Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate Forecast: Cloudy With a Good Chance of a Republican Majority

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 23rd, 2014

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the picture in several key races remains hazy. But when the dust settles, the most likely result is a Republican majority, as the Crystal Ball’s outlook of Republicans adding five to eight seats has long indicated.

The GOP needs at least a net gain of six seats to win back Congress’ upper chamber. But the math is complicated by Sen. Pat Roberts’ (R) struggles in Kansas against independent Greg Orman, and even if Roberts wins, the GOP may not get to 51 seats until after Dec. 6 (Louisiana’s runoff) or even Jan. 6, 2015 (Georgia’s runoff), making it difficult to actually call the Senate for Republicans even this close to Nov. 4.

A rundown of the arithmetic at this point: The GOP looks certain to win Democratic-controlled seats in Montana and West Virginia, both of which we rate as Safe Republican. While ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R) hasn’t had an easy go of it in South Dakota — thus our Leans Republican rating there — he is still in a decent position to beat Rick Weiland (D) and independent ex-Republican Sen. Larry Pressler in a three-way race. A win in the Mount Rushmore State would give the GOP three pickups.

Down south in Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D) hopes seem to be fading to some degree: A new Talk Business/Hendrix College poll found Rep. Tom Cotton (R) leading the incumbent 49%-41%. While Pryor isn’t completely down and out, it’s increasingly hard to see him overcoming Arkansas’ hard shift to the right. We’re upgrading Cotton’s chances from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. Republicans are hopeful that they’ve put this one away, and the trend line for Democrats is not good.

That would be a net gain of four for the GOP.

In Iowa’s open seat race, state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is ahead by about 2.5 points in the polling averages over Rep. Bruce Braley (D). While that helps make her a slight favorite at this point, that kind of slim lead in the averages hasn’t proven to be a sure thing in the past. Still, an Ernst win would be a fifth pickup for Republicans.

It’s interesting: The two Democratic-held House districts in eastern Iowa, IA-1 and IA-2, are more Democratic than the state’s other two districts: President Obama won 56% in both of them in 2012. Yet both seem to be getting more competitive in part because of rumblings that Braley is not doing that well in either district. If that’s true, and Braley is doing poorly in the more Democratic part of the state, then perhaps Ernst is doing better than the statewide public polling indicates. Or maybe the House polling is just off: Those surveys often are.

Up north in Alaska, the inconsistent polling history in the Last Frontier still gives us some pause despite the fact Dan Sullivan (R) has consistently led Sen. Mark Begich (D) in recent surveys, though we favor him to win in our ratings. If Sullivan wins, that would give the GOP a sixth seat, and a majority right?

Not necessarily. The Kansas Senate race continues to vex prognosticators. Although Roberts’ fortunes seem to have improved after national Republicans and outside conservative groups entered the race to hammer Orman, the race remains a Toss-up. It appears that over the past several weeks, Roberts pulled himself out of a deficit, moving from down five or more to basically a tie. However, according to our sources, he has not really been able to move into the lead, and Republicans are now worried about outside spending on Orman’s behalf starting to take its toll on the already woefully unpopular Roberts (though it’s not as if Roberts is without air cover himself). One of the Super PACs backing Orman is Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC, which raises big money to spend big money on candidates who oppose big money in elections. (Got it?)

Presently, RealClearPolitics’ average actually has the two in an out-and-out tie, while HuffPost Pollster shows Roberts with a lead of under a point. So the Sunflower State’s uncertainty keeps the GOP from getting to a sixth net gain at this point.

What of the other three Toss-ups in Colorado, Georgia, and Louisiana? In the Centennial State, Rep. Cory Gardner (R) continues to lead Sen. Mark Udall (D) in the polling averages. While our view of the race — it remains a Toss-up — is colored by previous problems with polling in Colorado and the state’s new all-mail balloting system, evidence favoring Gardner is mounting, seemingly with every new poll. In effect, Democrats’ retorts to Gardner’s lead in the public polls are beginning to sound somewhat like Republicans in 2012 “unskewing” polls to argue that Mitt Romney would win. We will make our call here — along with the other tough ones — in the days prior to the election.

We currently expect both Toss-up contests in Georgia and Louisiana to head to runoffs. In the former, both sides are hoping to avoid that eventuality, although according to some of our sources, Michelle Nunn (D) might now have a better chance than David Perdue (R) to win outright on Election Day in Georgia, which would be a disaster for the Republicans. In the Pelican State, a runoff is essentially a foregone conclusion at this point. Although Republicans would probably be favored in each runoff, one month (Louisiana) or, particularly, two months (Georgia) is a lifetime in politics, and who knows what new revelations or outside developments may occur between Nov. 4 and the runoff dates? With that in mind, we are erring on the side of caution. Cassidy has a healthy lead on Landrieu in trial heats of the runoff, but the regular electorate might very well be different than the runoff electorate. Those writing Landrieu’s obituary — some of the election models give her less than a 10% chance to win based on polls of a hypothetical runoff — are discounting the inherent uncertainty of the overtime.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, we’re holding at Likely Republican the race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), even though the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is getting back on the airwaves. McConnell has had a consistent though small lead in polling for months.

