Senate Ratings Changes: North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Minnesota

Senate Ratings Changes: North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Minnesota
Plus gubernatorial updates

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato’s Crystal Ball September 18th, 2014

Another week is down the drain in the race for the Senate, and while our overall outlook is unchanged — a five to eight seat gain for the GOP — some of our ratings are in need of adjustments.

One of these comes as a surprise, as Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) is proving to be quite resilient.

Several Democrats privately expressed to us earlier this year their pessimism about Hagan’s chances. They didn’t think she had the wherewithal and entrenched image of someone like Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who is a much more respected campaigner. But now those same Democrats, to their surprise, believe Hagan can now win. And we’ve seen a lot of polling, both public and private, indicating that she is ahead, though she’s closer to 45% than 50%, which is still tenuous territory for a Democratic incumbent in a Republican year.

The problem for Republicans in the Tar Heel State is that Thom Tillis, their candidate and the speaker of the state House of Representatives, has particularly poor numbers for a challenger: His unfavorables are usually higher than his favorables, and not just by a few points. It’s not hard to imagine that a more generic Republican who is not tied to the unpopular state legislature — someone like Landrieu’s main challenger in Louisiana, nondescript Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) — would be doing better here.

Hagan’s numbers aren’t great, either, though they appear to be improving: There’s some indication that her favorability is inching up to near an even split, meaning her favorability and unfavorability ratings would be about the same. And even though the president remains unpopular nationally, this state is several points more Democratic than Alaska, Arkansas, or Louisiana, three states where Democratic incumbents with deeper roots and better reputations as campaigners are in more trouble than Hagan is at the moment. President Obama’s not the drag here that he is in those states, though he is still a drag.

For all these reasons, we’re moving North Carolina from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here. Remember: Hagan is really only at 45% or so, and even though there is a Libertarian in the race, Sean Haugh, who can pull votes from Tillis, his share of the vote appears to be decreasing from the high-single digits to the mid-single digits. Tillis still absolutely has a path to victory, but he seems stuck at the moment.

One other change in favor of the Democrats: Polls continue to show Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) leading in his race against businessman Mike McFadden (R). While we believe the race will be closer than the polls currently indicate — the incumbent is up about 10 points — we are moving this race back to Likely Democratic, a move we suggested was on the horizon in our update last week.

The Republicans are not without good news of their own this week, though.

After winning his primary last week, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) is making a move in New Hampshire. Perhaps it’s just a consolidation of GOP support after the primary, but Brown is now only about four points behind Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). The best poll for Brown was one the political world woke up to on Monday morning from CNN/Opinion Research that showed him in a 48%-all tie.

We cannot reiterate this enough: Trust the averages, not individual polls, although the CNN poll is of higher quality than many of the junk or partisan polls that get released on a daily basis.

Yet even in that CNN poll — really the best public poll Brown has gotten all year — his favorability/unfavorability was still underwater with likely voters at 46%/48%. Shaheen, meanwhile, had a much stronger 54%/42% spread.

We often mention how schizophrenic New Hampshire can be politically, swinging hard from one party to the other as the national mood changes. Well, perhaps we might see that here: President Obama’s approval rating in the poll was dreadful, with a 38%/60% approval/disapproval. Brown may have some baggage because of his carpetbagging, but he’s definitely a good enough candidate to win if conditions allow. And they just might. Furthermore, New Hampshire is a state where retail politicking matters, and Brown has an edge on Shaheen in that department.

Shaheen is still the favorite here. But we’re moving the race from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

It’s worth noting that Democrats seem to have an advertising edge in many of the key Senate states at the moment, which might be artificially inflating their numbers in some of these races (kudos to Crystal Ball senior columnist Sean Trende for making this observation). The drag of an unpopular president, and the inherently Republican-leaning nature of many of the key states on this map, may yet boost the GOP from the low end of our range (a five-seat gain) to the high end (eight seats). The Republicans can lose New Hampshire and North Carolina — and also competitive blue states like Colorado and Iowa — and still win the Senate. Their most plausible path to the six-seat gain they need is capturing, in order of least to most difficult, Democratic-held Senate seats in Montana, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska, which are all states where Obama got less than 42% of the vote in 2012.

