Sabato's Crystal Ball

Bet on a Republican Senate Majority

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 30th, 2014

Join the Crystal Ball team Monday night at the University of Virginia for a free presentation on the 2014 midterms. Visit the U.Va. Center for Politics website for more information and to register to attend.

A version of this article originally appeared in Politico Magazine Wednesday evening.

While many races remain close, it’s just getting harder and harder to envision a plausible path for the Democrats to retain control of the Senate. Ultimately, with just a few days to go before the election, the safe bet would be on Republicans eventually taking control of the upper chamber.

We say eventually because there’s a decent chance we won’t know who wins the Senate on Election Night. Louisiana is guaranteed to go to a runoff, and Georgia seems likelier than not to do the same. The Georgia runoff would be Jan. 6, 2015, three days after the 114th Congress is scheduled to open. Vote-counting in some states, like Alaska, will take days, and other races are close enough to trigger a recount.

Generally speaking, candidates who have leads of three points or more in polling averages are in solid shape to win, but in this election five states — Republican-held Georgia and Kansas, and Democratic-held Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina — feature a Senate race where both of the two major polling averages (RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster) show the leading candidate with an edge of smaller than three points.

What makes the Democrats’ situation so precarious is that Republicans have polling leads of more than three points in five other states, all of which are currently held by Democrats: Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Two others, Democratic-held Alaska and Colorado, show Republicans leading in both averages, but by more than three points in just one. (These averages are as of Wednesday afternoon.)

The wealth of GOP targets is a reflection of the structural advantages that have favored Republicans in this election, some of which don’t have anything to do with a specific campaign.

Those are:

Obama’s troubles: President Obama’s approval ratings are in the low 40s, and midterm elections are very often a vote against the party that occupies the White House, particularly if the occupant is unpopular.

A great map: This Senate map is the most-Republican leaning of the three Senate classes up for election once every six years. These seats were last on the ballot in 2008, a big Democratic year. American politics is about surges and declines: In 2008 came the surge for Democrats, and in 2014 comes the decline.

Partisan polarization: The increasing partisanship of American politics and the American people makes it harder and harder for Democrats to win in Republican states and districts, and vice-versa. Seven Democrats hold Senate seats contested this year in states that supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Six of those states are very Republican at the presidential level — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — and Republicans are probably at least slightly favored to win all six of their Senate races. The seventh, North Carolina, is gettable if the GOP has a big night. Republicans only have to defend one seat in an Obama state, Maine, and GOP Sen. Susan Collins has the race all but wrapped up.

Democratic difficulties: The Democrats had a string of Senate retirements in places like Iowa, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, all of which improved Republican odds to win those states. The replacement Democratic candidates in these states have generally been poor, none more so than appointed Sen. John Walsh, whose plagiarism forced him from the ballot in Montana and prompted the Democrats to wave the white flag in a Senate seat they had never lost since the advent of popular Senate elections a century ago.

Decent GOP candidates: Establishment-backed Republicans won basically every meaningful Senate primary this year. While some Republican candidates have misfired, like Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, the GOP has not had a clearly disastrous candidacy turn victory into defeat in any single state, unlike 2010 and 2012 — although David Perdue in Georgia and Thom Tillis in North Carolina are testing this proposition. To the contrary, the Senate candidate this cycle most associated with gaffes is a Democrat, Bruce Braley of Iowa.

Those big factors all point to a good night for Republicans on Tuesday.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

The GOP’s many paths to 51

The Senate math starts with the seats that are not up this cycle and the safe seats that are not on the verge of flipping parties. Of the 83 seats that fit those categories, 42 are held by Republicans and 41 by Democrats.

Democratic incumbents in Minnesota, Oregon, and Virginia all occupy seats we rate Likely Democratic, and Rep. Gary Peters (D) is well positioned to keep the open seat in Michigan in Democratic hands. These four holds put Democrats at 45 seats.

Republicans have two surefire pickups in Montana and West Virginia, and they can probably count on South Dakota, too. This is a ratings change for the Crystal Ballwe’re moving the Mount Rushmore State from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. Ex-Gov. Mike Rounds’ (R) troubles don’t seem sufficiently large enough to open the door for Rick Weiland (D) or ex-Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, whose position in the race has faded to some degree. We also rate both the Kentucky and Arkansas races as Likely Republican, with the Razorback race providing the GOP with its fourth pick-up. Accounting for these contests, Republicans are at 47 seats in our calculus.

