on all creative cylinders.  I'm almost glad this show only lasted 13 episodes because the premise would not have lent itself to an extended run, but was it ever a hoot while it lasted, a throwback to a prior age of series but adjusted for modern viewer sensibilities.  I'd give up my first-born to get this series on DVD but it'll never happen.

#2. "Harper's Island"  (2009)--Why is it that the best shows of the last decade got such piss-poor ratings?  Such was the case with the promising CBS murder mystery which premiered to heavy promotion in the spring of 2009 in a decent time slot but did so badly in its first three episodes it was shipped off to the Saturday night ghetto for the remainder of its 13-episode run.  The show was dark and gory unlike anything else I've seen on network TV, featuring a wedding party on an isolated Pacific Coast island with an ugly history and a resurfaced serial killer offing the members of the wedding party "one by one" in devilishly elaborate and clever ways.  The cast was great and the slow burn of the narrative was nicely played all around, taking several episodes before the wedding party began to realize the extent of the danger they were in.  In most cases, serialized mysteries such as this disappoint in their resolution, but after flirting with a resolution that would have seemed unsatisfying, they came up with a great curveball in the finale that just about nobody saw coming.  I'm rewatching this show on DVD right now and enjoying it immensely.  There's no way it should have gone beyond its original 13 episodes, but it's a damn shame that so few people were around to watch those 13 because they would have liked it.

#1. "Gang Related" (2014)--I was pretty excited when Fox revived "24" for the summer of 2014 for an abbreviated 12-episode season, but if you had told me that "24" would only be the second best show Fox would air in the summer of 2014 and ultimately get upstaged by the action-drama "Gang Related", I'd have questioned your mental health, but that's exactly what happened and it was pretty clear from the pilot that "Gang Related" was my kind of show.  Terry O'Quinn and Cliff Curtis brought some minor league star power to the cast, but all of the performances were good and the show's central premise was what sold it, focused on the conflicted loyalties of Ryan Lopez, a young cop taken in by the Acosta crime family as an orphaned young boy who was then foisted into the Los Angeles Police Department to work as a double agent and do the bidding of the crime family.  Lopez was a good guy trapped in an impossible situation, and had an endless litany of suspensefully nervous moments trying to work both sides and not blow his cover.  Cable snobs looked down their noses at it as being a ripoff of "The Shield", and having never seen that series I can't comment on whether it is or isn't, but I know compelling TV when I see it and "Gang Related" was 13 weeks of uninterrupted awesome with some of the best hours of programming I've seen in years.  Ratings were poor, but Fox had low expectations for the summer and word was that they were expecting to renew it for the following summer.  Unfortunately, a couple of months later, the cancellation news came in and I was distraught.  Worse yet, the show got replaced by the lukewarm "Wayward Pines" the following summer...and somehow that show did get renewed despite not doing any better in the ratings.  If any show in TV history was deserving of a second season, it was "Gang Related", but instead it has to settle for the being the best 13-episode series in network TV history.


Going through this list, it's regrettable but quite likely to deduce that more great series will come out in the decade to come and not live up to their ratings potential despite being better than just about anything else on the air at the given time.  But it's a safe bet that if there's a hidden gem out there I will find and do my best to let the world know what it's missing.



Thursday, May 12, 2016

What Does Donald Trump's Path To Victory Look Like?

Ten days ago, an unthinkable proposition one year earlier became America's reality....Donald Trump became the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for President.  It's rather stunning that the nation hasn't spent these past 10 days in an aghast paralysis that such a development would be possible in the world's only remaining economic superpower, so it's rather striking that American life has gone as if this is business as usual.  There are conflicting signals about Trump's general election viability with a variety of theories on what a Trump nomination means for the long-standing red-state/blue-state divide.  Few of the smart guys saw the Trump phenomenon coming in the first place and many denied it was actually happening every step of the way, so perhaps quoting conventional wisdom is a poor choice all-around this cycle, but my sense is that they're right that the range of Trump's possibilities extend from a (relative) landslide double-digit defeat to an extremely narrow Electoral College victory.

