Ten days ago, I wrote that the Senate battle was coming down to just four states: Illinois, Colorado, Nevada and West Virginia. But in the following week, the field of play looked like it was substantially expanding to incorporate many other contests.
For one, Republicans spent the past week trumpeting their chances in California, with a number of surveys pointing to a tightening race and rumors floating around that GOP internals showed a dead heat, Carly Fiorina and the NRSC both put their money where their mouth: Fiorina donated $1 million to her campaign after refusing to use her own fortune ever since the primary while the NRSC announced it would spend $3 million in the final week after having pulled back earlier in October. With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, Democrats grew nervous.
Meanwhile, Democratic fortunes improved in Pennsylvania. The first indications the state was more competitive than virtually all polls were indicating came when the DSCC and NRSC decided to pour in millions - not what you expect to see in what had looked like a probable GOP pick-up for months. These early hints were confirmed when two Democratic polls showed Joe Sestak pulling into a tie - and then PPP and Morning Call both found the Democrat narrowly ahead, something that hadn’t happened since springtime. This understandably made Pennsylvania the story last week and fueled Democratic hopes they could still hold their losses down.
Democratic interest also picked-up in two GOP-held seats: Alaska and Kentucky. While Alaska has always been a long-shot, the extent of Joe Miller’s failings (from revelations about his being fired after hacking in coworkers’ computers for political reasons to his bodyguards’ chilling decision to handcuff a journalist) gave Democrats hope Scott McAdams could eek out a victory - particularly if Lisa Murkowski supporters committed many errors in the process of writing-in her name.
And in Kentucky, Democrats insisted that Jack Conway’s Aqua Buddha ad (which is likely to be the cycle’s most memorable ad, though Christine O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” should give it a run for its money) combined to his attacks on Rand Paul’s Medicare plan had transformed the race; the DSCC even released an internal poll that showed Conway leading by 2%.
Various other states looked like they were also growing tighter. Republicans and Democrats pointed to (perhaps outlying) polls to claim Washington and Wisconsin were more competitive than commonly thought; Robin Carnahan mounted last-ditched efforts to convince she remained in the game; and rumors were floating that Kendrick Meek might drop out of the Florida Senate race, thus giving Charlie Crist a path to victory (a scenario that never seemed likely because it would have substantially lowered Alex Sink’s chances of winning the gubernatorial race).
Had I updated the rankings at the last end of last week, I might have been tempted to move many of these races in one direction or another. But today, I am moving just one race towards a more competitive category: Pennsylvania moves out of the GOP column to becomes a 5th toss-up.
Needless to say, that’s very positive news for Democrats - and it parallels Michael Bennet’s Colorado comeback (though I always left that race in the toss-up column, the incumbent had fallen narrowly but consistently behind).
That said, Toomey shouldn’t want to trade places just yet. I don’t say that because the Morning Call tracking poll shifted from a 3% Sestak lead to a clear Toomey lead in the space of 7 days (that movement coincided with a substantial and arguably unrealistic change in the sample’s partisan breakdown); indeed, a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this week-end found the two candidates tied at 47%, confirming that the race has grown into a dead heat. But there are a lot of signs that the Midwest as a whole and PA in particular is tough for Democrats - and we have yet to see whether Democrats can ensure sufficient turnout in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
But the good news for Democrats is that there are other signs that confirm that their fortunes are looking up in the Philly suburbs: After months of looking all but lost, PA-7 has grown into a true battleground and the DCCC started spending heavily last week. Another good news: Pennsylvania has no early voting and relatively little absentee voting, so Toomey did not bank votes back when he was leading in early October.
Arguably the even better news for Democrats is that Barbara Boxer seems to have solidified her position in California. The race remains in the “lean Democratic” to acknowledge still persistent rumors that campaigns’ internal numbers show a tighter race than what we are seeing, but this is a rare race in which public polls actually agree and a Fiorina victory should be considered a big upset at this point. Despite the GOP’s insistence that it is not wasting its millions in the Golden State, no less than three polls released over the past few days (two of them today) showed the incumbent leading by an obviously solid 9% (PPP, Suffolk and the LAT); an additional two polls released today showed Boxer gaining, with Rasmussen showing her leading by 4% and SUSA by 5% (both improvements since last week). Furthermore, as much as a third of the California electorate could have already voted, meaning that a late GOP surge would register less than in states with little early voting.
None of the other races we heard about over the past ten days earn a move to a more competitive category either. In Kentucky, the two most recent public polls suggest the Aqua Buddha ad has not only not worked but has arguably backfired on Conway, with Rand Paul opening a 7% lead in Rasmussen and a 13% lead in PPP. While the latter poll looks to be overstating Paul’s lead, the race remains in the “lean GOP” column: It is still in play, especially since there is no early voting, but the Republican is ahead. One incident that could resonate in the final stretch is a Paul supporter’s vicious assault against a MoveOn worker last night.