Now this is where things get murkier. Alaska, Colorado, and Iowa appear to be edging toward Republicans. In our Crystal Ball ratings, we’ve had both Alaska and Iowa leaning to the Republicans, and we continue to do so even though there’s uncertainty in both states, Alaska in particular: If any Democrat confounds the polls, it could be Sen. Mark Begich (D). Iowa is also close, although state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) has consistently held a small lead in public polling, and Democrats are sounding alarms about Rep. Bruce Braley’s performance in the state’s two eastern, more Democratic-leaning congressional districts. Additionally, their vaunted early voting machine might not be as dominant this year. The tea leaves in this race do not augur well for the Democrats.

Polling in Colorado misfired in both 2010 and 2012, underestimating the Democratic vote in both years, and Democrats are banking on a similar mishap, along with the state’s new all-mail balloting boosting Democratic turnout, delivering an upset victory for Sen. Mark Udall (D), who trails in nearly all independent polling to Rep. Cory Gardner (R). That is possible, but there is also reason to be skeptical. For one thing, Gardner is unquestionably a superior candidate to Ken Buck, the Republican who fumbled the 2010 race against Sen. Michael Bennet (D). And some pollsters have no doubt learned from their past mistakes. Gardner’s lead in polling averages is around three points, right around where we’d expect him to be to have a good shot of winning. So we’re calling Colorado Leans Republican, now, too, to go along with Alaska and Iowa.

Are we supremely confident about these three very tight match-ups? Of course not: each one is a crap shoot. It’s possible we might reverse a call or two before our final picks appear on Monday; in squeakers, last-minute trends matter.

Adding these close races to the GOP total puts Republicans at 50 Senate seats, one shy of a majority.

New Hampshire and North Carolina still lean to the Democrats. The latter contest is particularly close at this point, though Sen. Kay Hagan (D) still retains a slim lead over Thom Tillis (R). Even though he’s made up considerable ground in New Hampshire, a victory by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) would still rank as mildly surprising — and a sure-fire indicator of a big GOP night. For now, though, the Democrats are narrowly ahead, and that makes the Democratic total 47 seats.

Complicating matters are the two contests that we rate as Toss-up/Leans Runoff, meaning that we can’t pick a final winner at this point because we expect overtime. In Georgia there are enough undecided voters to push either David Perdue (R) or Michelle Nunn (D) over the top on Nov. 4, but it won’t be easy. Let’s say for the moment that both Louisiana and Georgia go to runoff. They are red states, though the Peach State is turning plum-purple. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to expect the GOP to win at least one of these two seats (if not both) in the end. That would get the Republicans to their magic number, 51, or even 52.

Finally, there’s one seat we still view as a pure toss-up: Kansas. That’s not only because the race is very tight, but also because it’s hard to say with which party independent Greg Orman would caucus if he defeats Sen. Pat Roberts (R). A victorious Orman is going to play the Senate version of “Let’s Make a Deal,” and both parties will be putting rich prizes behind Doors 1 and 2.

If we give Democrats most of the breaks in the close contests, it’s certainly possible they could achieve a 50-50 Senate split, and thus a Biden majority (with the vice president breaking the tie in their favor). Yet given the fundamentals of the 2014 cycle, that outcome remains unlikely. The Republicans have more credible paths to 51 than the Democrats do to 50. This was true in January and it is still true just days from the election.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Conclusion

Prof. James Campbell of the University at Buffalo-SUNY recently noted that in Senate races “since 1912, of the 14 midterms in a party’s second presidential term or more, the out-party has gained six seats or more nearly two-thirds of the time (9 of 14).” In other words, a GOP Senate takeover in a president’s sixth-year midterm would be very much in line with history — and with the roughly “two out of three” chance for a Republican majority that we have asserted for months.

Even though the GOP is poised to do well in the Senate, the party’s performance probably will not qualify as a broad-based wave. Though perhaps election watchers will be surprised by the size of Republican gains on Election Night, we expect to see a kind of red-tinged “full-moon high tide” rather than a tsunami. Despite favorable conditions and a near-ideal map, Republicans have had to struggle right to the final hours to position themselves for their Senate majority. The public’s unfavorable view of the GOP, which is even greater than the disgust with Democrats, will likely keep the party from achieving a true sweep — and suggests the hard work ahead by the GOP in Congress and the eventual presidential nominee in 2016.

