Thursday, January 23, 2014

Updated 2014 Senate Race Predictions

With each passing week, the Democrats' midterm Senate situation looks more precarious.  The party is extremely luck it had such a good cycle in 2012 Senate races, allowing them to lose five seats this coming November and still hold the Senate.  However, at this point, it looks as though the best-case scenario for Democrats this fall is losing ONLY five seats and thus hanging onto a 50-50 Senate.  The usual caveats apply that some Tea Party nutjob could prevail in the primaries of some of these contested races and make the Republican nominee unelectable, or even an experienced GOP pol could make a giant gaffe, but at this point it certainly seems as though the Democrats' best chance of holding the Senate is through a fluke.

It was easier to predict at this point in 2010 where the midterms were the Democrats were clearly going off a cliff and their level of overexposure with the final throes of southern Democrats and Blue Dogs still in office was jarring, leading them to their 63-seat loss in the House.  It's harder to tell where the 2014 midterms are heading in on sense.  Particularly in the House, the Democrats are no longer overexposed, and while they could still lose 10-15 additional seats if the election's a blowout, the polarized and gerrymandered House districts insulate them from suffering major losses.  The Senate is a different story as many of this year's Senate class consists of red-state Democrats that were victorious in the huge Democratic year of 2008 but will be playing defense this cycle.  The magnitude of defense they'll be playing is the X factor of whether the Democrats lose merely five Senate seats or lose 10+ seats, a scenario that is entirely possible without the GOP even really breaking a sweat.  With Obama's approval ratings currently at 40% and with ObamaCare incredibly unpopular even without any of the serious disruptive possibilities that could yet happen, I think the Democrats should prepare for the worst.  On the other hand, if ObamaCare plods along without further calamity and the economy grows at 3% with minimal increase in energy prices, Senate Democrats will still have a shitty night but just might hang onto their majority by a thread.

But let's look at the races state by state, cognizant of the fact that there's still time for further retirements or candidate recruitment coups or fails that could flip the races' current narratives on their head.

Safe Democratic Seats
Delaware--Chris Coons
Illinois--Dick Durbin
Rhode Island--Jack Reed

Safe Republican Seats
Alabama--Jeff Sessions
Idaho--Jim Risch
Kansas--Pat Roberts
Nebraska--Open (vacated by Mike Johanns)
Oklahoma A--James Inhofe
South Carolina A--Lindsey Graham (or whatever Tea Party nutjob beats him in the primary)
South Carolina B--Tim Scott
Tennessee--Lamar Alexander
Texas--John Cornyn (or Steve Stockman!)
Wyoming--Mike Enzi

The lopsided number of safe GOP seats speaks volumes of the extent to which the party is playing offense this year.

Now onto seats likely to go one way or the other, with brief explanations why....

Likely Democratic

Hawaii--Very tough state for a Republican to win but the open seat that emerged with Dan Inouye's death is being fought over by two Democrats and if the winner gets battered enough, a popular Republican like Charles Djou could conceivably capitalize.

Massachusetts--It would be surprising if Ed Markey, who won the special election to fill John Kerry's seat last year, didn't get a full six-year term, but he's not exactly Mr. Charisma and I think the potential exists for an upset if the GOP finds another Scott Brown.

New Jersey--Cory Booker had a very mediocre 10-point win in last year's special election to fill Frank Lautenberg's seat, even against a terrible challenger.  While he's still easily favored to win a full term in November, things are just a little bit crazier than usual in Jersey politics right now and depending on how things shake out, he could find himself vulnerable in a worst-case scenario.

New Mexico--Not aware of any major challenger to incumbent Tom Udall, but given that his state is still a lighter shade of blue and popular Republican Governor Susanna Martinez is sharing a ticket with him in November, the possibility exists of a Republican tidal wide could wash him away.

Virginia--I've always thought incumbent Mark Warner has a higher potential for vulnerability than the pundits often predict as a Democrat in a blue-trending purple state.  Republican challenger Ed Gillespie has the fund-raising and political skills to take advantage of a disastrous political climate, and Warner's dominating performance of 2008 is not likely to be repeated as Virginia continues to polarize along regional lines. Warner's still a heavy favorite, but I'd be less shocked than most if he got upset.

