It's been easy to avoid doing regular updates on the state of the Senate races in this year's midterms. Very little has changed since my last update on the state of these races. In none of them has one candidate pulled away as all the races that were expected to be close six months ago or a year ago are still close. But I think that will change after Labor Day when voters get more engaged and the undecideds start breaking one way or another. That's why I'm getting ahead of that Labor Day threshold and posting my thoughts on where I think the races will go now in late August. Obviously there's a decent risk my predictions will be wrong, but this is a perfect opportunity to see how my predictive skills are after two decades of analyzing these things.
Alabama--Three-term Republican incumbent Jeff Sessions is running opposed. Alabama is now near or at the top of the list in terms of states where anybody with a (D) next to their name has no credible path to victory, which is why nobody is even bothering to challenge Sessions this time.
Alaska--Out of the seven of the red states that Democrats are defending seats in this fall, freshman Democrat Mark Begich is best-positioned to win this fall, and the extent to which his campaign has enhanced his advantage in advance of the heavily contested Republican primary has led a lot of analysts to take this race out of the top tier of GOP targets. I think they're giving Begich a little too much credit. Polling is notoriously unreliable in Alaska and always seems to overstate the advantage of Democrats, and the Republican nominee--Dan Sullivan--has finally been settled upon and has the profile of somebody well-positioned to win. I'm leaning very narrowly towards Begich holding this seat as of this writing, but if a GOP wave of any significance begins developing nationally, Sullivan will be able to ride it to victory. This is one of only two races I think are genuine tossups where I don't have a strong suspicion I know who wins, but the existing body of evidence points in the direction of a narrow Begich win. We shall see if I'm right on that, but I can say with absolute certitude that any election night in which Mark Begich does not win assures that the Republicans have taken over the Senate.
Arkansas--Here's another red-state tossup that's an easier call for me. The polls are erratic but the general consensus is that Republican challenger Tom Cotton has a small lead within the margin of error over two-term Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor. But the profiles of the undecided voters in the polls look a lot like Republican-friendly voters. Obama hatred simply runs too deep in Arkansas for Pryor to win there with the current polarized state of politics, and expect the next month's polls to show a very dramatic consolidation of support for Cotton. Not only do I think Cotton will win in November, I think he'll win by 10-12 points. +1 Republicans
Colorado--Incumbent Democrat Mark Udall has maintained small leads on Republican challenger Cory Gardner ever since Gardner got into the race in the spring. Udall has taken advantage of shifting demographics in Colorado and has successfully used Gardner's social conservatism to hang him, much as was done to 2010 GOP candidate Ken Buck who managed to lose a race he should have won. While Udall is still very vulnerable to a Republican wave, I think he has the whip hand in this race and is poised to beat Gardner by a few points. My confidence level is far from huge on this prediction right now though.
Delaware--The luckiest Democrat running for the Senate in 2010 was Chris Coons, who was poised to lose to his expected opponent until "I am not a witch" Christine O'Donnell pulled off a huge upset in the primary and then went onto lose to Coons in the general election by something like 17 points. Four years later, Coons' luck continues as he's running unopposed for re-election.
Georgia--Despite the fanfare, Democrat Michelle Nunn probably can't win in Georgia in a midterm. If Georgia was a normal state where Nunn could get 47%, her Republican opponent David Purdue could get 46%, and the libertarian candidate could get 6% and it would mean Nunn was declared the winner, then she'd have a credible path to victory even on a midterm year where minority voter turnout tends to drop off. But Georgia's not a normal state and the winner needs to get 50% on election night or face a runoff a month later. And there's next to no chance with the current demographics and political climate of Georgia that Nunn can get over 50%. Perhaps in the near future that will change as Georgia's nonwhite population is growing very quickly, but we're not there yet. There was one scenario where a Nunn victory was possible three months ago, and it involved firebrand GOP Congressman Paul Broun winning the nomination. Broun ended up in fourth place, and the winner was mainstream business conservative David Purdue, who is well within the ideological mainstream of Georgia. Saxby Chambliss's seat will stay in Republican hands.
