Senate landscape: The wild ride continues, with 5 races now in the toss-up column

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
Dem-held ND AR

GOP-held AL

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

5 Responses to “Senate landscape: The wild ride continues, with 5 races now in the toss-up column”

  1. 1 Gerard



    Great analysis, as always. It seems that in most of the competitive contests, I see them as the Republicans to lose, in other words, if the Democrat candidate could give a reason why they would be better and when they actually offer an alternative, they have a chance. But, it seems as though they are all playing defense, and saying vote for me because my Republican opponent is really far too extreme. Yes, the Republicans are very extreme, but, the Democrat has to say would they would do differently to get the economy going and what the next 2 years would look like under Democrat control. Yet, I haven’t seen this. The Dems are playing defense.

    In Pennsylvania, the GOP candidate for governor has led in the polls all year and even got a major newspaper endorsement that said he should be supported just so as to change parties, from having a Democrat governor to having a GOP governor, not for any other substantive reason. The GOP candidate is ahead and will probably help the GOP US Senatorial candidate. Pennsylvania has 1 million more registered Democrats than GOP members, and yet the 2 US Senate candidates are tied, or the GOP candidate is ahead by a nose. The polls in the past 2 days have been all over the place. Sestak, the Democrat, hasn’t closed the sale yet and I don’t know what else he plans on saying to make it happen. Whenever I see him on a news show, he talks more about his opponents flaws than his own strengths, even though he is really a very impressive candidate. Toomey is more extreme than former GOP Sen. Santorum, who lost by double digits, and Toomey is cruising along. If it becomes a default situation, the GOP wins.

    Illinois seems to be falling in line for Kirk, and the weak Democrat gubernatorial candidate isn’t helping. In Nevada, GOP Sharon Angle is so extreme, and yet is still neck and neck with Democrat Reid, so what else can he do but push turnout. He has brought lots of federal money into the state, and yet that isn’t registering in the polls. In Colorado, GOP Buck keeps putting his foot in his mouth and yet he is tied up with Bennet, the Democrat. Raese, the GOP candidate in West Virginia is so obnoxious and imperious, and yet is also tied in the polls. He isn’t even in favor of the minimum wage, in a poor state like West Virginia, that’s amazing, and he said he made his money the old-fashioned way, he inherited it.

    I think Colorado and West Virginia are the 2 best hopes at this point, but, as you noted, it is changing everyday. At least in the states with early voting, the Dems who haven’t voted yet can see the GOP candidates who are ahead in either early votes or early party turnout, and get motivated to come out and vote, in other words, they don’t have to wait until election night and then realize it is too late. If I was in Nevada and saw Sharon Angle doing well in early voting or the GOP doing well in early turnout, that would scare me into voting, for sure!

    I agree that California and Washington State look good, particularly California, with Jerry Brown at the top of the ticket running for governor, he has put out some amazing ads recently and this will help turnout for Sen. Boxer.

    The fact that Obama, Biden, and Clinton are mainly campaigning in true blue states is telling. During 2008, Obama was in Indiana, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina at the end. Now, he is in Washington, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and so on. The excitement among the GOP in the house races will also bring out many voters and that will impact the Senate races, especially the close ones.

    Unlike 1994, the Dems this year had plenty of early warning of voter discontent, and yet it doesn’t seem as though they really addressed it. If Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton were in office, they would have been throwing everything at these problems all year long, not just holding back. I realize that no one can fix our problems overnight, but taking action makes a great impression on people.

    This is so frustrating after the huge gains we made in the last 2 election cycles, but there it is.

  2. 2 Ron

    Obama has been an absolute disaster for the Democratic party. He has taken all of the gains that we made over the last two elections and flushed them down the toilet. He should be primaried in 2012.

  3. 3 Lets get some posts on here

    Ron - you are talking crap. Even if Hillary had been in control the right wing machine and Fox would have made an issue of the debt, they would have seized on the “Ground Zero” mosque etc etc. The tea party came about because a Democrat (any Democrat) was in office. The same happened when Bill Clinton was President. He was vilified as much as Obama is - whether it is whitewater, adultery, birth certificates or whatever they will always find something to attack. The GOP just doesn`t like to be out of office.

  4. 4 Gerard

    To “Lets get some posts on here”,

    Yes, the right wing scream machine, fully funded by big business, would have tried jumping all over Hillary, or anyone else. The difference is in leadership style. Obama has been hands off in several aspects, and hasn’t done a great job of tooting his own horn, selling his and the Congresses’ accomplishments.

    Look at how he handled the health care law. Most of the provisions that everyone agreed on, (most of which aren’t really talked about), including keeping children on their parents’ insurance policies until the age of 25, not allowing coverage for children to get dropped due to prexisting conditions, (the same for adults in 2014), many preventive care procedures can’t have a deductible, no more lifetime limits on essential benefits, and so on, all these great things could have been agreed upon and made law within a few months of Obama taking office. He just sat and watched the congress painfully drag out the process for over a year and in the end he had to push to get it passed anyway. The one provision that is talked about constantly, the mandated coverage, this should have been kept out. Whether or not it is important isn’t the issue, he could have pushed through a bill in his first few months in office that had all the things that everyone did agree upon, and he would have built up a lot of power and credibility, this is how politicians succeed.

    All new presidents are held up to the FDR standard of his “first 100 days in office”. If you accomplish a lot, you build power and can go back and do more. If you aren’t seen as a strong leader during this time, your support and power decline, as Obama’s has. His approval rating was over 60% when he was inaugurated in January, 2009, now it is in the low 40’s. Once he started looking weak, the opposition saw a huge opening. He also has this bad habit of going into negotiations and “showing his cards” before the process really starts, which makes him look weak, for example negotiating with the drug companies before the process really got started.

    I realize that the lack of jobs is what has everyone upset, but, how much discussion is there of where the jobs went to, and how do we get them back. Hint, blue collar Democrats are abandoning the Dems in droves because our manufacturing base has been ripped up and sent to China, India, Mexico and so on. The idea that we will all do service jobs in the future, is elitist. We need a balanced economy so that all kinds of workers can participate. Jobs and the economy should have been the main thrust of this administration, and it hasn’t. The stimulus did help save jobs, but the government can’t make new jobs, business has to do this, and if we are going to compete with other countries, we have to motivate companies to grow and expand in the US, instead of going elsewhere.

    I realize that this is a political website, not a economic website, but, a strong leader can do a lot to encourage and inspire people. Obama is a calm and easy-going guy, (similar to Bush in that respect) but we need a much more hands-on leader. When Harry Reid loses his reelection bid, and hopefully Chuck Schumer takes over as majority leader, you will see how much a strong and engaged leader can accomplish, even without having 60 votes in the Senate. (And I have a feeling that all the Democratic Senators that Schumer helped get elected in 2006 will be supporting him.)

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