There are two scenarios where Trump attains a narrow Electoral College victory, and the first is entirely uncomplicated.  He could benefit from a combination of incorrect polling data and low Democratic base turnout.  Polling has gotten less and less reliable in recent years with the demise of the landline, leaving even the best pollsters scrambling to accurately assess public opinion.  So let's say polls show Hillary ahead by 7-8 points going into election day.....but their polling models were as far off to the Democrats' artificial favor as they were in the 2014 midterms.  This could help suppress the Democratic base's turnout, thinking Hillary has it in the bag, while allowing Trump to sneak in and win a number of states with growing minority populations that would be out of reach for Trump if the minority vote came out at 2012 levels.  Much as we're told that nonwhites hate Donald Trump with the power of a thousand suns, it is not without precedent for the Democratic Party's nonwhite base to sit out elections and I'm not yet convinced they will have the fire in the belly to oppose Trump or support Hillary at levels needed to stop Trump.

But for the second scenario, let's operate under the theory that minority voter turnout will rival that of 2012.  If that's the case, Donald Trump's path to victory is only doable through an inside straight through the Rust Belt.  Several quadrennial swing states have growing minority populations and have been trending Democratic for a few cycles now.  If those minority voters turn out in respectable numbers, Trump is toast in Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and probably Florida.  Florida is particularly important since previous Republican victories in the state depended upon strong GOP support among Cuban-Americans, but this demographic has been trending away from the GOP for a few cycles anyway and early indications this cycle is that they have no use whatsoever for Donald Trump.  If the Cubans are gone from the GOP on top of other unfavorable demographic shifts in Florida, the Republicans have a nightmare on their hands trying to get to 270 electoral votes.

That only leaves a handful of swing states where Trump would have to vastly overperform John McCain, Mitt Romney, and even George W. Bush.  There are only two blue states from 2012 that I think have an even-money chance of flipping to Trump in 2016, and they are Ohio and Iowa.  I'm not formally predicting that Trump wins them at this point, but for the sake of this "path to victory" exercise, let's give Trump these two states on the strength of his populist, blue-collar message delivered to those state's demographically friendly white working class-heavy voters.  Together, the two states are worth 24 electoral voters so add them up to the 206 electoral votes Romney got and we're up to 230.  But the pickings get very slim very quickly after that.....

It's hard to gauge right now whether Trump's brand of secular and populist Republicanism will sell in the northeast better than the disastrous performances of prior Republican nominees or not, but even if it does, New Hampshire is the only northeastern state Trump would have a prayer of overcoming massive Democratic voter advantages.  This state has been trending Democratic in recent cycles so it's a reach for Trump, but for the sake of the exercise let's give him NH's four electoral votes, bringing him up to 234.

Wisconsin is also theoretically doable for Trump.  Ted Cruz did very well in Wisconsin's primary, indicating a coolness towards Trump's brand of politics, but at the same time, Trump's county-level victories over Cruz occurred in the vast rural counties of northern and western Wisconsin, which are the bellwether counties in Wisconsin, so if he can translate primary wins in places like Wausau and La Crosse into general election victories, he could narrowly win here.  It's a longshot--and even more of a longshot in demographically similar but more inelastically Democratic Minnesota--but it's possible.  So stack up 10 more electoral votes for Trump from Wisconsin and put him at 244.

It gets ever harder from there as we move onto Michigan, which Obama carried by nearly 10 points in 2012.  There's a reasonable line of argument that Obama overperformed the Democratic baseline in Michigan in 2012 because of the auto bailout he supported and Mitt Romney opposed, and that the state is likely to be closer in 2016 without that built-in advantage, particularly given Trump's campaign pitch directed so specifically towards a state like Michigan.  But there's little in the data to support such an abrupt rightward turn for the state, particularly with as horridly unpopular as its current Republican Governor is. The media's long-standing association with Michigan as a "swing state" seems to be driving the narrative more than anything else.  I don't think Trump can win Michigan but if he does, it puts him up to 260 electoral votes.

And that leaves Pennsylvania.  The media likes to throw Pennsylvania in with Michigan and Ohio as Rust Belt states, imagining that Trump's populist campaign message will lasso in retired steelworkers in the Pittsburgh collar counties by the hundreds of thousands.  Certainly if this election was being held with the Pennsylvania demographics of 1988, that might be possible, but the media narrative ignores that for a generation now, Pennsylvania's elections have been won or lost in its growth zone which is the Greater Philadelphia area.  And from everything we know about the socially liberal, upscale suburbs of Philly, they are not the kind of place where Donald Trump would have much appeal.  In fact, the Republican that was probably best positioned to win over suburban Philly was the guy they ran four years ago, and Romney nonetheless fumbled.  Trump would need to win an otherworldly number of votes in shrinking blue-collar counties to make up for what he seems very likely to lose in Greater Philadelphia.