Finally, in two states that currently Lean Democratic in our ratings — New Hampshire and North Carolina — we continue to believe that incumbent Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) are slightly better positioned than their Republican challengers. Hagan is the more vulnerable of the two, but rumors that her race has tightened significantly have not really been confirmed by public polling. One can imagine both seats being washed away in a GOP tide, but as of now the Democrats retain at least a small edge, and remain confident, in both.

The blunt math: Our present ratings leave Republicans with 49 seats and Democrats with 47 seats, with four Toss-ups: Georgia and Louisiana, which both might be heading to overtime, and Colorado and Kansas, where incumbents Udall and Roberts are in deep trouble — especially Udall — but retain a path to victory. To claim a majority, Republicans need to win half of the Toss-up states. Democrats need to win three of them to achieve a Biden Majority (a 50-50 draw with Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote giving Democrats the edge). Given the playing field, this arithmetic certainly advantages the GOP, but there is at least some chance that Democrats might pull off the unexpected.

So the Senate remains too close to call, but it’s clear that Republicans are well positioned to win a majority and that Democrats’ backs are up against the wall as Election Day approaches.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

P.S. One overlooked factor in why Democrats find themselves in such a predicament in the Senate is because they were rocked by a lot of retirements at the start of the cycle, as we explain in this new piece for Politico Magazine.

Sizing Up the Statehouses

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 23rd, 2014

Nov. 4 is rapidly approaching but a large number of gubernatorial contests remain up in the air. In fact, despite having some ratings changes this week, the Crystal Ball still has seven Toss-up races on the board, and most appear to be headed right down to the wire.

The two new ratings this week are in Alaska and Georgia. In the Last Frontier, the unity ticket led by independent Bill Walker has led most polling against Gov. Sean Parnell (R). Alaska’s troubled economy is hurting the incumbent, with the struggles exacerbated by low oil prices in a state with a large dependency on petroleum revenues. Additionally, Parnell has suffered through a late-breaking scandal involving allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct in the state National Guard. Walker now leads the polling averages by three-to-four points, and in light of Parnell’s problems, we’re moving the Alaska gubernatorial race from Toss-up to Leans Independent. Another factor here: Because the state’s Senate race has dominated the airwaves, there’s effectively no television ad space left for the well-funded Republican Governors Association to buy to support Parnell.

Last week, the Crystal Ball moved the Georgia Senate contest to Toss-up/Leans Runoff because of the increasing likelihood that no one will win a majority on Nov. 4. The race for governor in the Peach State appears to be on a similar trajectory — the Libertarian candidate in the contest, Dr. Andrew Hunt, may well win enough of the vote to prevent Gov. Nathan Deal (R) or his challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter (D), from getting above 50% on Election Day. As in the Senate race, it’s easier to see the Republican winning the runoff than the Democrat, but enough uncertainty exists to lead us to shift the Georgia gubernatorial contest from Leans Republican to Toss-up/Leans Runoff. While the Senate runoff will take place Jan. 6, 2015, if no one wins a majority, the gubernatorial runoff would happen Dec. 2. This bizarre scheduling is the result of a federal court ruling that compelled Georgia to delay its Senate runoff date to allow absentee ballots to be sent out at least 45 days ahead of the runoff election. But the ruling only affects the state’s federal election schedule.

The final ratings change is in Arkansas, where former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) is pulling away from former Rep. Mike Ross (D). The Democratic Governors Association is off the air here, and Republicans appear poised for a statewide sweep of both the gubernatorial and Senate races. We’re moving our rating from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

The big picture

With seven Toss-ups remaining, and with a number of other close races (the aforementioned Alaska, not to mention Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin), there’s still a great deal of uncertainty across the country in these gubernatorial battles. That said, here’s our best guess right now at the big picture:

The Republicans go into this election holding 29 of 50 governorships. Despite this being a good Republican environment nationally, they are overextended thanks in part to their 2010 successes. Our range of net gains is a GOP gain of one seat to a Democratic gain of two. At this point, it would be a surprise if the Republicans ended Election Night with more governorships than when they started it, but that’s not out of the question.

Based on our current ratings, Democrats are big favorites to flip Pennsylvania, and small favorites to defeat Gov. Paul LePage (R) in Maine. That would be a net gain of two for the Democrats. But because Republicans are now heavily favored to capture the open seat in Arkansas, that knocks the net Democratic gain down to one. As noted above, we now also favor independent Walker to defeat GOP incumbent Parnell in Alaska. That’s another net loss for the GOP, but not a net gain for the Democrats because Walker is not a Democrat (even though his running mate is, thanks to a fusion ticket). So that ends up being -2, net, for the Republicans, and +1, net, for the Democrats.