The 2014 midterm, no matter the outcome, does not hold real predictive value for 2016. We’ve often compared this year with 1986, where Democrats bounced back to capture the Senate on a highly favorable map in President Reagan’s “sixth-year itch” second midterm. Of course, two years later, the country elected a Republican president for the third straight time. Could the current GOP meet with a similar fate? The results next Tuesday certainly won’t tell us.

Alternately, 2014 might prove to be like 2006, a great Democratic year that foreshadowed another great Democratic year. For all the legitimate talk of the Democrats’ growing demographic edge in presidential elections, the advantage could be blunted by an unpopular President Obama, who like then-President George W. Bush could drag down his party in consecutive elections. Obama’s approval rating is very important in the outcome of the next presidential election: If his approval rating continues to stagnate or sinks even lower, his standing will once again imperil Democrats, just as it did in 2010 and 2014. Democrats in and out of Congress will need to find ways to help Obama leave office on a high note, because their fortunes — and that of the Democratic nominee picked to succeed him — will still be linked to his.

But it’s too soon for speculations about the distant future when Tuesday looms large. Check back on Monday for our final picks in Senate, gubernatorial, and House races, which will be posted both at Politico and on the Crystal Ball website.


As Election Day Closes in, Tight Gubernatorial Races Abound

Bevy of new ratings but still many razor-thin contests

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 30th, 2014

Can we be brutally frank? The governors’ races are really tough to call this year.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 11 contests had margins of three points or less in either HuffPost Pollster or RealClearPolitics’ polling averages (nine were inside that mark in both).

Of those 11 races, 10 feature incumbents seeking reelection. We’ve mentioned before that this cycle has at least some small chance of threatening the modern mark for incumbent governor losses: In 1962, 11 of 26 gubernatorial incumbents met defeat at the ballot box. That said, the actual number of incumbent losses will likely be about half that or maybe even less.

The most recent polling and reports from our confidential sources indicate that a number of incumbents’ positions have recovered or stabilized, necessitating ratings changes less than a week before the election. We also have shifts in some open races, and 10 new ratings in total.

Among the many competitive races featuring incumbents, there are some important changes. Probably the most notable adjustment is in Colorado. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) has narrowly led former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) in most recent polling, and appears to be trending in the right direction just days out. Between Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall (D), another vulnerable Centennial State Democrat, “Hick” looks likelier to survive. We’re shifting the Colorado gubernatorial race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.

Out west in Alaska, Gov. Sean Parnell (R) had fallen behind independent Bill Walker. But the incumbent’s numbers have recovered somewhat in the averages: While he still trails Walker in RealClearPolitics, Parnell has moved slightly ahead in HuffPost Pollster. This race is right on the knife’s edge (or perhaps the tip of a Kodiak’s claw?). Either way, the Alaska governor’s battle moves back from Leans Independent to Toss-up.

We have two mildly unfavorable ratings changes for gubernatorial incumbents in New Hampshire and Oregon. In the Granite State, first-term Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is seeking her second two-year term against businessman Walt Havenstein (R). (New Hampshire and Vermont are the only two states with two-year gubernatorial terms.) Hassan’s lead has narrowed consistently over the past two months, much like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D) now-slimmer edge in the Granite State’s Senate race. Hassan is still favored to win — New Hampshirites rarely throw out first-term governors seeking reelection — but the race shifts from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. In Oregon, Cylvia Hayes, the fianceé of Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), has caused the incumbent some problems in recent days. First, reports surfaced that Hayes may have taken advantage of her appropriated title as First Lady to help her consultancy business. Then news broke about how nearly two decades ago she took $5,000 to marry an Ethiopian to solve the foreigner’s residency problems. While Hayes’ actions don’t appear likely to threaten Kitzhaber’s position as the favorite, the last couple polls have shown him ahead by a narrower margin over state Rep. Dennis Richardson (R). Given these developments, we’re moving the Oregon contest from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The Crystal Ball also has six new ratings in open seats. Undoubtedly, the most noteworthy is our change in Massachusetts, where we now see 2010 nominee Charlie Baker (R) as a narrow favorite against state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D). Despite its deep blue hue, Bay Staters have shown an affinity for electing Republicans to the state’s top executive office. Here’s an amazing statistic given today’s polarized politics: Over the past 50 years Republicans have occupied the governorship for a longer time in Massachusetts (26 years) than in ruby red Kansas (22 years). (By the way, we still view the Kansas race as a Toss-up.) Coakley’s own internal surveys show her losing by two points, and the polling averages both show slender Baker leads, with the Republican moving in the right direction. In light of this, the Massachusetts gubernatorial contest shifts from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