In Alaska, Miller continues to unravel - and will do so over the next few days now that a judge ruled that his employments should be released. These certainly don’t paint a pretty picture: The next Senator from Alaska could be a man who two years ago admitted having used his coworkers’ computers for political reasons. But the bottom-line is that Scott McAdams remains too far in the polls for the race to deserve a move to the “toss-up” column and the logistics of a write-in campaign still make it a huge question mark how high Murkowski will be able to rise (I am considering a Lisa Murkowski victory as a GOP retention, as she has made it clear she would continue caucusing with Republicans).
Elsewhere: While Russ Feingold certainly hasn’t achieved Blanche Lincoln-status, he remains behind his opponent while there is still no reason not to regard Patty Murray as the front-runner in Washington. However, there’s been a dearth of information about either race lately - and Democrats haven’t given up on Wisconsin nor have Republicans on Washington. There might be reason to reevaluate by this week-end.
Ratings change in only two states other than Pennsylvania: Missouri and New Hampshire, two GOP-held open seats Democrats had extremely high hopes for in 2009, move from “lean GOP” to “likely GOP.” This does not mean that Roy Blunt and Kelly Ayotte will win in landslides (in fact, Blunt’s margin will likely not look overwhelming), but that neither contest has looked suspenseful for months, that no one disputes Republicans are clearly favored in both states and that comeback wins for Robin Carnahan and Paul Hodes would be huge upsets.
So where does all of this leave us? Democrats still not looking likely to pick-up GOP seats, so it all comes down to how many Republicans can capture. They remain in command in four; five are now in the toss-up category; and two more lean Democratic. To win control of the Senate, Republicans have to sweep the first nine while also scoring an upset in either California (increasingly unlikely) or Washington.
One party typically sweeps most of the races that are considered toss-ups heading into Election Day, so it is not at all a stretch envisioning one party winning four (if not five) of the toss-ups. Technically, this puts the range of the most plausible outcomes between a gain of 4 and 9 seats for the GOP.
I want to qualify that by saying it would be quite a shocking result if Democrats somehow manage to hold their losses to 4 by sweeping all 5 toss-ups; given all we know, they should consider themselves lucky to win just two or three.
The most promising of these 5 races for Democrats is West Virginia, which has been trending back towards Joe Manchin. PPP finds the Governor recovering from a 3% deficit to first take a 3% lead - and now expand it to 6%; while Rasmussen shows Raese’s lead cut from 7% to 2%.
Colorado is anyone’s guess at this point, and it looks to me to be the year’s truest jump-ball (in addition to being the state with the most outside spending). Michael Bennet clearly trailed for months, but he has pulled himself into what is an undecipherable dead heat after a series of conservative statements by Ken Buck and after the controversy over Buck’s failure to prosecute a rape case gave Democrats an opening. One important note: Nearly half of voters have already cast their ballot. Two contrasting tidbits: PPP and SUSA both found Bennet leading among those who have already voted, but early voting data shows the GOP is clearly outpacing Democrats - especially compared to 2008.
Illinois: A number of polling firms have shown some small movement towards Mark Kirk, but his lead remains well within the margin of error. There seem to be more undecided voters who are Democrats, which still gives Giannoulias hope - and Obama will be in Illinois to rally voters this week.
I already discussed Pennsylvania, so that leaves us with Nevada - which many consider the year’s marquee race. Conventional wisdom is that Sharron Angle is now ever so slightly favored, but I don’t get the sense that Democrats are pressing the panic button in any way. Early voting turnout is hard to interpret, with Republicans voting in greater number - but nothing for now to indicate that the gap will be unusual for a midterm race. Whenever a piece of information seems to indicate some momentum for one side, another contradicts it; and we might have to stay up late for this one.
And there is a sixth race whose Senator I would not venture to guess: Alaska. I wouldn’t even rule out a McAdams upset, though a Murkowski or Miller win is more likely. The situation is just very confusing.
In short, we are entering the final week in what I feel is far a more confusing picture than in 2008: At this point two years ago, Democrats were clearly favored to pick-up VA, NM, CO, NH, OR, NC and AK; the GOP’s position in MS and KY was comparable to Democrats’ current position in WA and CA; and there were just two races that looked like true dead heats (MN and GA). And there was nothing resembling the confusion that is this year’s Alaska race.
Here’s the full breakdown:
|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
- Safe/Likely/Lean Democratic: 50
- Toss-ups: 5 (+1)
- Safe/Likely/Lean Republican: 45 (-1)
- Safe/Likely Republican: 40
- Safe Republican: 34