Hawaii--Appointed Senator Brian Schatz narrowly won the primary to fill out the term of the late Democrat Dan Inouye's seat over Inouye's handpicked successor Colleen Hanabusa. Given the bad blood created over the primary, there was an opening for the Republicans if one of the few heavy hitters on the Hawaiian bench had decided to run, but since the GOP challenger is a Mr. Campbell Cavasso, it's hard to imagine Hawaii fails to defer to its Democratic tradition and elect Schatz for the remainder of Inouye's term.
Idaho--Even in 2008, in the strongest political climate for Democrats in more than 30 years and in the immediate aftermath of the embarrassing Larry Craig "wide stance" airport bathroom incident, Iowa voters still went to the polls and elected Republican Jim Risch to the United States Senate by double digits over a top-tier Democratic recruit. Risch is up again this cycle in a much more hospitable political climate and will coast to an easy re-election.
Illinois--There is gonna be serious trouble at the top of the ticket for Democrats in Illinois this year with polls showing incumbent Governor Pat Quinn in major trouble in a state where Democrats have no business losing....ever. The weakness at the top of the ticket is likely to percolate to other races, and I suspect one of them will be the Senate race where three-term Democrat Dick Durbin is running for a fourth term. Make no mistake, Durbin will win comfortably, but I suspect his victory will resemble Daniel Patrick Moynihan's weak-by-his-standards victory in the Republican year of 1994. Durbin has won by 2-1 margins in his last two contests, but my guess is he wins by only 10 points in November, likely with disastrous consequences for a number of Democratic Congressmen and legislators further down the Illinois ballot.
Iowa--The decisive advantage that Democrat Bruce Braley was expected to have over novice Republican Joni Ernst to fill the seat of retiring Democrat Tom Harkin has withered away and the race is now looked at as a dead heat. Democrats are and should be nervous about this race, but Ernst's hard-right policy agenda should be enough to narrowly disqualify her in a blue-tinted purple state. Braley's run a crappy campaign so far but has a giant geographic advantage having served much of the eastern half of the state during his eight years in the House, but it looks as though he'll need to ride that eastern Iowa advantage for everything it's worth given the lack of enthusiasm he has inspired. The polls are just about all tied, but the profile of the undecided voters in the polling looks a lot like Braley voters who just haven't come home yet. I expect they will, but of all the Senate seats in states Obama won, this is by far their most vulnerable.
Kansas--One of the few states where the situation on the ground has changed dramatically in the last few months is Kansas as Republican incumbent Pat Roberts, who recently survived a bruising primary, is suddenly narrow leading a three-way race with an independent candidate running at better than 20%. Apparently independent candidate Greg Orman was the Democrats' 2008 Senate race emissary, so it's telling that what amounts to two Democrats are getting nearly 60% of the vote combined against Pat Roberts. It seems unlikely that either Orman or the official 2014 Democratic candidate Chad Taylor will surge enough to score a plurality victory though, and the more likely scenario is that Roberts gains at their mutual expensive for a soft win, but for the first time since at least 1996, Kansas is a "state to watch" in the U.S. Senate races.
Kentucky--If a Democratic candidate as strong as Alison Lundergan Grimes had run against Mitch McConnell in 2008, she'd probably have won. But since 2008, the Democrats' base vote in East Kentucky coal counties has completely collapsed. East Kentucky counties that went 64% for John Kerry as recently as 2004 went 73% for Mitt Romney in 2012. While Grimes is unlikely to do as badly as Obama in the coal counties, she's unlikely to do as well as Kerry either....and Kerry still lost Kentucky...big-time. With that in mind, it remains impossible for me to imagine what a winning Democratic coalition looks like for a federal race Kentucky in 2014, and the conclusion I keep reaching is that it doesn't and can't exist. I'm impressed with how long Grimes has stayed in the game though, neck and neck with McConnell in the polls even now although there's some indication that McConnell is beginning to pull away. My guess is McConnell continues to pull away as summer turns to fall and the race won't be particularly close in the end. Interestingly, even McConnell's campaign advisers believe his ceiling is 51% or 52% this cycle. I suspect they'll be pleasantly surprised on election night to find out his ceiling is a couple of points higher than that.