Meanwhile, the race in Maryland appears to have tightened. While Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) leads the polling averages by a fair margin, we have received numerous substantive reports regarding the Democrat’s apparent weakness as he attempts to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Larry Hogan (R), a former member of ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s (R) cabinet, is making things interesting in the solidly Democratic Old Line State, interesting enough that President Obama made a campaign appearance on behalf of Brown. Perhaps it wasn’t a good sign when some people left the speech early. While Brown remains the favorite — it is difficult to justify a belief that any Republican could win statewide here except under extraordinary circumstances — we are compelled to move the Maryland race from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. It is worth noting that the last two open-seat contests for governor in the state (1994 and 2002) were both decided by less than five points, with the Ehrlich win in the latter year representing the only time since 1966 (Spiro Agnew) that a Republican won the governorship.

The race in the nation’s smallest state is proving to be more competitive than some might have anticipated: A Brown University poll found Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo (D) only ahead of Cranston Mayor Allan Fung (R) by one point. Other surveys have shown Raimondo ahead, but not comfortably, so we’re shifting the race from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. Republicans often win the governorship here.

Two other open seats are now more certain to remain in Republican hands after Nov. 4. In Arizona there’s little indication that former state Board of Regents Chairman Fred DuVal (D) is closing the gap on state Treasurer Doug Ducey (R). Thus, the Arizona governor’s battle moves from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. In Nebraska, businessman and 2006 Senate nominee Pete Ricketts (R) is well ahead of Chuck Hassebrook (D), the former director of the Center for Rural Affairs. The Cornhusker State race moves off the board, going from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

The only good news for Democrats in an open-seat race can be found in Hawaii. Former Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R) might have been in a good position to defeat Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D), but then Abercrombie managed to score the worst gubernatorial incumbent primary loss in history, falling to state Sen. David Ige (D) in August. Although independent ex-Democrat Mufi Hannemann appeared to be a potential thorn in Ige’s side, the polls have the Democratic nominee comfortably ahead, and our sources confirm as much. The Aloha State contest moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

Another longstanding Crystal Ball rating has been to show the Maine race leaning to Rep. Mike Michaud (D) over incumbent Gov. Paul LePage (R), but this has been a very tenuous rating because of the presence of independent Eliot Cutler on the ballot, who could siphon off enough anti-LePage votes to tip the race to the incumbent. However, Michaud’s path got a little clearer when Cutler, a distant third in the race, told his supporters that they were essentially free to support another candidate. After that, Sen. Angus King, also an independent, switched his endorsement from Cutler to Michaud. As Cutler’s vote total goes down, Michaud probably benefits. So we’re reaffirming our rating in that race.

One other gubernatorial note: On Wednesday, the respected Marquette Law School poll showed Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) up 50%-43% on Democratic challenger Mary Burke. That’s a big margin compared to other polls, but we’ve had this race at least leaning to Walker the entire cycle — we’ve never called it a Toss-up — and barring some strange turn over the weekend, we expect Walker to pull it out.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

All told, these 10 ratings adjustments leave our national totals at 25 Republicans, 19 Democrats, and six Toss-ups. We will make final calls for all gubernatorial races on Monday, Nov. 3.

Map 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings


House 2014: Calling the Toss-Ups, Take 1

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 30th, 2014

Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the House campaign are fretting.

The elephants worry that they have not clearly put away any single Democratic House incumbent — which is true — and that they are going to underperform, not just by a seat or two, the goal of winning 245 seats set by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R, OR-2). A 245-seat House Republican majority would require the party to net 11 seats.

