The Non-Wave Election

In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, what’s most remarkable is how little has changed over the summer.

WASHINGTON - JUNE 21: Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee (L), and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, speak at a news conferece on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2012 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill, which will now have to be merged with a House version before final passage.
National Journal
Sept. 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

Now that Labor Day is be­hind us, the most re­mark­able thing about this midterm elec­tion is how little has changed since Me­mori­al Day. In the closest and most cru­cial con­test, for con­trol of the U.S. Sen­ate, only the race in Kan­sas looks fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent than it did three months ago. Strategists in both parties have been ask­ing, “What’s the mat­ter with Kan­sas?” The Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee’s sud­den de­cision to with­draw from the race this week will make it more com­pet­it­ive. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Pat Roberts, who sus­tained some dam­age in his primary, will now face in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate Greg Or­man. Or­man has the back­ing of some of the mod­er­ate GOP lead­ers in the state. But that’s the only ma­jor change of the sum­mer, des­pite more than a bil­lion dol­lars already spent in what the ex­perts at Kantar Me­dia/CMAG es­tim­ate will end up be­ing $5.5 bil­lion to $6.5 bil­lion in total cam­paign ex­pendit­ures on all levels this elec­tion cycle.

Sen. Pat Roberts (Brendan Hoff­man/Getty Im­ages)One ques­tion has be­come more press­ing as Elec­tion Day nears: Where is the Re­pub­lic­an wave? For Demo­crats, the good news is that there doesn’t ap­pear to be an over­whelm­ing Re­pub­lic­an tide this year; the bad news is that Demo­crats could well lose the Sen­ate even without such a wave. Six of the most com­pet­it­ive races are Demo­crat­ic-held seats in states that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 14 points or more. With a map like that, Re­pub­lic­ans don’t need to dom­in­ate the coun­try; they just have to win some se­lect states.

Among the three most vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic seats—those in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia—the biggest change since May is ap­poin­ted Sen. John Walsh’s with­draw­al in Montana after al­leg­a­tions of pla­gi­ar­ism sur­faced. While this is em­bar­rass­ing for him and Demo­crats, Walsh had little chance of win­ning any­way, so that doesn’t amount to a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment in my book. Re­pub­lic­ans still look likely to take the oth­er two.

Only one of the sev­en Demo­crat­ic toss-up seats has seen any real change over time—and that’s in the GOP’s fa­vor. In Iowa, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Bruce Bra­ley’s small lead over Re­pub­lic­an Joni Ernst has got­ten, well, smal­ler—to the point of ba­sic­ally dis­ap­pear­ing. In Michigan, the oth­er toss-up state where Demo­crats had something of an edge in late spring, Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters still barely out­polls former Sec­ret­ary of State Terri Lynn Land, the GOP stand­ard-bear­er.

The oth­er five Demo­crat­ic toss-up seats—those of Mark Be­gich (Alaska), Mark Pry­or (Arkan­sas), Mark Ud­all (Col­or­ado), Mary Landrieu (Louisi­ana), and Kay Hagan (North Car­o­lina)—were es­sen­tially even when kids got out of school for the sum­mer, and still are as classes re­sume. Hagan prob­ably pulled a few points ahead of state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, her GOP chal­lenger, late in the sum­mer as the highly po­lar­iz­ing state le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion was grind­ing to a dis­cord­ant end. But now that it is over, it ap­pears that the race has tightened up again. Landrieu is run­ning well ahead of Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, the likely GOP nom­in­ee in Louisi­ana. But with nine can­did­ates run­ning—three Re­pub­lic­ans, five Demo­crats, and one Liber­tari­an—the odds of the lead­er on Nov. 4 com­ing in be­low 50 per­cent are pretty good. Polling in­dic­ates that Landrieu’s lead turns in­to a dead heat in a run­off against Cas­sidy.

While the two vul­ner­able Re­pub­lic­an seats, in Ken­tucky and Geor­gia, re­main so, the GOP has pulled out front, as we sus­pec­ted back in the spring. Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell seems to have put a tiny bit of day­light between him­self and Sec­ret­ary of State Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, his chal­lenger in Ken­tucky. A very dis­cip­lined Mc­Con­nell cam­paign, along with the Demo­crat’s joint li­ab­il­it­ies of Pres­id­ent Obama and the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s “war on coal,” have com­bined to boost the in­cum­bent’s odds. Coal in Ken­tucky can be seen as ana­log­ous to en­ergy in Louisi­ana: Even though most voters’ jobs are not dir­ectly linked to coal in Ken­tucky or oil and gas in Louisi­ana, threats to those in­dus­tries serve as prox­ies for per­ceived Demo­crat­ic hos­til­it­ies to­ward both states. There is little doubt that if Landrieu, who’s the Sen­ate En­ergy Com­mit­tee chair­wo­man, were able to do what she wanted on oil and gas is­sues, she would be in a stronger po­s­i­tion for reelec­tion. But Landrieu’s abil­ity to lever­age that po­ten­tially key chair­man­ship is severely lim­ited by the very dif­fer­ent views on en­ergy policy held by Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In Geor­gia, where Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss stepped aside and cre­ated an open seat, his wan­nabe GOP suc­cessor, former Ree­bok and Dol­lar Gen­er­al CEO Dav­id Per­due, ap­pears to be edging ever so slightly ahead of Demo­crat Michelle Nunn, the former head of the Points of Light Found­a­tion and daugh­ter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. Like Vir­gin­ia and, to a less­er ex­tent, North Car­o­lina, Geor­gia is be­com­ing less of a GOP lock thanks largely to demo­graph­ic changes, but it has a way to go be­fore it be­comes a purple state.

That leaves no few­er than nine very close races, at least half of them headed to­ward photo fin­ishes. But three Demo­crat­ic-held seats are already gone, and party strategists see sev­en more tee­ter­ing on the edge, com­pared with just two for Re­pub­lic­ans. Giv­en that equa­tion, you’d have to bet on the GOP.

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