Sabato's Crystal Ball

A December Freeze?

In race for Congress, it’s wait and see

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 12th, 2013

With Christmas and New Year’s less than two weeks away, the political doldrums might finally be upon us.

Tuesday saw President Obama attend the funeral for legendary South African President Nelson Mandela, producing stories about him shaking hands with Cuban dictator Raul Castro and the look on Michelle Obama’s face as her husband took a photo with the British and Danish prime ministers. Game changers, these ain’t.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats even appear to be close to cutting a deal that would avert another government shutdown before the next election. So long as there isn’t a widespread revolt in the House, the budget agreement could be finalized in a matter of days. Given that another shutdown probably would have favored the Democrats — like the last shutdown did in October — approving this budget pact would probably be wise politics for Republicans.

Like a snowglobe after a good shake, perhaps the holidays and a quiet few weeks will give the political snowflakes time to settle after a tumultuous couple months, and we can get clearer answers to some big-picture questions: Is President Obama’s job approval dip terminal? Are Republicans actually surging, or are they just riding an Obamacare high? Does an improving economy — at least based off decent GDP growth and unemployment reports last week — move the needle for Democrats at all?

So we’re deliberately holding steady on most of our ratings for the time being. We’ll revisit them if there are any huge developments over the holidays — like a retirement or major campaign announcement — but, otherwise, we’ll see where the numbers are in January and act accordingly. Meanwhile, we thought we’d provide a quick window into our current thinking in the Senate and House and what ratings we’re considering changing.

The Senate

The two Senate ratings that we’ve received the most questions about are the two notable ones we changed at the end of the shutdown battle: Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Kay Hagan (D-NC). We list both as Leans Democratic, when we previously had them as Toss-ups. The Hagan and Landrieu seats are among the most important Senate races in the country; if either party sweeps both, they probably will control the Senate majority.

Did we err in moving these races? Possibly. Both incumbents seem stuck in the low-to-mid 40s in polling and are running in states where Mitt Romney won in 2012. The president’s troubles, if they continue, could sink both incumbents.

That said, there’s still a big factor in both races: challengers. In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) — the establishment candidate vying with several lesser-known names for the GOP nomination — actually polls slightly worse against Hagan than the other possibilities, according to Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, potentially because he is better known and the leader of the unpopular state legislature. What if Tillis is a bust, or if he loses the nomination to another candidate, like Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon (R)? Hagan could be in better shape than her numbers indicate.

The Louisiana race has a big wild card: There really is no primary in the Pelican State, as all candidates run in what amounts to an all-party primary in November 2014. If no one gets over 50%, the top two candidates advance to a December runoff. Two of Landrieu’s three Senate victories (1996, 2002) came in runoffs. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R, LA-6) should be able to force a runoff with Landrieu, but until then he’ll have to contend at least partially with the annoyance of a pseudo-primary campaign against Tea Partier Rob Maness (R), who is backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that likes to poke at establishment Republican candidates. That means Cassidy might be pushed to the right while he’s taking votes throughout 2014 — just like he was a few months ago when he voted no on the deal to end the shutdown. Of course, a runoff would shuffle the deck here: Imagine all the outside money that would flow in if this race decided control of the Senate in December. (Georgia is another place where there could be an explosive runoff.)

The bottom line is this: If Louisiana and North Carolina are decided on national issues, it’s likely that our Leans Democratic ratings in both places will be wrong. But other factors might tilt either contest and benefit the incumbents; we’re at the point in the race where both Hagan and Landrieu are basically being measured against generic Republicans, and as we all well know, there’s no such thing as a generic challenger. That uncertainty on the GOP side is enough for us to keep a pinkie on the scale for both senators in our ratings, at least for the moment.

Incumbency, by the way, counts for something: The reason we have rated Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia as the three easiest Republican Senate pickups is because the Democratic incumbents in those states are retiring.

Speaking of open seats, the Michigan Senate race, where Sen. Carl Levin (D) is retiring, is getting more attention, thanks in part to another PPP poll showing ex-Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) up 42% to 40% over Rep. Gary Peters (D). That’s pretty similar to most other recent surveys of this race, which have generally shown both Peters and Land closely bunched together with relatively low levels of support. It’s worth noting that close to three-fifths of those surveyed by PPP (57%) knew enough about Land to have an opinion of her favorability (34%-23% favorable/unfavorable), while just about two-fifths (43%) knew enough about Peters to weigh in (22%-21%). That speaks to Land’s greater name recognition owing to her time in statewide office. She also has a 17-point lead in the poll with independents, which is probably unrealistic. We still think Peters is favored here given Michigan’s Democratic history, and we would be much more resistant to moving it to a toss-up than we would Louisiana or North Carolina.

Looking at the big picture, we wouldn’t predict Democrats to capture any seats the Republicans currently hold. Republicans, meanwhile, should capture the aforementioned open seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia and also defeat at least one Democratic incumbent (most likely that’s Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas). That would be a net Senate gain of at least four, with more than a puncher’s chance of netting two more seats and winning a majority.