Meanwhile, the donkeys are alarmed at a gradually expanding map of vulnerable seats that require outside help — this is also true — and a deteriorating national environment that could see a larger-than-expected number of seats slip away. That means losses in the double digits and potentially the biggest House Republican majority since before the Great Depression (247 Republican seats, or a GOP gain of 13).

To be fair, there’s probably some expectations-setting going on by operatives on both sides: Given all the legitimate uncertainty, there’s a natural inclination to downplay one’s chances in order to more credibly claim that expectations have been beaten on Election Day.

Here’s what we know, or think we know: Democrats will not net seats this year. If they did, it would be only the fourth time in 39 midterms held since the Civil War that the party controlling the White House gained ground in the House. The only exceptions were President Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in 1934, President Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1998, and President George W. Bush’s Republicans in 2002: Those were special circumstances brought on by a Great Depression, a great economy and Republican overreach, and a reaction to Sept. 11 and impending war.

No such special factors exist this year. President Obama is unpopular and the electorate tilts red. Republicans lead on the House generic ballot nationally by about two or three points, a smaller lead than they enjoyed in 2010 (high single digits in averages) but still sufficient to provide them a national push to make gains.

How many? To determine that, one has to go seat by seat.

Unlike in Senate and gubernatorial races, there is not much credible public polling to go by, and because all House polling is inherently so unpredictable — sample sizes are small, voters are less familiar with the candidates, etc. — the party internals are far from perfect. These races can also break late, particularly in a year when one party has the advantage, as the Republicans do this year.

In many of the closest races, a flip of a coin might give a handicapper a better chance of being right than heeding the expert opinion of top operatives speaking candidly. That’s not an insult to the operatives, whose off-the-record comments have greatly informed our thinking on these races: Rather, it’s just a nod to how difficult it is to confidently and accurately predict individual House contests. For partisans, hope sometimes colors judgment.

With all that said — we’re going to try to pick them all, anyway.

This week, we’re removing all the Toss-ups from our House ratings. We will adjust these ratings over the weekend and offer our final, best guesses on Monday.

Last week, we had 15 Toss-ups. As befitting the Republican tint of this midterm, most of them — 11 — now Lean Republican. Between that and other tweaks, we’re setting Republican net House gains at nine, on the high end of the range of expected gains we’ve had for the past few weeks (six to nine). Take a look at the two tables below: The first highlights the 22 ratings changes we’re making this week, and the second shows the current ratings in all the seats we see as at least moderately competitive. This obviously does not include the 211 Republican and 166 Democratic seats we view as Safe. Readers who do not see their House district listed below can find ratings for all 435 House seats on the Crystal Ball website.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Note: Seats where we are projecting the incumbent party to lose are in bold.

In order to better explain these ratings, let’s split them into three categories: The Endangered, the Survivors, and the Favorites.

The Endangered

This list includes the 15 seats listed in bold in the table: These are the seats that we’re picking to change parties. We have three Republican seats going from red to blue, and 12 Democratic seats going from blue to red: That’s how we get the nine-seat GOP gain.

Let’s start with the shorter list, the Democratic gains.

Democrats have long considered CA-31, the seat of retiring Rep. Gary Miller (R) and the most Democratic district held by any Republican, their best pickup opportunity. The reason Republicans hold it is fluky: Miller and another Republican advanced to the state’s top-two primary in 2012, which meant voters couldn’t vote for a Democrat in the fall. The same fate almost befell Pete Aguilar (D) this spring, but he advanced to the general election and looks good on Tuesday.

Picking against any Republican incumbents in a year like this might be foolhardy, but we see two as being in deep trouble: Reps. Lee Terry (R, NE-2) and Steve Southerland (R, FL-2).

Terry’s problems are largely self-inflicted, Southerland’s just partially. Voters in Terry’s Omaha-based district might just be sick of him after so many years and so many gaffes, most recently his insistence on being paid during the shutdown. State Sen. Brad Ashford (D) could be the beneficiary; interestingly, the Democrats had a prized recruit who later backed out of the race, and they very well might win the seat anyway in a bad year for Democrats.

Southerland, meanwhile, has also made some silly mistakes, but he faces a very strong challenger in Gwen Graham (D), daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL).

Of the two, we think Terry is slightly likelier to lose than Southerland, and our sources on both sides of the aisle generally agree. Mitt Romney won both districts in 2012, though, so partisanship could save the incumbents.

