The 2014 Senate Elections: Will Republicans Win A Majority?

With a little over a month until the 2014 midterm elections, the battle to control the Senate is in full swing. Currently, the Democrats have the majority in the Senate, with 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats, giving the Democrats an effective majority of 55-45. So the Republicans need to take 6 seats to win the majority. Luckily, there are some things that favor the GOP this time around.

There are 36 seats up for election this year; the Democrats hold 21 of them and the Republicans 15. This means the Democrats have more ground to defend. Furthermore, the opposition party often does well in midterm elections, especially during a President’s 6th year, as dissatisfaction with the President leads to a backlash against his party. And President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are particularly low: he’s been struggling to keep his approval rating above 40%.

The GOP is practically certain to win 3 seats from the Democrats: Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. All three seats are “open” seats, meaning that the incumbent is retiring. All three are also in conservative states where the Republican Party has the advantage, and the GOP has produced good candidates with strong leads in the polls.

With those 3 in hand, the GOP is at 48, and needs 3 more. There are 11 competitive races this year that will determine the outcome. First, the 3 that Democrats hope to take from the GOP:

Kentucky: This seat is held by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He has always been unpopular even in his conservative state, but Democrats haven’t yet managed to take advantage, and while the race remains competitive, they probably won’t this year, either. No poll has shown the Democratic nominee – Secretary of State Alison Grimes – with a lead since early June. Polls have been consistently giving McConnell a lead of 4-8 points.

Georgia: The current Republican senator is retiring, making this an open seat. Democrats hope to take the seat by nominating Michelle Nunn, who is the daughter of a long-term former Democratic Senator and the CEO of a nonprofit organization. She is probably the best candidate the Democrats could have found, and the race has been close, but at this point she’s probably the underdog to Republican businessman David Perdue, who has consistently led in most polls for the past two months.

Kansas: Republican Senator Pat Roberts is a political dinosaur. 78 years old, he’s been in the Senate for three terms and wants a fourth. The problem is, he’s not very popular, and the Democratic candidate dropped out of the race a month ago and threw his support behind independent Greg Orman. Orman is a blank slate; he has never even said whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans, but presumably he would caucus with the side that helped him win, especially if they retain the majority. Roberts is in the fight of his political life. Orman has a lead in the polls, though it has been narrowing as Republican-leaning voters have probably been getting more suspicious of the help Orman is getting from the Democrats.

The GOP is trying to take 8 seats from the Democrats.

Michigan: This is an open seat. Democratic Rep. Gary Peters has consistently held a lead over former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, but the race remains fairly close and may be narrowing, as the four polls have shown Peters with a lead of 4, 5, 3, and 2 points respectively – down from 5-10 in some earlier polls. 15-20% of voters are still undecided and Peters seems to be stuck in the low forties, with a hard time getting above 45% – but Land has a hard time getting above 40%. Peters is the favorite, but Land has a shot if the undecided voters want to express dissatisfaction with Obama by voting against Peters.

New Hamphire: Moderate Republican Scott Brown, former senator from Massachusetts, moved north to New Hampshire to take on incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen. I consider this the least likely Republican pick-up; a CNN poll showed the race tied a couple weeks ago, but that appears to be an outlier as polls since have shown Shaheen leading by 5-7 points The race appears to have narrowed, as polls from March-July showed Brown trailing by 10-12 points, but it’s still Shaheen’s to lose.

North Carolina: Incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan has a small lead in the polls, but is deeply unpopular. The problem is, Republican candidate Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House, is also unpopular – due to both the legislature’s unpopularity and a flurry of Democratic attack ads – and is having trouble getting ahead of Hagan. But there are still scads of undecided voters, and undecided voters often break against the incumbent at the last minute. This race could go either way.

Iowa – The closest race in the nation. Democrats chose Rep. Bruce Braley to try to hold the seat vacated by retiring Tom Harkin. The Republicans had trouble finding a well-known candidate, but settled on state sen. Joni Ernst. Recent polls have shown numerous ties or narrow leads for one or the other. RealClearPolitics estimates that Ernst has an advantage of .02% right now. This race is a true tossup.

Colorado: Democratic incumbent Mark Udall is in trouble. Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has all the momentum; the last 5 polls have shown him with the lead. Combined with the GOP gubernatorial nominee leading the incumbent Democratic governor, Colorado could be set to go red in November.

Alaska: Republicans have the momentum here as well. Incumbent Senator Mark Begich has lost his lead in the polls. State attorney general Dan Sullivan looks to be leading by 4-5 points, on average. Alaska polling is notoriously unreliable, though.

Arkansas: Representative Tom Cotton is challenging incumbent Mark Pryor. For awhile, Pryor held a small lead. But most polls recently have given Cotton a pretty steady lead of 2-7 points. At this point, Cotton is favored to come out on top in this one.

Louisiana: This state has a weird system where the November election is actually an open primary; multiple Republican and Democratic candidates can run and if no one reaches a majority (as is common) a runoff is held in December. Unless there is some miracle, this year will feature a runoff as well; but Bill Cassidy, the main Republican candidate, has maintained a lead in most head-to-head polling over incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu. Democrats haven’t quite given up, but if more polls show him with a 13-point lead over Landrieu like a recent Fox News poll, they might.

If I had to make a prediction right now, I would say that the Republicans will win a majority. On the individual races, I would say Republicans keep KY and GA, and take AR, AK, and LA from the Democrats. But I would also say Orman is a slight favorite right now. I think the Democrats will keep NH. That leaves IA, CO, NC, and MI to decide control of the Senate. If the Democrats keep all four, then the Senate will be at 50-50 and Joe Biden will make the tiebreaking vote to keep Harry Reid the Majority Leader. If Republicans win one of the four, they take the lead. If they win more than one, they could withstand the loss of GA or KY if something changes in those races. And if they keep GA, KY, and KS, then they wouldn’t even need one of the four, assuming my prediction that they take AR, AK, and LA is correct. So on balance, I think a GOP majority is the most likely outcome.


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