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Republican Chances of Senate Takeover Are Improving

The race for the Senate is perceptively moving in the Republicans’ direction, but not so dramatically that we’re ready to call the race definitively for them.

While we’ve long said the 2014 map and midterm dynamics make a GOP takeover of the Senate a probable outcome, there are just too many close races left and more than a month to go, when big gaffes, unexpected legal actions, and national events can potentially flip a Senate seat or two.

But right now, Democrats are behind the eight-ball (as well as the Crystal Ball). So many undecided contests are winnable for the GOP that the party would have to have a string of bad luck — combined with a truly exceptional Democratic get-out-the-vote program — to snatch defeat from the wide-open jaws of victory. Or Republicans would have to truly shoot themselves in the foot in at least one race, which has become a clear possibility over the last few weeks in Kansas.

The Republicans are seeing some encouraging public polling in a couple of states President Obama won in 2012, suggesting their increasing potential for gains beyond the comfortable red-tinted territory where they are already positioned to make considerable inroads in November.

Despite the uncertainty about the Sunflower State contest, the potential outcomes still mostly favor Republicans. About the best Democrats can hope for is a 50-50 split with Vice President Biden breaking the tie, a point we made several weeks ago when we upgraded our Senate outlook to a Republican gain of five to eight seats (the current Senate is 55-45 Democratic). A small one-to-three seat GOP Senate majority (51-49, 52-48, or 53-47) appears to be the likeliest outcome as of this writing and as the final month of the 2014 midterm campaign begins.

Blue state blues

Perhaps the biggest change we’re seeing is that the Republicans now seem to have better odds in at least a couple of states President Obama won twice: Iowa and Colorado.

The race between Rep. Bruce Braley (D) and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) has appeared to be a Toss-up for months, with a number of quality polls showing the candidates locked at about even. But that changed over the past few weeks, at least in the public polling. First, Quinnipiac showed Ernst up 50%-44% in mid-September, a poll that seemed like a big outlier at the time. But that finding was seconded over the weekend by the Des Moines Register poll, the gold standard of Iowa polling. Ernst was up six in that poll, too, although there were more undecideds: 44%-38%.

We have long thought that Ernst’s folksiness could pay off here if Democratic attacks on some of the more conservative parts of her rhetoric and record did not pan out. With a month to go, she seems to be staying out of trouble, and the Republican lean of this year’s midterm combined with Braley’s much-derided campaign suggests to us that Ernst really is leading here: We’re moving the Iowa Senate race from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

It’s worth noting that Democrats argue the race is a tie, but even if that’s the case, it might be easier for Ernst to get to a plurality than Braley in this kind of environment.

In Colorado, Rep. Cory Gardner (R) has been gaining in several polls, and now appears to have a tiny lead on Sen. Mark Udall (D) in a see-saw battle. However, there are two caveats about this race that we’ve made before that suggest caution against writing off Democrats in this state:

  1. Polling in the Centennial State fairly consistently underrates Democrats. For instance, in his 2010 victory, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) led only one of the final 18 public polls released in the race, and yet he triumphed on Election Day over Ken Buck (R). President Obama also significantly outperformed much of the polling there in 2012.
  2. The state now has all-mail voting, meaning that every voter will be mailed a ballot. This should help improve turnout generally, and perhaps especially among Democratic-leaning Hispanics and young people, which is also good for Udall.

Still, it’s just difficult at this point to keep the race where we’ve had it, Leans Democratic. So we’re moving it to a Toss-up.

One reason why Iowa Leans Republican now but Colorado is only a Toss-up even though the polling averages in both places are similar is that Iowa is an open seat — Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is retiring — while Udall is the incumbent in Colorado. Incumbency matters, and Republicans have a poor recent history of beating Democratic Senate incumbents.

The Year of the Great Revolt in Kansas?

While the news in Colorado and Iowa is good for Republicans, the race in Kansas got uglier for them on Wednesday.

