Senate Watch

For most Americans, the mid-term elections are a non-event. Without the fanfare and national messaging of a presidential race, voters are generally less engaged and turn out at a rate about 20 percentage points lower than on a presidential election year. However, this election year is an important one. With no presidential race, the important elections are for the Senate, which could turn Republican for the first time since 2008. The Democrats are especially vulnerable in this cycle, not only because of President Obama’s approval ratings, which are in the low 40s, but also because they have more seats in play than the GOP, at 21 to 15. In addition, of the 15 GOP seats, 12 are considered “safe” by political handicappers. By comparison, only 7 of the Democrats’ 21 are considered “safe,” while another one of their seats, in Montana, is actually considered safe for Republicans. Currently, 8 Democratic seats are involved in competitive races, half of which are currently tilted towards a GOP victory.

Ultimately, Republicans will need a net gain of 6 seats or more to retake the Senate. In addition to Montana, the GOP will probably take a Democratic seat in West Virginia, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito was leading Secretary of State Natalie Tennant by 17 points. The GOP is also slated to pick up a seat in South Dakota, where Mike Rounds, a former Governor leads Independent Larry Pressler a former GOP Senator, and Democrat Rick Weiland, a businessman, by 15 and 10 points, respectively. In addition to those three, Republicans will need to pick up at least 3 of 6 competitive Democratic seats. The best opportunity for the GOP is in Arkansas where Tom Cotton, a congressman and decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, faces incumbent Mark Pryor. Cotton’s advantage comes from both Arkansas’ political inclination and President Obama’s unpopularity, especially with regards to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This pattern is consistent for most vulnerable Democrats, who are attempting to distance themselves from the unpopular ACA and president and trying to make the campaign about social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, which the GOP has struggled with in the past. In addition to the ACA, vulnerable Democrats have been trying to distance themselves from the President’s energy agenda, as 3 very competitive races are in energy producing states, including Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Udall in Colorado. For these three incumbents, winning depends on their ability to move the narrative away from the White House and Washington, and onto local issues. Iowa, another competitive race, is an unique case in the sense that it is competitive because the Democratic candidate, Congressman Bruce Braley, has been caught in a series of gaffes, including one where he was caught on video disparaging sitting Senator Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school”. This sort of gaffe, has made what was supposed to be an easy race for Democrats has become one of the most competitive in the country. The final competitive Democratic seat is Kay Hagan’s in North Carolina, where she faces state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. Tillis has attacked Hagan in a similar fashion to other Republicans, mainly based on her connection to Obama and other national Democrats. Hagan has responded by criticizing Tillis over controversial actions taken by the state legislature, including voter ID and abortion laws. Hagan currently has a small lead in the polls, leading Tillis by approximately 2 points.

In addition to picking up 6 seats, the GOP will need to defend 3 vulnerable seats. The most vulnerable is Pat Roberts in Kansas, who after a difficult primary, expected to have an easier general election campaign, as Independent Greg Orman and Democrat Chad Taylor were expected to split the Democratic vote. However, Taylor dropped out of the race in favor of Orman, who is now running level with Roberts. The other vulnerable Senator is Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky. While McConnell is predicted to win his race, his opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has poured a substantial amount of money into unseating the Minority Leader. National Republicans have responded by spending even more money to protect McConnell and attack Grimes. As a result, Kentucky has become one of the most expensive races this cycle, with both sides spending at least a combined $40 million thus far. Finally, the GOP needs to defend Saxby Chambliss’ open seat in Georgia. The race features political newcomers from both parties, with a businessman, David Perdue, on the ticket for the GOP, and the CEO of a non-profit, Michelle Nunn, representing the Democrats. Perdue has a small lead in the polls, by about 3 points, but is ultimately expected to defeat Nunn in this Southern red state.

At this point, the GOP stands a fair chance of regaining control of the Senate, but changes in the national political scene in coming weeks could lead to them falling short, with Democrats maintaining a smaller majority, or even getting a rare 50-50 split, where Vice President Biden would then be frequently called upon to break ties. There are only a few weeks left before the nation finds out which it will be.

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