October 6, 2012
Fourteen Critical Races Could Determine Our FutureBy Jim O'Sullivan
A somewhat overlooked battle is raging in fourteen states which may determine the future of our country during the next four years. The United States Senate's composition -- not just the presidency -- will be determined on November 6. Simply stated, if the Republicans pick up a net of three Senate seats and Romney wins, Ryan, as vice president, will cast the deciding vote should a tie vote occur in the chamber. Furthermore, a net of four Republican wins would capture a majority, ending the bifurcation of Congress and putting the party in a strong negotiating position should Obama win or in a substantial supporting role should Romney prevail.
On the surface, a Republican majority in the 2012 election appears likely. Democrats have to defend 21 seats, Republicans 10, and independents just 2. The independents, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, caucus with Democrats, giving Democrats a 53-to-47 majority. Inside-the-Beltway pundits have voiced in their "elitist" tone that Republican victories in four races without a reversal elsewhere is heresy...Obama, the narratives speculate, will lead a tsunami against Romney, and Senate candidates down the ticket will be anointed with his largesse. A similar insistence, in the press, of the unraveling of the Republican Senate takeover advantage is gaining steam. Numerous Senate race assessments have been posited, purporting objectivity without presenting a basis for the analysis or conclusions (e.g., NYT-Battle for the Senate).
Without media hyperventilation, numerous factors can be predictive of victory. This evaluation will focus on just six. They include (1) the national economy and the race's state economy; (2) the political nature of the state -- i.e., red (Republican), blue (Democrat), and TU (toss-up); (3) the president's approval rating, above 50% positive for a Democrat, below 50% positive for a Republican; (4) the incumbent's current approval rating -- >50% good, <50% not good; (5) Obama's foreign policy/defense posture; and (6) the RCP's average Senate poll ratings.
The election will be influenced by whether an incumbent or open seat is being contested; obviously, the incumbent, where he or she exists, has the edge. In half of the 14 races being reviewed, the contested seat is open, and nine of the states can be described as red or TU, a slight advantage for the minority party. Many predictors include Arizona, Indiana, and Hawaii in their Senate prediction models, since an upset could impact control, but this writer believes no upsets will occur in these states.
High-confidence Republican wins:
Nebraska - Deb Fischer (R) benefits from a solid state economy, very conservative attitudes, RCP polling at +13%, a Republican governor, and high disapproval of Obama. This battle is a slam-dunk for Republicans.
North Dakota - Rick Berg (R) is jousting with Heidi Heitkamp (D) for the open seat. Berg has the advantages: a sizzling economy, an overwhelmingly red state, a Republican governor, a consistent RCP lead in excess of 5%, very high disapproval of Obama, consistent personal approval above 50%. End of the discussion: Berg in a walk.
Wisconsin - The state has garnered headlines due to deep divisions culminating in a recall election which saw Scott Walker (R) prevail. Paul Ryan has received his share of headlines, too. The hubbub has masked the Senate contest between former governor Tommy Thompson (R) and Tammy Baldwin (D), a first-time statewide candidate. Thompson has more than a few advantages: Wisconsin's improving economy, a decreasing unemployment rate, past success as a very popular governor, a positive rating above 50%, while Obama's is 48%. Thompson leads in the polls (recent declines while raising money), can call on a battle-tested Republican ground organization, and has never lost a statewide election. Tommy Thompson wins going away.
Probable Republican Wins:
Montana - Denny Rehberg (R) has shown surprising strength against Jon Tester (D), the incumbent. Jon Tester has leveraged his incumbency through moderation in a red presidential and statehouse state. Rehberg has a down-to-earth, highly energetic style. He has consistently led Tester in the RCP polling averages by up to 5%; the state has a strong economy but a fear of regulation and the EPA. Rehberg uses Obama's unfavorability (41%) and Romney's popularity (52%) effectively, and he exhibits a deft touch citing foreign policy concerns. Rehberg will win, but narrowly.