Likely Republican

Kentucky--If it was Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes challenging Mitch McConnell in 2008 instead of Bruce Lunsford, Grimes would be running for re-election this year.  But Kentucky Democrats just can't get their timing right for these Senate races and the state seems completely gone for Democrats now with east Kentucky coal country now realigned to Republican stronghold status.  Kentucky Democrats need a perfect storm to win statewide even during years when they're on offense, and the coal issue combined with the cultural hatred towards Obama is too much of a headwind for Grimes to compete with in 2014.  This race will break hard for McConnell in the campaign's final weeks and he'll end up winning by at least 10 points.

Maine--I only put this in the "likely Republican" column on the off-chance that popular GOP incumbent Susan Collins follows the lead of former colleague Olympia Snowe and retires.  If she doesn't, and there's no indication that she will, this race leapfrogs to "Safe Republican".

Mississippi--Long-time Republican incumbent Thad Cochran will handily win the election if he wins the primary, but he has a Tea Party ankle-biter that has a very good chance of taking him out.  And the Democrats have a surprisingly strong bench in Mississippi if a perfect storm emerges and they get the opportunity to run against flawed Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel.  Travis Childers, Mike Moore, Ronnie Musgrove, and Attorney General Jim Hood could all pose a viable challenge here, but as always in Mississippi, raising that Democratic ceiling from 45% to 50% +1 will require some olympic gymnastics.

Oklahoma B--This seat opened up just last week with the retirement announcement of Tom Coburn and is likely to take the form of a "safe Republican" seat, ya know, since it's Oklahoma, but Democrats have two powerhouse candidates in Brad Henry and Dan Boren if they can manage to recruit them...and there's always a chance a Christine O'Donnell Tea Party clown emerges victorious in the primary.  That's all a huge longshot though as Henry and Boren are unlikely to run and mainstream Republican Congressman James Lankford has already announced his intentions to run for the seat and would be impossible to beat if he was the party's nominee.

Now, moving onto the remaining 14 races which are all still in play to some level or another and have a reasonable chance of still going either way....

Alaska--There's nothing to indicate this race has changed much since the last time I analyzed it, aside from the fact that Sean Treadwell, the most electable Republican, is the frontrunner to be the nominee.  And beyond that, Obama's approval ratings have taken a dive, which probably puts Democrat Mark Begich in deeper peril, particularly given that Begich has been a pretty reliable Obama Democrat outside of energy issues.  He can still win if the rotten Obamacare headlines mostly subside and if the economy keeps ascending, but it seems like more things have to go right for Begich to win than for his opponent, which is not where an incumbent wants to be.  Tilts Republican  +1 GOP seat

Arkansas--The last time I analyzed 2014 Senate races, Arkansas' Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor was in about the same situation as Alaska's Begich.  Victory seemed odds-against, but neither was so far down that they couldn't still win.  Begich is still largely in that position, but I would argue that Pryor's chances have taken a turn for the worse given the highly effective smackdown he's received at the hands of conservative interest groups running nonstop ads against him for months.  His Republican opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton, was the party's best possible recruit, and unless he makes a whopper of a gaffe in the next several months, it's hard to see how Pryor wins in a state turning red faster than an angry drunk after a pint of whiskey.  Pryor's not as far gone yet as Blanche Lincoln was at this point in 2010, but he can probably only win if his opponent blows it. Leans Republican  +2 GOP

Colorado--Given the nature of politics in purple-trending-blue Colorado, I always suspected Democrat Mark Udall could emerge vulnerable in a challenging political climate, and minimal available polling suggests that's indeed true which Udall below 50% and barely ahead of potential GOP competitors.  With that said, it's hard to get too worried about this seat yet given that the Republican candidate best positioned to get the nomination is Ken Buck, the Tea Party nutjob who managed to blow a would-be slam dunk against Michael Bennet in 2010.  It defies belief that Colorado Republicans are undisciplined enough to run Buck again, but it speaks volumes about why their party has been beaten down so badly in the state in the past decade.  Udall is still more vulnerable than just about anybody in mainstream punditry believes, but if Ken Buck couldn't beat Bennet in 2010, it's hard to see how he beats Udall in 2014.  Leans Democrat.

