Notes on the State of Politics

Gubernatorial and House changes, plus the early read on early voting


Gubernatorial changes: Déjà vu for Coakley?

We’ve got four gubernatorial ratings changes to make this week. The big one is in Massachusetts, where state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) can no longer be called a favorite over Charlie Baker (R), also his party’s 2010 nominee. The most recent polls have generally shown a dead heat, with RealClearPolitics’ polling average showing an overall tie. Polling data, Coakley’s struggles in her infamous 2010 special Senate election defeat to Scott Brown (R), and Massachusetts’ willingness to elect Republican governors despite its deeply blue hue compel us to move this race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. We assume national and state Democrats will assemble a Coakley rescue team (much as Republicans have done for Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas). There is a key similarity here despite the differing offices: In this polarized era, the pool of Democratic voters in Massachusetts, like the pool of Republican voters in Kansas, is so large that there is time to pull Coakley and Roberts across the finish line. Whether it will happen in either case is anybody’s guess a month out.

Also moving to Toss-up, from Leans Republican, is the gubernatorial election in Alaska. Gov. Sean Parnell (R) never polled particularly well in his reelection bid, but he was helped by a split field of opponents. Well, the field un-split when independent, former Republican businessman Bill Walker joined forces with former Democratic nominee Byron Mallott to form a fusion ticket. Walker-Mallott now appears to have a small lead on Parnell, if the scant recent polling is to be believed. If this fusion ticket wins in Alaska, and independent Republocrat Greg Orman manages to oust Roberts in Kansas, imagine the possibilities across the country for 2016.

The other two changes solidify some races for the current leaders. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) is not exactly wildly popular but has proven resilient. Many Democrats in the Palmetto State and elsewhere had hoped that her highly competitive 2010 opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D), might have a shot at winning a rematch in 2014. However, the chances of that happening appear increasingly remote as Haley holds a large lead in the polling averages and national Democrats are clearly looking elsewhere for takeover opportunities. In light of this, we’re shifting the South Carolina gubernatorial contest from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. South Carolina is a red state that is acting red in a Republican-tilting year.

Speaking of other Democratic takeover opportunities, the inevitable has arrived. We’ve decided to move the Pennsylvania governor’s race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. The best poll Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has seen was a Republican survey two weeks ago that found him down nine points, which only reinforces our strong feeling that businessman Tom Wolf (D) will be the Keystone State’s next governor. More than a year ago we identified Corbett as the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation, and nothing much has changed.

The gubernatorial races are wild: In 11 races, the top two candidates are separated by three points or less in either HuffPost Pollster’s or RealClearPolitics’ polling averages (eight in both), and that does not include Alaska or Arkansas, both of which are close, too. The big takeaway: There’s a great deal of uncertainty in a lot of these contests. We have seven races rated Toss-ups now, nearly double the four we currently list in the Senate.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

Geoffrey Skelley

A few sleepers in the House

We made some wide-ranging changes to our House ratings last week and gave our bottom line: A GOP gain of five-to-eight seats, which would be an addition to their current majority. We’re holding to that projection for now, but there are a couple tweaks we have to make to the ratings.

Rep. Mike Michaud (D, ME-2) is leaving his seat to run for governor. This district, which covers most of Maine, is one of the biggest districts by land area in the entire country, and it is one of the few big, rural districts currently held by a Democrat. It supported President Obama in 2012 with about 53% of the vote, which makes it more Democratic than the nation as a whole (Obama got 51% nationwide), but only marginally so.

State Sen. Emily Cain (D), a favorite of the liberal, pro-choice group EMILY’s List, has long been seen as having an edge here, but former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin (R) is making this a race, and outside groups from both sides are spending here. A recent University of New Hampshire poll conducted for local newspapers found Poliquin up a surprising 10 points, although there were lots of undecideds and the sample size was small. An internal Republican poll from mid-August showed Cain up four, which might be a more realistic assessment of the race.

In any event, this certainly doesn’t look like a slam dunk for Democrats, and we’re moving the race from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

One other race to watch: Democrats released an internal poll from Mark Mellman (a very skilled Democratic pollster) showing Rep. Kevin Cramer (R, ND-AL) behind 40%-38% against state Sen. George Sinner (D), whose father served as governor from 1985-1992. It’s hard to see Cramer, a freshman, losing, but perhaps Sinner’s lineage is a help in a state that is comfortable sending Democrats to Congress: Earl Pomeroy (D) held this at-large, statewide seat for nearly two decades before losing in 2010, and of course Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) won a narrow victory over Cramer’s one-term predecessor, Rick Berg (R), in 2012. There’s also a Libertarian in the race, which probably hurts the GOP incumbent more than the challenger.

As a precaution, we’re putting this race on the board as Likely Republican.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Kyle Kondik

Voters are voting

One popular dataset that analysts keep an eye on is early and absentee voting numbers, particularly in states with competitive races. At this point, seven states have entered their early voting periods, and 33 states and the District of Columbia will have early balloting this cycle, while 27 states and DC have no-excuse absentee voting as an option. And in many states with party registration, we can see the number of requests and total votes cast by each party’s registrants (though not for whom they voted). For example, Nate Cohn of the New York Times recently read the early ballot tea leaves in Iowa, which has a very competitive Senate race on its hands. His general conclusion: Both Democrats and Republicans are much more engaged in a state that hasn’t had a Senate contest decided by less than 10 points since 1996, and absentee requests are up over 2010 for both parties and among independents. In North Carolina, Catawba College Prof. Michael Bitzer says that absentee ballot requests and returns are looking better for Democrats than they did in 2010.

But state to state it’s difficult to know with absolute certainty which party is doing a better job of getting its inconsistent, casual voters to cast absentee or early ballots. As the early and absentee voting processes have become a more regular part of American elections, plenty of consistent voters are likely choosing to get voting out of the way prior to the election.

Another component to this shift is the advent of all-mail voting, pioneered by Oregon when it became the state’s only form of voting following a 1998 referendum. In 2011, Washington joined its neighbor in having 100% all-mail balloting, followed by Colorado in 2013. The latter state’s toss-up Senate and gubernatorial races may well be impacted by this decision as conventional wisdom views all-mail balloting as more helpful to Democrats. Voter turnout nationally is expected to be more demographically favorable to Republicans in a midterm cycle, and all-mail voting could help Democrats combat that reality.

Geoffrey Skelley