Is It Real, or Is It a Political Head Fake?

Although Republicans still appear to have the edge in winning the Senate majority, this fight could still go either way.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) questions current and former IRS employees while the testify before the Senate Finance Committee May 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sept. 22, 2014, 5:52 p.m.

In the early 1970s there was a clas­sic tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial for Mem­orex, a com­pany just en­ter­ing the con­sumer mar­ket for high-qual­ity au­dio cas­settes. In the com­mer­cial, jazz great Ella Fitzger­ald would hit a high note, shat­ter­ing a wine glass. Then, they would play her back on tape, shat­ter­ing the glass again. The tagline on the ad was, “Is it live, or is it Mem­orex?” Some­times in polit­ics, we see or sense something hap­pen­ing and won­der if it is real, if it is a new trend, or if it is just a noisy event or ab­er­ra­tion. It seems that dur­ing most na­tion­al elec­tions, at some point between Labor Day and Elec­tion Day, there is a polit­ic­al head fake that takes place, something that briefly makes you won­der or starts to con­vince you that there has been a change in dir­ec­tion. Usu­ally though, things just re­vert to where they were be­fore.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen this hap­pen again. Most in­de­pend­ent ana­lysts and as­tute ob­serv­ers were giv­ing Re­pub­lic­ans the edge in the fight for the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in the Novem­ber elec­tions, but then a few polls and the weird­ness tak­ing place in Kan­sas began to sug­gest that maybe the mo­mentum had shif­ted away from the GOP. Now things seem to have re­ver­ted back al­most to where they were a month ago. The fact is that polit­ics is rarely en­tirely con­sist­ent; events and polls from week to week can bounce things around a bit even though the gen­er­al dir­ec­tion does not change. My guess is that Re­pub­lic­ans re­main the fa­vor­ite to get the six-seat net gain they need for a ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate. I’d still give them a 60 per­cent chance to do so, but ad­mit­tedly, there will be a half-dozen or so races that will be with­in a point or two, maybe three points, and events that have yet to oc­cur could still po­ten­tially change the out­comes. This fight could still go either way.

There are as many ways to look at the Sen­ate math as there are ob­serv­ers. Here’s my take. The three Demo­crat­ic-held seats that have seemed the most in jeop­ardy since the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign re­main very prob­lem­at­ic for the party. There is no evid­ence that the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia are go­ing to do any­thing but fall in­to the GOP column. The next three most vul­ner­able seats for Demo­crats in­volve in­cum­bents in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more:  Mark Be­gich in Alaska, Mary Landrieu in Louisi­ana, and Mark Pry­or in Arkan­sas. If—and it’s a big if—any of the three sur­vive reelec­tion, Be­gich ap­pears to be the most likely to do so. But, again, it is far from cer­tain.

If Re­pub­lic­ans cap­ture Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia and beat Be­gich, Landrieu, and Pry­or, they win the Sen­ate—un­less they lose one of their own vul­ner­able seats. If either Sen. Pat Roberts in Kan­sas or Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell in Ken­tucky are de­feated, or if Re­pub­lic­ans lose their open seat in Geor­gia, then win­ning the ma­jor­ity be­comes a little more dif­fi­cult. While all three of these races are very close, Mc­Con­nell looks a good bit more likely than not to hold off his chal­lenger, Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes. In Geor­gia, Dav­id Per­due is look­ing bet­ter against Demo­crat Michelle Nunn. It is Kan­sas, though, that is be­com­ing the GOP’s mi­graine.

If Re­pub­lic­ans lose one of their own, like say, Kan­sas, it means that they must win a purple-state race, un­seat­ing either Sens. Mark Ud­all in Col­or­ado or Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina, or pick­ing up an open seat in Iowa or Michigan, which is a bit more blue than purple. So, if Re­pub­lic­ans can hold the line in red states, with no losses, they win the Sen­ate. But, if they lose one, they have to win the polit­ic­al equi­val­ent of a road game.

The Kan­sas situ­ation is def­in­itely weird. In­de­pend­ent can­did­ate Greg Or­man is run­ning neck and neck with Roberts. Mean­while, des­pite a state Su­preme Court de­cision, the fight con­tin­ues over wheth­er there will be a Demo­crat­ic name on the bal­lot. Re­pub­lic­ans say there has to be one, point­ing to a state law re­gard­ing va­can­cies on the bal­lot. Demo­crats say they aren’t re­quired to re­place their nom­in­ee (though one is try­ing to get onto the bal­lot, ob­vi­ously without the help of the party ap­par­at­us). Privately, one Re­pub­lic­an elec­tion-law ex­pert wondered wheth­er real­ist­ic­ally a party could be forced to name a can­did­ate. Even then, it isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily cer­tain wheth­er a Demo­crat on the bal­lot helps or hurts Or­man’s chances. The more con­ven­tion­al thought is that a Demo­crat on the bal­lot di­vides the anti-Roberts or non-Re­pub­lic­an vote. The coun­ter­vail­ing view is that the pres­ence of a Demo­crat on the bal­lot helps Or­man ap­pear to be really an in­de­pend­ent, even though most be­lieve he would sit with Demo­crats if elec­ted be­cause he seems to walk and talk like a duck (Demo­crat). However, if in­de­pend­ents and dis­gruntled Re­pub­lic­ans see him as something oth­er than a Demo­crat, they may feel more com­fort­able vot­ing for him. The back­story in all of this is the in­creas­ingly bit­ter civil war with­in the GOP between, on one side, Gov. Sam Brown­back, the hard­core con­ser­vat­ives, and Tea Party Re­pub­lic­ans, and the less ideo­lo­gic­al Re­pub­lic­an old guard on the oth­er. Add to the mix the widely held view that Roberts has taken this elec­tion for gran­ted for far too long. Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans have re­cently worked to re­tool his cam­paign. The ques­tion is wheth­er they did it in time.

The polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is so bad, the play­ing field is so tilted in fa­vor of Re­pub­lic­ans, and the midterm elec­tion elect­or­ate has star­ted to fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans so much so that there are simply many more routes for Re­pub­lic­ans to get to 51 seats than there are for Demo­crats to keep 50. Win­ning every purple state and pick­ing off a state in en­emy red ter­rit­ory ob­vi­ously can hap­pen, but it usu­ally doesn’t with the oth­er dy­nam­ics we see in play.

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