Razor-Thin Lead for the GOP

Democrats have slightly increased their chances of holding on to the Senate, so Republicans need to ensure red states stay red.

Senate Armed Services Committee Member U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) (C) is pursued by reporters after being briefed by military officals about the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at the U.S. Capitol June 10, 2014 in Washington, DC. The trade of Bergdahl for five senior Taliban officials has angered some members of Congress because they were not informed of the swap beforehand.
National Journal
Sept. 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

Are things get­ting bet­ter for Sen­ate Demo­crats? Cer­tainly many of the bet­ter (more re­li­able) stat­ist­ic­al mod­els seem to sug­gest they are. Nate Sil­ver’s Fiv­eThirtyEight moved from a 64 per­cent chance of the GOP gain­ing a ma­jor­ity, pre­dicted on Sept. 3, to a 54.7 per­cent chance on Sept. 15. As of Sept. 16, The New York Times’ Up­shot mod­el, nick­named Leo, put GOP chances at 51 per­cent; they were at 67 per­cent on Aug. 26. The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom also ap­pears to have shif­ted over the past week. What, if any­thing, has happened to cause this shift?

Polls show Demo­crat­ic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina lead­ing GOP chal­lenger Thom Tillis. (Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages)A little bit of the change can be at­trib­uted to meth­od­o­lo­gic­al shifts among fore­casters; as stat­ist­ic­al model­ers add new ele­ments to their com­pu­ta­tions, the new data af­fect the out­put of their mod­els. But that does not ex­plain all of the shift. The most sig­ni­fic­ant reas­on seems to be that in this year’s com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate races in purple states—those where either Barack Obama or Mitt Rom­ney won by nar­row mar­gins—Demo­crats are, for the most part, hold­ing their own or even im­prov­ing their odds.

In North Car­o­lina, for ex­ample, Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent Kay Hagan has now built a lead over GOP state House Speak­er Thom Tillis in both private and pub­lic polling. Hagan led by 4 points in the Sept. 5-9 Elon Uni­versity poll, 45 per­cent to 41 per­cent among likely voters. It is still a com­pet­it­ive race, and Tillis could very well win the seat, but for now the mo­mentum seems to be with Hagan.

In the fight for the open seat in Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters seems to be get­ting a firmer grip on the con­test, and his chances of win­ning have in­creased. Col­or­ado’s Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent, Mark Ud­all, has built up a small but meas­ur­able lead over GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner. Again, this is still a very close race, but Ud­all looks a bit bet­ter now than he did earli­er in the cycle. In Iowa, Rep. Bruce Bra­ley seems to have a tiny lead over GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst. The Demo­crat is still un­der-per­form­ing com­pared with how he should be do­ing, but he now looks a little bet­ter.

Mod­els also show Re­pub­lic­an Pat Roberts in Kan­sas shift­ing from safe to en­dangered, al­though it is far from cer­tain which party in­de­pend­ent Greg Or­man would sit with if he up­set Roberts (or, for that mat­ter, how re­li­able a vote he would be for Demo­crats if he were to win and join their con­fer­ence). Rather than an ob­vi­ous shift in Demo­crats’ fa­vor, I still see un­cer­tainty in Kan­sas.

At the same time, in Geor­gia—not quite a swing state but not deeply red, either—things are look­ing up for Re­pub­lic­ans, with Dav­id Per­due start­ing to pull away from Demo­crat Michelle Nunn, al­though the race is still very com­pet­it­ive. Polls are pro­du­cing con­flict­ing res­ults in New Hamp­shire; some show former Sen. Scott Brown clos­ing the gap with in­cum­bent Demo­crat Jeanne Shaheen, but I re­main skep­tic­al that the race has moved that much. Brown is a trans­plant who hasn’t worked out as well as Re­pub­lic­ans had hoped.

The key for Demo­crats is to either pray and work to help one of the three scar­let-state, Demo­crat­ic-held seats sur­vive, or to pick off one Re­pub­lic­an seat.

What isn’t mov­ing for Demo­crats: the group of six seats they’re con­test­ing in deeply red states that Rom­ney car­ried by big mar­gins. Things still look hope­less for Demo­crats try­ing to keep their open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia. In Alaska, there is no reas­on to be­lieve the situ­ation has im­proved for Mark Be­gich. Rom­ney won this state by 14 points, and in the af­ter­math of a Be­gich TV ad that has been widely seen as grossly de­cept­ive, things have prob­ably got­ten a bit worse. Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or cer­tainly doesn’t look any bet­ter than he did a month or two ago; Rom­ney won Arkan­sas by a whop­ping 24-point mar­gin in 2012. There is little reas­on to be­lieve that Mary Landrieu will hit the 50 per­cent-plus-one-vote mark on Nov. 4 to es­cape a Dec. 6 run­off in Louisi­ana, and noth­ing to sug­gest that a run­off with GOP Rep. Bill Cas­sidy would turn out well for the Demo­crat. Her share of the vote does not ap­pear to be elast­ic—that is, likely to ex­pand—in a run­off; in­stead, the con­ser­vat­ive and Re­pub­lic­an vote will likely con­sol­id­ate.

The key for Demo­crats is to either pray and work to keep one of the three scar­let-state, Demo­crat­ic-held seats, or to pick up one Re­pub­lic­an seat in a state such as Geor­gia, Ken­tucky (which is look­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for Demo­crats), or Kan­sas (who knows what will hap­pen there?). If Be­gich, Pry­or, or Landrieu sur­vive, or if Demo­crats pick off Geor­gia, Kan­sas, or per­haps Mitch Mc­Con­nell in Ken­tucky, then Re­pub­lic­ans would have to win a swing or light-blue state con­test some­where, which would mean beat­ing Ud­all, Hagan, or Shaheen, or win­ning Iowa or Michigan.

But if Re­pub­lic­ans can just en­sure that re­li­ably Re­pub­lic­an voters stay Re­pub­lic­an in 2014, then the GOP doesn’t need to win a single state that is purple, or blue of any hue, to win the Sen­ate. The bot­tom line is that the odds of Re­pub­lic­ans scor­ing a net gain of sev­en, eight, or more seats  have gone down, but in my judg­ment a net gain of six—the min­im­um num­ber they need for a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity—re­mains pretty likely.

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