Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

U.Va. Center for Politics September 4th, 2014

The GOP’s Jayhawk blues

Washington Republicans were reaching for the Pepto-Bismol Wednesday night when the already intriguing Kansas Senate race took a dramatic turn: Chad Taylor, the Democratic candidate, is leaving the race. This gives independent businessman Greg Orman a clean shot at incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R). It’s been clear for much of the summer that national Republicans were going to have to spend substantial sums to save embattled, divisive Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in his reelection contest. Now they will have to mount a parallel rescue operation to save Roberts, too.

Just last week we flagged this race, noting that Roberts — bearing ugly scars from his primary — was in a stunningly weak position, leading his two other major opponents but drawing less than 40% of the vote in some polls. We switched the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican because Orman and Taylor were splitting the anti-incumbent vote. Roberts still appeared poised to pull off a plurality victory, unimpressive for a senior incumbent but a win nonetheless.

Now his situation has worsened, and we’re downgrading him again: The Senate race in Ruby-Red Kansas, which hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential victory, now only Leans Republican.

Our Kansas sources stressed two things Wednesday evening. First, Republicans are absolutely furious at Roberts for turning in such a clumsy, second-rate primary performance and allowing this contest to linger in a year when every Senate battle could determine control of the chamber. Second, these same sources — when pressed — believed that ultimately Roberts would be able to fight off the challenge with enough outside assistance.

We’ll see whether the latter view turns out to be realistic or optimistic. For the moment, we’ll put a thumb on the scale for “realistic.” However, Orman has gone to great lengths to emphasize his independence by noting his vacillation between the two parties. He obviously hopes that Kansans will be more amenable to voting for him if they don’t think of him as a Democrat. Republicans, inevitably, are going to try to make Orman as much of a Democrat as possible. Conservative journalists on Twitter are already discussing attack ads aimed at Orman with this theme: “The O in Orman stands for Obama.” In fact, Orman considered running as a Democrat in the 2008 Senate race against Roberts before declining to become a candidate.

Beyond Orman and Roberts, there’s also a Libertarian in the race — another small boost to Orman as far as we’re concerned. The Libertarian may draw disproportionately from the GOP’s Roberts, as is often the case.

If Orman springs the upset, there’s some question whether he’d caucus as a Republican or a Democrat, and he will be hard-pressed to reveal his intentions before Election Day. But Republicans certainly can’t bank on Orman choosing them. Thus, they are going to have to spend money in a state that should be absolutely safe for them, and this expenditure will draw resources from other states that are more critical to the GOP Senate takeover effort.

It’s odd but true: Senate Democrats had a good day because the Democratic candidate in a Senate race dropped out two months before the election. Politics can be a bizarre business.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating change

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik

Alaska gubernatorial race gets much more interesting

Lower 48 political observers can be forgiven for missing a fairly important development over Labor Day weekend in Alaska. Democrats decided to support a fusion ticket for governor, backing independent Bill Walker for governor and Byron Mallott, previously the Democratic nominee, for lieutenant governor.

The decision by state Democrats to back Walker, a former Republican, and create a two-way race between him and Gov. Sean Parnell (R-AK) makes this race considerably more competitive. We’re changing the rating here from Safe Republican all the way to Leans Republican. Just like in Kansas, a Democratic candidate’s exit from a race is causing trouble for an incumbent Republican.

Alaska Democrats are playing an interesting game of realpolitik: abandoning their nominee in order to give themselves the best chance to defeat Parnell. They were prodded to do this by some of their allies, including the state AFL-CIO, which said a couple of weeks ago that it would not endorse any candidate for governor in a three-way race. Walker helped push the Democrats to make this deal, too, in part by commissioning a poll showing him leading Parnell 39% to 37% in a two-way contest.