That brings us to the seven Toss-ups. Because we now expect overtime in Georgia, we are calling that race a Toss-up, but at the end of the day it would be surprising if the Democrats ultimately won that seat. Also, and while we are keeping these races as Toss-ups in our ratings, it appears that Govs. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Pat Quinn (D-IL) have stabilized their positions, and they seem to have better than even odds to win second, full terms. So that’s three of the seven Toss-ups where we think the incumbent party is positioned to hold on, though we have not made picks yet and we reserve the right to change our minds before the end. Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO) seeming decline, in particular, could really hurt Hickenlooper.

The remaining four Toss-ups, two currently held by Republicans and two currently held by Democrats, are harder to assess.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) appears legitimately tied with state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D). The same is true of Gov. Rick Scott (R) and former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) in Florida, although Crist’s position has slightly improved over the last month, and we think it’s easier to imagine the party-switcher pulling out the race now than it was for much of this campaign. (Scott’s much-derided delay in coming on stage to debate Crist because Crist was using a fan to keep himself cool during a recent debate was a boneheaded move, but there’s not much indication that it will in and of itself cost Scott the race.) We wouldn’t be shocked if Republicans won both — or lost both.

Finally, two New England races where Democrats are trying to hold on — the open seat contest in Massachusetts between Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) and 2010 nominee Charlie Baker (R) and the rematch between Gov. Dan Malloy (D) and 2010 nominee Tom Foley (R) in Connecticut — appear to both be very close, with both sides arguing they have the upper hand. We think the Republicans will end up winning at least one of the two, with Connecticut the likelier opportunity, but we’re not ready to call either.

Ultimately, there should be quite a lot of drama in many of these races, but at the end of the day, there probably won’t be a big swing either way in the number of governor’s mansions each side controls.

Strange Cross-Currents in the Race for the House

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 23rd, 2014

There are two vastly different lead paragraphs I could have used to open this story about the state of the race for the U.S. House. Instead of picking one, I’ll just include them both, and then try to explain the odd cross-currents we’re seeing in House races across the country.

Lead No. 1: With 12 days to go, House Republicans are beginning to expand their list of targets. They and their allies are plopping down money in Democratic-held blue districts in places like Hawaii, Iowa, and Nevada, all in an effort to push GOP gains into the double-digits. The Republican tide is so high that an indicted congressman in a swing district is in decent shape to win reelection.

Lead No. 2: For a party in line to expand their House majority this November, Republicans are sure having to shore up some deep red territory: Outside conservative groups are now spending big to hold Republican districts won comfortably by Mitt Romney in states like Arkansas, Nebraska, and West Virginia, and the GOP has had a hard time clearly putting away seats they’ve been targeting all cycle.

So what’s going on? Here’s where we see the House at this point:

Republicans still appear positioned for a gain of about six to nine seats. That’s been our projected range for the past few weeks, and we’re sticking with it for now, even though we can more easily imagine Republicans overperforming that range than underperforming it. The trouble in picking the House seats — and we’ll pick every single one in advance of Nov. 4 — is that there are contradictory signs on the national House map.

First, the good news for Republicans.

As mentioned in our Senate piece, Democrats now appear concerned that state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is doing well enough in her race against Rep. Bruce Braley (D) that it could hurt Democratic prospects in the state’s two Democratic-leaning eastern congressional districts, the open IA-1 (currently held by Braley) and IA-2, held by four-term incumbent Rep. Dave Loebsack (D). Both parties’ House campaign committees are now spending on television in these districts, which Republicans tried but failed to win in their 2010 wave. IA-1 remains the better target for Republicans because it is open, but IA-2 now joins it in the Leans Democratic column. IA-3, a less Democratic open seat that was still won by President Obama in 2012, remains a Toss-up.

Coming back on to the board this week is Rep. Steven Horsford (D, NV-4). Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-founded conservative group, surprisingly bought $820,000 worth of airtime against Horsford in this Democratic-leaning district. Horsford may well be fine, but we’re moving the race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. It’s possible Republicans sense an opportunity because Democratic early voting numbers in Nevada have been dreadful, probably in large part because there is no Senate race and the Democrats did not produce a quality challenger to Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), which might make Horsford weaker than expected. It’s also possible that a large earmarked donation has come into Crossroads for this contest to shake up a sleepy race at the last moment.

Something similar happened this week in New Jersey, where the Democrat-supporting House Majority PAC took money out of a competitive race in NJ-3 and put it into NJ-1, a very Democratic seat that state Sen. Donald Norcross (D), brother of Garden State political titan George Norcross, is favored to win. The group said that it’s spending the money in NJ-1 because they received donations earmarked for the race. It’s a Safe Democratic seat and will stay as such.

