Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Election 2014 Handicapping: Senate Outlook @ Six Months Out

The Usual Cautionary Notes: Three months is forever in politics. Six months is twice as long as forever. I'm coming at this entirely from a "sports handicapping" perspective. I'm neither a Republican or a Democrat, I don't have any preference between the two parties (except that I prefer that no single party control both the White House and both houses of Congress), I don't even vote. I'll probably make my "final predictions" a few weeks ahead of the election just so that there's actually some sport involved (anyone can do a pretty good job of predicting the outcomes the night before the voting); these handicapping posts are just illustrations of how I feel my way toward those "final predictions."

So, first, the current partisan composition of the US Senate seats up for election this year -- red for Republican, blue for Democrat, black lines across Oklahoma and North Carolina to indicate that there are two Senate elections this year in those states:

And here's my 6 months out map:

What's changed:

  • At 7 1/2 months out, I had five states marked as tossups. Now I have two.
  • I've moved Michigan into the Democratic Hold category. Democratic congressman Gary Peters is polling pretty consistently ahead of former Secretary of State Terri Land for an "open" seat that has cradled a Democratic ass since 1978. 
  • I've moved Kentucky into the Republican hold category. Incumbent Mitch McConnell handily won his primary and is already pulling away from Democratic nominee (and Kentucky Secretary of State) Alison Lundergan Grimes. If it was anyone but McConnell, I'd keep this state in "tossup" territory, but he's the GOP Senate leader. Nobody in his party likes him much but they're all scared of him and that means he'll get the money he needs to schlep across the finish line.
  • I've moved Georgia into the Democratic pickup category -- in fact, it is the only Democratic pickup I'm predicting. Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn is her party's premier candidate for a pickup. She's the well-known daughter of a popular former "conservative Democract hawk" Senator, she's polling ahead of her likely GOP opponents (they haven't had their primary yet), she's the former CEO of former Republican president George HW Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" namesake foundation ... she will basically be running to the right of the GOP in this race and she will raise big money because the Democrats want to prove that they can maintain a beachhead in the south even with trouble brewing in Louisiana and North Carolina.
  • Tossup -- Louisiana. I don't expect Landrieu to top 50% in the state's "jungle primary." That means she'll face a runoff. Which sounds bad for an incumbent ... but the month between the November election and the December runoff is going to be a circus of epic proportions. Especially if hers is the sole seat standing between the Republicans and the majority they're after. It's really an "anything can happen" situation.
  • Tossup -- North Carolina. Along with Louisiana, this looks at first blush like a Republican pickup. Incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is neck and neck with her GOP opponent, State House Speaker Thom Tillis, a position no incumbent wants to be in. BUT ... now that Kentucky is slipping away and Democrat holds in other states are starting to firm up, I think we'll see national party money flowing into that race, disproportionately from the Democrats (the Republicans will probably be concentrating on Louisiana where they might win and on Arkansas and Iowa where they probably won't).
So, where does that leave us? If I'm counting right, it leaves the Democrats with at least 51 seats, 53 if they manage to hold on in Louisiana and North Carolina. It leaves the Republicans with at least 47 seats, 49 if they manage to unseat Landrieu and Hagan.

BUT! If the Republicans can pull off those two "tossup" wins, they have a shot at convincing West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to switch parties and "Independent" Angus King of Maine to switch caucuses. They'd have to pay through the nose with plum committee assignments and so forth to make that happen, but it's a possibility.

At 7 1/2 months out, I rated the GOP's chance of finishing this election with a Senate majority at 55%. I'm downgrading that chance to 45%. To get to a majority, they're going to have to either pull off a string of upsets OR win two tossups and persuade two defectors. It's still possible, but the likelihood is fading.

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