Louisiana--As is so often the case, Louisiana's Senate race is poised to be the nation's most unsettled, with multiple Republicans vying against three-term Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, who always manages to find a way to win even in what's become a very tough red state. There are two Republicans with a viable chance. The establishment choice is Congressman Bill Cassidy while the Tea Party favorite is military man Rob Maness. It seems almost certain that the 50% threshold Landrieu needs to meet on election night isn't gonna happen, triggering a December runoff. With that in mind, Landrieu's chances of survival likely depend upon where things stand regarding control of the Senate. If the Republicans have already captured their six seats to take over the Senate on November 4, there will be less urgency among the GOP base and Landrieu COULD slide on by again. But if Senate control still hangs in the balance heading into the runoff, expect an easy Republican victory. In either scenario though, I'd give Landrieu far less than 50% survival odds given how inelastically red her state has become during the Obama era. GOP +2
Maine--I'm not sure any other state has an independent streak the way Maine does. While it leans Democratic, if they find a Republican or independent whom they find temperamentally suitable, Mainers will latch on and repeatedly re-elect. This is the secret to three-term Republican incumbent Susan Collins' success. In the Democratic wave of 2008 when Collins last ran, she managed to pounce a top-tier Democratic challenger by 20 points. She'll assuredly score an even bigger victory this year against fourth-tier Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows in a seat the Democrats can't believe they repeatedly fail to take away from the GOP.
Massachusetts--Given his fairly soft 10-point margin in the special election to fill John Kerry's old seat in blue Massachusetts last year, it's a little surprising Democrat Ed Markey hasn't gotten a more serious challenger than whatever "Some Dude" is challenging him for the fall. Safe to say that Markey wins by more than 10 points this November given the complete lack of a serious challenge waged against him.
Michigan--There was a period a few months ago where Republicans thought they had a serious chance at taking Carl Levin's vacated Senate seat in blue Michigan, but it seems less likely now. The Republican candidate Terri Lynn Land doesn't seem ready for primetime and Democratic Congressman Gary Peters is far more likely than not to ride the state's partisan advantage to victory. This remains a race to watch though as far crazier things have happened before than the prospect of a GOP upset here. Definitely odds-against though and even most Republican analysts agree at this point.
Minnesota--Another GOP longshot is Minnesota, where Democratic incumbent Al Franken is coasting along with comfortable leads in the polls over upstart, self-funding GOP challenger Mike McFadden, who at least for now doesn't seem like much of a threat. I never would have guessed six years ago after Franken barely beat the insufferable Norm Coleman with a 42% plurality in the most Democratic election cycle in a generation that he would have been able to incur this much goodwill among Minnesota voters to be poised for an easy re-election. However, if a GOP wave forms, which is still a real possibility, it's not unthinkable that Minnesota voters could warm up to McFadden and Franken could get flat-footed, making his low-voltage re-election campaign a little more of a gamble than I'm comfortable with, particularly with Minnesota voters tendency to break towards Republicans at the end of the campaign. My bet is still on a mid-single-digit Franken victory, however.
Mississippi--Back when Tea Party firebrand Chris McDaniel seemed poised to win the Republican primary last spring, there was serious chatter about the possibility of an earth-shattering upset from Democratic candidate Travis Childers. Ever since Thad Cochran's amazing survival story to win the GOP primary, however, Childers has dropped off of every election analyst's radar. I think that's mostly right as Childers chances dropped from slim to nearly none after Cochran hung on, but I still think it's a race to watch as we don't fully have a handle on the extent of McDaniel supporters' rage and unwillingness to fall behind Cochran at this point. I suspect it may be pretty intense, and if enough of them skip the election or vote for Childers out of spite, he has the slimmest imaginable path to victory. Incredibly unlikely though.
