Sabato's Crystal Ball

Midterm Morsels

Senate and Governor Ratings Changes and Check-Ups

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics September 30th, 2010

For now, we are comfortable with the overall projections that we have in the Senate (+7-8 Republican seats) and for Governorships (+8 Republican seats). But that doesn’t mean all the individual contests around the country are static. We have a few ratings changes to announce, and the Crystal Ball also has other races on a watch list.

Alaska Senate: A couple of very recent polls have shown Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R/I) making a race out of it as a write-in, following her narrow GOP primary defeat by Tea Party candidate Joe Miller. We’re a bit dubious, since a write-in takes some effort, and a candidate’s backing in pre-election surveys is unlikely to be matched by real votes in the election. Nonetheless, it is now a contest with an indeterminate winner, though we suspect Miller will win in the end. Three things are quite likely. First, Democrat Scott McAdams is going to finish third. Second, the more of his votes that defect to Murkowski, who is considerably more moderate than Miller, the more likely the incumbent is to win. And third, since either Miller or Murkowski will sit in the GOP Senate caucus, the election result doesn’t affect control of the Senate. Therefore, this contest is still Likely R, though our readers can argue about which R.

Georgia Governor: We all know that former Congressman Nathan Deal, the Republican nominee for governor of Georgia, has turned out to be a scandal-drenched candidate. Yet it is a measure of how Republican the year is turning out to be in the Peach State that Deal is still leading former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, by mid-single digits in public and private polls. It’s possible this rating could change again if more damaging information about Deal emerges. But the Republican seems to have the edge, despite what has already been revealed, and that merits a rating change from Toss-Up to Leans R.

Maryland Governor: For a while after Scott Brown’s upset Senate victory in January, all things seemed possible for the GOP this year, even in deeply Blue states. And in fact, those dreams are becoming reality in many Democratic states. But Maryland appears to have chosen a different path. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has a healthy 11% lead (52% to 41% among likely voters) over former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), according to a new Washington Post poll. While Republicans are crying foul, insisting that the Post, a strongly Democratic newspaper, is trying to influence the election results, Ehrlich’s path to victory was always narrow. He won in 2002 against a deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and an incumbent Democratic governor is a much tougher foe. We are changing the rating on this race from Toss-Up to Leans D.

Massachusetts Governor: The Crystal Ball is also changing the gubernatorial rating in Massachusetts from Leans D to Toss-Up. Both public and private surveys are showing that Republican Charlie Baker has evened the race with Governor Deval Patrick. We do not know which way this one will go on November 2, in part because of the continuing presence of Independent Tim Cahill, who is still polling in high single and low double-digits. While Cahill is a former Democrat, he may well be splitting the anti-Patrick vote with Baker. Cahill insists that he will stay in the race until the end, but the real question is whether he holds his current support level, or whether it declines as Election Day approaches. This is one to watch, not least because it is Massachusetts—a normally Democratic state, but also one that gave us the first indication, via Scott Brown, that a Republican wave was coming in 2010.

North Carolina Senate: We’ve always had Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) winning reelection, but because this is the cursed seat to which no one has been reelected since 1968 and since many polls had Burr barely ahead of Democratic nominee Elaine Marshall, we cautiously kept it at Leans R. It is now obvious that Sen. Burr is going to be reelected, probably handily, so we are raising the rating to Likely R.

In addition to these five rating changes, we offer some quick thoughts on emerging trends in other races nationwide.

In the Minnesota Governor race, Democrat Mark Dayton has usually posted a lead over Republican Tom Emmer, though it is not always an impressive or stable one, given the presence of Ventura-Party candidate Tom Horner. All things being equal, we’d expect Minnesota to lean to Dayton and the Democrats, especially because Emmer is probably too conservative for this unpredictable but generally liberal state. Let’s see where Horner goes (up or down) in the next month, but it will be a surprise if the Democrats don’t re-take the statehouse after eight years of Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).

We’re also not ready to change our current rating of Leans D in the New Hampshire Governor’s contest, but this one is definitely on the Crystal Ball’s “watch list”. What was once expected to be a reelection walk for three-term Gov. John Lynch (D) has turned into a real horserace, with Republican nominee John Stephen, the state’s former health commissioner, coming on strong. This is going to be a Republican year in the Granite State, and the GOP is likely to hold the open Senate seat of retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R) and take over one or both U.S. House seats. That means Gov. Lynch needs a substantial crossover vote to hold his office. To this point, Lynch leads, but narrowly, and both sides know this is a tight on—and will spend cash accordingly. Lynch has been popular, but keep in mind there has never been a four-term governor of New Hampshire, and three incumbent governors have been defeated for reelection in New Hampshire since 1978.

Maine’s Governor contest has seen Republican Paul LePage fare well in most but not all surveys taken so far against Democrat Libby Mitchell and Independent Eliot Cutler, who may be cutting into the Democratic vote—though Mainers disagree even about that. LePage is a Tea Party candidate and is a more conservative candidate than Maine normally elects, but 2010 may be the exception to many rules around the nation. It’s too early to lean this to LePage, however. He’s an untested candidate given to counter-productive outbursts, most recently in his assertion that as Governor, he’d be in the headlines a lot telling President Obama to “go to hell”. LePage’s base may love that, but independent swing voters do not appreciate intemperateness.

In both key California races, Democrats are doing better than they were over the summer, perhaps as the state’s partisan leaning asserts itself. Senator Barbara Boxer has opened up a lead beyond the margin of error in some polls over the GOP’s Carly Fiorina, and Democrat Jerry Brown may be benefitting from the heavily Democratic flavor of Golden State politics as he faces the super-self-funder, Republican Meg Whitman. Neither contest is in the bag for the Democrats, yet if current trends continue, our readers can guess where they will end up in the Crystal Ball’s ratings.

In the Washington Senate race, Patty Murray has taken the lead in a few surveys over Republican Dino Rossi, though it is not all decisive at this point. Republicans are still optimistic about Rossi’s chances, relying on the strong GOP showing in the state’s summer “open primary”. Washington can be unpredictable despite its Blue tinge, so we’ll keep watching.

The Connecticut and West Virginia Senate races are also surprisingly tight. Both Democrats, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of CT and Governor Joe Manchin of WV, were considered shoo-ins when the contests began. But Blumenthal has self-funding Linda McMahon hot on his trail, and Manchin is being dogged by rock-bottom Obama ratings in the Mountain State. These two match-ups will tell us a great deal, early on election night, about Republican chances to find the elusive ten seats they need to take control of the Senate.

On the other side of the coin, the Kentucky Senate contest is getting closer as Republican nominee Rand Paul, a controversial Tea Party nominee, has been unable to fully harness the conservative nature of the state and the Republican momentum this year. We still rate this one as Leans R since Kentucky is so anti-Obama, but Democrat Jack Conway’s situation is far from hopeless.

In Wisconsin Senate, Republican Ron Johnson is doing extraordinarily well against longtime Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Another self-funder, Johnson has an appealing media persona and has led a series of polls outside the margin of error, as Wisconsin appears to wobble from Blue in 2008 to Red in this midterm year. But Feingold is a tough pol who has won under tough circumstances before (especially in 1998) and he cannot be written off easily or quickly, whatever September surveys may say. At the same time, during a recent trip to Wisconsin, we noted that quite a number of keen election observers said that they believed Feingold would lose—something they could not have imagined six months ago.

With a little more than a month to go before Election Day—and with voting underway already in many states—the ebb and flow of close campaigns will continue in every region. And we’ll follow and comment on them every week.