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The State of the Senate Races

With July almost over, the primaries pick up again in August.  Some Senate races have not been set yet as the GOP has not chosen candidates in potentially competitive primaries in Kansas, Alaska and Minnesota.  Democrats, because there are more incumbents, have fewer interesting primary races.

With that in mind, it is time to see how these general election races are shaping up.  I have divided the races into four classes: GOP seeking reelection and GOP open seats (or defeated incumbents)  and Democrats seeking reelection and Democratic open seats.

CLASS 1- Republican Incumbents Seeking Reelection:  There are 11 races in this category.  The only one that is not likely set is in Kansas where incumbent Pat Roberts faces possible competition in his primary against Milton Wolf.  However, most polling indicates that despite Roberts’ residency problems, the same dynamics that brought down Richard Lugar in Indiana may not be at play here.  The reason is that despite the vulnerabilities of Roberts, Wolf has been prone to his own gaffes in the campaign.  So, I am working on the assumption that Roberts will advance in his primary.

The races in this class are Alabama (Jeff Sessions), Idaho (Jim Risch), Kansas (Pat Roberts), Kentucky (Mitch McConnell), Maine (Susan Collins), Mississippi (Thad Cochran), Oklahoma (Jim Inhofe), South Carolina (Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott), Tennessee (presumably Lamar Alexander), Texas (John Cornyn) and Wyoming (Mike Enzi).  Of all these races, the only one that could be considered potentially competitive is the one in Kentucky.

As we get closer to the Election Day and polling increases, we should get a better grasp on the race in Kentucky.  Thus far, the polls have been up and down and if you had to rely on them to this point, it would indicate a close race that could go either way.  Most pundits believe that by time Election Day rolls around, McConnell will eventually prevail, but in a close race and by no more than 5 points.  A McConnell presents a conundrum for the GOP to be discussed shortly.

Class 2- Open Republican Seats:  Here there are only three races- Georgia (David Perdue to replace Saxby Chambliss), Nebraska (Ben Sasse to replace Mike Johanns) and Oklahoma special election (Jim Lankford to replace Tom Coburn).

The only one of interest here and the one that most “scares” this writer is the race in Georgia.  Personally, I believe that Jack Kingston would have made a much more formidable candidate against the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn.  The Democrats are making a concerted effort to “Turn Texas Blue.”  I have argued in the past that current and projected demographics would make Georgia a more realistic target.  In fact, I am predicting now this far out that come 2020, the Democratic Party will make gains in Georgia.  The most important consideration is that the Democrats coalesced around Nunn very early while the GOP subjected itself to a prolonged primary and runoff.  If there was a Republican seat to be lost in the Senate this year, it will be this one.  The potential is greater here than in Kentucky.  Working on a worst case scenario to this point, let’s assume a Nunn victory.  In that case at this point, the GOP stands to lose 1 seat in the Senate.

Class 3- Open Democratic Seats: There are five races in this category- Iowa (to replace Tom Harkin), Michigan (to replace Carl Levin), Montana (to replace Max Baucus), South Dakota (to replace Tim Johnson) and West Virginia (to replace Jay Rockefeller).  Three of these races will likely flip to the GOP side.  In Montana, Steve Daines seemed poised to defeat interim appointed Senator John Walsh even before plagiarism charges surfaced against Walsh.  In South Dakota, the expected retirement of Tim Johnson provided lots of time for the GOP to pick their opponent and given Obama’s unpopularity in South Dakota, Johnson would have been vulnerable regardless.

In West Virginia, the Obama name is mud given his blatant attack on the driver of that state’s economy- coal.  Although Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant is a good Democratic pick for that seat (presumably less liberal than Rockefeller), Republican candidate Shelley Moore-Capito is an even better fit for West Virginia.  Let’s not forget that despite West Virginia’s drift to the right in the past few presidential elections, the Democratic Party has won a string of statewide elections and currently have a Democratic Governor and two Senators (more on this near the end).

The two iffy races will be in Michigan and Iowa.  In Michigan, one pundit (Larry Sabato) accurately describes the state to the GOP: “fool’s gold.”  Every four years, we hear how Michigan is in play for the Republicans, yet every four years the state opts for the Democratic candidate.  And rest assured that despite a Republican Governor in Lansing, the Democrats will be coming after him very hard this year.  Further, Terri Lynn Land, the GOP candidate, WAS polling close to Gary Peters, but has since drifted back by about 6 points.  She is perhaps the best chance the Republicans have in Michigan, but at this point in the game, it looks like Peters will prevail.

That leaves Iowa where Bruce Braley will face Joni Ernst.  Despite the apparent advantage Braley had going into the general election, Ernst has proven herself to be a persistent pest.  In polling, he cannot shake her.  Iowa politics can be more volatile than those in Michigan and there is a greater chance of a GOP pick-up here than in Michigan.  I am working from a worst case scenario, so I am just playing devil’s advocate and saying the GOP will lose Iowa and Michigan at this point.   Hence, the Republicans would pick up a net total of TWO seats in the Senate.