Georgia--The demographics of Georgia are changing fast and by the end of the decade I suspect there's a real chance it will be a swing state.  Ordinarily I wouldn't think it's there yet, particularly in a midterm, to where Democrats have any chance at picking up the open seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss.  But Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is no ordinary candidate, as being the daughter of Sam Nunn could help her get the votes of some rural "demosaurs" while her background with the metropolitan Atlanta business community could help her score a few country club Republicans as well.  Couple that with a divided Republican Party that's gonna have a contentious primary battle between three sitting Congressmen each trying to be the furthest right guy in the room, and you have an unusually tangible path to victory for a Georgia Democrat.  It's still odds-against with this being a midterm year when black turnout tends to decline, but if Paul Broun is the Republican nominee, as he well may be, this thing isn't out of the realm for Nunn.  Leans Republican.

Iowa--The biggest recruiting fail on the part of Republicans this year is in Iowa, where all the top-tier and second-tier GOP would-be candidates passed on running for the seat vacated by long-time Democrat Tom Harkin, leaving Republicans facing a primary crowded with candidates nobody's heard of.  Meanwhile, Democrats settled early on Congressman Bruce Braley, who right now looks pretty formidable despite the shaky political environment for Democrats.  With all that in mind, Iowa has been known for swinging pretty hard from left to right and if the political climate gets ugly enough and one of the Republican candidates ends up running a strong campaign and catching the right breaks, this one is still easily winnable for the GOP.  Leans Democrat.

Louisiana--Only a fool would underestimate Mary Landrieu who has threaded the needle and pulled off three victories as a Democrat who is well to the left of center in a state that is Republican and getting more so.  But she's always had the good fortune of running in favorable or neutral political environments.  She won't have that good fortune in 2014 and running against her strongest GOP challenge since at least 1996 with Congressman Bill Cassidy, I'm leaning towards her borrowed time running out.  She can still win to be sure, but considering the tide she's fighting in Louisiana, I'd much rather be in Cassidy's shoes.  Tilts Republican +3

Michigan--The conventional wisdom suggests Gary Peters still has the inside track to holding Carl Levin's seat for the Democrats, but Republicans have a viable challenger in Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land given the state's Democratic tilt, but early polling shows Land is definitely in this should she get the nomination.  It would take a tough political environment for Democrats to lose a Senate race in Michigan, but with Obama's approval rating at 40-42% right now, the environment may be sufficiently tough for the Democrats to pull it off.  Tilts Democrat.

Minnesota--Recent polling shows Al Franken pretty well-positioned for a second term, but knowing the wild volatility of Minnesota the way I do, I just sense he's gonna have a tougher go of it than polls currently indicate.  Neither of his two primary Republican challengers inspire much confidence, but State Senator Julianne Ortmann has pressed the flesh pretty impressively since declaring her Senate bid while businessman Mike McFadden's ability to self-finance could prove hazardous to Franken's future if McFadden has campaign skills to match his cash.  It's still an uphill climb for either of them, but at the same time it would surprise me if Franken survived this race with the upper-single-digit margin of victory that some early polls show.  Leans Democrat.

Montana--Obama and the Democrats pulled a very clever trick last month by appointing the retiring, execrable corporate Democrat Max Baucus to some ambassadorship.  Once confirmed by a Senate that no longer has to abide by filibuster rules for executive appointments, Montana's Democratic Governor gets to appoint his replacement to fill out the rest of Baucus's term.  The likelihood is that Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, who was running for the seat anyway, will get the appointment and then have a quasi-incumbency heading into the 2014 general election.  It was a very crafty little scheme, but I'm not convinced it's gonna help Walsh (or whoever the Democrat who gets appointed ends up being) in keeping this seat in Democratic hands.  It's entirely possible that it could hurt the cause if the Democratic Senator has to make some unpopular votes in Republican-leaning Montana.  Congressman Steve Daines is running on the Republican side and in this political climate would seem to have the advantage either in an open seat or against half-year incumbent Walsh.  Leans Republican.  +4 GOP

