With less than a week to go before the vote counting begins, the battle for the majority of the Senate continues. At this point, there are 10 races in the Toss Up column, seven Democratic-held seats and three seats held by Republicans. All but one – Kentucky – are well within the margin of error.
Republicans’ path to six seats and the majority hasn’t changed much in the last few months, even if two of their own seats have become problematic. The equation that could help Democrats hold their majority also hasn’t changed much, although the Republican open seat Georgia certainly presents them with an opportunity that didn’t exist a month ago.
Republicans quest for six seats and the majority begins with the Democratic-held open seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. Although South Dakota got interesting for a couple of weeks, it has settled back to where it was over the summer. Former Republican Go. Mike Rounds is ahead, but under 50 percent in this three-way race. These three seats get Republicans half way to the six seats they need.
Next comes the seven Democratic seats in the Toss Up column: Sens. Mark Begich in Alaska, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, Mark Udall in Colorado, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina, plus the open seat in Iowa. Republican presidential nominee mitt Romney carried three of these states – Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana – by 14 points or more in 2012, thus making them ripe for GOP pick ups. Still, at least Alaska and Arkansas remain very close, while Louisiana is headed to a run-off in December. If Republicans were to sweep all three, there is the majority, providing that they don’t lose any of their own seats.
The next targets are Colorado and Iowa where Republicans nominated very strong candidates in U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner and state Sen. Joni Ernst. Both have slight leads in recent polling, but these are states with historically strong Democratic ground games. In many ways, Colorado and Iowa, and to a lesser extent, North Carolina, represent Democrats’ fire wall; Republicans will have a hard time getting to 51 seats if Democrats are able to hold on to two or all three of these seats.
Finally, there is New Hampshire and North Carolina. Democratic incumbents in both states have run very solid campaigns and face Republican opponents who carry some baggage into the race. Both states have relatively early poll closing times, so Democrats lose one or both of these, it might be a sign that they are headed for a tough night.
Then there are the three vulnerable Republicans-held seats: the open seat in Georgia and Sens. Pat Roberts in Kentucky and Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Kentucky is the least vulnerable of the three. McConnell has established a pretty stable lead of four to five points. This is barely outside the margin of error in many polls, which is why it remains in Toss Up, although we are very tempted to move it to Lean Republican. In Kansas, Roberts faces independent Greg Orman in a race that polls indicate could go either way. While the race in Georgia between GOP businessman David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn, the former CEO of the Points of Light Foundation, has always been close, Perdue’s recent missteps have given Democrats new hope here.
It seems unlikely that Republicans lose both Georgia and Kansas, but it is possible. Assuming that they lose one of these states then they would have to win Colorado or Iowa. If the GOP loses both races, they would have to win two of Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. This would be a much more difficult task that could cause Republicans to fall short of the majority by a seat or two.
Democrats believe that their ground game is going to save their majority. The effort, known as the Bannock Street Project, is designed to get drop-off voters (voters who vote in presidential not but midterm elections) to the polls. They know exactly how many of these voters they need in each competitive race. Building on the technology and organization that the Obama campaign used so successfully to engineer its victory in 2012, Senate Democratic strategists hope to do the same in Senate races.
The effort is not without its challenges. It has been a very long time since major GOTV efforts have been launched in places like Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana. This is new and untested terrain for the party. Second, the party has never tried to implement a program of this magnitude in a midterm election. They ran a small scale version of it in the Colorado Senate race in 2010 and were successful (the name Bannock Street comes from that effort). Republicans did it in 2002 when they used the midterm election to essentially beta-test the 72 Hour Program they used in 2004. So while the program worked very well in a presidential year, it is not clear that Democrats can motivate enough drop-off voters.
If the Bannock Street Project is successful, Democrats believe it can be worth one to three points, depending on the race. Given the number of races that are within three points, the Democrats’ ground game could very well make the difference.
It is worth noting that Democrats’ efforts aren’t happening in a vacuum. Republicans are also working to get their voters to the polls. After 2012, the GOP is changing its approach to its ground game and utilizing some of the tools Democrats are using. The general feeling, though, is that they still have some catching up to do. While their ground game may well cut into Democrats’ effort, it is unlikely to trump it in any state.
There are three factors that may stand in the way of knowing which party is in the majority until weeks after the election. The first is the run-off in Louisiana. The second is the possibility of a run-off in Georgia. The third is a victory by independent Greg Orman in Kansas. Orman has not said which party he will caucus with and will not make his intentions known until after the Louisiana run-off if that race decides the majority. In reality, Orman would probably like to be in the position to decide which party will be in the majority, but it is unlikely to work out that way. So, while there is a chance we may know which party is in the majority when the race in Alaska is called at some point on Wednesday, it is equally possible that the majority won’t be clear until after the run-off in Louisiana or even a run-off in Georgia in January. And let’s not forget recounts. Given how close nine races are, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that one or two could be headed to recounts.
The Bottom Line
Given the national political environment and that the Senate race map favors Republicans, it’s not hard to see how they get the six seats they need to win the majority. At the same time, the known unknowns like run-offs and the Democrats’ ground game, make it easy to see how they could fall just short. Overall, we tend to believe that Republicans will get to 51 seats. Anything beyond that is very difficult, but not impossible if a bit of a wave develops in a couple of states.
It is worth remembering that Toss Up races don’t break evenly for the parties. One party tends to win a disproportionate share of them. As this chart illustrates, over the last eight cycles, one party or the other won 70 percent more or of all Toss Up contests in any given cycle.