Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Will Senate Cliffhangers Yield a Republican Majority in 2014?

In Senate on January 20, 2014 at 11:48 am

With the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee now distributing fundraising materials quoting MSNBC as saying that the Republicans “now have the advantage” in capturing the Senate majority this year, it’s a good time to examine the total national picture.

Recent polling does suggest that the Republicans have greatly improved their chances of converting the six Democratic seats they need to claim majority status. In fact, GOP candidates are now either leading or within the margin of error in nine states, while maintaining a slight advantage in their own two competitive seats (Kentucky and Georgia).

Isolating the various states, we begin with the three open Democratic seats from places that have generally yielded a Republican voting pattern since 2000. Currently, the Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia Senate situations all appear headed the GOP’s way. In Montana, however, the Democrats are improving their position because Sen. Max Baucus (D) will exit Congress before his term ends once he is confirmed US Ambassador to China. When this occurs, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock will appoint Lt. Gov. John Walsh, the leading Democratic senatorial candidate, as the interim senator. This should help Walsh’s campaign against at-large Rep. Steve Daines (R), but the Republican is still forecast as the favorite to win in November.

As has been the case for some time, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR-4) is polling even with Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D). The latest public survey, taken in mid-December (Public Policy Polling), shows the two candidates tied at 44 percent, but this is Cotton’s weakest result from the recent past. A Polling Company/Woman Trend survey, for example, taken a week before the PPP study projected Cotton to a 48-41 percent advantage over Sen. Pryor.

North Carolina first-term Sen. Kay Hagan (D) continues to show weakness. In PPP’s January survey of this race, the polling organization found the senator trailing five different Republican candidates by a point or two. These results are significant because none of the GOP contenders is well known, yet they all top the incumbent senator, nevertheless.

Though Detroit Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI-14) is viewed as the man to beat in the open Michigan Senate contest (Sen. Carl Levin retiring), polling doesn’t yet predict such a result. The latest Rasmussen Reports survey (Jan. 14-15) gives Republican Terri Lynn Land a 37-35 percent edge over Rep. Peters. This is consistent with other such studies conducted before the end of the year. Public Policy Polling projected Land to a one-point lead in December, while Denno Research found her trailing Peters by that same spread a month earlier.

The Louisiana race has typically polled close, but we haven’t seen fresh numbers from there in several months. New data should soon be forthcoming.

The two surprising Senate contests coming within margin of error range are Colorado and New Hampshire.

An early December Public Policy Polling survey revealed first-term Sen. Mark Udall (D) clinging to only a four-point, 46-42 percent, lead over Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R), the same candidate who lost the 2010 Senate race after scoring an upset win in that year’s Republican primary.

This past week New Hampshire yielded an additional situation in which a potential Republican challenger is gaining on a Democratic incumbent. PPP found that former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) is pulling to within a 43-46 percent margin of Jeanne Shaheen (D), the first-term Granite State Democratic senator and former three-term governor. Should Brown enter the contest, this race, too, has the potential of becoming highly competitive.

At this point, it looks like the Republicans are achieving their base goal of expanding the Senate playing field. With nine Democratic Senate seats venturing into the competitive range, the party goal of capturing majority status, which before looked to be a long shot at best, now appears attainable.

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