Class 4- Democrats seeking reelection: This would seem to be a treasure trove of Republican possibilities, especially since of the 16 races, four of them are in states won by Romney in 2012.  The ones that can be written off by the GOP are: Delaware (Chris Coons), Illinois (Dick Durbin), Massachusetts (Ed Markey), New Jersey (Corey Booker), New Mexico (Tom Udall), and Rhode Island (Jack Reed).  I leave out Hawaii because a protracted competitive primary in that state could damage the Democrats.  If Brian Schatz emerges as the nominee, then I would move the Republican chances up.  But if Colleen Hanabusa wins the primary, then all bets are off.  Virginia could be interesting, but incumbent Mark Warner is just too damn formidable and Ed Gillespie has shown nothing thus far.

That leaves the following races- Alaska (Mark Begich), Arkansas (Mark Pryor), Colorado (Mark Udall), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu), Minnesota (Al Franken), New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen), North Carolina (Kay Hagan), and Oregon (Jeff Merkley).  First, the sleeper race- Minnesota.  Gopher State politics is volatile which is why they send a Norm Coleman to the Senate and a Jesse Ventura to the Governor’s mansion.  Al Franken is lying back against presumptive primary winner Mike McFadden.  Franken won this seat in a long recount and then by only 312 votes.  His reelection is not a sure thing.  Given the electoral volatility in this state, it bears close watching after Labor Day.

Oregon could also be a sleeper as Monica Wehby, the Republican candidate, is gaining national exposure and some outlets are beginning to take notice.  Still, she would need to make inroads into the area known as Portlandia- the bulk of Oregon’s population that is somewhat to the Left.  She could pull Democratic resources into a race they did not expect, but this writer believes that is the best she can do at this point.

Alaska looks(ed) ripe for the pickings, but Begich is running a great campaign thus far by distancing himself from Obama.  Also, a three-way primary race late in the primary season is serving to batter the eventual GOP candidate.  This could certainly change after Labor Day, but what once looked like a certainty has shifted somewhat- not a certainty for Begich per se, but one where the GOP will have to work a lot harder to win in November than originally anticipated.

Then there are the other races where vulnerable Democrats- Landrieu, Hagan, and Pryor- were thought to be on the outs, but have proven more durable than originally anticipated.  In Louisiana, if I were Bill Cassidy (the presumptive Republican), I would be playing commercials of Landrieu’s public comments in support of Obama policies over and over and over.  She is trying to position herself away from Obama, but her words come through loud and clear.  In Arkansas, there has been a decided drift to the GOP of late with four Congressmen and Boozman defeating a Democratic incumbent last time out.  Considering that Asa Hutchison could be the next GOP Governor of Arkansas, Tom Cotton defeating Pryor would be icing on the cake.  In North Carolina, Hagan has made a rebound largely due to a protracted legislative session that has detracted from Thom Tillis (who I still believe was not the right candidate to oppose Hagan).  Of these three races, I believe the Republicans will win one- most likely Cotton in Arkansas (Pryor’s negative attacks may eventually backfire) with Louisiana being 50/50.

That leaves New Hampshire and Colorado.  The GOP pushed Scott Brown off the fence and he will likely emerge the winner in their primary.  Still, he consistently polls considerably behind Shaheen.  His victory in neighboring Massachusetts was the result of a perfect storm- a hint of populism, the greater strength of the Tea Party then, and really bad campaigning by Martha Coakley, his Democratic opponent.  Thus, his electoral popularity was way overblown.  At this point, the GOP should go with someone else and let the chips fall where they may.  But in a way, New Hampshire politics can be as volatile as those in Minnesota or Wisconsin so one never knows.

In Colorado, a contentious primary was avoided and the GOP coalesced around Corey Gardner, a candidate the Democrats feared the most.  He is known as a great campaigner and Udall’s avoidance of Obama recently says it all regarding Udall’s strategy.  Polling has this race practically dead even with even Democratic polling outfits showing some concern.  Obama won this state in 2008 (with 53%) and 2012 (with 51%).  This weakening of support coupled with local events (Hicklenhooper’s support of gun legislation, Obamacare’s effect on Colorado) are creating the close race here.

The most likely Republican victories in this class are Arkansas, possibly Louisiana, and Colorado.  These three victories would give the GOP, in a worst case scenario, a net total of FIVE seats.  They need six to take the Senate outright.  A 50/50 tie leaves the Senate in the hands of the Democrats and that may be what Harry Reid is playing for at this point.  The important wild card is Georgia.  If Perdue prevails, the Senate belongs to the GOP.

With the caveat that a lot can happen between now and Election Day, it is prudent that the we not get our hopes up too high.  However, it should also be realized that the best weapon in the GOP arsenal is Barack Obama.

But, if the GOP should win, two things.  First, the GOP must decide if their best chances of legislative success lie with Mitch McConnell or someone else as Leader.  To me, an electoral victory coupled with a caucus loss would renew my faith in the GOP.  Second, his leadership mettle could be put to the test in West Virginia.  I remain convinced that Joe Manchin has more in common with the GOP than he does with the Democratic Party.  Getting him to switch sides would be an incredible coup-de-grace should the GOP win the Senate, but that is wishful thinking at this point (I’d offer him a committee chairmanship and his choice of two other committees).  Further analysis on all races will be forthcoming as Election Day nears.

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