Montana--In another race where Democrats' chances have dropped from slim to none, appointed Democratic Senator John Walsh who was filling out Max Baucus's term after a cleverly calculated ambassadorship appointment was caught in a plagiarism scandal serious enough that he dropped out of the race. Walsh was already behind Republican Congressman Steve Daines in the polls and the Democrats had to scramble to replace him, scraping the bottom of the barrel with an eccentric left-wing female legislator who has a nose ring and should play in Montana about as well as the frontman for a death metal band. Democrats have next to no chance at holding this seat after months of having very little chance of holding it. Former Governor Brian Schweitzer could become the goat of the Democratic party if the Senate flips to the GOP by one seat given he probably would have held this seat for Dems but refused to run. GOP +3
Nebraska--Twenty years ago, this bright red state had TWO Democratic Senators. It was a fluke, but it underscored how elastic the state's voters were then compared to now, when they're not putting up any fight at all to contest and OPEN SEAT vacated by Republican Mike Johanns. I've said before that Nebraska probably has more Democrats today (primarily in Omaha) than it did a quarter century ago yet seems to be more Republican given the hardening of conservative support towards the party of the pachyderms. Young conservative Ben Sasse prevailed for the Republicans in a heated primary which served very close to a general election coronation and he's not expecting much of a challenge from Democratic Some Dude David Domina.
New Hampshire--There was one poll last week showing carpetbagging former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown within a couple of points of current Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, but the totality of polling shows Shaheen with a secure and decisive leads that I suspect will hold. Republicans have a decent bench in New Hampshire so it strikes me as odd that they put all their marbles on Massachusetts' sloppy seconds. New Hampshire is a state prone to responding dramatically in wave elections, so if there's major national momentum towards Republicans in the next two months, Brown is still in the game, but I'd rate his chances as pretty slim.
New Jersey--Democrat Cory Booker won a special election last year by a fairly weak "barely double digit" margin last year given his right-wing doofus of a challenger in a dark blue state, but that was a special election with a low turnout. Booker should have an easier time in this year's midterm getting a full six-year term, but given how inelastic New Jersey is, a 15-18-point win is probably the best he can expect even in a best-case scenario.
New Mexico--I have no idea what sacrificial lamb the GOP is putting up against Democratic Senator Tom Udall, and given that Udall is only running for a second term, that speaks volumes for how tough of a state New Mexico has become for Republicans to compete in. Their bench is getting smaller and smaller while the demographics of the electorate are getting increasingly Democrat-friendly. Udall should win by 20 points or more.
North Carolina--NC strikes me a tipping point state, along with AK, for determining control of the Senate. It's a state I would argue the Democrats must have to retain control, so the heat is on Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, who unfortunately is not holding up at a stellar candidate for the party yet continues to hang in there in the polls despite herself. It's a tenuous hold though, as there's a libertarian candidate polling as high as 8% who's unlikely to remain that high by November and will more likely than not forfeit his support to the challenger, Republican Thom Tillis. Tillis has problems of his own with the unpopularity of the Republican Legislature in North Carolina (Tillis is Speaker of the House) but ultimately I suspect in a midterm electorate in NC, hatred for Obama will trump hatred for the state legislature. Hagan is still very much in the game as she was when I expressed mild confidence earlier this year that she'd hold the seat, but that was before I realized how weak of a candidate she is. Unfortunately, I think Tillis is now better positioned to win than she is. GOP +4
Oklahoma--There are two seats open in Oklahoma this year, and the outcome is assured in both of them. Geriatric James Inhofe is running for a fourth term and will win a 77-county landslide as will James Lankford, the Republican Congressman who's the GOP nominee to fill the final two years of the resigning Tom Coburn. There are a couple of Democrats from yesteryear in Oklahoma who could conceivably be heavy-hitters on a statewide ballot, but in the current political environment I don't think it's possible for a Democrat to win statewide in Oklahoma, and I suspect Democrats like Brad Henry and Dan Boren knew that as well which is why they chose not to run even in an open seat.
Oregon--Any momentum that Republican challenger Monica Wehby had around the time of the GOP primary was sucked out of her campaign with the revelation of stalking charges against her ex-boyfriend. It seems more like a lover's quarrel that he was seeking to embarrass her about, but in a state as increasingly inhospitable to Republicans as Oregon, she couldn't afford any distractions. Freshman Democrat Jeff Merkley has been a bit of a backbencher and may have been vulnerable in a perfect storm, but it seems increasingly unlikely that perfect storm will materialize and he's likely to win by 10 points the way things are breaking.
