The odds of Republicans winning a Senate majority are obviously getting very high. Indeed, it would be a real shocker if Democrats held the GOP to a net gain of five seats or less, preventing a takeover of the majority. Unresolved, however, remains the question of just how big a night Republicans will have, and in turn, how to best interpret the results. At this point, at least in the Senate, this election seems to be a whole lot about the map, with more than a little political environment, including President Obama’s current unpopularity, thrown in for good measure.
If Republicans take the Senate, but their gains are limited to the six states that Mitt Romney carried by at least 14 points—open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, along with the defeat of Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana (though this would not likely happen until a December 6 runoff)—that would be a good but hardly extraordinary night for the GOP. This would be a map election.
Should one of the six—namely Begich, Landrieu, or Pryor—escape defeat, that would be a bad but not fatal loss to the GOP’s majority hopes. A loss in Alaska, Louisiana, or Arkansas would obviously make other outcomes in other states more important to the party. Begich, Pryor, and Landrieu have been good candidates and have all run solid campaigns. Indeed, they have each given their races all they had. Each member of this trio is analogous to strong swimmers having contended with a terrible undertow.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in shielding these and other senators from having to cast tough votes, also prevented them from having the chance to break with President Obama on high-profile issues. As a result, each racked up what have been perceived as very high Obama support levels that were often used mercilessly in negative ads against them. Additionally, the fact that the tough challenges facing this country require tough votes meant that the Senate simply deferred dealing with (or voting on) many important issues. Longtime Washington hand Bill Sweeney reminded me of late Democratic Rep. Mike Synar’s frequent line: “If you didn’t want to run into burning buildings, don’t be a fireman. If you don’t want to take hard votes, don’t be a congressman.”
Between having to run in increasingly Republican, virulently anti-Obama states, along with a downer political environment for their party, it is probably too heavy of a lift for two out of these three Democrats to survive. Most likely, all three will go down. For Landrieu, the best outcome on Tuesday for her December runoff chances is if Republicans have already secured a six-seat gain, meaning the Senate would not be up for grabs. Of course, it will still be an uphill fight for her.
If Republicans hold onto all of their seats this cycle, that would almost guarantee a Senate majority. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is pulling away from Alison Lundergan Grimes, and now seems secure. McConnell’s positive positioning shows the importance of running a great campaign, along with the pitfalls that are often faced by challengers in their first national race. Georgia may well go to a Jan. 6 runoff, but like in Louisiana, Democrat Michelle Nunn would be best situated if the Senate outcome is not in doubt. Republican David Perdue certainly appears to have an edge either way.
The outcome in Kansas is very important, and yet, it says little about anything going on elsewhere in the country. Between an open civil war taking place within the Kansas Republican Party, and an incumbent who had become too detached and put together a campaign way too late, a loss for Pat Roberts looks highly possible, but it is something of a one-off race. The circumstances are awfully unique. As in Georgia, if Republicans do manage to hold onto this seat, it increases their odds of a GOP majority in the Senate from high to extremely high.
The first test of the existence of a political wave is whether the benefiting party avoids losing many of its own endangered seats. The second is whether it wins an overwhelming number of the purple, competitive or, in this case, light blue Democratic-tilting but still endangered seats. So, if Republicans limit their own losses to just one of their own competitive seats (for example, Roberts in Kansas) and win at least three of the four key purple states (the open seat in Iowa and the three seats held by Democratic incumbents—Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Mark Udall in Colorado), that starts qualifying as a wave. Just winning one or two out of the four neutral-site contests might well help the GOP secure the majority, but it hardly qualifies as a wave. These are seats where it is the political environment and President Obama, not the map itself, that are the cause of Democratic pain. Obama carried all four states in 2008 and three out of the four (all but North Carolina) in 2012; losses in these would mean voters who voted for him have officially reversed course.
The third test of a real wave is the ability of a party to pull off real upsets, knocking off incumbents who were not on the lists of first- or second-tier vulnerable seats. If, for example, someone like Mark Warner in Virginia, Al Franken in Minnesota, or Jeff Merkley in Oregon were to lose, that would be a wave in the sense of 1980, 1994, 2006, or 2008. These years saw wins that were way more than just a result of the map. There now appears to be little chance that any of these three will lose their races.
