Romney Rescues GOP Battle for the Senate

The political landscape has dramatically changed in just thirty days.  Barack Obama had the momentum.  His attacks on Mitt Romney were clearly taking a toll, and the president was also outspending Romney to drive the negative messages home.  The assaults suggested that Romney was both unqualified and unfit to be the president, a disconnected, "rich" elitist who could not relate to the average American nor cared about them.  The Obama smear campaign was working; Romney's support was waning.  The advantages enjoyed by Republican Senate candidates in a number of critical contests began to suffer.  The movement against Romney transferred into many Senate contests.  Senate races that appeared headed for victory lost steam; Wisconsin, Connecticut, Montana, and Nevada all suffered dwindling ratings in the polls.

Then everything changed.  On October 3, during the first presidential debate, Romney routed Obama in a startling and decisive manner.  Against this backdrop, the climate within key Senate races also changed -- i.e. the declines in the fortunes of Republican candidates were halted, and the battle for Senate control again tightened.  Initially, pundits and analysts of every stripe believed that Republicans held a significant advantage over Democrats.  Democrats have to defend 21 seats while Republicans are exposed in just 10, and independents 2.  Experts believed that control would be decided in fourteen states and at most in seventeen.  Nevertheless, the predictions preceded both the Romney decline and the subsequent resurgence triggered by his debate performance.  Thus, a reassessment seems warranted.

Republicans need three seats to gain a tie with Democrats and achieve Senate control only if Romney becomes our next president...since Paul Ryan, as vice president, would break tie votes.  The importance of a four-seat gain is imperative to the Republicans' ability to counter Barack Obama should he be re-elected.  Numerous stories in the MSM pushed the notion that Democrats will maintain control, and do it easily, without defining criteria for the conclusions posited; inevitably, the articles/reviews were quite subjective.

This analysis will be based on six quantifiable factors.  They include: (1) the state of the national economy and specific state economies; (2) the "state of the state" -- i.e., red (Republican), TU (toss-up), or blue (Democrat); (3) The incumbent (if one is running)'s approval rating -- above 50% good, below 50% not good; (4) Obama's foreign policy and defense stance; (5) the president's approval rating in the state -- above 50% a plus, below 50% a negative; and (6) RCP (Real Clear Politics)'s average Senate poll ratings.  Serious Senate race analysis, at times, raises the issue of outcomes in Indiana, Hawaii, and Arizona.  The rationale is that an upset in these states will impact Senate control; this evaluation assumes that these races will not provide a surprise.

The RCP polls have three important deficiencies: (a) the averages contain polls, both old and new, that are averaged; (b) the RCP averages contain polls that are very different -- e.g., general polls (more than 50% of respondents can't or will not vote, biased heavily +7% to +9% to Democrat, etc.), RV polls (registered voter indexes -- biased Democrat 2% to 4%), and LV polls (likely voter polls -- most accurate, assuming a reasonable "partisan" distribution); and (c) some of the polls contain extreme partisan/turnout models (many RCP polls that are averaged exhibit D+7 to D+9 partisan skews).  These issues serve to introduce error into the RCP average polls.  It should also be noted that in seven of the fourteen reviewed races, the contested seat is open, and that nine of the seats reside in red states.  Both of these factors give Republicans a minor advantage.

Republican wins - high confidence:

Wisconsin - The former popular governor, Tommy Thompson (R), is locked in a surprisingly close contest with Tammy Baldwin (D), a neophyte to statewide elections.  Thompson has recently lost significant traction based on current polls.  Thirty days ago, Thompson enjoyed an 8% RCP lead, but he is now behind by 3%.  Thompson took a campaign "time-out" to raise funds.  Now the campaign is back on track with the wind at Thompson's back.  Wisconsin's economy is improving, with a decreasing unemployment rate; Obama's rating is below 50%, while Thompson's exceeds 50% and is growing.  The Republican ground organization in the state is superlative.  A sure thing a month ago, Thompson still wins, but by a smaller margin.  The Senate adds a Rrd seat.

Nebraska - Deb Fischer (R) has extended her lead in the RCP average poll over Bob Kerry (D) from 13% to 16% in the past month.  She benefits from a red state, a Republican governor, Obama's abysmal approval rating at 39%, and a strong state economy.  Fischer has shown a penchant for campaigning and is a sure bet in November.  The seat goes red.

