Virtucon’s 2014 Pre-Election Congressional Analysis

One thing is certain no matter which party holds the majority in the Senate after the elections – they will likely have a narrower majority than the current 55-45 split Democrats have now. National Journal writes, “Republicans now are positioned to net between six and nine Senate seats in the upcoming midterms, with the higher end looking more likely. Most of the battleground Senate contests are now either trending in a Republican direction or remaining stable with a GOP advantage.” The RealClearPolitics’ electoral map is predicting that Republicans pick up a net of seven seats.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC/Annenberg survey helps explain this potential political sea change. Among likely voters’ congressional preferences, 52% favor Republicans to 41% for Democrats. Even among the larger registered voters sample, Republicans hold a four-point edge, 46%-42%. This points to a less energized Democratic base without a presidential candidate running at the top of the ticket.

Following are brief rundowns on the key races in play.

* indicates incumbent

ALASKA: Mark Begich (D)* vs. Dan Sullivan (R)

Sen. Mark Begich has trailed former Alaska Attorney General/Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources Dan Sullivan in all nine public polls conducted since Sullivan captured the Republican nomination in August. Begich has been unable to get above the 45% threshold in any poll and remains mired in the low 40s. Most analysts and election models have moved this race into the “Republican Pick-Up” column.

ARKANSAS: Mark Pryor (D)* vs. Tom Cotton (R)

Many of the same dynamics in Alaska are at work in Arkansas where another incumbent Democrat senator representing a red state is battling stiff winds. Out of the 19 polls taken in Arkansas since May, Mark Pryor only led in two of them. The five polls taken so far during October give Rep. Tom Cotton an average 5.0% lead with the most recent polls showing him closing in on 50%. Meanwhile Pryor’s polling average of 41.8% is dangerous territory for an incumbent. The conventional wisdom of political pundits is that Republicans will gain this seat as well, inching them closer to the net six seat increase they need to win control of the Senate.

COLORADO: Mark Udall (D)* vs. Cory Gardner (R)

Until early September, Udall appeared to be defying the forces that were dragging down Begich and Pryor. However, Rep. Cory Gardner has taken the lead over Udall in 11 of the last 12 polls conducted in the state. Udall’s current poll average is just 43.9%. Compounding matters for Udall, the state’s largest liberal-leaning newspaper, The Denver Post, endorsed Gardner. While not as certain a pick-up as Alaska and Arkansas, this race has shifted from Lean Democrat to Lean Republican on prognosticators’ radar screens.

GEORGIA: (OPEN – R) Michelle Nunn (D) vs. David Perdue (R)

Georgia offers Democrats their best opportunity to offset Republican gains elsewhere if they can win this seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Democrats nominated Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, who previously headed up the Points of Light Foundation started by President George H.W. Bush. Republicans did not select their candidate until a runoff in July when Fortune 500 businessman David Perdue, cousin of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, claimed the nomination. The race is tied at this point with each candidate leading in two polls and tied in a fifth. A third-party candidate in this race makes it possible that no candidate receives the 50% needed to avoid a Jan. 6 runoff. Democrats need to win this seat outright in November as Republicans are favored to retain it if this goes to the runoff.

IOWA: (OPEN – D) Bruce Braley (D) vs. Joni Ernst (R)

If Georgia is the Senate seat Republicans should not have had to worry about this late in the game but must, then Iowa is that one for the Democrats. Rep. Bruce Braley (D) was chosen early on as his party’s successor to Sen. Tom Harkin (D). Braley quickly dispelled the air of inevitability around his campaign with a series of gaffes including one in which he disparaged both the farming profession and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) who is one of the state’s most popular politicians. State Sen. Joni Ernst (R) has led Braley in the seven out of ten of the most recent polls and was tied with him in two others. Her Real Clear Politics average lead over Braley is currently 2.1%. Early voting data being reported out of Iowa appears to indicate an advantage for Ernst consistent with her slight poll advantage.

KANSAS: Pat Roberts (R)* vs. Greg Orman (I)

Sen. Pat Roberts survived a multi-candidate primary with 48% of the vote in early August only to find himself in another multi-candidate election against Independent Greg Orman and Democrat Chad Taylor. That race became even more complicated for Roberts when Taylor dropped out of the race. Issues stemming from Roberts’ Kansas residency and his length of time in Washington hurt his standing with voters in the state and Orman quickly jumped to a lead. Roberts has since fought back painting Orman as a stealth Democrat and the race is now tied with each candidate leading in four October polls. Orman has said that he will caucus with whichever party holds the Senate majority, but has not stated which party he would caucus with if he held the deciding vote.

KENTUCKY: Mitch McConnell (R)* vs. Alison Lundergan Grimes (D)

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced in mid-October that they were pulling their resources out of Kentucky and leaving Grimes to fend for herself. (They have since reversed themselves and reengaged after receiving pressure from their top donors.) McConnell appears to have taken command of this race, leading his opponent in nine of the ten polls conducted since Labor Day. The one organization that showed a Grimes lead during this time gave McConnell the lead in a later poll.

LOUISIANA: Mary Landrieu (D)* vs. Bill Cassidy (R) vs. Rob Maness (R)

Louisiana holds what they call an “Open Primary” on the day the rest of the country holds the general election. If no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two candidates proceed to a Dec. 6 runoff. Sen. Landrieu currently leads the open primary polling with an average of 37.5% of the vote followed closely by Rep. Cassidy with 34.3% and Maness at 9.3%. Polling for the runoff gives Cassidy a 5.8% advantage, 47.3%-41.5%. It is possible that the runoff may decide control of the Senate meaning Election 2014 could head for overtime between this race and the one in Georgia.