At this point, a seven-seat gain would seem the most likely outcome for the GOP, with eight a bit more likely than six, but either highly possible. Republican gains of five or fewer, or of nine or more, would definitely raise eyebrows.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, Executive Director Guy Cecil, Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter, and the whole DSCC team began this election cycle with an almost impossibly difficult map and a very challenging political environment. Their goal would likely be to lose as few seats as possible and hopefully pick off a seat or two in GOP territory, so that in order for Republicans to net six seats, they might have to actually win seven or eight states currently in Democratic hands.
To their credit, the DSCC raised $134 million this cycle, outpacing the National Republican Senatorial Committee by almost $30 million. They made sure that their incumbents raised healthy war chests and staffed their campaigns with skilled operatives. If somehow Democrats maintain their majority, it will be one hell of a win for the party. If not, it can certainly be said that they left nothing in the locker room.
NRSC Chair Jerry Moran, Executive Director Rob Collins, and their colleagues inherited a highly favorable map, but with a unique challenge that they would need to unseat at least three Democratic senators. Republicans have defeated only three Senate incumbents in the last five elections combined, a period during which Democrats have beaten 11 GOP incumbents. In fact, the last time the GOP knocked off three incumbents at once was in the Reagan landslide of 1980, so the current team is going to have to do something that hasn’t happened in the past 16 elections.
Republicans have also had to avoid the sand trap of nominating the kind of exotic and highly problematic candidates—including but not necessarily limited to tea-party candidates—that cost them as many as five seats in 2010 and 2012. Finally, Republicans have had to deal with a donor base that entered the 2014 cycle deeply demoralized by Senate and presidential losses in 2012. It can be said that these donors did not fully engage in this election until well into September, evening out the spending very late in the campaign.
In short, both committees have a lot to be proud of, even if only one can eventually claim victory. Democrats did a lot with the lousy hand they were dealt, while Republicans managed to avoid many of the land mines that have hindered them in the last two cycles.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel, along with Executive Director Kelly Ward and independent-expenditure director Jesse Ferguson, began this cycle with a dismal set of congressional lines, and have managed to endure low presidential approval ratings, while still doing an admirable job of recruiting quality candidates, outraising Republicans, and doubling down on defense. They also placed more emphasis on field organization and ad-production quality than in the past. To be sure, many of their most promising candidates were weighed down by the unfavorable climate of 2014. Democrats’ efforts may very well save a lot of Democratic incumbents who wouldn’t have otherwise survived.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden and his team, led by Executive Director Liesl Hickey, deftly navigated both a tumultuous conference and the aftermath of the 2013 government shutdown. They were also dealt a fairly high number of GOP retirements—today there are 27 Republican open seats compared to just 17 Democratic open seats. In the open seats where it mattered most, Republicans recruited many of their best possible candidates and shepherded them through primaries. This is a big reason why they were able to limit the offense Democrats could play, and why they are in a great position to pick up seats on Tuesday.
With Republicans holding 234 seats (counting the Virginia-07 seat formerly held by Eric Cantor), near their 242 just after the 2010 election, the GOP is near the top of its modern trading range. A gain of 13 or more seats that would put the party at a post-World War II high, though hitting that level is not easy. A pickup of 34 or more seats, really not very possible given that 96 percent of Democratic seats are in Obama districts, would put the GOP over the 267 seats they held after the Herbert Hoover election of 1928.
The NRCC had to deal not just with the same demoralized donor base that their Senate brethren had to contend with, but also with the simple fact that their majority was never in danger—thus there was not a perceived need for money amongst donors. For the life of me, I have difficulty understanding why there is displeasure within the GOP Conference with Walden’s performance. I suspect that a better understanding of the circumstances might mitigate the disgruntlement, but there may be members who want to take someone’s head off and Walden’s might be seen as the easiest target. Still, Walden’s fate is ultimately Speaker John Boehner’s call, and there are no signs that Boehner is dissatisfied with Walden’s performance.
It will all be over soon.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated which presidential candidate won North Carolina in 2012. It was Mitt Romney.
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