Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate 2014: Blowouts as Bellwethers?

Just winning South Dakota and West Virginia probably won’t be enough for Republicans

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst March 28th, 2013

Consider these assessments of two 2012 Senate races, from Roll Call’s election preview published about a month before Election Day last year:

Nebraska: “The Senate race, once expected to be one of the top races of the cycle, has slipped away from Democrats ever since state Sen. Deb Fischer surprised many — even some of her own staffers — by winning the GOP nomination.”

North Dakota: “If there is one race this cycle that proves campaigns and candidates matter, it’s this one… [T]his once-sleepy race has become one of the most competitive of the cycle.”

File these away. If a month or two before Election Day 2014, the common descriptions of the Senate races in South Dakota and West Virginia sound like Nebraska — where the Democratic candidate is widely regarded as a longshot — then Republicans might be on the way to winning the Senate. If they sound more like North Dakota — essentially, a toss-up that could (and did) go down to the wire — then Democrats likely will once again have staved off the GOP in the Upper Chamber.

That’s because in the wake of Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-SD) unsurprising retirement announcement Tuesday, the Mount Rushmore State and the Mountain State stand out as two Democrat-held Senate seats that Republicans, on paper, should carry. Capturing both are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a Republican Senate victory. Think of them as the first two dominoes that need to fall for the GOP. How quickly they fall — or if they fall at all — will tell us a lot about the overall Senate picture. Which is why Republicans need to put them away early, like 2012’s Nebraska or 2010’s Arkansas (where ex-Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln was obviously dead in the water months before the election) and North Dakota (where now-Republican Sen. John Hoeven blew out his overmatched opponent by more than 50 percentage points in an open, Democrat-held seat).

As mentioned here previously, Republicans need to pick up six net Senate seats to capture the Senate. Their obvious targets are the seven Democrat-held seats in states Mitt Romney won in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina, to go along with the aforementioned South Dakota and West Virginia. Barack Obama won only an average of 40.5% of the vote in these states in 2012.

The latter two stand out because they’re open seats — in addition to Johnson, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) announced his retirement a few months ago — and because Obama failed to clear the 40% hurdle in either in 2012. It’s worth noting that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the North Dakota Democrat who won the aforementioned 2012 race, also represents a state where Obama got less than 40%.

Of the two open seats, the Mountain State is more clearly moving in the Republican direction.

Despite bluster from some unhappy conservative groups miffed by some aspects of her record, there’s no indication yet that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) will face a credible primary challenge as she seeks the open seat. A sign of Capito’s appeal is that she ran ahead of the Republican presidential candidate in her district in 2008 and 2012. Democrats are scrambling for a candidate; the most recent name to emerge is a Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) ally, Attorney Nick Preservati (D). Truth be told, at this point the reasonable way for observers to react to a hypothetical November 2014 Republican win in West Virginia is the same way basketball fans should react to the Miami Heat winning a first-round NBA playoff series this year: ho-hum. A better gauge of Republican success there is whether the National Republican Senatorial Committee has to spend significant funds to get Capito elected; the NRSC didn’t in picking up Democrat-held Nebraska in 2012, which told observers all they needed to know about how competitive the seat was in the lead-up to the election.

South Dakota is closer, but it’s just not realistic at this point to view it as a true toss-up: We give Republicans a slight edge in the wake of Johnson’s retirement — like West Virginia, South Dakota now LEANS REPUBLICAN. Ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R) declared his intention to run for the seat soon after the 2012 election, but there is also Republican grumbling about Rounds (stunning, right?). However, in this case there might actually be some candidates willing to act on the chatter. The most notable possible insurgent — if a member of Congress can be labeled as such — is Rep. Kristi Noem (R), a two-term at-large (elected statewide) House representative who knocked off ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) in 2010. It seems to be the belief of national Republicans — a belief with which we agree — that Rounds is the better candidate and the more proven vote-getter. But Noem would probably be a small favorite too if she sprung an upset in the primary. The rumored Democratic candidates are Sandlin or U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, son of the retiring senator. Keep an eye on the spending there next year, too — the less engaged the NRSC and its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, are, the greater the indication that it’s another Nebraska, as opposed to a North Dakota. Democrats need to bank on a small state tradition in that part of the country: a desire to have representation in both parties in Congress. If South Dakota goes Republican, it presumably would have an all-GOP congressional delegation. But maybe Sandlin would make a play for her old seat if Noem jumped into the Senate race.

If Republicans can get these seats out of the way early — say, by the middle of next summer — they will be freer to focus their resources on the aforementioned Democratic incumbents in Romney states, perhaps also expanding the playing field into open seats in Iowa and Michigan, depending on who runs in those places. If they get bogged down in either, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) can breathe a little easier.

Think about it this way: In recent times, 1994, 2006, 2008 and 2010 featured swings at least as big as the one Republicans need next year to capture the Senate (six seats). In each of those years, the party making the big gains netted at least two seats in relatively blowout fashion (wins by 10 points or more). Republicans scored blowouts in six of the eight seats they netted in 1994, and three of the six seats they added in 2010. Meanwhile, in 2006 Democrats won two of their six new seats by more than 10 points, and three of the eight seats they netted in 2008.

It’s unrealistic to expect the Republicans to net a half-dozen Senate seats exclusively through coin-flip victories: Some blowouts would make the job easier and give an obvious indication of a building wave months before Election Day. By our reckoning, South Dakota and West Virginia — especially the latter — are the likeliest nominees to be uncompetitive. Watch them. They might be bellwethers not because they are close, but because they are not.

Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

As mentioned above, we now give Republicans at least a small edge in South Dakota. How the fields develop on both sides will determine whether that edge grows or shrinks in the coming months. Meanwhile, as we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) is running for reelection. He very clearly has an easy path to reelection and thus merits a SAFE DEMOCRATIC rating.

Late Wednesday, actress Ashley Judd (D) decided against a run against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) in Kentucky. It’s a good move for her, and for Democrats, because we suspect Judd would have had a rough time against McConnell given that her liberal political profile — and long list of curious comments over the years — were a poor fit for Bluegrass Country. Speculation is now swirling around Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), the youthful (34) secretary of state. Because Kentucky elects its statewide officials in odd-numbered years, Grimes could run against McConnell from safety. In their wildest dreams, Democrats must hope that Grimes is the second coming of the aforementioned Heitkamp; for the time being, though, we’re keeping this race as LIKELY REPUBLICAN. McConnell, though not particularly popular, will be very difficult to defeat.

Our full 2014 ratings and lists of possible Senate candidates are here.