But just for the sake of argument, let's say Trump manages to win Pennsylvania but doesn't get Michigan.  That would be the difference of 260 electoral votes and 264, still below the 270 he needs to win.   If recent turnout models hold and disqualifies Trump from victory in the aforementioned demographically unfriendly Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida as I speculated, then Trump would need to run the table on Ohio,  Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to win a bare 270-268 Electoral College majority.  And even with Iowa and New Hampshire on board, he has no path to victory without Pennsylvania, last won by a Republican in a Presidential election in 1988.  It's a tall order to say the least, and would depend upon virtually everything going Trump's way in terms of suppressed turnout models amongst the Democratic base.

Trump's nomination victory proves anything is possible, and Hillary is a special kind of awful for a Democratic nominee that presents its own challenges for the Democrats.  But it's really hard to see how Donald Trump is well-positioned to win over converts at this stage of the race that aren't already on his side, and Hillary would have to run the worst Presidential general election campaign since Michael Dukakis to allow Trump to gain at her expense to that degree.  I'd give Trump about 10% odds at victory.  The headwinds he's facing are enormous, and that becomes even clearer when you break down the states Trump needs to persevere in the Electoral College.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Should The Minimum Wage Be $15 An Hour?

In the earliest stages of the debate on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour a couple of years ago, it seemed like a typical bargaining posture to me.  No way, I figured did the striking fast food workers really believe they were gonna get $15 an hour.  They were simply putting in a high opening bid in hopes of negotiating their way to something like $11 an hour.  It seemed like a savvy ploy, and one that would ultimately bring considerably more good than harm in a nation where wages are at the lowest level of gross national product in recorded history.

But starting with the Seattle airport, the $15 an hour experiment became a reality.  And from there, a few larger cities like San Francisco also adopted $15 an hour minimum wages and just this month, two our of nation's three largest states--California and New York--implemented statewide $15 an hour minimum wages to be phased in over the course of the next several years.  Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley both endorsed nationwide $15 an hour minimum wages in their Presidential campaigns and held Hillary's feet to the fire for her more cautious $12 an hour position.  But this past week, even Hillary has relented and succumbed to the momentum towards $15 an hour, so long as it's phased in over an extended time period.  It's now clear that $15 an hour was not simply a negotiating posture...and it's becoming law in jurisdictions that represent a significant portion of the nation's population.

But is it sound policy?  I'm in the camp of California Governor Jerry Brown, who reluctantly signed the law but conceded it was a high-stakes experiment.  While conservatives and libertarians always freak out and channel their inner Milton Friedman any time there's a national debate about the minimum wage, even raising it from historic lows to slightly above historic lows, but the basic principles of Economics 101 suggest that there is a risk if the wage basement is raised above a certain tipping point.  If the cost of labor rises above what the market can bear, some combination of price hikes, layoffs, and automation can theoretically do more harm than good.  Is $15 an hour above that tipping point?   Minimum wage expert Alan Krueger, generally a proponent of higher minimum wages, believes it may be and has been urging caution in going too quickly to $15 an hour.  I tend to agree.

So are lawmakers in California and New York passing $15 an hour minimum wage requirements into law either naive or crazy in taking such a bold experiment?  Maybe a little, but what doesn't get reported is that both states' hands are near the point of being forced to do something because there are so many low-wage workers qualifying for public assistance that the states are being driven to bankruptcy trying to bankroll all of it.  And why are so many workers in these states qualifying for public assistance?  There are a number of factors, but arguably the biggest is that there are so many employers in retail, health care, food production, and especially fast food that pay wages so low that taxpayers have to fill the void with public assistance.  If these workers made $15 an hour, public assistance spending would contract substantially.  So to the states, it ultimately becomes a question of whether billion-dollar multinational corporations with steep profit margins should be paying livable wages to their workers.....or whether they should be given a "wage subsidy" in the form of public assistance born by taxpayers to keep their workers out of poverty.

This would be an easy question to answer in favor of making the businesses pay more if the businesses didn't still  hold the whip hand in the debate.  The biggest concern is a movement towards automation, rendering the majority of existing fast food jobs obsolete in the event of labor costs going to high and adding even more instability to the process.  It isn't at all outside the realm to imagine the fast food giants making this transition in the face of $15 an hour minimum wages and reports suggest the technology may be there to do just that.  With this in mind, I'd prefer the same $12 an hour minimum wage that Hillary was originally advocating as the most sensibly cautious approach.  Even at its highest level of value historically, I believe in 1968, the minimum wage would be worth about $11 an hour in today's value.  Going more than 50% higher than most historical precedent just seems like more than what the job market can absorb.