On to the endangered Democratic seats.

NC-7, the seat now held by retiring Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), is a cinch for Republicans. So too, hypothetically, is UT-4, the seat held by retiring Rep. Jim Matheson (D). But something funny might be going on in Utah: Local pollsters are picking up signs that Mia Love (R), who barely lost to Matheson in 2012, is struggling. She’s still a heavy favorite to win, but we’re leaving a window cracked for Doug Owens (D) to pull off an absolute stunner. Another Democratic Owens, Rep. Bill, is retiring from NY-21, and Elise Stefanik (R) looks likely to win it. That could be just the start of a big night for Republicans in New York: Several Democratic incumbents are in trouble, and the one likeliest to lose is probably Rep. Tim Bishop (D, NY-1), who may finally falter in his bid to retain a quintessential swing seat on Long Island.

We have long said that Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV-3) is in deep trouble, and we continue to believe that he is the most endangered Democratic House incumbent in the country. Right behind him is Rep. Bill Enyart (D, IL-12), whose southern Illinois seat is trending GOP.

It just goes to show what an odd House election this is that Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and Carol Shea-Porter (D, NH-1) are still very much alive. Both lost as incumbents in 2010 but then won in 2012, both occupy districts that are slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole, and both have long seemed like they’d be among the first Democratic incumbents to fall this year. And yet, some Republicans and Democrats we’ve talked to seem to believe they retain at least narrow leads in the polls. Both have been blessed by weak opposition: former Rep. Frank Guinta (R, NH-1) is unpopular from his previous stint in the House, and Arizona state House Speaker Andy Tobin (R) barely won his late primary.

That said, we still think that if Republicans are winning more than a half-dozen House seats nationally, they just have to end up winning these seats. But we don’t feel confident about it, and the incumbents are welcome to lord it over us if they hang on.

Republicans are targeting a number of House seats in California, where turnout will probably be poor because there is no Senate race and Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) is saving his war chest as he coasts to an easy win. Outside GOP groups are spending all over the state, and they’ve dumped a boatload of money into the district of Rep. Ami Bera (D, CA-7). We think Republicans win at least one Democratic seat in the Golden State, and Bera’s seems the likeliest at this point.

Democrats hope that some ill-advised comments about Medicare and Social Security — Republicans really need to retire the term “Ponzi scheme” from their vocabulary — will sink Carlo Curbelo (R) in his challenge to Rep. Joe Garcia (D, FL-26), but Garcia has problems of his own.

Finally, Reps. Brad Schneider (D, IL-10) and Rick Nolan (D, MN-8) are perhaps the best bets to survive on this list, but strong challengers could very well do them in, even on Democratic turf.

The Survivors

This is a longer list: the competitive seats where we believe the incumbent party has a slight edge. Let’s start with the Republicans.

Despite a likely statewide sweep, Republicans are sweating two open seats in Arkansas: AR-2 and AR-4, held, respectively, by Reps. Tim Griffin (R) and Tom Cotton (R), both of whom are running for statewide office. Of the two, AR-2 is much likelier to flip.

AR-2 is similar to another quite close Republican-held open seat, WV-2, currently held by future Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R). Both are Republican at the presidential level, but Democrats have much better candidates in each, and both districts are much more open to backing Democratic House candidates than presidential ones. But, given Obama’s high negatives in these districts and states, we just have a really hard time picking any Democrat to win these districts. However, if we ultimately pick the Democrats to win any more Republican-held seats, these are probably the ones.

In the right year, Democrats will have a fair to good chance to win NJ-3, held by retiring Rep. Jon Runyan (R), and VA-10, held by retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R). But this just doesn’t seem like that year. Similarly, Rep. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) will always have to fight hard for reelection, but he should be OK this time. In all these seats, check back in 2016.

And, finally, there’s indicted Rep. Michael Grimm (R, NY-11). We can’t believe we’re doing it, but we think he hangs on, a potentially embarrassing outcome for the Democratic outside groups who poured millions of largely unanswered dollars into the race — and for Republicans, if the indictment leads to a conviction. Staten Island just seems to love their guy, even if he eventually gets sent up the river.