We always knew Alaska’s Senate race was going to be competitive — the race between Sen. Mark Begich (D) and former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan (R) is a Toss-up — but the fact that the governor’s race could also be a barnburner is a late surprise. The Parnell-Walker contest continues, in a sense, a broiling argument in Alaska politics over oil tax changes championed by Parnell and the oil industry and opposed by Walker and Mallott: Voters narrowly upheld the changes in a referendum last month. Further complicating matters in the Last Frontier are some major statewide ballot issues, like marijuana legalization and raising the minimum wage.

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change

– Kyle Kondik

House rating change in Nebraska

Alex Isenstadt of Politico provided an excellent overview of the House picture earlier this week, and the consensus projections he heard from operatives on both sides were right around the range the Crystal Ball has long suggested in the lower chamber: A small Republican gain of about a half-dozen seats.

Isenstadt’s report touched on a handful of races, including one where we’ve thought about making a change for a while and now will.

Rep. Lee Terry (R, NE-2) is often a weak finisher on Election Day, and he had a very close call in the primary in May. His November opponent, state Sen. Brad Ashford (D), isn’t raising a ton of money, but this race is more about the weak incumbent, Terry, than the challenger. Last month, a Democratic poll showed Ashford up 46% to 45%, and the Terry camp didn’t strongly dispute the numbers, agreeing that it was a “close, tough race.” Isenstadt reported that a Republican group recently polled the race and found it tied at 41% apiece.

We’d still rather be Terry than Ashford in this Omaha district that President Obama won in 2008 (netting him an extra electoral vote because of Nebraska’s election allocation rules) but not in 2012. However, Terry may be an unusually poor candidate: His most noteworthy moment of this election cycle was insisting that he be paid during a government shutdown. If Terry loses, the loss will be self-inflicted.

Table 3: Crystal Ball House rating change

– Kyle Kondik  

2014: A wave election, or a change election?

The following item is from Dr. Alfred J. Tuchfarber, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and founder of UC’s Ohio Poll.

Will November 2014 be a wave election?

That is the wrong question. Will November 2014 be a change election? That is the appropriate question.

Politics and winning elections are about changing public policy and changing the political dynamics of a nation, state, or locality.

Since the Republican tidal wave in 1994, in which the GOP gained 54 US House seats, we political scientists and analysts have been fixated on wave elections. I plead guilty myself.

A wave election has a very specific semi-formal definition: One or the other party gains 20 or more seats in the U.S. House. That is actually a quite narrow definition, and one that is particularly dubious in an era with fewer and fewer contested House seats.

Because the Republicans already hold a 33-seat edge in the House, it is very unlikely they can gain a net of 20 or more additional seats. Furthermore, almost no independent analyst predicts the Democrats will reverse present trends and gain many seats.

Elections that do not meet the 20-seat metric do at times result in substantial public policy and political change. Such elections are important even if they do not meet the definition of a wave election. In an era of deep partisan divide, increasing voter polarization, gerrymandering, legislative protection of incumbents, Voting Rights Act protection of minority-held seats, and a huge number of “safe” seats, the 20-plus rule is too limiting.

The narrow definition ignores critical U.S. Senate elections, politically important governor’s races, and the potential of partisan majority changes in many state legislative chambers. A more holistic definition is one that looks at partisan change in all those elections as well as the all-important presidential election in years they occur.

We should just go back to the old “continuity or change” dichotomy for describing the consequences of particular elections. Will politics and public policy change or will the status quo persist?

In 2014, the most critical contest is whether the Democrats or Republicans control the Senate in January 2015. That is what will be most important in defining whether 2014 is a change or continuity election. Under any circumstance, President Obama will still be in charge and will still wield the veto and control the bully pulpit, but a Republican-controlled Senate will change public policy, budget priorities, and the political dynamic for the next two years leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Also very important is what happens in the states. Does Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) hang on in Colorado in the face of gun control and fracking issues or does Bob Beauprez (R) prevail? Do the Republicans or Democrats wrest control of one of the legislative chambers in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, or West Virginia, thereby changing the future of legislation in those states?

Using a change or continuity decision metric is a more appropriate choice for analyzing the 2014 election than asking if it is a wave election or not. Change or continuity is the real choice voters will make this year.