How the Fall Elections are Shaping Up for Democrats

Up until now, I’ve been ignoring the speculation about who’s going to win in the fall elections for two reasons:

  • The mainstream media already does way too much speculating. Who’s-going-to-win speculation is easier and cheaper than covering government, or figuring out whether what the candidates are saying is true, or analyzing how well their proposals mightwork. Instead, you can fill air time with wild guesses that no one takes responsibility for*. (Remember the people who on election eve in 2012 confidently predicted a Romney win? Peggy Noonan, George Will, Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer — did the networks take any of those people out of their rolodexes, or do you still see them on TV making new baseless predictions?)
  • I expect the narrative of the race to change in ways that will make current speculation obsolete. We’ve already seen that to a certain extent. Six months ago, Republicans were expecting to win a 2010-like wave election because of what a disaster ObamaCare was turning out to be. Then the web site got fixed, people signed up, and good things started to happen. ObamaCare still isn’t getting all the credit it deserves — and may not even by fall — but unless you’re in a very red state I don’t think you can win campaign just on the awfulness of ObamaCare.

Recently, though, a friend asked a very practical question: She’s a Democrat planning to contribute some money to candidates (hardly anything on the Sheldon Adelson scale, but not nothing either), and would like it to go to the best possible place; in other words, to good candidates in tight races where a little money might make a difference. (She asked the same question in 2012; I gave her Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. Warren’s race turned out not to be as close as I expected, but in general I’m pleased with those suggestions.)

Three elections. The first thing to realize is that the rhythm of American elections is producing three very different situations in the Senate, the House, and the governorships.

  • Senators have six-year terms, so Democrats are defending the Senate seats they won in the Obama landslide of 2008. Consequently, they have more seats at stake, and in particular they have seats to lose in red states like Arkansas and Alaska.
  • Most governors have four-year terms, so in the statehouses, the story is the exact opposite: Republicans are defending what they won in the Tea Party wave of 2010. Not only are they defending governorships in blue states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, many of their incumbents are extremists in moderate states like Wisconsin and Florida.
  • In the House, Republicans are still benefiting from the gerrymandering after the 2010 census. Democratic candidates totaled 1.3 million more votes than Republicans in 2012, but still lost the House by a wide margin. Estimates are that it would take a 4-7% national margin in the popular vote for Democrats to win the House.

In general, I would pay most attention to the Senate. Winning the House is a bridge too far, while losing the Senate is a real possibility. (At the moment, the Senate looks like a toss-up; I think the overall winds will shift a little in the Democrats favor by November.) Obviously, the governor of your own state is going to have a big effect on your life, but holding the majority of governorships is more about bragging rights than real consequences.

Sizing up the Senate. The 64 senators not up for re-election this year split into 34 Democrats** and 30 Republicans. Of the 36 seats up for grabs, currently Democrats hold 21 and Republicans 15. Nate Silver’s analysis from March is a little out of date, but Larry Sabato’s up-to-date model tells the same basic story: Each side has 48 seats it can feel some confidence in winning, so control of the Senate*** comes down to four states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. In each of them, a Democratic incumbent is trying to hang on in a state that Obama lost in 2012.

Those four races are:

  • Alaska: Senator Mark Begich against a Republican still to be chosen, probably former attorney general Daniel Sullivan. (Though Joe Miller — the Tea Party candidate who beat Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary, but lost to her in the general — is making it interesting by claiming that he’s the only real climate-change denier in the race. In fact, all the Republican candidates are deniers, but Miller is the most extreme and most consistent.) A recent poll has Begich ahead of Sullivan 42-37%, but that could change if Republicans pull together after the primary.
  • Arkansas. Senator Mark Pryor against Congressman Tom Cotton. Pryor was behind, but has pulled into a slight lead by attacking Cotton’s vote in the House for the Republican Study Committee’s budget that would raise the Social Security and Medicare eligibility age to 70. That’s a big deal in the working class, where jobs aren’t easy to do after your knees start to give out, and life expectancy isn’t nearly as high as that of richer folks.
  • Louisiana. Senator Mary Landrieu against multiple Republicans, in a system where there’s a run-off if no one gets a majority. Her main opponent seems to be Congressman Bill Cassidy. Landrieu is running ahead in most polls, but below 50%.
  • North Carolina. Senator Kay Hagan against NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis. The RCP polling average has Tillis slightly ahead, though it seems unduly influenced by an outlying result from a conservative polling group.

