Senate landscape: Delaware’s abrupt flip is small compensation for many seats’ drift towards GOP

After years of daily blogging, I didn’t update this blog for six months. I resisted through the many thrilling primary nights - from Arlen Specter’s loss and Blanche Lincoln’s survival to Rick Scott and Joe Miller’s triumphs; I resisted through the deterioration of Democrats’ electoral outlook and the entry of still-new candidates, which made much of the rankings I had written in early 2010 obsolete; I resisted through game-changing developments like Charlie Crist’s departure from Florida’s GOP primary and Scott McInnis’s Colorado collapse; I resisted even as the playing field of truly competitive House races doubled from around 40 to around 80.

But now that we have entered the campaign’s final stretch - and what a way to close the primary season last night! - I cannot resist any longer.

This is in many ways a bad idea. For one, I have even less time to devote to such writing now than I did in March, so the wisest course would be to stay out of this. Second, I think my blog was a good read because it offered daily and detailed analysis, something I will not even try to replicate. I have little hope of posting more than standard looks at the overall outlook - but it will hopefully not be too boring.

Nonetheless: the time has come to chime in with my impressions of what the political landscape looks like. Let’s start with the Senate.

I am writing this the day after Christine O’Donnell scored what I’d argue is the year’s biggest primary upset, so at this very moment Democrats are feeling far more giddy about their Senate prospects than they have in months. Delaware’s Senate seat was rated as a ‘likely Republican’ pick-up ever since Rep. Mike Castle entered the race while Beau Biden declined to run last year, but last night’s stunning result took the race and threw it all the way to the ‘likely Democratic’ column - as abrupt a change as you’ll ever see.

Given all that has gone wrong for Senate Democrats since January 19th, this represents a huge break - and one that will have major consequences in next year’s balance of power.

But looking back at the past six months, there is no absolutely no question that Senate Democrats are in a far worse position than was thought possible when 2010 started - even if we account for the latest Delaware situation. Republicans might no longer have a clear shot at winning a Senate majority this November, but the mere fact that this remains in the realm of possibilities is just stunning considering where we were in January.

senate-race-15-sep-10

Which translates to the following ratings (any race in the “lean” category is one that looks very much competitive):

Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held ND AR IN
PA
CA
CO
IL
NV
WI
CT
WA
DE
WV
HI
MD

NY-A
NY-B
OR
VT
GOP-held AL
AZ
GA
IA
KS
ID
OK
SC
SD
UT
AK
LA
FL
KY
NC
OH

MO
NH

This gets us to the following breakdown:

  • Safe Democratic: 46
  • Safe/Likely Democratic: 48
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 50
  • Toss-ups: 7
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 43
  • Safe/Likely Republican: 37
  • Safe Republican: 34

First of all, I want to note that the playing field of competitive Senate races is double the size it was in the last cycle. In September 2008 - the comparable point of the cycle - I had just 8 races listed in the toss-up or lean columns. Today, I have 15!

And while many of those are Republican (6), Democratic seats are obviously more precarious.

After Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election, Republicans started whispering that they could win anywhere - and so I looked at whether the NRSC had any hope of expanding the map in 7 states that were at the time considered safely Democratic: Connecticut, New York, California, Wisconsin, Indiana, Washington and Hawaii.

Today, one of these seven seats looks like a Republican pick-up (Indiana) while three are highly competitive (Washington, Wisconsin and California).

While Democrats were blindsided by Evan Bayh’s retirement, in most years Brad Ellsworth would have had a better chance against a candidate with as much baggage as Dan Coats. In Washington, Dino Rossi would not have considered jumping in the race had it not been for the Massachusetts precedent; and while he did lose two gubernatorial races, he has as strong a candidate as the party could have fielded, though I believe Patty Murray is in a stronger position than her colleagues from California and Wisconsin.

Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold are indeed looking quite weak; while they were sometimes listed as vulnerable in 2009, I doubt that many Democrats took the threat that seriously - especially when Campbell and Thompson lost the nomination and declined to run, respectively. And I question how viable Ron Johnson would be in most cycles, though the millions of self-funding he’s pouring in never hurt. I’d say the Democratic position in these two states is now more endangered than their chances in any GOP-held seat is promising. Which is quite a turn of events.

Add to that Arkansas (which now looks as gone as North Dakota), Pennsylvania (where Joe Sestak is now trailing Pat Toomey rather consistently, though Democrats remain very much committed to winning this race), Colorado, Illinois and Nevada (all of which are shaping to be toss-ups to the end), and Democrats are staring at big losses.

But it should be a relief for Democrats that Colorado, Illinois and Nevada have all stabilized into toss-up status: There was a point at which each of them looked like it would slip away, none more so than Nevada. Harry Reid’s prospects looked to be as low as can be from the summer of 2009 through May 2010, and I just don’t see how the Majority Leader could have survived had the GOP nominated anyone but Sharron Angle. Does this mean Reid will win? No: Nevada is no Delaware and Harry Reid is no Chris Coons. The race will remain close, and Angle could still win it for Republicans. But the race’s outlook is far more favorable for Reid than I’d have thought possible when I left in March.

Colorado, meanwhile, might very well be the ultimate toss-up, with a little-known but not that unpopular politician facing a conservative who isn’t quite as controversial as some of his fellow Tea Party nominees; one factor that should help Democrats is the state GOP’s utter collapse in the Governor’s race. The McInnis-Maes-Tancredo debacle will lead to a runaway victory for Denver Mayor Hickenlooper - and it leaves Buck entirely unable to rely on the other candidate’s at the top of his party’s ticket.

Things could also have been worse for Democrats in Illinois, where Alexi Giannoulias’s prospects looked increasingly bleak until repeated scandals suggesting he had exaggerated various parts of his resume stopped any momentum Mark Kirk might have had; the race is now in a holding pattern, with both candidates polling at atrociously low levels given their high profile. And in Pennsylvania, I still think the seat would have been more comfortably Republican had Specter survived the Democratic primary.

So what remains? Democrats did salvage Hawaii, where Senator Dan Inouye did not retire, and New York, where the NRSC suffered a rare recruitment failure, likely ensuring an easy victory for Kirsten Gillibrand. In Connecticut, Blumenthal remains favored, but he’s hardly as invincible as he looked in the spring; in Delaware, Coons has to be careful not to let O’Donnell pull another stunner; and another must-win seat was added for Democrats: West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is heavily favored to win the special election this November, but we cannot entirely rule out an upset.

Meanwhile, Democrats have watched their chances at GOP-held seats slip away.

Republican candidates in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire and Missouri have opened leads. That’s hardly surprising: Voters are even more likely to vote based on their party preferences in open seat races - and given that all of these states are closely divided (or even pro-GOP, in Missouri’s case) in balanced circumstances, it’s logical to expect the GOP to have a solid edge in a year in which conservatives are in the upswing.

In Florida, Charlie Crist’s independent bid muddied the waters for a bit, but at this point I’d argue he looks most likely to compete with Kendrick Meek to avoid coming in 3rd. In Ohio, national Democrats are down enough on Lee Fisher’s chances that I suspect they might give up on the state - a reverse scenario from 2006, where national Republicans gave up on Senator Mike DeWine weeks before Election Day.

I’m not sure which of New Hampshire and Missouri offers Democrats their best shot. It’s a testament to Robin Carnahan’s strength that she has remained viable and the DSCC’s first expenditure was in Missouri, indicating they believe in her chances; and in New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte remains an undefined candidate, and the GOP primary (in which she relied on Sarah Palin’s endorsement) might have hurt her in the general election electorate. The bottom-line is that New Hampshire independents are likely to swing en bloc while Missouri didn’t go for Obama in 2008, but all these races are worth following.

Remain Kentucky and Alaska, two red states which wouldn’t have been part of the discussion had establishment pick Tray Greyson and incumbent Lisa Murkowski survived their primaries. Rand Paul and Joe Miller’s primary victories created a stir, however, and make the fall races more interesting than they would have been otherwise.

Kentucky has a history of voting Democratic in non-presidential races, but it might be much to expect them to do so in 2010 - even though Attorney General Jack Conway is a strong candidate and Rand Paul has endangered himself with some of his libertarian views. And Alaska proved itself quite conservative in 2008, though its dependence on federal funds will make it interesting to see how voters respond to Miller’s extreme fiscal conservatism - and it’s worth mentioning that Sitka (the town Dem nominee Scott McAdams is the mayor of) was larger than Wasilla at the time of the 2000 census.

As for North Carolina and Louisiana, they might have been top pick-up opportunities in 2008 given Richard Burr’s unimpressive numbers and David Vitter’s baggage - and there’s an argument to be made Elaine Marshall has a better chance to turn voters against an incumbent than Democratic candidates from open seats have of escaping the cycle’s generic dynamic. But it’s hard to see either Marshall or Charlie Melancon succeeding without help from the DSCC, and the national committee is unlikely to pay much attention to either of them.

All of this gets me to a projection of about a 7 seat pick-up for the GOP. But what do you guys think - if I have any readers left after a six months hiatus?

14 Responses to “Senate landscape: Delaware’s abrupt flip is small compensation for many seats’ drift towards GOP”


  1. 1 Joe from NC

    Taniel-
    Glad to see you’re back.
    I’ve been following your twitter feed on this website off and on for the past six months.

  2. 2 Wills

    Thanks for the update!I’ve also been following your twitter, and am so glad to see you’re back to writing.

  3. 3 Ken

    Glad to see you back! I’ve always enjoyed your blog but, of course, understood the time that it must take. Great post! I’ll start following you now on Twitter.

  4. 4 as

    Thanks for the posting. I’ve missed reading your updates and analysis. Glad your back.

  5. 5 Panos

    I always follow you Taniel on Twitter. Too bad we couldn’t have your commentary during such an entertaining primary season.

  6. 6 fritz

    Welcome back Taniel. I’ve been following you on twitter but found the lack of detailed analysis frustrating so I look forward to the posts like this one that you can really get your teeth into; so to speak. It looks like a fascinating election season; though maybe not a pleasant one for we on the left of the political spectrum.

  7. 7 fritz

    Your analysis is pretty much what the CW says and I have a hard time arguing with those conclusions.
    I don’t see any lessening of the Republican/Tea Party enthusiasm but there is still time to gin up the Democratic base and maybe not have a total disaster in November.
    The Democratic Party may finally be doing that with the introduction of the Dream Act & the repeal of DADT in the Defense Bill, naming Elizabeth Warren to the Consumer Protection Agency, allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire, getting Obama back on the campaign trail and going very negative in their close Senate campaigns. It may not turn things around but it may stop the bleeding.

  8. 8 kewgardens

    Still here after all these months . . .

    Looking forward to the House outlook. Right now, I’m projecting a 30-35 GOP gain. I just don’t understand how some of the uberpundits are coming up 45 or 50 seat pickups. Interested to hear your take.

  9. 9 Ogre Mage

    Taniel,

    I missed you.

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