It’s easy to look at what appears to be a gigantic Republican 2010 midterm election wave in the House and feel a little slack-jawed, but not so much surprised. There were plenty signs well over a year ago that Democrats were facing grave danger, but even when expecting an onslaught, one can still be shocked at its size and unrelenting force. It would be a surprise if this wave doesn’t match the 52-seat gain on Election Night in 1994, and it could be substantially more.
On the other hand, the Senate picture is incredibly confused. There is no clear narrative in the Senate, just bizarre ups and downs. Republicans could easily find themselves picking up as “few” as seven or as many as 10 seats. An 8-seat pickup seems about right, but that is not written with a great deal of confidence; there are way too many races separated by very few points. In some cases it is weak GOP candidates who are causing the red team to underperform, in others it is because some of these battles are in states less hospitable to the GOP. The strong Republican tailwind that exists in much of the country is not so strong in California and Washington, and there are higher and more durable Democratic bases in states like Illinois and Pennsylvania that keep Democrats in the hunt. It is not uncommon to hear strategists say that if the environment for House Republicans is so good (or so bad for House Democrats), then the GOP gains could get truly massive and those dynamics would likely tip the closest Senate races in the same direction. There is probably some merit to that argument. But it also seems that the problem-children candidates for Senate Republicans have been called out more than their House GOP counterparts. The GOP candidates with more exotic backgrounds and blemishes seem to be paying a greater price for it in the Senate than in the House. We will know for sure soon enough.
Republicans start off with leads in all of their own Senate seats; the only one with any real chance of turning over is Kentucky, but even there it seems the GOP has things reasonably under control. Incumbent Democrats Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas and Russell Feingold in Wisconsin are in distinctly uphill battles, as are Democrats in open seats in Indiana and North Dakota. That puts Republicans up by four seats going into more competitive contests.
Both the open Democratic seats in Illinois and Pennsylvania are very close but seem to have moved towards Republicans in recent days; one might be able to put a little finger on the scale for the GOP in both places. Illinois had been as tight as a tick, while in Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey’s lead has narrowed considerably but has stabilized and rebounded a touch. In Colorado, the race is extremely close. Appointed incumbent Michael Bennet is running a far superior campaign to that of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, the Republican nominee, but the environment is so strong in the GOP’s favor that Buck has a bit of an edge.
The Nevada Senate debate seemed to have a greater impact in shaping the views of the debate outside the state than inside. Things seem to bounce around between Majority Leader Harry Reid and his GOP challenger Sharon Angle, with each sporting a 1- or 2-point advantage in different polls. Nobody knows what will happen there.
In California, most insiders are dismissive of a new Los Angeles Times poll showing Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown with a 13-point lead over GOP candidate and former eBay executive Meg Whitman and incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer with an 8-point lead over former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Both Democratic leads are much smaller than that. Critics have some very specific criticism of the sample, saying that it is far too Democratic with too many first-time voters making it through the likely-voter screen. The races and fortunes of the Republican Senate and gubernatorial candidates seem to have separated. Fiorina is within a couple of points but has been on a rising trend. Whitman flattened out in mid-single digits.
In Washington state, Democratic incumbent Patty Murray is holding onto a very precarious lead, right about the margin of error in most polling, and only rarely does she touch 50 percent.
Democratic Gov. West Virginia Joe Manchin has settled into a narrow, low single-digit lead over his GOP rival, John Raese, but the race is hardly over. It’s still pretty close but it seems that Manchin has stabilized his situation and is slightly more likely than not to survive.
In Connecticut, all the momentum that Republican wrestling promoter Linda McMahon had several weeks ago has dissipated. Democratic state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has recouped his lead and looks headed to a win.
If Republicans don’t win either Connecticut or West Virginia, it means they have to win every other plausible pick-up opportunity to nail a 10-seat Election Night majority. They have to run the table the rest of the night, winning 10 out of their 10 plausible chances. Given the resistance encountered in California, Nevada, and Washington state, that would seem to be exceedingly unlikely. To a certain extent, GOP Senate expectations probably got out of hand, and were likely based more on an extrapolation of the perception of the House momentum into the Senate contests rather than on the events happening in the individual states. All along, top GOP strategists’ downplayed talk of a 9- or 10-seat gain; they haven’t given up yet, but they have always said it would be very hard to hit numbers that high.
Republicans may still end up coming close to running the table, but that is far from apparent right now; they are encountering a furious fight. To be sure, House Democrats are fighting tooth-and-toenail, too, but their Senate brothers and sisters seem to be getting more traction in that fight.
This article appears in the October 25, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.