Of those four, the Democrat I would miss least is Landrieu, while Hagan is the one I’d miss most. Hagan’s opponent Thom Tillis is the ringleader of the North Carolina legislature’s sharp lurch to the right, which provoked the Moral Monday protests. Pretty much whatever Tea Party proposal you can think of has passed in North Carolina — voter ID, non-expansion of Medicaid, ending extended unemployment benefits, shifting money from public schools to vouchers, expanding the public places where you can carry guns … the whole deal.

Northern Democrats tend to think of southern states as lost causes, but Obama carried NC in 2008 and lost it closely in 2012. So if I had to pick one race to focus on, it would be Hagan’s.

If you want an underdog. One of the 48 seats Republicans are supposed to feel comfortable about is Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky, though RCP rates it a toss-up and the polls are close.

But McConnell seems beatable, Alison Lundergan Grimes is a good candidate to beat him with, and if she does, that’s all anybody is going to be talking about on election night. McConnell is fumbling what was supposed to be his main issue, ObamaCare, because he doesn’t know how to handle the popularity of ObamaCare’s local manifestation, Kynect.

The one reason to avoid the Kentucky race is that the money totals are getting so high that your contribution may seem irrelevant. I’m not sure what you do with $100 million in a small market like Kentucky. Chris Cillizza reports:

As one veteran Democratic strategist noted to us, it’s possible that Kentucky radio and television stations will simply run out of inventory; there, literally, won’t be anything left to buy with all the money pouring into the state.

If that turns you away, underdog-supporters may want to look a little further south, to Michelle Nunn’s race in Georgia.

If you want a governor’s race. Maine. It’s hard to find a more extreme right-wing governor than Maine’s Paul LePage, who won in a three-way race in 2010 and may do it again.

If you want a House race.  I have a bias: My representative Ann Kuster is a top target of the Koch brothers’ Americans For Prosperity. But she’s ahead in the polls anyway. The other NH seat belongs to Carol Shea-Porter, another good candidate whose race is rated a toss-up.

* That raises the question of my own record. In April, 2012 I did my first serious look at the Obama/Romney race. I had Obama leading in electoral votes 242-206, with eight swing states worth 90. In the fall, Obama won all eight and had a 332-206 victory.

But my 2010 record wasn’t so good. I don’t think I made definite predictions, but I was late coming around to the realization that Democrats were in serious trouble.

** Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine are technically independents, but they’ve been caucusing with the Democrats.

*** In a 50-50 Senate, Joe Biden casts the deciding vote as vice president, so Democrats retain control.


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  • Brent Holman  On June 2, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    I don’t understand that map…it shows Wisconsin as (Grey) ‘ No Election’.

    • weeklysift  On June 4, 2014 at 8:00 am

      No senate election. Baldwin got elected in 2012 and comes up again in 2018. Johnson in 2010, coming up again in 2016.

  • donbi33  On June 2, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    What about the Colorado senate race?

    • weeklysift  On June 4, 2014 at 7:56 am

      Another worthwhile one. I’ve seen it rated as a “leans Democrat” race, but should be close. And Udall is a good guy, one of the few senators to stick with the NSA issue.

  • Anonymous  On June 21, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    Is Cantor’s Virginia district now an interesting House race?

    • weeklysift  On June 25, 2014 at 9:40 am

      Good question. I know the district has been solidly Republican — Romney won it 57-42 — so I think the question hangs on whether Brat makes a legitimate-rape level blunder.


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