For much of the cycle, an unusually large number of competitive Senate races has made it difficult to discern 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|
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