Odds Point To A GOP Senate Takeover
Nate Silver’s latest projection of the odds of a Senate takeover by the Republican Party are about the same as the initial projection he posted a couple months back:
We last issued a U.S. Senate forecast in mid-March. Not a lot has changed since then.
The Senate playing field remains fairly broad. There are 10 races where we give each party at least a 20 percent chance of winning,1 so there is a fairly wide range of possible outcomes. But all but two of those highly competitive races (the two exceptions are Georgia and Kentucky) are in states that are currently held by Democrats. Furthermore, there are three states — South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana2 — where Democratic incumbents are retiring, and where Republicans have better than an 80 percent chance of making a pickup, in our view.
So it’s almost certain that Republicans are going to gain seats. The question is whether they’ll net the six pickups necessary to win control of the Senate. If the Republicans win only five seats, the Senate would be split 50-50 but Democrats would continue to control it because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Joseph Biden.
Our March forecast projected a Republicans gain of 5.8 seats. You’ll no doubt notice the decimal place; how can a party win a fraction of a Senate seat? It can’t, but our forecasts are probabilistic; a gain of 5.8 seats is the total you get by summing the probabilities from each individual race. Because 5.8 seats is closer to six (a Republican takeover) than five (not quite), we characterized the GOP as a slight favorite to win the Senate.
The new forecast is for a Republican gain of 5.7 seats. So it’s shifted ever so slightly — by one-tenth of a seat — toward being a toss-up. Still, if asked to place a bet at even odds, we’d take a Republican Senate.
Silver bases the forecast on a number of factors:
- President Obama remains fairly unpopular with an approval rating of about 43 or 44 percent. His numbers haven’t changed much since March (perhaps they’ve improved by half a percentage point). It may be thatmodestly improved voter perceptions about the economy are being offset by increasing dissatisfaction of his handling of foreign policy.
- The generic congressional ballot remains very close between Democrats and Republicans and also has not changed much since March. Note, however, that many generic ballot polls are conducted among registered voters; a tie among registered voters usually translates to a small Republican advantage among likely voters.
- Both Democratic and Republican voters report lower levels of enthusiasm today than they did in 2010 (perhaps for good reason). But Republican voters are more enthusiastic than Democrats on a relative basis. That will potentially translate to an “enthusiasm gap” which favors the GOP, but not as much as it did in 2010.
- Republicans’ recruiting of viable candidates is going better than in 2010 and 2012 although not uniformly so: they face potential issues in Mississippi and Oregon, for instance.
- The quality of polling is somewhat problematic. Much of it comes from firms like Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports with dubious methodologies, explicitly partisan polling firms or new companies that so far have little track record. As a potential bright spot for Democrats,polling firms that use industry-standard methodologies seem to show slightly better results for them, on average. However, these high-quality polls are mostly reporting results among registered voters only, rather than likely voters. Thus, they aren’t yet accounting for the GOP’s potential turnout advantage.
Meanwhile, the guys over at the Upshot, which seems to be the New York Times effort to come up with a replacement for Silver, are also projecting that the GOP is slightly favored to gain control of the Senate based on the polling as of today:
As I’ve noted before, the odds have always been in favor of the GOP gaining a slight majority in the Senate, or at least coming very close to doing so. Seven seats held by Democratic incumbents are in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, all the GOP has to do is win six of those seats and they’ve got control of the Senate. That’s easier said than done, of course, and it assumes that the GOP holds on to all of seats that it has up this year, including seats in Kentucky and Georgia that, at the very least, will be the subject of intense media speculation over the next five months.
There are several states where it seems fairly clear that the GOP will assuredly pick up a Democratic seat. Specifically, we’re talking here about Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. In Montana, Republican Steve Daines is maintaining a steady lead over former Lt. Governor John Walsh, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Max Baucus’s term when he was appointed Ambassador to China. While it’s true, as Silver notes, that Montana. Similarly, former South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds has a huge lead over Democratic nominee Rick Weiland, who seems to be clearly being hurt by the independent candidacy of former Senator Larry Pressler. While this race could theoretically change if Pressler drops out of the race or his support drops away, right now this seems solidly Republican. Finally, Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito continues to maintain a double digit lead in West Virginia, and there’s little indication that national Democrats are going to put many resources into this race.
So that theoretically at least gives the GOP three pickups, but things aren’t quite as clear in the remaining four seats. In Arkansas, Mark Pryor maintains a narrow edge over Congressman Tom Cotton and so far at least seems to be running a fairly good campaign. The situation in Louisiana remains as murky as politics in that state have always been, with Senator Mary Landreiu maintaining a lead over the entire field in the open primary that the state has on Election Day, but Congressman Bill Cassidy with a slight lead over Landrieu in the head-to-head race the two would face about a month later. In Alaska, Mark Begich has narrow leads over the two leading contenders for the Republican nomination but with that primary so late in the cycle it’s hard to be able to tell what’s going on there. Personally, I’d give the edge to the GOP up there but it’s too early to tell for sure. Finally, Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan are essentially tied in North Carolina. All four of these races could go anywhere, but if the national trend turns strongly in favor of the Republicans then it seems likely that most of them will start tilting that direction as well. Again, all the GOP needs to do is win three of these races, along with the three set forth above, in order to win the Senate.
In addition to these six seats, there are races in three other states with Democratic Senators that could potentially tilt Republican. Right now, the most promising race in this group for the GOP is in Iowa, where Joni Ernst, fresh off of her victory in the GOP Primary is running neck and neck with Congressman Bruce Braley for the seat being vacated by Tom Harkin. A less likely prospect for the GOP is Michigan, where TerryLynn Land is at least staying close to Congressman Gary Peters. However, this being Michigan I am skeptical about the ability to pull off a Senate victory here. Much of the outcome there may depend on what happens in the other statewide races, especially the re-election bid of Governor Rick Snyder. The final GOP long shot state is Oregon, where many Republicans are putting their hopes on Dr. Monica Wehby to unseat Jeff Merkeley. Based on the polls so far, though, there does’t seem to be much of an anti-Merkley swing in the Beaver State.
Lastly, of course, there are the two Republican seats that may or may not be vulnerable in 2014. The Georgia race won’t be finalized until the Republicans hold their runoff in July, but for the moment at least Michele Nunn seems to be competitive. Based on recent polling, though, it seems clear that in the end the GOP will hold on to this seat. The situation is similar in Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell is holding off a seemingly strong challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes. As with his battle for the GOP nomination, though, it seems likely that McConnell will hold on for a narrow win.
Adding it all up, I’d say that the GOP has a very good shot at getting at least the 51-49 majority that will give them control of the Senate, a majority that may be enhanced by victories in states like Iowa or Michigan, or by the decision of Maine Senator Angus King to caucus with the GOP starting in 2015. Whether this holds through November is, of course, a different question entirely.