New Hampshire--Scott Brown is probably not buying a home in New Hampshire and going through the whole process of moving from Massachusetts just to give the DSCC heartburn.  That's why I think he's planning to run against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, and polls indicate he's the only possible Republican candidate who puts this seat in play.  Given that Brown shocked the world in Massachusetts just four short years ago and held Elizabeth Warren to single digits two years ago, it's a fair bet that he'll pose a real threat to Shaheen in a purple state in a more defensive political climate.  Of course, nobody knows yet if Brown is running as it could still be a headfake, albeit a very complex and costly headfake, on his part.  If Brown does run this race is Tilt Democrat and if he doesn't it's Likely Democrat, so given the ambiguity, I'll split the difference and rate it as Leans Democrat.

North Carolina--When I last analyzed these races, Kay Hagan seemed like the one red state Democrat well-positioned for victory, but as Obama's fortunes have soured, polls suggest Hagan's have as well, and she's either tied or behind in the recent round of polls.  For an incumbent that's a terrible place to be, but still working in her favor is a contested Republican primary where the frontrunner is the GOP leader of the extremely unpopular state House, Thom Tills.  By a thread, I'm sticking with my instinct that Tills will provide enough material for Hagan to anchor him to the state legislature which is even more unpopular in NC than Obama, perhaps enough to eke out a win if Dems can raise turnout above the recent midterm standards.  That's a lot of ifs, but the law of averages says the Dems will catch a break somewhere in the country no matter how strong the partisan headwinds, and this still strikes me as the state where they're most likely to catch that break.  Tilts Democrat.

Oregon--This is a pretty borderline state for competitiveness, particularly since the Republicans don't have a serious challenger at this point, but Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley has never really lit Oregon on fire with his popularity and in a rough enough political climate I can envision him vulnerable, much like Patty Murray from neighboring Washington was in 2010, before ultimately prevailing.  But again, there is no tangible evidence at this point that Merkley is in any trouble, so I'll stand by the conventional wisdom that he has a decisive edge here.  Leans Democrat.

South Dakota--If Oregon is barely within the ranks of the competitive in one direction, South Dakota is barely competitive in the other direction.  If everything goes according to script on the Republican side and former Governor Mike Rounds gets the GOP nomination, this race is almost certainly over and Tim Johnson's seat will effortlessly flip red.  Democrat Rick Weiland looks like a lightweight on paper and it's hard to imagine him having enough game to win in South Dakota in this political environment if he's up against Rounds.  But Rounds doesn't have the nomination yet, and former Senator Larry Pressler's oddball independent run throws another monkey wrench into the race.  Still, everything points in the direction of a Republican pick-up for this seat.  Leans Republican.  +5 GOP

West Virginia--The Democratic Party is in a state of collapse in West Virginia, largely as a result of the declining coal industry and the role the national Democratic Party has played in its decline, and as a result it's odds-on that Jay Rockefeller's retirement will bring about the first Republican Senator in the state in nearly 60 years.  Frankly Joe Manchin should consider himself lucky to have snuck in to a six-year term before the bottom fell out.  Secretary of State Natalie Tennant was an impressive recruiting coup for the Dems and is easily their best candidate to hold this seat, but if Shelley Moore Capito gets the Republican nomination as predicted, it's very hard to see how Tennant comes within 10 points in the current political climate.  There are still some variables in this race but right now I'd be shocked if Capito didn't skate to victory.  Leans Republican.  +6 GOP

So even after several months since my last round of predictions, my ratings are unchanged as I predict the GOP will regain Senate control by picking up the same six seats I picked before.  The unchanged final outcome undersells the extent to which Democratic strength has slipped, however, with a few more seats in play (all with Republicans on offense) and with one additional seat (North Carolina) perilously close to the tipping point of tilting GOP.  As I said in the beginning of this writeup, the Democrats could lose 10 or more seats if the GOP scores the kind of inside flush that aren't unheard of in wave elections.  Right now I don't think that worst-case scenario for Democrats will happen, but any more drama at all with the Obamacare rollout or slippage in the still-fragile economy is likely to make that 10+ seat GOP gain a reality.  Democrats better really hope the Republicans screw up as badly as usual in their candidate selection in this spring's primaries.


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