North Dakota - Rick Berg (R) and Heidi Heitkamp (D) have seemingly marked time for two months until the past two weeks, when Berg surged from a differential of 5.0% in the RCP average poll to a 9.0% separation.  North Dakota enjoys the best state economy in the country, is a bright red state, has a Republican governor, and disapproves of Obama.  Berg, in contrast, has a personal appeal measured at 53% and will be the victor in November.  Another seat gets painted red.

Republican wins - probable:

Montana - Denny Rehberg (R) has marginally widened his edge over incumbent Jon Tester (D) from 3.0% to 4.5% in the RCP average -- Rehberg 47.5% vs. Tester 43.0%.  Tester has maintained contact with Rehberg by effectively selling his moderate approach.  Rehberg is helped by a strong state economy, low unemployment, constituent fears of regulation, and foreign policy concerns.  Obama's approval is hovering around 40%, while Romney's is at 53%.  Rehberg has maintained a slim but consistent lead for months and will win narrowly.  Add a red seat to the Senate.

Nevada - Dean Heller (R) has held a small advantage over Shelly Berkley (D).  Nevada Democrats have an important registration lead in the state.  But Nevada has the nation's highest unemployment rate, a crippling foreclosure rate, immigration problems, and serious budgetary issues.  Berkley is also involved in a scandal, and together these factors will give Heller a very tight win.  Republicans barely add another red seat.

Republican wins - maybe:

Florida - The state, a TU, is moving toward Romney and is simultaneously trending toward Connie Mack (R) over incumbent Senator Bill Nelson (D).  The latest RCP average polls (adjusted for an outlier and an old poll) have Nelson leading Mack 46.5% to 43.5%.  Mack is buoyed by a slow economy, high foreclosures, high unemployment, and increasing negatives for Obama (approval 46.6%).  Nelson's lead is shrinking...but is it shrinking fast enough?  Still a maybe.

Virginia - The race is an old-fashioned donnybrook.  George Allen (R), a former senator, is pitted against Tim Kaine (D), the former governor.  The current RCP status is Kaine 48.4% to Allen's 45.0%.  Kaine's numbers are sliding, while Allen's are growing in this TU state.  Based on the past sixty days, more zigging and zagging may occur in the next thirty.  Edge to Kaine, but a maybe for Allen.

Republican long shots - miracles do happen:

Massachusetts - The race between Scott Brown (R) and Elizabeth Warren (D) gets curiouser and curiouser.  Warren has the advantages...all six are in her quiver.  Yet she has consistently failed to "seal the deal."  Warren has claimed a specious native Indian heritage to gain an employment preference, practiced law without a license, and allowed union "volunteers" to be fined for not supporting her campaign properly, and she presents a wooden image while soliciting votes.  Brown, a strong and compelling candidate, is still close, with the RCP at 46.0% to Warren's 48.5% (eliminating two outliers, the poll is a dead heat).  Miracles do happen, but again?

Connecticut - Linda McMahon (R) has declined slightly in the RCP against her opponent Chris Murphy (D); Murphy is at 49.0% to McMahon's 47.0% (adjusted for an old outlier poll).  Murphy has the advantages of a very blue state, high Obama popularity, a Democrat governor, and a strong Democrat ground game.  McMahon can point out a struggling economy, high unemployment, and Obama's slippage in approval ratings.  Could two miracles happen?

Missouri - Todd Akin (R) may be back in contention versus Claire McCaskill (D).  A Wenzel Strategies poll (leans Republican) gives Akin a 4% lead over McCaskill, the very unpopular incumbent, who has negative approval ratings of 46% to 48%.  The state leans red and has average unemployment and an average economy.  Obama is very unpopular.  The question...does Akin have another life?  We will soon find out, but a very long shot.

Republican losses:

Ohio - Sherrod Brown (D) squeaks out a win over Josh Mandel (R).
Michigan - Debbie Stabenow (D) easily defeats Pete Hoekstra (R).
New Mexico - Martin Heinrich (D) thumps Heather Wilson (R).
Maine - Angus King (I) bests Charlie Summers (R) and replaces a Republican incumbent.

With Michigan being the exception, all these states have unemployment below the national average, improving economies, and Obama's approval ratings above Romney's.  All are blue states except Ohio, which is a TU, and the Democrat candidates have maintained 7% to 10% poll margins over the prior three months (not in Ohio).

To recap the math: Republicans should gain five seats, given the current status and direction of high-confidence and probable races.  Between maybes and long-shot races, logic suggests that another two will be added to their win total.  But loses in Maine and Massachusetts would reduce the increase to a five-seat advantage.  Therefore, Republicans will regain Senate control with a four- or five-seat increase.

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