The state of Iowa transitions us from the Republican seats to the Democratic seats on this list. If Democrats are struggling to retain the open IA-1, held by Senate candidate Bruce Braley (D), and the seat of Rep. Dave Loebsack (D, IA-2), then how can they be expected to take over the open IA-3, held by retiring Rep. Tom Latham (R), which is less Democratic? Of the four seats in Iowa, we think Democrats are narrowly favored to hold their own seats, IA-1 and IA-2, but that Republicans are positioned to hold on to IA-3 (the other seat, IA-4, is held by Safe Republican Rep. Steve King). Of all these seats, we can most easily imagine switching IA-1 to the Republicans in our final update, which has become an out-and-out dogfight despite being several points more Democratic than the state as a whole.

After a very close shave against Martha McSally (R) in 2012, Rep. Ron Barber (D, AZ-2) looked like a sure goner in a 2014 rematch. But he’s been resilient, and he probably has a slightly better chance to hold on than Kirkpatrick, the other very vulnerable Arizona House incumbent.

As noted above, Republicans could have a very good night in California, but as it stands we see several Democratic incumbents hanging tough: Reps. Julia Brownley (CA-26), Scott Peters (CA-52), and Raul Ruiz (CA-36). Of these three, Ruiz is in by far the best position, but we list him here as a precaution in case turnout is very poor, which hypothetically could threaten him. The other two could easily lose, but Brownley is probably in a better position than Peters.

If they survive, veteran Reps. John Barrow (D, GA-12) and Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) might hold the two most Republican districts held by any Democrat in the next Congress. But if time runs out on either this year, Barrow likely falls before Peterson. And slightly likelier to lose than either of the veterans is freshman Rep. Pete Gallego (D, TX-23), another red district Democrat. If they all hold on, their reward is either retirement on their own terms or another tough race in two years.

Rep. Ann Kuster (D, NH-2) is not going to win by 23 points, as a Granite State poll showed this week. But she should be OK.

Democrats and Republicans disagree about the competitiveness of the open MA-6, where Seth Moulton (D) defeated Rep. John Tierney (D) in a primary for the right to face 2012 nominee Richard Tisei (R). A Republican win would register as a mild surprise nonetheless. The same would go for the open ME-2, now held by gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud (D). The NRCC recently waved the white flag and cut its spending in this district despite close public polls.

Speaking of surprises, it would be a shock to us if former Rep. Charles Djou (R) won back HI-1, being vacated by defeated Senate candidate Colleen Hanabusa (D), given the district’s Democratic leanings, but stranger things have happened and the district was less Democratic on paper before favorite son Barack Obama won the presidency. Less shocking would be a late GOP upset of Rep. Steven Horsford (D, NV-4): Turnout in the Silver State is absolutely dreadful for Democrats, which is putting this seat on the table. Here’s another seat where we can easily imagine flipping our pick depending on what we find out over the weekend.

Finally, we mentioned that Republicans could have a big night in the Empire State. Reps. Dan Maffei (D, NY-24) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18) should hang on, but both races are very, very tight.

The Favorites

We’re not going to linger on this category. However, keep an eye on Rep. David Valadao’s (R, CA-21) margin Tuesday night: He should be fine, but he occupies one of the most Democratic districts held by any Republican, and he might be the top target of Democrats to start next cycle, assuming he wins this year. Also, coming on to the list is Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL), who often makes outrageous comments but might have really struck a critical nerve with his jaw-dropping set of insensitive remarks to a high school audience recently. Alaska’s heated Senate and gubernatorial races will almost definitely be closer than Young’s race, but we just wanted to flag it.

On the Democratic side, the seat of Rep. Lois Capps (D, CA-24) is a potentially late-breaking seat to watch: If Capps or any of the other Democrats listed in the Likely Democratic column loses, look out.

Conclusion

As noted before, these picks are not completely final, and we’ll adjust some on Monday.

If we manage to pick all of these correctly, it isn’t skill, it’s luck: Many were pure coin flips, to tell you the complete truth.

That said, we think a Republican gain of nine seats is about in the ballpark of what will happen on Election Night. Such a gain would put the GOP at 243 seats, or one more than the 242-seat majority the party won in 2010. This would be Speaker John Boehner’s biggest caucus, which would aid a House leadership team that often struggles to find a bare majority of 218 votes. It would also create an extra buffer for House Republicans to hold on to a majority in future years when the national winds are not blowing as strongly in their direction.