But the most troubling part of the minimum wage increase debate has nothing to do with whether the increase would be economically sound policy.  Most troubling is how the prospect of low-wage workers getting a raise is perfect fodder for exploiting the usual intra-class resentments.  All too often, the group of people most loudly and passionately rallying against a higher minimum wage for low-income workers are....their own working-class neighbors.....seething with jealousy and resentment at the prospect of "those people" getting paid more for an honest day's work.  The fact that a minimum wage increase injects more demand into the economy and facilitates an environment where everybody's wages ultimately go up matters not at all to them, even if thoroughly explained.  Their jealousy and resentment runs so deep that they'd rather lose out on a raise themselves if it means their neighbor is able to climb just a little bit out of the gutter.

This is the primary reason why so many downscale voters are receptive to the Republican Party's economic message.....the obsession with making sure that your "unworthy" neighbor takes it on the chin.  Interestingly, most Americans are theoretically opposed to the rising tide of inequality in our economic system and pay lip service to the unfairness of our current arrangement where the rich devour nearly everything the economy produces.  But when a practical effort to offset some of that inequality is introduced, they reflexively go into attack mode because at the gut level they believe low-income workers deserve what they get.  The same is true with the public assistance angle that people are constantly getting their panties in a wad about, sometimes legitimately.  For as much grumbling as they do about all the people on public assistance, a higher minimum wage would reduce the need for so much public assistance to so many workers.....yet they still passionately argue against it.  Ultimately, what matters most to them is an economic caste system with a clearly defined bottom......a bottom that they are obsessed be occupied by people other than themselves at all costs and will rail against any effort to scramble that status quo.

With all that in mind, the experiences of California and New York and their new supersized minimum wage will be fascinating to track.  There's a decent chance they pushed the envelope too far and will face rising unemployment as a result. But there's also a chance the higher wages among currently low-income residents will trigger a multiplier effect of economic activity and corresponding wage growth for everyone in those states while simultaneously freeing up some money in the budget currently going towards public assistance for all the workers about to get a big raise.  If it's the latter and the minimum wage increase is a success, it'll be fascinating to see if other states follow suit....or if they still resist because resentment for your neighbor getting a raise still matters more than crafting a healthy economy and job market.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

America Wants a Messiah

Since I was a young boy, I've always been into the political horse race....REALLY into it.  The nature of the beast, and the media's breathless coverage of it, makes it relatively easy for a good share of the population to get swept into the pageantry of primary and general elections for President.  But what separates me from (apparently) virtually everybody else who gets most attached to Presidential politics is that I don't go into the race looking for a messiah around every corner.  The one exception was in 1992, when I thought Iowa Senator Tom Harkin walked on water in his doomed pursuit of the Democratic nomination that cycle.  I was 14, so I feel my naivete about what one man can be expected to accomplish simply by winning a Presidential election was a little more justified than what I've witnessed adults young and old treat Presidential candidates since.  I'm sure there's always been a degree to which a hopeful nation channels its desires onto a charismatic leader going back to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the public really seems to have lost its mind in how high it sets its expectation bar for Presidential performance.

At one level, impassioned enthusiasm for electing leaders is a good thing, as we need a certain level of energy to keep a democracy functional.  There was a fair degree of enthusiasm for both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot back in 1992 that seemed proportionally appropriate.  I wasn't a fan of George W. Bush or the politics of his supporters, but I never got the sense that even the so-called "Bush-bots" treated Dubya with the same degree of hero worship that they treated Ronald Reagan then or now.  I was too young in the early 80s to pick up on the far right's love affair with Reagan at the dawn of his Presidential career but he was clearly the first example in my lifetime of a political leader elevated to superhero status by his fans.  And despite a turbulent Presidency that created more losers than winners and set the template for America's long-term death spiral into becoming a Wall Street subsidiary, Reagan is the only political figure of my lifetime looked back upon as a messiah by large swaths of the population committed to Reagan's brand of tribal trench warfare politics.