First, a newly-released poll from USA Today/Suffolk University found independent Greg Orman leading Sen. Pat Roberts (R) 46%-41%, marking the fifth straight poll since early September to show Orman ahead of the incumbent. The independent now leads in both the HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics polling averages.

Then news broke that a Kansas court ruled that Kansas Democrats will not have to name a replacement candidate after the party’s nominee, Chad Taylor, dropped out of the race, setting up a head-to-head battle between Roberts and Orman. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) had insisted that Democrats would have to field a nominee, but it appears now that they won’t.

Wednesday’s developments pile on top of Roberts’ other problem: the state’s divided GOP. One telling sign of this GOP split that endangers both Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback (R) — former three-term Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a moderate Republican, declined to appear in an ad for Roberts, her Senate successor. (Her son, William, is Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis’s campaign treasurer.) There ought to be a deep enough pool of solid Republicans in Kansas to potentially rescue Roberts, at least, but 2014 may turn out to be the Year of the Great Revolt in Jayhawk country.

These recent developments have caused us to shift the Kansas contest from Leans Republican to Toss-up, with ramifications for the GOP’s path to a majority. There is considerable uncertainty about which party Orman would choose to caucus with, although as one source noted on Wednesday, caucusing with the Republicans after enduring millions of dollars in attacks from GOP-aligned groups would be a tough pill to swallow for Orman.

Overall picture

The change in Iowa means we now list five Democratic-held Senate seats as at least leaning to the Republicans: Arkansas, Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, and the aforementioned Hawkeye State. In these states, the only Democratic incumbent running for reelection is Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), who according to poll averages is down about two to four points. At this point, we don’t see any hope for Democrats to win either Montana or West Virginia, so we’re moving both from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

We’re doing that in part to differentiate those two states from South Dakota, which is more competitive but where former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) should survive in a three-way race that also features Rick Weiland (D), a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), and former Sen. Larry Pressler, who served as a Republican but is now an independent. Weiland and Pressler are actually dividing about half of the vote, but neither seems likely to stop campaigning and endorse the other at this point — which, if it actually happened, could create a bipartisan coalition against Rounds.

If the Republicans follow through in those five races — which is far from certain, at least in Arkansas and Iowa — those potential gains could get them to 50 seats, so long as they hold all of their current ones. In light of Kansas, that is an assumption that is now much harder to make, because for the first time all cycle we’re now listing a Republican-held Senate seat as a Toss-up. Besides the Sunflower State, Georgia and Kentucky are other potentially problematic holds for the GOP. However, though it might take a runoff for the GOP to keep the open seat in Georgia, we believe businessman David Perdue (R) is leading former non-profit CEO Michelle Nunn (D), and the polls bear that out. The same is true of the race in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has been, to us, a clear favorite the entire cycle, a position from which we have never strayed.

With Kansas now a Toss-up, Republicans are stuck at just 49 seats, as shown in Map 1 below.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

All this aside, let’s consider what the situation would be if Roberts manages to survive and the GOP wins in the five aforementioned Democratic-held states. What next?

Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) now appear to be slightly behind in their Toss-up races, though both contests are challenging to accurately forecast: Alaska because of the difficulties of polling that tiny electorate, and Louisiana because the race is very likely headed to a Dec. 6 runoff, which has its own separate dynamics. In this scenario, these two seats would represent gains six and seven for the Republicans. Colorado would be the eighth seat, and North Carolina — where we continue to narrowly favor Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who has led 11 straight polls — would be the ninth. This (perhaps too) sunny GOP calculation does not include the open seat in Michigan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in New Hampshire, which are both competitive races but where we believe Democrats are in decent shape for now.

At the moment we’re holding with a range of a five-to-eight seat GOP gain, but the long list of GOP targets does allow Republicans to post bigger gains if everything falls just right for them in the final month. They’ll need a small surge to do it — and it is not yet in evidence. Republicans also have to worry about the Democrats’ proven ability to out-work them in targeting voters and producing early/absentee ballots.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes