Senate landscape: Four battlegrounds going into the final stretch

For much of the cycle, an unusually large number of competitive Senate races has made it difficult to discernĀ  the lay of the land or to identify those contests that were most important in deciding the composition of the next Senate.

We are now mid-October - and there finally is a fairly uncontroversial sense of the key Senate battlegrounds: If you must focus your attention on just 4 states, look at Colorado, Illinois, Nevada and West Virginia.

The first three states have been stable since early in the summer. In CO, Ken Buck’s slight advantage has remained within the margin of error; in IL, whatever tiny edge Mark Kirk might have opened at some point has disappeared; and in NV, I doubt there has been more than a couple independent polls since the June primary with either candidate outside the margin of error - making it arguably the most stable Senate race in the county.

Moving WV to the toss-up column, however, has been a big accomplishment for Republicans. (Of course, they were helped by Joe Manchin’s decision to move the election to 2010.) The state’s hostility to national Democrats has proven just as strong as Manchin’s popularity (remember voters would keep Manchin as Governor Mansion if they elect Joe Raese to the Senate), though Manchin appears to have stopped the bleeding, partly because of the controversy over the NRSC hiring actors to play “hickeys.” But this is the Senate race Democrats should care the least about since Manchin has been sending clear signals that he would model himself on the Ben Nelsons of the Senate by airing a campaign ad showing him shooting a literal gun at cap-and-trade reform and denouncing “Obamacare.”

Elsewhere: Washington and Wisconsin now clearly lean towards Democrats and Republicans, respectively. There could definitely be movement in either race - especially in WA, though Patty Murray’s advantage over Dino Rossi is more decisive than in other contests because voters are going to start voting within days in the state’s all-mail system. In WI, it is stunning to think that Russ Feingold was hardly considered vulnerable at the start of 2010; even over the summer, people thought he was no worse than Boxer and Murray. But Johnson’s spending spree combined with the Midwest’s economic hardships has dramatically altered the race; Feingold is now consistently trailing by a daunting high single-digits margin.

While I’d be less surprised if Pennsylvania and California grow more competitive, there is no question that Pat Toomey and Barbara Boxer now enjoy an unquestionable advantage. But Pennsylvania has grow increasingly heated, with the NRSC now on air; and Boxer’s edge in California remains small, though the large number of polls showing her around the 50% mark make it hard to see how Carly Fiorina could reach that threshold.

With less than three weeks to go, the suspense is mostly gone in the other Democratic-held seats: While Connecticut and Delaware were long considered either competitive (CT) or sure Republican pick-ups (DE), Richard Blumenthal and Chris Coons are now in a solid position - as is Kirsten Gillibrand in New York.

The landscape among GOP-held seats is even clear: I would be surprised if Democrats picked-up any. That of course is a huge collapse of fortunes since mid-2009, when the party had a lot of promising opportunities. In fact, Democrats’ best shot at a pick-up is now arguably a candidate few people had heard of before August: Scott McAdams. While it would still be a huge surprise if he won in Alaska, there is mounting evidence that the unexpected 3-way race with Joe Miller and Lisa Murkowski gives him an opening to eek out a narrow victory: three polls over the past 24 hours have found the three candidates within 6% to 9% of each other.

Add to that the imprecision of measuring a write-in vote, and I’d be less surprised at a McAdams victory than I would be at a Robin Carnahan (MO), Paul Hodes (NH) or Jack Conway (KY) comeback - though all three still deserve to be watched, especially Kentucky. I have also moved Florida to the likely Republican column, as Marco Rubio has looked like the prohibitive favorite for so many months it’s hard to believe this once looked like it would be the cycle’s highest-profile race.

To recap: CO, IL, NV and WV are the four key Senate battlegrounds heading in the final stretch, while California, Washington and Pennsylvania could still grow tighter. It is also worth keeping an eye on Alaska and Kentucky.

To take control of the Senate, the GOP needs to win in all the states in which it now has a clear lead (including PA and WI), sweep the four battlegrounds (CO, IL, NV and WV) and score an upset in one of the Pacific Coast states (WA, CA). Given that most Senate toss-ups tend to go to the same party, this is not an implausible scenario; but Boxer and Murray’s ability to defend their leads has given Democrats some breathing room.

Note that I am changing the ratings of six races today. 2 favor Democrats: Alaska (likely Republican to lean Republican), Connecticut (lean Democratic to likely Democratic). And 4 favor Republicans: Florida (lean Republican to likely Republican), Indiana (lean Republican to likely Republican), New Hampshire (toss-up to lean Republican), Wisconsin (toss-up to lean Republican). Thus:

Safe GOP Likely GOP Lean GOP Toss-up Lean Dem Likely Dem Safe Dem
Dem-held ND AR

GOP-held AL

This gets us to the following breakdown:

  • Safe Democratic: 45
  • Safe/Likely Democratic: 48 (-1)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 49 50
  • Toss-ups: 4 (-2)
  • Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 46 (+2)
  • Safe/Likely Republican: 40 (+1)
  • Safe Republican: 34

10 Responses to “Senate landscape: Four battlegrounds going into the final stretch”

  1. 1 Gerard


    Great write-up, most of these races seem to be set, Missouri and Ohio just fell apart in the past month or so, unfortunately. I wonder how other races, such as gubernatorial and US House races will effect all these Senate contests. Also, are there any referendums that might bring out voters, for example, in California there is a ballot measure that seeks to legalize marijuana (how this jibes with federal law is another story).

    I am not very hopeful about Pennsylvania at this point. During the Democrat’s primary, Sestak nailed Spector in the last few weeks with his ad using video of Spector talking about switching parties to get reelected. I haven’t seen Sestak put out something equally damaging on Toomey, although, I also think that Sestak needs to better explain what he’d do differently to get the economy moving, he can’t just be against Toomey. Spector was in office for decades, so people were open to someone new, now it is Sestak versus Toomey, both new in terms of holding a statewide office. The Republican Attorney General Corbett has been ahead in most polls for most of this year, so this will help Toomey too. I know that not everyone votes a straight party ticket these days, but some do, especially when the candidates aren’t incumbents. Pennsylvania does have 1 million more Democrats than Republicans, but the polls aren’t showing that this is helping any of the Democrats.

    There is always a surprise or two on election night, I wonder what that will be, Alaska is a good possibility. Apparently Miller, the GOP candidate, isn’t interested in talking to the press in his own state, a small state where this would seem to be more important. A lot of the state’s business interests, who make money off all of the federal funds that flow to Alaska, a lot of these people are concerned about Miller and not sure if Murkowski is too much of a risk. Murkowski’s write-in campaign is quite a long shot. This helps McAdams, the Democrat, but it takes a lot for a Democrat to win statewide in Alaska.

    I thought North Carolina might tighten up, but Marshall, the Democrat, seems to be sliding further back all the time. Burr, the Republican, still isn’t over 50%, (although getting closer), so he could have possibly been beaten this year by a stronger opponent.

    New Hampshire and Wisconsin also seem lost for the Democrats, as do Florida and Louisiana.

    Kentucky is interesting. Many pundits are wondering why Rand Paul, the GOP opthamologist, hasn’t already put the race away. I wonder why Conway, the Democrat State Attorney General (voted into office statewide and thus far more well known), I wonder why Conway hasn’t closed the deal either. This one seems as though it will be close on election night. The Dems do well running statewide for state offices and hold the governorship, lieutenant governorship, attorney general and auditor’s positions, but the GOP seems to do well in terms of voting for Presidential candidates. The House delegation is evenly split, and the incumbents GOP Senators seem to squeeze in with not very impressive voting margins, so who knows? (There were over 100,000 more voters in the Democrats Senate primary this year than in the GOP Senate primary, if that means anything, and both parties had spirited contests)

    Daniel, very glad to see you are able to run this blog again. Have you though about maybe emailing some of our former “blogees” and letting them know you are here again?

    Thanks, Gerard

  2. 2 Gerard

    In my first posting, in discussing the Pennsylvania race, I didn’t mention that GOP attorney general is running for the governorship of Pennsylvania.

  3. 3 Taniel

    Unfortunately, I wouldn’t call this running the blog (I used to write 14 posts a week rather than, well, 1), but I’m grateful that there are still some people around to read! I hadn’t thought about e-mailing former blogees, let’s see if I can o so.

    One other comment: I really don’t think we see surprises on Election Days at the Senate level. We are bound to see many at the House level, sure; but there is too much coverage and too many polls of Senate races for surprises to occur. None of the 2006 or 2008 Senate results were unexpected in any way. The closest thing to a surprise was how close Ted Stevens came to winning (even then, once all the votes were counted Begich prevailed by 3%).

    On the House level, it’s a whole other story. We had NH-1, MN-1, KS-2, NH-2, IA-2 in 2006; VA-5, AK-AL and LA-2 in 2008. And don’t be surprised if Dem House incumbents who are currently in my “likely” column (and in everyone’s likely column for that matter) fall next month while better-prepared but seemingly more vulnerable incumbents survive (as Gerlach/Reichert/Shays/Kirk did in 2006).

  4. 4 Ron

    Taniel, I could see people like Charlie Wilson and Mike Ross going down while people like Bobby Bright and Baron Hill survive.

  5. 5 Nathan

    Nice article. I do have one question: if the total number of safe/likely/lean Dem Senate seats is 49, then why do the Republicans have to win one of the lean-D seats (Ca or Wa) to take over the Senate? Couldn’t they just defend all their leaners, and sweep the tossups? I think there might be a small error in the tabulation, although the gist of the article seems correct and informative.

  6. 6 Gerard

    Perhaps this ad of Sestak will help (If I can put this link here):

  7. 7 Ogre Mage

    The Republicans will not pick up either CA or WA. The GOP challengers in those races have gross vulnerabilities and they are running in Democratic leaning states. Dino Rossi is a two-time statewide loser with a history of shady business dealings. Carly Fiorina had a controversial (to put in politely) tenure at HP from which she profited handsomely though many others at the company did not and she has taken far-right positions ill-suited to the CA electorate.

  8. 8 fritz

    Has anyone noticed the trend of these tea party candidates to question the masculinity of their opponents.
    First it was Christine O’Donnell saying about both her foes in DE; that they weren’t ‘manly’.
    Then it was Sharron Angle in NV calling out to Harry Reid to ‘man up Harry man up’.
    And now it’s Rand Paul telling Conway to ‘be a man’ in the KY debate.
    I don’t know if it’s some latent homophobia or just a really odd coincidence but I do find it passing strange.

  9. 9 Nathan

    Could be they agree with me that “homophobia” is an Orwellian word and “act like a man” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say to a…, well, man. (I would also add that they are juxtaposing their opponents’ behavior with that of children, not with that of gay people.)

  10. 10 fritz

    Your probably right about Paul and Angle; O’Donnell not so much.

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