But far and away the most common examples of messiah politics have emerged in the last decade where a new idol seems to emerge every five minutes....the newest shiny object on the scene who represents an empty vessel for a certain demographic of the population to tags their aspirations onto.  The clearest example of this is of course Barack Obama whose oratory sent "thrills up the leg" of cable news anchors and led crowds full of awestruck young supporters at his rallies fainting at his undying charisma.  As most politicians do, Obama fed this beast with the way he ran his 2008 campaign, waiting until after he was elected to downplay expectations of what was gonna assuredly be one of the most challenging Presidential terms in American history.  Nobody in their right mind had any expectation of prosperity raining down upon America following Obama's election given the hole America was in back in 2009, but it was nonetheless expected by millions of people who had assigned messianic powers to Obama based on the charisma of his speeches during the campaign.  Now I certainly haven't agreed with everything Obama has done over the course of his two terms as President, but have nonetheless been quite impressed with where the country has ended up at the end of his tenure compared to where it began.  But most Americans, even his supporters, want to see the country go in a different direction moving forward.  The Obama Presidency was a letdown to them....and given the expectations, how could it not be?

During the Obama era, the Republicans have made numerous attempts to manufacture their own messiah, with mostly ineffective results.  Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell are some of the clearest examples of hero fails the Republican establishment tried to foist on people, but some degree of short-lived messiah accolades stuck with Chris Christie and Marco Rubio before it became clear they fell far short of expectations even to the least discriminating audiences.  But a genuine messiah did emerge on the Republican side during the Obama years with "crazy grandpa" libertarian Ron Paul, whose cult was smaller than Obama's but considerably more devoted....to the point of hijacking state conventions in 2012 and turning over the primary and caucus outcomes to replace the delegates for the winning candidate with Ron Paul flacks.  The modestly sized faction of Ron Paul followers fervently believed what Obama's supporters believed a few years earlier....that installing this one man as the nation's leader would change everything entirely for the better.

Which brings us to 2016, where a nation more angry, agitated, and in need of hero than ever before has managed to find two more out of this year's selection of Presidential candidates.  Bernie Sanders is an unlikely figure to emerge as an aspirational vessel to America's youth, but that's exactly what has happened as Bernie's brand of democratic socialism sounds pretty good to a nation of young people looking at a higher and higher price of entry in pursuit of the American dream with dramatically shrinking returns on the back end.  Bernie hits the nail on the head in diagnosing nearly everything that's wrong in America, but far more than Obama eight years his messiah bona fides are poised to fall disastrously short in a political environment where even the basic functions of government are obstructed to the point of paralysis.  Even if Bernie were to overcome very long odds and get a mandate from the American people to lead the country, the checks and balances of the American government would prevent him from accomplishing all of his lofty goals, especially in a nation this polarized.  The young people who view him as their savior would definitively get their hearts broken in the most soul-crushing way.

But surpassing Bernie, Obama, and every other false messiah in recent American political history is Donald Trump, a masterful snake oil peddler who has whooped a neglected faction of the Republican base into a frenzy with a populist, paleoconservative pitch that is as vague as it is phony.  Picking up on all the unsavory trends from recent political campaigns and melding them into one toxic hairball, Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign theme makes Obama's "hope and change" pitch from 2008 seem like a labyrinth of intricacy by comparison.  But where Obama had some actual policy points hidden beneath the airy salesmanship, everything Trump is offering is a bag of feathers.  From assuring us that Mexico will pay for a wall on our border to rewriting trade deals to going after terrorists' families, the entirety of Trump's policy agenda is supposed to be accomplished entirely by the force of his personality.  The fact that the establishments of both parties who he'd have to work with if elected hate his guts matters not at all to Trump's sales pitch or to the people buying that sales pitch.   The traditional rules of getting things done in Washington only apply to mere mortals after all, and with Trump, Americans are electing a messiah!

It's gotten to the point where I wish parties would not elect charismatic candidates anymore.  Much as Democrats stick their noses up at the memories of Al Gore and John Kerry's campaigns against George W. Bush, there was no expectation that either of their hypothetical Presidencies would defy gravity and fix everything wrong with the country simply based on their soaring oratory, the strength of their conviction, or their past successes in business or reality TV shows.  The flip side, of course, is that such technocrats do not inspire high voter turnout, meaning we're caught in a vicious cycle where every four years both parties are expected to put up somebody "inspiring" enough to make crowds faint in their presence....or at least punch black people in the face.  The only real solution to this messiah cycle is for the American people to grow up and realize the limitations of both the office of the Presidency and political leaders' ability to control events.  If the messiah du jour doesn't reverse the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first six months of his Presidency and you're already declaring him a failure and a disappointment, then you probably believe in Santa Claus and the Easter bunny too. 

I used to believe a President had the power to single-handedly reverse all the nation's endemic problems and return us to a fantastical golden age.....but then I got old enough where I had to shave my facial hair.