MONTANA: (Open – D) Steve Daines (R) vs. Amanda Curtis (D)

Rep. Steve Daines is the prohibitive favorite in this race after Sen. John Walsh (D) dropped out following revelations that he plagiarized his thesis while a graduate student at the Army War College. Daines holds a 20-point lead over Curtis.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Jeanne Shaheen (D)* vs. Scott Brown (R)

Sen. Shaheen faces her former Senate colleague Scott Brown as he attempts a political comeback in his home state after representing Massachusetts in the Senate. Shaheen holds an average lead of 2.2% over Brown, but remains shy of the 50% mark and trails him by 1% in the most recent poll. Since winning the Republican nomination in September, Brown has steadily closed the gap in polls and The Cook Political Report has now moved this race into the “Toss-Up” column. If there is an upset on election night, this is the state to watch. Most polling places close in New Hampshire at 7 p.m., but a handful remain open until 8 p.m., so results will not be known until after all the polls in the state have closed. The results in this race, especially if the race is called quickly for one candidate or the other, should be a good bellwether as to how the two parties will fare nationwide.

NORTH CAROLINA: Kay Hagan (D)* vs. Thom Tillis (R)

For much of the year, Sen. Hagan has been on the offense against Tillis as she worked to tie him to the unpopular North Carolina legislature where he is Speaker of the House. While the race had been see-sawing throughout the summer, a massive Democratic ad blitz took its toll on Tillis in September as Hagan opened up a lead. Republican outside groups joined the fray in October and a shift in issue focus to the federal level – in particular the government’s response to Ebola and revelations that Hagan had skipped a briefing on ISIS to attend a campaign fundraiser as well as her family business profiting from the federal stimulus she voted for – has closed the gap once again. Hagan’s poll average is 43.6%, just a point over Tillis.

SOUTH DAKOTA: (OPEN – D) Mike Rounds (R) vs. Rick Weiland (D) vs. Larry Pressler (I)

South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds was viewed as easily picking up the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson for the Republicans. While Rounds is still viewed as the favorite to win the seat, the entrance of former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler as an Independent has complicated matters. Sensing an opportunity, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dropped $1 million in the state on behalf of Weiland, forcing the National Republican Senatorial Committee to do likewise. Pressler’s leftward drift, including his support for President Obama, has been the focus of Republicans as of late and appears to have taken the wind out of Pressler’s sails.

VIRGINIA: Mark Warner (D)* vs. Ed Gillespie (R)

This race appeared to be “the one that got away” for Republicans despite nominating the candidate they wanted in former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. Sen. Warner consistently held a double-digit lead over Gillespie throughout the year despite hovering at or just below the 50% threshold. This race was thrown a curveball just before Columbus Day when The Washington Post reported that Sen. Warner was under investigation by the FBI for suggesting he could arrange a federal judicial appointment for the daughter of a Virginia state senator in exchange for the state senator not resigning from office and thus handing control of the chamber to Republicans. Every election there tends to be one race where pundits wake up the next morning and ask themselves, “How the heck did that happen!?!?!?!?” This is the dark horse race to watch on Tuesday night.

WEST VIRGINIA: (OPEN – D) Shelley Moore Capito (R) vs. Natalie Tennant (D)

The only question remaining in this race is the size of Capito’s victory. Rep. Capito has been polling over 50% since July while her opponent has been mired in the 30s. This race could have larger implications for the Senate majority as there has been speculation that Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin could either switch parties or become an Independent who caucuses with the Republicans should the GOP win a Senate majority. If Capito’s victory margin is sizable enough, it could prove to be a catalyst for such a move by Manchin who is rumored to be unhappy in Washington and considering a return to the governorship. A shift in Manchin’s partisan allegiances would mirror the shifting electorate in West Virginia.

POST-ELECTION: The Impact of Independents

In addition to the wildcards of Orman in Kansas and Manchin in West Virginia, one cannot forget Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, indicated in April that if Republicans retook the Senate he would consider crossing the aisle to caucus with the GOP. King previously has stated his decision on which party to side with would be determined by what is best for his state and the committee assignments he would receive.

While we may have a fairly good picture of the state of the Senate after Election Day, we probably will not know the final composition of it until two months later once Georgia holds its likely runoff election.

GOP LIKELY TO INCREASE HOUSE MAJORITY

The House currently is comprised of 233 Republicans and 199 Democrats with three vacancies. There are 228 seats that are now rated as solid, likely or lean Republican (10 more than the 218 needed for a majority) while Democrats have 187 seats in those same categories. Twenty seats, 13 Democratic and seven Republican, remain as toss-ups.

Republicans have instituted what they are calling their “Drive to 245,” an effort to win an additional 12 House seats. Such a gain would give them their largest House majority since the Truman presidency.

Democrats currently hold seven out of the top ten House seats most likely to change parties.

TOP TEN HOUSE SEATS MOST LIKELY TO CHANGE PARTIES:

  1. UT-4 (Open – D)
  2. NC-7 (Open – D)
  3. CA-31 (Open – R)
  4. NY-11 (Grimm – R)
  5. NY-21 (Open – D)
  6. AZ-2 (Barber – D)
  7. CA-52 (Peters – D)
  8. IA-3 (Open – R)
  9. WV-3 (Rahall – D)
  10. NH-1 (Shea-Porter – D)