That route to a majority assumes they hold all of their present states, which might be too big of an assumption. Kansas is a potentially huge problem for the Republicans: Sen. Pat Roberts (R) is trying — perhaps not hard enough — to hang on to his seat against independent Greg Orman, and there’s growing indication that the race is tied, or that Orman may even be leading. We’re still calling the race Leans Republican but it may drift into Toss-up land soon.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Gubernatorial ratings changes

Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) has looked like a goner for a long time: We moved his race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic more than a year ago. We held it there after the primary because of Pennsylvania’s tradition of consistently giving each party two consecutive terms in the governor’s office (Corbett is just in his first party term) and because we wanted to see if there was any sign of movement in Corbett’s direction against his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf.

There hasn’t been. Wolf’s been up double digits in every single poll conducted since the primary. Corbett looks like a one-termer: We’re moving this race from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

Going the other way for Democrats is Colorado, where Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) appears to be in some real trouble against former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R). We previously thought that Hickenlooper would run ahead of his statewide ticketmate, Sen. Mark Udall (D), but now it appears he might run behind Udall — and Beauprez, too. Recently, Hickenlooper has taken heat for local issues — like potentially granting clemency to a convicted killer on death row and for gun restrictions passed last year that contributed to two Democratic state senators being recalled in 2013. Also, President Obama is very weak in the Centennial State, which hurts Hickenlooper and Udall, too. We’re keeping Udall at Leans Democratic, but moving Hickenlooper to Toss-up. One note: Many readers probably saw a Quinnipiac poll showing Beauprez up 10 points that was released on Wednesday morning. That survey reminds us of another Quinnipiac survey released almost exactly four years ago, showing John Kasich (R) beating then-Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in Ohio by 17 points. Kasich won, but only by two points. This poll also feels like an outlier, but others in the state have shown a close race. Two things worth remembering about Colorado: Recent polling there has often underestimated Democratic performance, and the state now has an all-mail voting system that should help Democratic turnout.

Meanwhile, those looking for a sleeper race this year ought to take a look at Idaho. In his quest for a third term, Gov. Butch Otter (R) really struggled in his primary, getting only 51% of the vote, and we’ve heard from some sources there that he could be vulnerable. Apparently, Otter is having trouble unifying his party, and deep-pocketed challenger A.J. Balukoff, a conservative Democrat who said he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, might give disaffected Republicans an alternative (a Libertarian is also running).

Data here are scarce: There are only two public polls of which we are aware, which show Otter up an average of 51% to 35% over Balukoff. Based on that information, Otter is seemingly still in decent shape. However, because of what we’ve been hearing, we’re switching this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.

Finally, Gov. Susana Martinez (R-NM) has long looked like a strong favorite despite New Mexico’s Democratic leanings, and Attorney General Gary King (D) does not appear capable of beating her. He has hardly any money and he just lost his third campaign manager, never a good sign for a campaign. This race moves from Likely Republican to Safe Republican. New Mexico joins Nevada and Ohio as two-time Obama states where first-term incumbent Republican governors are skating to victory. It’s certainly possible that Martinez will have some role to play on the national stage in her second term.
Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes

Map 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

Overtime: Five Reasons Senate Control Might Not Be Decided on Election Day

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato’s Crystal Ball September 18th, 2014

Think the Senate will be decided on Election Day, Nov. 4?

There are all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t, unless in the next seven weeks one side or the other — probably the Republicans — starts opening up a clear lead in enough races to give them a clear majority. If neither side does, control of the Senate could remain up in the air — for a while.

At the very least, political watchers are going to be in for a longer night than usual because one of the key races that is likely to determine control, Sen. Mark Begich’s (D) reelection bid in Alaska, is taking place 4,000 miles and four time zones away from Washington, D.C. (and five in the Aleutian Islands). Load up on Red Bull and, if you can, hold the vodka.

Beyond that, though, the uncertainty could continue for much longer. The potential for overtime exists in two key states, and perhaps others, too, depending on how close the races are on Nov. 4. Beyond that, a close or even tied Senate will test the partisan loyalties of some members, including those who were elected with no party label at all.

With that, here are five plausible scenarios that might prevent us from definitively knowing who controls the Senate for days, weeks, or even months after Election Day.
1. A recount

In the HuffPost Pollster polling averages as of Wednesday afternoon, five races currently show the top two contenders separated by less than three percentage points: Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, and Louisiana. That does not include some other races that are hotly contested and could be very close at the end, like Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and maybe others.