Nevada - An insurrection is brewing in the state. The state has a party registration favorable to Democrat Shelley Berkley, yet the state's unemployment rate leads the nation, has immigration issues and budget and deficit problems. Dean Heller (R) has led Berkley in the RCP average polls by up to 9% and now leads 47.3% to 42.0%. Berkley is under investigation, which gives Heller the edge. Heller wins in a pro-Obama, Democrat state.
Horse-races with possibilities:
Florida - The state, put simply, is up for grabs. The incumbent is Senator Bill Nelson (D), whose re-election is saddled with a troubled economy, high unemployment, and foreclosures. The challenger, Connie Mack (R), the son of a former popular Florida politician, is gaining momentum based on recent RCP average polls. Obama's approval rating ranges from 45%-48% -- well below his 2008 levels. This TU state has a TU senate contest.
Virginia - The match pits George Allen (R), a former senator, against Tim Kaine (D), the former governor. A victory will turn on Obama's policies and ideology. Unemployment is quite low due to government, and the state has gradually moved toward red. Obama's approval is 46%-49% but has not exceeded 50% since mid-2011, thus Allen's miniscule lead in the RCP polling average of 0.5%. The race is leaning marginally Republican. Republicans are betting that either Florida or Virginia adds a seat to their pickups.
Republican long shots:
Massachusetts - The contest is a donnybrook; Scott Brown (R), the incumbent, versus Elizabeth Warren (D). Warren, a devotee of the very liberal/progressive left, has claimed Native American heritage to gain an employment preference and subscribes to the "you didn't build that" philosophy. Nevertheless, Warren has a 4% lead in the RCP average polling, which is nonetheless very volatile. Warren has a significant Democrat registration majority, an Obama approval rating over 55%, a decent economy and an anti-war/defense constituency. Scott Brown needs a second miracle. He did it once; can lightning strike twice?
Connecticut - Linda McMahon (R) is leading in the RCP average polling (after eliminating the outliers) by 3%-4% over Chris Murphy (D). Murphy is running his first statewide race with personal financial problems haunting him. The state has a stagnant economy with intractable high unemployment and an unpopular Democrat governor, yet it exhibits a large Democrat registration edge. Murphy's approval rating is below 50%, but Obama's is 52%.
McMahon's campaign, which is personally funded, has kept Murphy on the defensive. McMahon sells herself as a job-creator and grandmother, and she literally knocks on doors to ask for votes. Support to date has been steady and, insiders say, growing slowly. In this writer's judgment, Bridgeport voter shenanigans aside, this is an "upset special" in a very blue state.
Missouri - Claire McCaskill (D), whose approval rating is less than 50%, is leading Todd Akin (R) in a leaning-red state, with a less than robust economy, an Obama approval rating hovering at 42%-43%, and an unemployment rate at roughly the national average. The reason is Akin's well documented insensitive comment. Before the comment, McCaskill's epitaph was being written. McCaskill wins -- the Republicans give one away.
Ohio - Sherrod Brown (D) defeats Josh Mandell (R).
Michigan - Debbie Stabenow (D) defeats Pete Hoekstra (R).
New Mexico - Martin Heinrich (D) defeats Heather Wilson (R).
Maine - Angus King (I) defeats Charles Summers (R).
All of these states are blue except Ohio, which is TU. The Democrat easily leads the Republican by 7%-10% in the RCP average polls, unemployment is below the national mean (Michigan excepted), the state economies have all improved slightly to moderately (except Michigan), and Obama's approval rating is 48%-51%, in every case higher than Romney's.
The arithmetic is straightforward; Republicans could conceivably gain seven seats, culminating in a reversal of their present disadvantage of 53 to 47 seats. A more coherent estimate of the election's outcome is the attainment of four to five net seats. That means that the Congress of the United States will be controlled by Republicans. But continue to pay attention; fluidity will be the norm over the next thirty-plus days.
FOLLOW US ON