As the GOP’s nightmare scenario continues to unfold, Democrats are making progress where it matters most, and four of the eleven seats Democrats have hope of picking-up today shift towards them: Virginia enters the safe take-over category, Colorado finally migrates up to the likely Democratic column (a move Democrats were hoping would happen a year ago), Oregon moves out of the toss-up column and Mississippi enters it. Oregon’s move means that six GOP-held seats are now considered to be at least leaning Democratic - though Gordon Smith and Elizabeth Dole are still highly competitive.
Tight Senate seats tend to break overwhelmingly in one direction on Election Day: Witness 2006, where Democrats nearly swept the toss-up races and 2002-2004, when Republicans did the same. And this is what puts Republicans in a precarious position: In addition to these now six Dem-leaning seats, three are rated toss-ups (Alaska, Minnesota and Mississippi) and two (Kentucky and Georgia) are barely hanging on as lean Republican.
If the political winds continues to push Democratic candidates in the next 10 days, Democrats could very well pull a near-sweep of these five races, scoring nine to eleven pick-ups. Even if the GOP manages to stop the bleeding, it is difficult to see how they can avoid losing at least five seats.
However, two outside factors could save Republicans from a Democratic sweep and allow them to salvage Alaska and Georgia’s race even if November 4th turns out to be a blue tsunami. First, of course, is the Ted Stevens trial. If the jury acquits Stevens, the Alaska Senate race would move to the lean Republican column. If the decision has not come by November 4th (as the deliberations keep being delayed), all bets are off.
Second, a blue wave would not only have to carry Jim Martin ahead of Saxby Chambliss for him to score a victory on November 4th, it would also have to get him across 50%. If neither candidate crosses that threshold (and that is very much possible given the candidacy of Libertarian candidate Allen Buckley), a runoff will be held on December 2nd. Such a runoff would seem to favor Sen. Chambliss. For one, Barack Obama would no longer be at the top of the ticket, which would make a boost in black turnout unlikely (African-Americans make up 35,4% of early voters for now, far higher than in 2004). Second, voters might not be looking to punish Republicans anymore by December 2nd, especially if Obama wins the presidency and if Democrats have already secured a big Senate majority. That would make it far easier for the GOP to argue that keeping Chambliss is necessary to not give Democrats too large a majority.
Virginia, likely take-over to safe take-over: Barack Obama is leading the state’s presidential race by double-digits in the latest polls, so what is the chance that Mark Warner stumbles? Jim Gilmore’s campaign has been a catastrophe from the start, and the state GOP will regret having barred Tom Davis’s path to the nomination.
Colorado, lean take-over to likely take-over: In what has been one of the most puzzling races of this cycle, nothing that either candidate did was moving poll numbers. Mark Udall remained consistently ahead by single-digits for more than a year despite expectations that he would be able to rapidly pull away. Even the revelations about Bob Schaffer’s connection to Jack Abramoff and the abortion and sweat-shop labor controversies that surrounded his trip to the Mariana Islands failed to significantly help Udall. Similarly, the GOP thought they were making progress when the public mood turned in favor of oil drilling; Republicans believed that would hurt Udall, who is a staunch conservationist, and even Udall must have thought the same thing since he abruptly reversed his stance on drilling in the late summer. Yet, Udall’s defensive summer position made no dent in his modest polling lead.
Over the past month, however, the race appears to have decisively broken in Udall’s favor. The economic crisis has hurt Republicans across the country, and nowhere more so than in open seats. In a supreme sign of confidence, the DSCC announced this week that it was pulling out of the state, no longer believing that Udall needed their help. The NRSC did the same yesterday, pulling its ads out and shifting the resources it had devoted to helping Schaffer to other more salvageable seats. While Colorado might not be as much of a lock as New Mexico and Virginia, it has become highly unlikely that Schaffer can pull off an upset.
Oregon, toss-up to lean take-over: Sen. Gordon Smith has been aware that he is vulnerable since the first days of the cycle and has done his best to prepare, but the environment is simply too toxic for Republicans - particularly in a blue state like Oregon. All polls suggest that Obama will crush McCain in the state, significantly outperforming Al Gore and John Kerry, a clear sign that Oregon’s independent voters are behaving like Democrats. The DSCC has been hammering Gordon Smith for months for his proximity to George Bush and for his party label, and it is remarkable that all of Smith’s ads touting his bipartisanship (some of which were quite effective) have not protected him. As if that was not enough, the Democratic surge of the past six weeks has perhaps damaged no Republican as much as Gordon Smith.
Merkley has now inched ahead in the latest polls and, while Merkley’s advantage remains narrow, Smith is stuck in the low 40s - very dangerous territory for an incumbent. That Merkley looks to be slightly ahead now is particularly significant because… Election Day is happening right now in Oregon. All voting is conducted via mail in Oregon, and the ballots arrived at voters’ home this week; these ballots have to be returned (not postmarked, returned) by November 4th, which means that most of the electorate will have voted by the middle of the next week. (As of Thursday, the ballots of 13% of registered voters had already arrived, with many more probably on the way.) All of this means that Smith has far less time than other endangered Republicans to try and turn the tide, and he will not benefit from any last-minute GOP surge.
All of this said, Smith is by no means out of the game, and this rating change is merely meant to reflect that Merkley now has a slight advantage. In particular, this is a race in which the GOP’s argument against unified government could resonate, and the liberal-leaning Oregonian endorsed Smith last week, warning against the possibility of a 60-seat Democratic Senate. That said, Smith is here plagued by the same problem we talked about above: Republicans have not yet started to make fear of a unified government the center of their congressional campaign, and even if they do that in the coming days, it might be too late in Oregon where many voters will have already cast their ballot.
Mississippi, lean retention to toss-up: Republicans felt much better about this state in the first half of September. Sarah Palin’s selection had invigorated the conservative base, and the post-convention GOP surge looked like it would be to put away races in very Republican areas. But things have shifted quite dramatically since my last rankings, and Ronnie Musgrove has gained as the conversation has turned to the economy. Research 2000 and Rasmussen have both showed him closing the gap Sen. Wicker had opened during the summer.
But there is another factor that has led me to move this race to a more competitive category: We have always known that Musgrove’s fortunes were tied to the level of black turnout, as race is the best predictor of the vote in Mississippi (Kerry got 14% of the white vote in 2004). Would Barack Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket boost African-American turnout? While we don’t have a response to that question in Mississippi, the early voting data that is being reported out of North Carolina and Georgia suggest that African-Americans are very motivated and that they might very well make up a far greater proportion of the electorate as they did in 2004. If that pattern holds in Mississippi, it could push Musgrove over the top.
This campaign has been particularly vicious, with both sides and the national committees exchanging brutal spots, with Democrats going after Wicker on economic issues (his votes against the minimum wage, for instance) and the GOP attacking Musgrove’s gubernatorial record. The Republican attacks have been more personal, as a subtext of the anti-Musgrove campaign has been the Democrat’s divorce as well as his efforts to change the Confederate-inspired state flag while he was governor; the GOP is also airing a gay-baiting ad tying Musgrove to the “homosexual agenda.”
Kansas, likely retention to safe retention: Democrats had some hope that former Rep. Slattery could make this a race, and some summer polls showing Republican Sen. Roberts under 50% gave them hope; even the Kansas press started noticing that there was a Senate race worth covering. But a wave of advertisement has allowed Roberts to regain his footing, despite a memorable ad by Slattery, and the incumbent is now leading by huge margins in the latest polls.
Texas, likely retention to safe retention: Late spring, Sen. Cornyn looked even more endangered than his neighbor from Kansas, as a string of polls showed him barely ahead of Democratic challenger Rick Noriega, a state Senator who might not have been a top-tier candidate but was certainly credible enough to exploit Cornyn’s vulnerabilities. Unfortunately for Democrats, Noriega never caught fire, and Cornyn’s poll numbers - while not as stellar as they could be - put him safely ahead. The main factor that explains why Texas did not become more competitive while North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia have joined the top-tier is money: It takes a lot of it to wage a campaign in the Lone Star State because of the high number of media markets one has to cover - many of which are very expensive. Noriega’s fundraising was not strong enough to get around that problem, and this also prevented the DSCC from moving in.
South Dakota, likely retention to safe retention: The race was kept in the potentially competitive category based on the possibility that Sen. Johnson’s health condition worsened and gave an opening to his Republican opponent, but Johnson has managed to coast his way to the election remarkably smoothly. South Dakota was once considered as one of the most competitive races of the cycle, but there has been nothing to see ever since Johnson announced he would run for re-election.
Full ratings and rankings are available here.