Monday, February 22, 2016

The Battle for the Senate in 2016

As is so often the case in Presidential cycles with high-drama debates and primaries front and center in the political sphere, Congressional races tend to get overshadowed.  Suddenly, however, with the death of Supreme Court justice Scalia last week, the Senate races became a lot more important as the Democrats need either four or five seats, depending on who wins the White House to have a Senate majority in 2016.  And while I'm generally bearish on the Democrats' prospects this cycle as they attempt to hold the White House for a third consecutive term, the Senate class up this year is the class from 2010, where Democrats got pasted.  As a result, the Republicans hold an unusually high number of vulnerable seats in blue and purple states so if a polarizing GOP nominee (say, Donald Trump) is at the top of the Presidential ticket, there's a very real possibility that the Democrats could win the four or five seats they need.

Many of the races have yet to fully take form and have primaries where the winner will be determinative for the two parties' chances.  And of course there's always the chance of a would-be "safe" seat blowing up for one party such as Minnesota in 1990 or Virginia in 2006.  But barring a shocking turn of events, the following seats are likely to stay in the hands of their respective parties....

For the Democrats:
California--Barbara Boxer (open seat retirement)
Connecticut--Richard Blumenthal
Hawaii--Brian Schatz
Maryland--Barbara Mikulski (open seat retirement)
New York--Chuck Schumer
Oregon--Ron Wyden
Vermont--Pat Leahy
Washington--Patty Murray

For the Republicans:
Alabama--Richard Shelby
Alaska--Lisa Murkowski
Georgia--Johnny Isakson
Idaho--Michael Crapo
Iowa--Chuck Grassley
Kansas--Jerry Moran
Kentucky--Rand Paul
North Dakota--John Hoeven
Oklahoma--James Lankford
South Carolina--Tim Scott
South Dakota--John Thune
Utah--Mike Lee

I'm somewhat reluctant to put open seats in the slam-dunk category but particularly given that this is a Presidential year, it's almost unthinkable that a Republican would win in either California and Maryland.  As for the rest of the seats, there's a varying degree a volatility in them where the opposing party has at least a small chance of picking them off.

Arizona--Three-decade incumbent and former GOP Presidential nominee John McCain is going for a sixth term.  As was the case in 2010, McCain first has to get through the primary in his own party with State Senator Kelli Ward challenging him from the right.  McCain is a favorite to prevail in the primary and likely will be in the general election as well, although he has a strong challenger in Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.  Only five Democrats nationally hold Congressional seats in districts won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and Kirkpatrick's vast district taking in giant swaths of northern and eastern Arizona along with northeastern fringe of the metropolitan Phoenix is one of them.  McCain can likely overcome any possible headwind at the top of the ticket should Trump or Cruz get his party's nomination, but if Ward is able to prevail in the primary, Kirkpatrick would be even money to pick up the seat for the Democrats.  Still, a lot of things will have to go right for the Dems to wrestle this seat away.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Arkansas--Democrats are bullish on former US Attorney Connor Eldridge, their young Senate candidate challenging one-term Republican incumbent John Boozman, who unseated Democrat Blanche Lincoln in a landslide in 2010 but who is considered such a backbencher in the Senate that even his own constituents don't really know who he is.  Consider me highly skeptical that the Democrats have any chance in Arkansas, where former popular Democratic Senator was crushed by 17 points in 2014.  Every indication is that Arkansas has realigned into one of the reddest states in the country in just a few short years, and even though Eldridge is running as an old-fashioned moderate Arkansas Democrat like the ones who thrived in the state until recently--and even though the state's former First Lady Hillary Clinton is odds-on to be at the top of the ticket--I still think Boozman will prevail by 20 points or more.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Colorado--Democrats dodged a bullet when Republican Congressman Mike Coffman declined to challenge incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, but another former GOP Congressman--Scott Tipton--now seems like the Republican best positioned to take on Bennet.  Considering Bennet managed to narrowly prevail against a strong challenge in 2010, he won't be an easy target, especially since Colorado has continued to trend leftward in the years since and 2016 will have Presidential year turnout.  Barring devastating headwinds at the top of the ticket for the Democrats, Bennet is definitely the favorite here.  Prediction: Leans Democrat.

Florida--The most wide open Senate race in the country is in Florida, the open seat vacated by Marco Rubio, with contested primaries in both parties making it tough to handicap this early in the cycle.  The frontrunners on the Republican side are current Congressmen David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, with DeSantis being the more conservative of the two that Democrats are hopeful to run against.  The Democratic side features two Congressmen of their own.  One is the young moderate Patrick Murphy from south Florida who beat right-wing Allen West in 2012 and won re-election handily last year in a district Romney won.  He'd be the strongest candidate by far, but first has to get past a primary challenge from the mercurial progressive Alan Grayson.  While the foul-mouthed and mean-spirited Grayson would be a disaster in the general election, there's a very real chance he could win a Democratic primary.  It's next to impossible to handicap this race with the current level of uncertainty but given that any chance of a Democratic victory
likely requires Murphy to emerge victorious in the primary, you have to give the Republicans a small early advantage from this far out.  And if Rubio manages to get the nomination for his party, he will likely have some coattails in his home state that will benefit the GOP Senate nominee as well.  Prediction: Tilts Republican.

Illinois--The closest the Democrats have to a sure thing this cycle is in Illinois, where Republican Mark Kirk eked out a one-point victory against a slimy challenger in the political perfect storm of 2010.   Illinois has become a heavier and heavier lift for Republicans in the last generation but has recently showed signs of polarizing between Chicago and the rest of the state.  If that intense polarization plays out again in 2016 and the downstate counties are a sea of Republican red, Kirk could make it close, but with Presidential turnout it's really hard to imagine him winning, especially since he'll have a stronger challenger this time since his likely Democratic challenger is Iraq War veteran and amputee Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.  The Democrats are really having an unprecedented disaster at the top of the ticket if they can't pick up this seat.  Prediction: Likely Democrat (+1 for Dems)

Indiana--Republican Congressman Dan Coats came out of retirement and won his old Senate back in 2010 but already wants out again this cycle, leaving an open seat with two current members of Congress vying on the Republican side...Marlin Stutzman from the Fort Wayne area and Todd Young from the state's southeast corner.  The Democrats were unable to get their choice (former Senator Evan Bayh) but got a decent recruit in former Congressman Baron Hill who held the same southeastern IN seat that Young now holds back in the 90s and 2000s.  Hill is a long shot in increasingly Republican Indiana, but if Stutzman gets the nod on the GOP side, Hill will have a parochial advantage in hanging onto the conservative Democrats in his old southern Indiana seat that have largely trended Republican in recent years. Still, a helluva lot of things would have to go right for the Dems to win this seat and with Hillary at the top of the ticket the chances get even slimmer.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Louisiana--On the outer edges of competitiveness is the open seat in Louisiana vacated by Republican David Vitter after his stunning upset defeat in last fall's gubernatorial race.  A humbled Vitter announced his retirement from the Senate after losing that race, and Democrats were briefly optimistic of their chances, particularly if Mitch Landrieu got into the race. Landrieu declined, however, and the Dems are left with no strong candidate to face off against a number of top-tier Republicans vying for the seat including House members John Fleming and Charles Boustany.  The Dems have very low chances here, but after winning a Governor's race only months ago with similarly lopsided odds, it's too early to declare this race over.  Prediction: Likely Republican

Missouri--Democrats have a very strong candidate in Secretary of State Jason Kander, the youngest statewide elected official in the country, to face off against incumbent Republican Roy Blunt.  A decade ago, this would have likely been a genuine tossup, but Missouri has really hardened into a red state during the Obama era and unless Blunt really steps in it (Todd Akin-style) or Kander proves to be an absolute rock star, the Democrats aren't gonna be winning here with Hillary at the top of the ticket.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Nevada--The Silver State gave us the marquee Senate race in the country in 2010 when Harry Reid overcame polls showing him DOA and won decisively.  Reid is retiring this year and his absence is likely to produce another barnburner of an open seat contest.  The Democrats are likely to go with former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, and would have identity politics on their side in pursuit of females and the fast-growing Latino population in the state.  The Republicans are running a strong challenger as well with Congressman Joe Heck, who has represented a two-time Obama-voting district in the Las Vegas suburbs for several years.  Heck will likely face some headwinds in increasingly Democratic Nevada in a higher-turnout Presidential cycle but fellow Republican Dean Heller narrowly prevailed in such a climate in 2012 and Heck has a very doable path to victory as well if he can hold some of the crossover support he's maintained in his home Congressional district.  Still, Cortez Masto has a small advantage looking from afar.  Prediction: Tilts Democrat.