What if one of these races is so close that the state election authorities cannot certify a winner without a recount?

In Minnesota six years ago, Sen. Al Franken (D) beat then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R) by 312 votes, a result that took so long to finalize that the state’s second Senate seat was vacant until July of the following year. The dragged-out result deprived Democrats of the 60th vote they needed to cement their fleeting filibuster-proof Senate majority (the election of Republican Scott Brown in a Massachusetts special election the following January knocked the Democrats back down to 59 seats).

A recount/legal battle over a razor-thin Senate election could leave the Senate short a member when it organizes in early January. The side with more seats could organize the Senate under its control, but the eventual recount winner could flip control later in the session.
2. A runoff in Louisiana

Of all the possibilities discussed here, this one is the likeliest. Louisiana has an odd election system in which there is an all-party primary in November. Every candidate runs against one another on Election Day, and if no one gets over 50%, the top-two finishers advance to a runoff, which this year would be held more than a month after the general election on Saturday, Dec. 6. That also happens to be the same day as the Southeastern Conference college football championship game: If the LSU Tigers manage to make it, plenty of stories may be written about how football affected voter turnout.

If we had to bet right now, we’d say this race is likely to head to a runoff. In addition to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), the candidates who would almost certainly advance to the runoff, there is a another notable Republican running, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness. Maness won’t finish ahead of Cassidy, but he’ll get some votes (he’s endorsed by Sarah Palin). Beyond these three candidates, the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office lists four other Democrats, one other Republican, and a Libertarian. Presumably these candidates will all get at least a smattering of votes, further reducing the odds that either Landrieu or Cassidy can get to 50%.
3. Greg Orman’s choice

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there’s not a result close enough to require a recount and there’s no runoff in Louisiana. So we can put this election to bed, right? Well, not necessarily — because Greg Orman, the independent running against Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in Kansas, might actually win.

The Democratic candidate in Kansas, Chad Taylor, remains on the ballot, but he’s trying to remove his name and, even if he can’t, it should be clear to voters that he isn’t really in the race. That leaves Orman as the de facto Democratic candidate, although it is not clear he would caucus with the Democrats.

Orman says that if one side has a clear majority, he will caucus with that party to increase his clout (and that of his state). That makes sense. But what if Republicans have just a 50-49 edge after Election Day, leaving both Republicans and Democrats short of their magic number for Senate control (51 for the Republicans and 50 for the Democrats because of Biden’s tiebreaker)?

Orman would hold control of the Senate in his hand, and he might be able to extract big concessions out of the party caucus he chooses to join. For instance, he has said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are too partisan. Could he make the election of a new caucus leader a condition of his giving one side or the other control?
4. A runoff in Georgia

Like Louisiana, Georgia also requires winners to get over 50% to be elected to the Senate. In the Peach State’s open seat contest, businessman David Perdue (R) appears to have a small lead over former nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn (D), although Perdue is short of 50% in most polls. He may have a hard time getting there in part because of the presence of a Libertarian, Amanda Swafford, on the ballot.

A Libertarian candidate might also push Georgia’s gubernatorial race between Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and state Sen. Jason Carter (D) to a runoff. What’s odd here is that Senate and gubernatorial runoffs are held on different dates: The gubernatorial runoff is scheduled for Dec. 2, and the Senate runoff is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2015, which would be just after the 114th Congress convenes. That means the new Senate could come to order a member short, and that member could decide the majority, too, even assuming that the first three items on this list are resolved in an orderly way (all the other races have clean winners and Roberts is reelected).
5. A party switch

Beyond the choice of a potential Sen. Orman, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a current senator could switch parties. In a closely divided Senate, that could lead to a change of party control.

We saw this in 2001, a crazy year in the Senate. When the Senate opened that year on Jan. 3, control was split 50-50, but Vice President Al Gore (D) was still in office, which allowed Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) to serve as majority leader for 17 days. After President George W. Bush was inaugurated, Vice President Dick Cheney’s (R) tiebreaking vote made Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) majority leader. Later that year, Sen. Jim Jeffords (VT) announced he was switching from Republican to independent and would caucus with Democrats, which made Daschle majority leader again. Republicans re-took the chamber in the 2002 elections.

