2014 Midterm Preview Part One: The Senate
It is now one month before Americans go to the polls to vote in the final midterm elections of Barack Obama’s presidency. This first preview post will focus on what looks to be the most important and interesting battleground of this election season: the Senate.
The Senate provides the ground for the great question of this campaign – whether the Republicans can take control of the body from the Democrats. Obama has not had to contend with a Republican Senate at any point in his presidency, but that may be about to change. With the House of Representatives expected to stay Republican, this would leave him in the unenviable position of having to deal with the opposition of both houses of Congress for the remainder of his term.
In the American system, senators serve six-year terms, staggered in such a manner that one third of the 100-member body is elected at any one time. With three special elections scheduled for this November as well, forced by the death of Daniel Inouye and the resignations of Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint, there will be a total of 36 seats on offer. If the Republicans win 21 of them, they take control.
With a month to go before the election, one would class 15 races as near-certain Republican victories. Among these are the Alabama ‘race’ in which Jeff Sessions is running unopposed, and the battle for Wyoming, in which Mike Enzi holds a more than 40 point lead. Likewise, there are 9 seats that Nate Silver’s 538 blog rates as a 98% or greater chance to go to the Democrats, with Michigan and Minnesota not lagging far behind. That leaves ten seats as reasonably competitive, with the Republicans needing six to win back the chamber.
So who are the ten? There are New Hampshire and North Carolina, which the Democrats appear likely hold on to, and a bizarre race in Kansas that requires its own post later in the week. Likely to stay Republican is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky. Both candidates have been condemned for an expensive, vitriolic campaign, but McConnell has maintained his lead for months now and should retain his position.
More competitive are Republican attempts to unseat Democratic senators in the traditionally red states of Alaska and Arkansas. In Alaska, the incumbent Mark Begich has run a poor campaign. Running against the state’s former Attorney General, he was forced to withdraw a controversial advert that made reference to a brutal murder. He had intended to portray his opponent as soft on crime, but instead had the effect of making himself seem insensitive and politically misguided.
In Arkansas, the problem for the Democrats is not a weak incumbent, but a strong Republican challenger. Tom Cotton, former soldier and Harvard Law graduate, is one of those rare politicians to enjoy the support of the Tea Party and the Republican establishment alike. His tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan will serve him well in a state home to thousands of military personnel, and for a one-term Congressman, his name-recognition is unsurpassed.
Another Tea Party darling is to be found up for election in Iowa. Joni Ernst has gained national prominence over the course of the campaign for her television ads showing her firing guns, riding motorbikes and talking about castrating pigs. Her anti-minimum wage, pro-gun, anti-abortion positions are some way from the principles of Tom Harkin, the progressive Democrat who for thirty years occupied the seat she is campaigning for. Ernst is ‘arguably the most right-wing U.S Senate candidate in the nation‘, and her race is certainly one of the closest.
In all the talk of November, it should be remembered that two of the races may not even be resolved next month. Louisiana and Georgia both make use of an electoral system that demands a ‘runoff’ if no candidate manages to gain more than 50% of the vote. In Georgia’s case, this runoff would not take place until January 6 – three days after Congress is sworn in.
So what is the likelihood of a runoff being needed in these races? In Louisiana – very likely. Louisiana is one of only three states (along with Washington and California) to operate ‘jungle primaries’, in which all candidates face off against each other, regardless of party affiliation. While Bill Cassidy is seen as the challenger most likely to take Democrat Mary Landrieu’s seat, the presence of fellow Republican Rob Maness will almost certainly deprive anyone of the required 50%. In Georgia, the complicating factor comes from the tightness of the race and the relative strength of the Libertarian Amanda Swafford. The Republican candidate David Perdue currently sits about 2 points ahead of the Democrat Michelle Nunn in the polls, so if Swafford earns close to the 5% of the vote that she has been polling at, a runoff will be needed there too.
So will the Republicans manage to take the Senate? A month is a long time in politics, but the polling certainly suggests that they will. The example of Colorado, the closest race in the nation, appears the clearest metaphor for the elections as a whole. The Democratic incumbent Mark Udall won his seat in 2008, caught up in the Democratic surge that turned the state blue for only the second time since 1968. Six years on, however, his association with the President is less welcome. When Obama turned up to campaign for him in Colorado, Udall stayed in Washington, missing his own fundraiser to avoid him.
It is fitting that the result in Colorado may ultimately decide the Senate. This story of a Democratic incumbent narrowly behind in a red state due in part to associations with an unpopular president is the 2014 midterms in a nutshell.