Some outside groups are also getting involved in HI-1, an open seat contest between former Rep. Charles Djou (R) and state Rep. Mark Takai (D). It should be close but we’re still betting on partisanship — the district is overwhelmingly Democratic — for now, rating the race Likely Democratic. Another race to watch, although the outside groups have not engaged as of yet: Rep. Lois Capps (D, CA-24), who is running against Chris Mitchum (R), son of the late actor Robert Mitchum. Candidate Mitchum claims a tiny lead in a recent internal poll; we doubt he’s right but we’re moving the race from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic all the same.

In regards to late television ad buys in eyebrow-raising places, Nick Confessore of the New York Times made a good point on Twitter a couple days ago: “Groups making late buys in second-tier races. Ads are too expensive in top tier, they have late money, and they need to show donors impact.”

And sometimes candidates can win even when they are badly outspent on the air, are abandoned by their party, and — yes — are indicted. We’ve held off on moving Rep. Michael Grimm (R, NY-11) out of the Leans Democratic column, but the race still appears to be a legitimate Toss-up, so we’re now calling it as such. One problem for Democrats is that their candidate, Domenic Recchia, is from the wrong part of the district (Brooklyn, as opposed to Staten Island). Also, Recchia just isn’t all that great himself. I’ll let Jon Stewart explain why.

Finally, on the pro-Republican side of the House ledger, we’re moving one of the GOP’s big targets in its direction: We now favor state Sen. Evan Jenkins (R) over Rep. Nick Rahall (R, WV-3), a 19-term incumbent, and are moving the race from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

Readers may recall we had this race as Leans Republican earlier this cycle, but we moved it back to Toss-up after Rahall re-took the lead. Republicans argue that they’re leading, Democrats say they’re tied and will pull it out in the end. Ultimately, we just think it’s hard for any Democrat to win a district this Republican: Mitt Romney got 65% here in 2012, and this ancestrally Democratic state is trending Republican.

That said, something interesting is going on in another West Virginia district. And this is where we get into the good news for Democrats.

We’re hearing that the race for the open WV-2, which is currently held by Senate candidate Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), is extremely close. There are a lot of factors here. The biggest one is that Republican nominee Alex Mooney is from Maryland — he was once chair of the Old Line State GOP — and is easily attacked as a carpetbagger. A more subtle problem for Mooney is that he chose to live in the Mountain State’s eastern panhandle, while Nick Casey, the Democratic nominee, is from Charleston, which is the heart of the district. A number of local Republican officials are backing Casey, and he even got the endorsement of the Charleston Daily Mail, the more conservative of the two papers in the state capital. The endorsement headline: “In 2nd District U.S. House race, go with the one you know.” Newspaper endorsements don’t move races, but Mooney’s failure to win the endorsement of the paper is emblematic of his larger problems getting conservatives to back him in sufficient numbers. Put it all together, and WV-2 — despite being a 60% Romney seat in 2012 — goes from Leans Republican to Toss-up. One benefit for Casey, and why he might have a better shot than Rahall: He doesn’t have a federal voting record, and Mooney is a much weaker opponent than Jenkins.

In the same boat is AR-2, an open seat being vacated by Rep. Tim Griffin (R), who is running for lieutenant governor. While Republicans are likely to sweep the Senate and gubernatorial races, the Democratic nominees will almost assuredly perform well in this district, which at 55% Romney in 2012 is several points more Democratic than the state as a whole. Former North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays (D) has run an energetic campaign against French Hill (R), a former Treasury Department official who Democrats gleefully attack as a “millionaire banker.” Recent independent polling from Talk Business/Hendrix College showed Hays up four points on Hill. This goes from Leans Republican to Toss-up, as well. AR-4, another open seat, is a longer-shot but plausible target for a Democratic takeover, too.

Last week, we moved the open seat in ME-2 being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mike Michaud (D) to Toss-up, but now the National Republican Congressional Committee has canceled its ad buys. So state Sen. Emily Cain (D), just like that, goes back to being the favorite, at Leans Democratic.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

The big picture: 231 seats at least Lean Republican, and 189 at least Lean Democratic, with 15 Toss-ups. Ultimately, the Republicans should win most of the Toss-ups, and probably a few that we currently rate as Leans Democratic.

Check out our ratings below. Next week, as per our tradition, we’re going to remove all the Toss-ups and place each race in at least the leaning categories. We’ll then tweak those ratings up until the election. We pick every House race, and we’re sure to miss more than a few. But it just wouldn’t be any fun otherwise.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Notes: Members in italics hold seats that the other party’s presidential candidate won in 2012. A red-shaded seat in the Democratic column or a blue-shaded seat in the Republican column means that the incumbent party is an underdog to hold the seat.