Who could switch this time? The most obvious candidate would be independent Sen. Angus King (ME), who currently caucuses with the Democrats. He’s left the door open to a post-election caucus switch.

A longer shot would be someone like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus. It’s possible that after this election, he will be the only Democrat in the Mountain State’s congressional delegation, and it’s also possible that his state’s House of Delegates (the lower chamber of the state legislature) will flip to the Republicans for the first time since 1928. Additionally, we’ve heard rumblings that Manchin’s own numbers are not as strong as they used to be, and he might sense the political winds shifting in his state as he eyes a reelection bid in 2018 — or a return to the governor’s office in 2016.

One longtime West Virginia observer said that the chances of a Manchin party switch were remote but added, “Manchin changes with the wind.”

Perhaps other senators could be induced to flip sides, though those changes might not necessarily change the majority party. One possibility if the Republicans win a clear majority (something like 52 or more seats) is that their edge may grow as someone like King decides life is better in the majority. In 1994, Republicans won a 52-seat majority that increased to 54 seats after Sen. Richard Shelby (AL) and then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO) switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. This is all the more incentive — the good Democratic Senate map coming in 2016 is another — for Republicans to think of their Senate goal as more than just 51 seats.

The general public is probably getting sick of this election because they hate Congress and they would rather watch cereal commercials than political ads. The political class is getting sick of this election because it distracts from Hillarymania and the Republican presidential jumble.

There are many who want this election over and done with on Nov. 4. But they may not get their wish.
Oops! They Weren’t Supposed to Win
November’s recent surprise winners, plus your suggestions

U.Va. Center for Politics, The Crystal Ball Team September 18th, 2014

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week he took a look at races that featured upsets and surprising outcomes in Senate and gubernatorial contests since 2002. In the piece, he asked for readers to let us know if we missed any races worth mentioning, and they didn’t disappoint. Here are the contests we heard the most about:

2008 Alaska Senate: The race we received the most emails and tweets about was the 2008 Senate contest in Alaska, and for good reason: Mark Begich (D) took down 40-year incumbent Sen. Ted Stevens (R) in a red state during a presidential election. Stevens was weighed down by scandal as he was indicted and initially convicted for failing to properly report gifts (the conviction was later thrown out). Begich, whose father, Rep. Nick Begich (D), disappeared in a plane while campaigning for reelection in 1972, was ahead in the polls — polling averages had him up four points over the incumbent. But in the end, the younger Begich only won by a little over a point, in part because of then-Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) place on the Republican presidential ticket. In fact, on Election Night it looked like Stevens might actually hold on; only after absentee ballots and canvassing did Begich come out the narrow victor. It’s possible that Stevens would have considered challenging Begich in 2014 at the ripe old age of 90, but sadly he too died in a plane crash in 2010.

2002 Georgia Governor: We definitely overlooked this contest, which saw incumbent Gov. Roy Barnes (D) lose to Sonny Perdue (R) despite leading every pre-election poll and outspending the challenger six-to-one. This was a remarkable upset that no one saw coming, and it made Perdue the first GOP governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, a further indication of the growing Republicanism of Georgia and other Southern states. Not only did Perdue win unexpectedly, but he did so by five points — not exactly a squeaker.

2010 Delaware Senate: Some readers asked about this race and it merits inclusion, although it ended up being a blowout win for Democrats. Yet in the summer of 2010, most analysts were anticipating it being a blowout win for Republicans. Long-time Rep. Mike Castle (R) looked likely to defeat Chris Coons (D) in November. But the Sept. 14 GOP primary turned the race on its head as Tea Party fervor carried Christine O’Donnell to an upset win over Castle for the party’s nomination. Coons immediately became the favorite, and O’Donnell self-destructed over the next two months, leading to a nearly 17-point Coons victory.

In addition to these three races, a couple readers thought the piece should have mentioned the 2014 gubernatorial contest in Hawaii as an example of party factionalism potentially playing a role in an outcome. Independent ex-Democrat Mufi Hannemann, a former mayor of Honolulu, could potentially siphon off Democratic votes from the party’s nominee, state Sen. David Ige. If Hannemann remains relevant in the race, he could help give former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R) a real shot at winning the governorship. As we said last week, we tend to think Hannemann will fade, but his place in the race certainly makes the Aloha State worth mentioning.

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