Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) got the opponent she wanted. But she still enters the general election season as an underdog.
Now that the Missouri Senate primary is complete, we are downgrading the incumbent Democrat’s chances from toss-up to leans Republican. Tuesday night’s surprise Republican primary winner, Rep. Todd Akin, has the inside track to defeat her.
In another unpredictable primary night result, Akin roared back from what just a few weeks ago appeared to be third place to defeat free-spending businessman John Brunner, thought to be the favorite of national Republicans, and ex-state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin. It was a strange race: Steelman started off as McCaskill’s likely opponent, but when her campaign got off to a lackluster start, Akin jumped in the race. And after Akin seemed to flop too, national Republicans got behind Brunner.
No matter who won the primary, McCaskill became the most endangered Democratic Senate incumbent a few days after Christmas last year, when Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) announced his retirement.
Part of McCaskill’s problem is Missouri’s Republican leanings; once considered along with Ohio as one of the nation’s top bellwethers, Missouri resisted Barack Obama’s surge in 2008 and does not appear to be all that competitive this year. Mitt Romney has a healthy polling lead in the state, and Obama is going to spend his advertising and field operation dollars in other places this year. That’s all bad news for McCaskill. While there’s not a ton of polling in this race, a Mason-Dixon poll at the end of July showed McCaskill losing 49% to 44% to Akin; while that was her best showing against any of the three Republican candidates, she’s still weak.
The Missouri ratings change leaves the Crystal Ball with just five toss-ups out of the 33 Senate races being contested this November (those are Florida, Massachusetts, Montana, Virginia and Wisconsin). To update our back-of-the-envelope snapshot of the race, if one assumes that the 67 senators not up for reelection this year return to the Senate in 2013, and that the 28 other races where we’ve identified a favorite indeed shake out the way we believe they will at this point, that leaves 48 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate, with these five races deciding the majority.
While we have long suggested that Democrats appeared unlikely to gain Senate seats this cycle, this is our first Senate scorecard that shows them losing a seat. At this point, we believe Republicans will add to their 47 current seats — the question is, how many? That is not clear as of yet, and the winner of the race for the Senate majority is too difficult to project at this point.
The next big domino to fall in the race for the Senate is in next Tuesday’s Republican primary in Wisconsin. Ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson is trying to hold on against a divided field; businessman Eric Hovde appears to be Thompson’s greatest threat, although the conservative Club for Growth is pushing hard for a third candidate, ex-Rep. Mark Neumann (Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald is also in the race). We continue to believe that Thompson would make the strongest general election candidate against Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D), but Thompson faces an uncertain fate in the primary. For Thompson, happiness is a divided field; in a head-to-head race, he’d be toast, but he might be able to squeak through with somewhere between 30% to 40% of the vote. One positive sign for Thompson is that the respected Marquette University Law School Poll still shows him leading the field.
Wisconsin’s election next week is probably the last major primary in the Senate; Arizona votes on Aug. 28, but Rep. Jeff Flake, after appearing somewhat vulnerable against businessman Wil Cardon in the Republican primary there, appears to have righted the ship (if it was ever off-course to begin with). Flake has comfortably led in every poll — including a late July poll by Republican-leaning Magellan showing him up 45% to 23% on Cardon — and Cardon made some odd news earlier this week when he halted his television advertising. Is that a white flag for the self-funder? Hard to say for sure, and primaries can change in an instant, but Flake looks like he’s in good shape.
Other than that, it’s on to the fall campaign, where both sides appear capable of winning the Senate majority.
Tuesday’s primaries: A good night for Democrats
Beyond Akin’s primary victory, Democrats were heartened by a few other results on Tuesday.
In Washington’s all-party gubernatorial primary, ex-Rep. Jay Inslee (D) won about 47% of the vote to Attorney General Rob McKenna’s (R) 43%. The top-two primary — all candidates from all parties compete against each other, and the top two finishers advance to the general — has proven to be fairly predictive over the years, so Inslee presumably has a leg up going into November. We’re keeping this as a toss-up for now, but in a race where McKenna seemed to have the advantage a few months ago, it now seems to be tilting Inslee’s way. Washington has not elected a Republican governor since 1980, and the Evergreen State is of course solid for Barack Obama. McKenna is a solid candidate, just like two-time narrow Republican gubernatorial loser Dino Rossi and 1980 gubernatorial winner John Spellman, but the demographics of Washington State are hard for any Republican to surmount.
Before the primary, Republicans said that elevated Democratic turnout in the competitive Washington First Congressional District primary might inflate Inslee’s totals. But that didn’t show up in Tuesday’s returns — five of the state’s nine other new congressional districts, which weren’t as competitive, had a greater number of votes than the new First. Complicating matters is that there were two First Districts on the ballot; the old district had a special primary election to replace Inslee for the lame duck session at the end of the year. While turnout in the old First District was higher than in the new First District, three of the new districts had more votes.
Speaking of the new First District — confused yet? — national Democrats got some more good news: Former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene, seen as the more electable, moderate candidate as compared to liberal firebreather Darcy Burner, advanced to the general election. She’ll face Republican John Koster, who nearly beat Rep. Rick Larsen (D) in 2010. The new First is potentially swingy, but Obama won 56% of the vote there in 2008. It’s DelBene’s to lose, and we’re holding firm on our leans Democratic rating.
One other House note: after Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R) failed to qualify for the ballot (and later resigned), Republicans backed a write-in candidate — ex-state Sen. Nancy Cassis — against the libertarian Republican on the ballot, Kerry Bentivolio. But Bentivolio, with the help of some parts of the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party, won the nomination, where he’ll face physician Syed Taj (D) in the general election. Republicans cringe at Bentivolio’s candidacy — the reindeer farmer appeared in a satirical film that indirectly seemed to blame George W. Bush for 9/11 — but this is a district drawn by Republicans for Republicans to win (despite Obama winning it in 2008 — 54% under the old district’s lines, and 50% under the new lines). At this point, we narrowly favor Bentivolio to win the seat, but it’s one worth watching.