I last wrote on the 2014 midterm elections almost two months ago, and since then a lot has changed in a number of Senate races; however, my bigger picture prediction of a narrow Republican majority in the Senate remains unchanged. This is because unlike in past years, individual race changes have largely cancelled each other out. In other words, some races have moved towards the Republican and others towards the Democrat, whereas in years like 2012 and 2006, races shifted to the Democrats.
I previously identified four states that Obama won with competitive senate races: Michigan, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Iowa. Of these four, Michigan is no longer competitive and Gary Peters (D) should win unless there is a truly shocking result. In New Hampshire, incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has consistently lead former Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, but the race has tightened and while she is still favored, she could very well lose.
On the other hand, Iowa and Colorado both lean towards the Republican candidate. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall (D) has run a poor reelection campaign, focusing almost exclusively on Cory Gardner’s positions on birth control. Meanwhile, Gardner has run a fantastic campaign – he is always cheery and is viewed much more positively than Udall. Gardner is one of the Republicans’ strongest candidates for Senate in recent memory, and polling has consistently showed him ahead. It’s not impossible for Udall to win, but he is definitely the underdog here. Meanwhile in Iowa, Democrat Bruce Braley has also run a poor campaign but Republican Joni Ernst has made some inflammatory remarks, and while she is ahead, Braley is definitely not out of this one. Democrats absolutely have to win these two races if they are going to win the Senate.
Meanwhile, in the races where incumbent Democrats are running for reelection in states won by Mitt Romney – North Carolina, Alaska, Louisiana, and Arkansas – things have largely shifted towards the Republicans. In Louisiana, and Arkansas, the Republican candidates are expected to win and it would be surprising but not impossible if the Democrats pulled out victory. In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) has run a strong campaign but it might not be enough to overcome the state’s Republican lean. In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) has run a strong campaign and has consistently lead over the unpopular Thom Tillis (R), who is currently the Speaker of the House in North Carolina’s state legislature, but the state’s Republican lean in a year where Obama is very unpopular has made this a close race. North Carolina is another race which Democrats absolutely need to win if they want to control the Senate.
Finally, I looked at three states currently represented by Republicans – Kentucky, Georgia, and Kansas. Of the three, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky would likely only lose in a wave election for Democrats, and his reelection is a safe bet. Georgia has interestingly moved towards the Democrat Michelle Nunn as Republican David Perdue has made unpopular comments supporting outsourcing of jobs. This race is a true toss-up, and with the presence of Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford on the ballot, it is unlikely that either candidate will get to 50%, triggering a January runoff election. Finally, after Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race in Kansas two months ago, independent candidate Greg Orman lead the unpopular Sen. Pat Roberts (R) for most of September, Roberts has pulled even with Orman and this race is now also a toss-up. If Orman wins, he would be the first senator elected from Kansas that wasn’t a Republican since 1938, and the state’s Republican pull is what might ultimately save Roberts. In an additional fourth state, South Dakota, there is a slim chance that Mike Rounds (R) might lose due to a scandal during his time as governor of the state, but the presence of a strong independent candidate Larry Pressler has split the anti-Rounds vote and so Rounds is likely to win.
In sum, races like Michigan, Georgia, and Kansas have moved towards the Democrats while races like Colorado, Iowa, and Kentucky have moved towards the Republicans, largely cancelling each other out. Republicans are playing on a very favorable map, and they should win Kentucky, Louisiana, and Arkansas while the Democrats win Michigan and New Hampshire. That leaves six races that either side could reasonably win: North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia, Iowa, Alaska, and Colorado, and Republicans need to win three of them to take the Senate. However, North Carolina is the only one of those states that leans towards the Democrat; in every other state the Republican candidate is more likely than not to win. I expect Republicans to win four of the six and take a 52-48 majority, with the most likely pickups being Colorado, Alaska, Georgia, and Kansas.
Of course, we won’t know the results until Election Day, and it’s quite likely that we won’t even know until after Election Day. Both Louisiana and Georgia are likely to go to runoffs, and Alaska’s elections take a long time to sort out due to how big the state is and difficulties with receiving ballots. But while it wouldn’t be shocking if the Democrats held on to their majority, I expect that Republicans will ultimately win the Senate in 2014.
After all that analysis, it might worth wondering why it matters who wins the Senate this year. No matter who controls the Senate, Democrats will still control the White House and Republicans will still control the House of Representatives, and in this era it takes a majority in the House, a 60 seat majority in the Senate, and the presidency to enact sweeping reforms – a result that will almost certainly not happen.
However, for Democrats, if they can limit Republican gains to only a few seats, they should win a fair number of seats in 2016 which would put them in range of a supermajority in the Senate. If they can also take back the House and Hillary Clinton is elected President, they would then have control of DC and would be able to enact strong progressive legislation. On the other side, if Republicans have a strong year in 2014 in the Senate, they can hold on to the Senate in 2016 while also winning the presidency which would result in the GOP controlling all three branches.
Finally, if Republicans win the Senate, things will also look different in the next two years. Perhaps Obama’s only achievements through Congress since January 2013 have been appointing members to the judiciary after the Senate amended the filibuster so that judicial appointments required a 51 vote majority for cloture. Under a Republican Senate, these nominations would mostly be dead in the water. In the event that Justice Ginsburg were to leave the Court during the 114th Congress, replacing her with a similarly liberal nominee would be much more difficult for President Obama. Finally, the GOP can force Obama’s hand on a number of tough decisions, especially through the budget reconciliation process which only requires 51 votes in the Senate. For example, as a part of a bill that funded major parts of the government, they could attach provisions that weakened the Affordable Care Act. If Obama vetoed this bill and caused a shutdown, Republicans could then blame Obama for causing the shutdown. Thus, while election forecasting may seem dry and uninteresting, elections have important results for policy and understanding how elections work is critical to having the ability to enact desirable policy changes.
Featured image courtesy of realclearpolitics.com