Rhode Island--Three-term Democrat Jack Reed is one of the safest Senators in one of the safest blue states in the country. He'll win by his usual landslide margin against GOP Some Dude Mark Zaccaria.
South Carolina--Like Oklahoma, South Carolina has two Senators up for election this year. The resignation of Republican Jim DeMint last year was followed by the appointment of Tim Scott, an African-American Republican from the U.S. House. Scott will have no problem crushing his token opposition nor will Lindsey Graham, who's going for his third full term this November as well. Graham seemed potentially vulnerable to a Tea Party challenge, but his opposition couldn't unite behind a single candidate so Graham lives another day even amidst one of the nation's most right-wing Republican electorates.
South Dakota--Even Harry Reid has publicly written off the Democrats' chances of holding the seat of retiring Democrat Tim Johnson this year, but that seems more like sour grapes over the fact that Tom Daschle's Chief of Staff Rick Weiland muscled Reid's preferred candidate--former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin--from even entering this race. I tend to be skeptical of any scenario where a Democrat was gonna hold this seat this year in a state Mitt Romney won by 18 points in 2012, but Herseth Sandlin probably would have been better positioned to take advantage of GOP candidate Mike Rounds' unexpected weakness as well as the independent bid by former Republican Senator-turned-Obama-supporter Larry Pressler. The uncertainty Pressler's bid brings to the table makes me hold out a slim reed of hope that Weiland has a path to victory, but it seems pretty hard to imagine that Weiland can finesse a scenario where he's the last man standing here. I suspect Rounds consolidates late support and wins decisively. GOP +5
Tennessee--A swing state a generation ago, Tennessee might as well be Wyoming at this point for Democrats as the party's support has completely collapsed everywhere outside of Memphis and Nashville and they have no credible candidate to run in any statewide race as evidenced by their latest nobody of a Senate candidate, Gordon Ball, to run against Republican Lamar Alexander this year. Alexander's only real race was in the primary where he prevailed against Tea Party riffraff and is now poised to win in a 30-point blowout in November.
Texas--The first Republican incumbent to topple a Tea Party challenger this primary season was two-term Senator John Cornyn, who impressively managed to dispatch right-wing nutbag Congressman Steve Stockman even amongst a Texas Republican primary electorate. Cornyn is now obviously positioned to win in a 20-point landslide in November.
Virginia--Hard as the media tried to manufacture a race here, Republican money man Ed Gillespie has so far not managed to touch Democratic Senator Mark Warner with a 10-foot pole in the polls. Gillespie may be playing a long game here with gubernatorial ambitions somewhere down the road but it would take a wave of epic proportions for him to dethrone Warner from this seat and I can't imagine it will happen this cycle.
West Virginia--Pretty sure there was no Democrat--including Jay Rockefeller himself--who could have held this seat vacated by the retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller in a state seething with broiling anti-Obama rage over the coal issue. But the Democrats have made a valiant effort with the state's telegenic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant who has run a good campaign in an impossible situation. Her challenger is mainstream Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito who has built a significant name for herself over her many years in the House and has led in the polls in every race. There was little doubt we'd be at this point by Labor Day weekend, but I'd say this race can now officially be declared GONE for Democrats. GOP +6
Wyoming--Three-term Republican Mike Enzi's only real challenge for this seat was poised to come from Liz Cheney before she dropped the primary challenge. Now Enzi can coast into another landslide general election victory in November.
My prediction of a 51-49 Republican Senate is unchanged from my last round of predictions but I did narrowly flip two seats--Alaska towards the Democrats and North Carolina towards Republicans. Those are the only two states where I don't feel either side has a clear advantage at this point and expect they could remain this ambiguous until November. I'd be surprised if the Democrats won any of the Romney state seats beyond those two though and can still envision a scenario where a stronger GOP tide emerges and carries Iowa and Colorado to Republicans. I'll probably make one final set of predictions in October but feel my instincts have served me well on most of these races thus far.