New Hampshire--Another hotly contested race will be always-volatile New Hampshire where GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte is facing a challenge from current Governor Maggie Hassan.  There have already been a number of polls showing this race very close to deadlocked.  Perhaps more than any other Senate race in the country, this race is likely to come down to who is at the top of the ticket for each party.  If I was Ayotte, I would much rather be running with Rubio at the top of the ticket for the GOP rather Donald Trump, despite Trump's big win in the New Hampshire primary a couple of weeks ago.  And the death of Antonin Scalia could represent another challenge for Ayotte as moderate New Hampshire voters are more likely to want a Democratic Senate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.  All things being equal, Ayotte would probably pull this one out, but some trends are breaking against her and make me think Hassan may have a small advantage, but an advantage that may well not materialize in another seven months.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+2 for Dems)

North Carolina--With the changing demographics and political profile of North Carolina, Democrats thought Senate backbencher Richard Burr would be a soft target in 2010 but didn't even come close to upending him in that year's GOP wave.  Six years later, Burr could still be potentially vulnerable given his unimpressive favorables but just about every high-profile Democrat passed on challenging him, leaving a small-city mayor the Dems' best prospect.  In 2008, Kay Hagan won an upset in a very similar environment but it's hard to believe 2016 will prove to be as perfect of a political storm and 2008 was.  Prediction: Likely Republican.

Ohio--Definitely among the top tier of competitive races in 2016, first-term Republican Rob Portman appears quite vulnerable and stands poised to face off against popular and charismatic former Governor Ted Strickland.  There are some signs that Strickland may not be as strong of an opponent as he looks on paper though.  For one thing, he's 75 years old.  He also faces a primary challenge against a Cincinnati city council member that could potentially bloody him heading into the general and his fundraising haul has been mediocre.  Plus Portman is a pretty polished campaigner and if Hillary proves to be a headwind at all at the top of the ticket, it could work to Portman's advantage.  While I don't rule out Strickland at all if 2016 turns into a decently Democratic year, I think the conditions warrant giving Portman the edge here to hold his seat.  Prediction:  Leans Republican.

Pennsylvania--Another top tier competitive race is in a neighboring Rust Belt state.  Republican Pat Toomey squeaked out a narrow victory in the 2010 GOP sweep and has been working to build a moderate profile in the years since.  It seems to be serving him well as Toomey has higher approval ratings than the other incumbent Republicans considered most vulnerable this year.  A fractured Democratic field with a hotly contested primary is also helping Toomey's cause, as establishment Democrats are rallying behind Katie McGinty, the former Chief of State to Governor Tom Wolf, but former Congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010, is returning for an encore to the chagrin of the Democratic establishment who are not fans.  It's anybody's guess who between McGinty and Sestak will win the primary at this point, and it's hard to know which is the better option to topple Toomey in November.  In order to win, Toomey needs to win a good chunk of votes from suburban Philadelphia that will likely vote for Hillary in the Presidential race.  These voters are pro-choice, however, so Toomey will not be served well if the election becomes a referendum on the Supreme Court as it likely will be.  Still, Toomey has emerged from his first term strong enough to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Prediction: Leans Republican

Wisconsin--Polls currently show former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold with a comfortable lead over the guy who unseated him in 2010, Republican Senator Ron Johnson.  While the Dems appear better positioned than not to win this seat back, I still think they're spiking the football a little early here as Feingold is a notoriously poor campaigner and could get swamped in a sea of right-wing special interest money as he was before.  Furthermore, Hillary at the top of the ticket would not be likely to offer Feingold any tailwinds in Wisconsin.  I'm hesitant to declare poor-performing Republicans toast after 2014 when the previously unimaginable re-elections of guys like Paul Le Page and Mike Grimm became a reality, and Johnson fits that category perfectly.  Prediction: Tilts Democrats (+3 for Democrats)


So as of now late February, I'm seeing the Dems falling a little bit short of picking up a Senate majority.  Even more so than traditional cycles these races will be a little easier to call after the primary cycle when the nominees are selected because in some cases, especially Florida, the winner of the primary will almost certainly mean the difference between a Democratic gain and a GOP hold.  And if the Democrats do manage to win back the Senate in 2016, it'll be a rental because they're extremely overexposed heading into the Senate class up in 2016 with a ratio of something like 26 Democratic-held seats and 7 Republican-held seats.  It's all part of the reason I'm having a hard time mustering up much excitement for this election cycle as even if Democrats defy the odds and hang on to the White House for a third consecutive term due to a trainwreck of an opposition party, they're poised for an epic ass-whooping two years later in the midterms that will make 2010 and 2014 look like the good old days by comparison.  Still, with the Supreme Court at stake, 2016 will nonetheless be an extremely consequential year and the Democrats had best take advantage of any kind of victory they can get while they can get it.