Republicans' Senate Chances Improve Dramatically

Republicans' Senate Chances Improve Dramatically

By Sean Trende - July 15, 2013

Most political observers had assumed that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would seek the Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus, who is retiring. Had Schweitzer decided to run, the seat would probably lean toward a Democratic hold, and the GOP would have only an outside chance at taking back the upper chamber.

But Schweitzer's surprise announcement that he will not run changes that calculus substantially. Republicans aren’t favored to win back the Senate, but suddenly there is a pretty clear path forward.

The path begins with Republicans holding their all of their own seats. This will probably be the case, barring a surprise retirement by Maine’s Susan Collins. There is some potential for a Democratic upset in Georgia, particularly if Republicans were to nominate someone likely to implode. But Georgia is still a pretty conservative state with a badly polarized electorate, and Democrats don’t yet have a top-tier candidate.

The other potential Democratic pickup is in Kentucky. I’m actually more bullish on Alison Lundergan Grimes’ chances of defeating Mitch McConnell than are most other analysts on either the left or right. But I still view it as a race that leans GOP.

So as we turn to the Democratic seats in play, our baseline is 45 Republican senators (assuming that a Democrat wins the special election for Frank Lautenberg’s New Jersey seat). Most analysts think that Republicans are in the pole position to pick up the seat of retiring Democrat Tim Johnson in South Dakota, which would give the Mount Rushmore State its first all-Republican delegation since 1962. In West Virginia, Democrats are still struggling to recruit a top-flight challenger against the likely GOP nominee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, to fill the seat of retiring Jay Rockefeller.

But those two wins would still only get Republicans to 47. Two open Democratic seats in Iowa and Michigan reside on the outskirts of competitiveness, but it would require further deterioration in the Democratic position or an unexpected recruiting coup for them to flip; think of them as the Republican equivalents of the Kentucky or Georgia races for Democrats. Republicans speculate about taking on incumbents in Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire, but if these seats become competitive, the Senate is likely already lost to Republicans.

The GOP path to 51 seats instead flows through four Democratic incumbents running for re-election in three red states and one purplish-red state: Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

If Montana were still a likely Democratic hold, Republicans would need to defeat all four of these incumbents. To put this in perspective, Republicans haven’t defeated four Democratic incumbents in all the elections from 2004 through 2012 combined.

Still, given the lineup and the president’s precarious positioning in red states, it is at least plausible. Kay Hagan is a freshman Democrat running in one of just two states that Barack Obama won in 2008 but lost in 2012 (Indiana is the other). Its Cook PVI in presidential years is R+3, which makes it roughly analogous to Wisconsin or New Mexico on the Democratic side. Moreover, in 2010 there was a substantial drop-off in Democratic performance. Republicans won control of the statehouse for the first time in over a century, while freshman Republican Sen. Richard Burr, initially targeted by Democrats, won his race by the largest margin of any Senate candidate in North Carolina since 1974.

Hagan’s current poll numbers aren’t particularly impressive. Democratic polling firm PPP has her job performance at 41 percent, and she leads House Speaker Thom Tillis by five points, 45 percent to 40 percent; she receives between 44 and 46 percent of the vote against a variety of potential Republican opponents.

Those aren’t great numbers, especially when you consider PPP is presently polling “voters.” These are registered voters who participated in the 2006, 2008 or 2010 elections. So this probably overstates her strength somewhat with a midterm electorate. The one wild card is the protests taking place in North Carolina over the Republican agenda, which could energize the dormant Democratic electorate (although it could do the same for conservative Republicans as well).

Mark Pryor didn’t even draw a Republican opponent in 2008, and still hasn’t drawn one for 2014. All eyes are on Rep. Tom Cotton, billed as a GOP rising star. Republican polling has shown him up on Pryor (although these polls probably depict a “best case” scenario for Cotton), and the state has shifted pretty dramatically rightward since Pryor won a narrow victory over an embattled Republican senator in 2002. Cotton has the benefit of representing what is effectively the “swing” portion of the state. If he gets into the race, Pryor has real problems; if not, Pryor stands a much better chance of winning.

Just to the south, Mary Landrieu seems likely to face off against Rep. Bill Cassidy. Landrieu is no stranger to tough races, having won reasonably close battles in 1996, 2002 and 2008. Republican polling firm Harper Polling has her leading Cassidy by 46 percent to 41 percent. She’s cast risky votes for the president’s health care law, for the immigration bill, and for the Senate gun control bill. But she retains an edge.

Finally, Mark Begich of Alaska is hoping Republicans repeat history and nominate 2010 candidate Joe Miller instead of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (or that former Gov. Sarah Palin runs). Begich leads Palin and Miller by double digits, according to PPP, but is up by eight and under 50 percent against Treadwell among “voters.”

As a final complication, polling Alaska is notoriously difficult. Begich led by eight and 22 points in the two polls taken after Sen. Ted Stevens was found guilty on seven counts of making false statements (later overturned on appeal). But Begich won by just a point. In 2004, the non-partisan polls all had former Gov. Tony Knowles defeating Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski won by three points. And while it was certainly difficult to poll the three-way 2010 race, almost all the polling had Joe Miller defeating Murkowski. Murkowski won by five.

You can see why winning all four of these races would be a stretch, even though winning any one of them is doable, and probably likely. I’d say the probability of winning one of them is around 70 percent, two of them is around 50 percent, three of them is around 30 percent, while winning all four is maybe 10 percent. There are just too many things that need to break the GOP’s way to confidently predict a sweep.

To be sure, none of these seats has been won yet. Most people thought the GOP was a near-lock to take the North Dakota seat vacated by retiring Democrat Kent Conrad last cycle. Baucus’ Montana seat, in particular, is still no better than “lean Republican.” Democrats have a legitimate bench in the state, and the Republican bench is surprisingly weak (for more about the dynamics of that race, see here).

But Montana is now a race that the GOP probably should win; if it doesn’t we probably don’t even need to talk about the other four. (Think of it this way: We technically have to consider the possibility Republicans might win seats in Iowa and Michigan, but if they do that, the Senate has probably already gone Republican.) The Republican Party is significantly more likely to defeat three of the four incumbents discussed above than it is to defeat all four. For the first time this cycle, we can discuss a GOP takeover of the upper chamber in more than hypothetical terms. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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