A few other things in the Senate:

As we approach the year of the election, keep an eye out for a late retirement. Last week, we mentioned former Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) late February 2012 retirement last cycle as a development that helped doom Republican hopes. But also recall that former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), seeing the writing on the wall, announced his retirement right after Christmas in 2011. Nebraska became an easy pickup for Republicans the following November — the only Democratic seat they flipped in what was otherwise a frustrating cycle for them.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention some recent primary drama on the Republican side.

Some thought Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) would retire this cycle, but he announced that he would run again last Friday. He faces a primary challenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R); in another establishment vs. Tea Party battle, we like the incumbent for now. Similarly, we also favor Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in his renomination battle against Rep. Steve Stockman (R, TX-36), who surprisingly filed to run against Cornyn at the last minute. Stockman, a bomb-thrower with financial disclosure issues, will have to hustle to force a runoff against Cornyn in the fast-approaching March 4 primary. If Cornyn gets over 50%, he wins. In a Tuesday fundraising e-mail, Stockman noted that he has “less than 90 days” to knock off the “liberal” Cornyn. If it was so important, why didn’t Stockman jump in six months ago? And Cornyn, who holds a 93% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, is “liberal?” Stockman is just hard to take seriously. Notably, the Club for Growth — another group that is supportive of insurgent Republicans in primaries, including now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in his 2012 primary win over a more mainstream Republican — isn’t getting near Stockman.

Mississippi and Texas both represent opportunities for the Tea Party to send a message to Washington Republicans, but we suspect that the establishment will want to send a message of its own by providing muscular support to the two incumbents. Politics is often a game of surge and decline; we saw the Tea Party surge in GOP primaries in places over the past two cycles. Perhaps now comes the decline as incumbents learn how to run scared in primaries.

The House

Democrats suffered an embarrassing setback Monday when Pete Festersen, an Omaha city councilman, opted out of his challenge to Rep. Lee Terry (R, NE-2). We had previously noted that Democrats could point to such recruiting victories as durable gains won from the shutdown crisis, but the decision by the waffling Festersen — who was not running, then was running, then was not running again — puts a dent in that argument.

Terry is a weak incumbent whose most notable moment this year was talking about how much he needed a paycheck during the shutdown. However, this is a district where Mitt Romney won 53% of the vote. Back in October, we wrote that “we were considering upgrading [NE-2] to Likely Republican given the lack of a Democratic challenger” prior to Festersen’s entrance into the race. Well, with Festersen out, we’re going ahead with that switch: NE-2 is now Likely Republican, from Leans Republican.

The sting of that news for Democrats was blunted a bit by Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust (D) announcing a run for VA-10, a swingy Northern Virginia seat that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012. The district is represented by Rep. Frank Wolf (R), one of the more moderate members of the GOP caucus. Wolf remains strongly favored to win, but he’s turning 75 in January and is the frequent subject of retirement rumors. We’re putting this race on the board as Likely Republican for now.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) has drawn an intriguing challenger, state Sen. Torrey Westrom (R), who was blinded in an accident as a teenager. We’re holding this race as Likely Democratic, but it could get very competitive: Like Wolf, Peterson is a possible retirement, and Republicans seem intent on giving Peterson a real challenge in this 54% Romney district.

In Oregon, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D, OR-5) merits at least some mention as a longshot Republican target; his likely challenger is Tootie Smith, a county commissioner. We’re flagging this race as Likely Democratic. Republicans are getting more optimistic that they can put some lower-tier races, like this one, in play.

Finally, get ready for congressional coverage in the new year to focus on the special election in FL-13, a competitive Tampa-area seat long held by the late Rep. Bill Young (R). Theoretically, the Democrats should have an edge here: They got their preferred candidate, 2010 Florida gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink (D), while Republicans struck out on their top options and are left with David Jolly, a former Young aide and lobbyist, and Kathleen Peters, a state representative. (The choice between Jolly and Peters has apparently even divided Young’s family.) National Republicans appear to favor Peters over Jolly, preferring a female candidate (and non-lobbyist) with better local connections to take on Sink. Democrats probably should have a small edge here given that, on paper, they have the better candidate. But it remains a Toss-up for now as we see how the GOP primary plays out in January and how national factors impact the contest.

At the moment, Republicans hold a lead of about three points in averages of House generic ballot surveys, a good measurement of the national mood in the race for the House. Those generic ballot figures would translate to a gain of roughly 10 House seats for the GOP in 2014, according to a model from the Crystal Ball’s Alan Abramowitz. That might be a bit too high on a map where there aren’t a ton of great targets for either side, but we’ve reverted to our pre-shutdown outlook: Republicans seem likelier to make a small gain in the House than Democrats. As we wait to see what happens to the national environment, we’re also mulling a number of other House ratings changes, most of which would be moves in the Republicans’ direction. Stay tuned.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes