Senate pre-game capsule: Republicans favored, extra innings possible

Posted at 2:41 PM, Oct 31, 2014

The battle for control of the Senate is a bit like this year’s World Series between the Giants and the Royals – steady, not glitzy, close and long. There are no superstar new candidates, both sides are good at the fundamentals, there are lots of close races and it will take awhile for the winner to emerge but there is a clear favorite.  That would be the Republicans.

Election night should be fun and long. Heading in to Election Day, there are an unusual number of jump ball races. The Cook Report lists 10 races as toss-ups.  Seven of them, however, are for seats held by the Democrats in Republican leaning states.

The stats

The macro factors this year clearly favor the Republicans.

The current Senate has 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents that caucus with the Democrats. The Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain the majority.  A tie goes to the Democrats as the vice president has the tie-breaking vote.

Of the 36 Senate seats up for reelection this year, the Democrats are defending 21 of them. An unusual number of those seats just happen to be in red states. While just one Republican incumbent is retiring, four veteran Democrats are.

The other variables that frame midterm elections are the economy and the popularity of the president. Obama isn’t popular. His approval ratings hover at the lowest point of his administration. Unemployment and growth figures are mediocre, but measures of consumer confidence remain depressed.

All the quantitative models that factor in economic conditions, political conditions and current polling predict a Republican takeover of the Senate. As of Friday morning, The New York Times model gave the GOP a 71 percent shot at snatching the Senate. Nate Silver’s 538 sites puts the probability at 68.5 percent. The Washington Post’s prediction is way out on a limb with a 95 percent probability of a Republican takeover.

The lineup

There are three batches of races to keep an eye on in tracking the Republican path to 51 seats.

First, are states that are all but certain to go from blue to red. The incumbent Senators in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia all retired. Republicans are overwhelming favorites in all three states. That means Republicans need to scoop just three more wins among all the other close races.

To improve their odds, the Democrats need to pick-off some Republican seats. They have only two and a half chances of that. The half-chance is Kansas, where the incumbent, Pat Roberts, is in some trouble, but probably not dire trouble. The problem is the Democrat in the race dropped out. Roberts’ challenge comes from an independent, Greg Orman, who hasn’t said which side he would caucus with.

The Democrats’ best hope for a turnover is in Georgia, where Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss retired. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of long-serving Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, is running against businessman David Perdue. It has been a tough, nasty race. It’s a tossup.

The Democrats' juiciest target was Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky but the race hasn’t played out as they hoped. It remains competitive but there aren’t many people predicting a McConnell loss.

That leaves a group of seven genuine toss-up races for seats now held by Democrats: Iowa, where Tom Harkin, has retired, and Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Michigan also is competitive, though the Democrat is now favored.

So, depending on what happens in Georgia and Kansas, the Republicans will need to win between three and five of the seven toss-ups, with three the more likely target. It isn’t that tall an order for the Republicans.

Relief pitching

Democrats hope that if there is a surprise, it will come from their superior “ground game” – their volunteer networks, “get out the vote” operations and technology for communicating with voters. There has been some analysis of early voting so far and Democrats say they see hopeful signs.

The Democrats also have the financial edge this cycle and will have more TV ads in the last days to make their closing arguments in many of the close races. In all of these states, however, voters have been blitzed with ads from candidates and independent groups for months.

Republicans can counter with a couple of punches. First, in non-presidential elections, turnout tends to be lowest among groups that favor Democrats – young people and minorities. This year, the most motivated voters seem to be people who want to vote against the president and Washington. That favors the Republicans.

Extra innings

Both sides are preparing for extra innings: recounts and run-offs.

In Louisiana and Georgia, the winning candidate has to get more than 50 percent of the vote. With minor candidates and whisker thin margins, a run-off is possible in either state. The executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had said a run-off could cost an additional $35 million to 40 million if control of the Senate is at stake.

And with so many tight races, there is a distinct possibility of a recount somewhere. And that means there is a distinct possibility that at breakfast on the Wednesday after the election, we won’t know who controls the Senate.  That should make for a frisky lame-duck session. 

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