Could Democrats Gain Senate Seats This Fall?

Could Democrats Gain Senate Seats This Fall?
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It's a virtual article of faith among election analysts that Republicans will gain Senate seats in the 2014 midterms.  I tend to agree with that assessment, and strongly so. In fact, like other forecasters such as Alan Abramowitz and Nate Silver, I think Republicans have the edge in the battle to take control of the upper chamber this November.

But there is one place where I part company with most forecasters. I’m not 100 percent confident that Republicans will gain seats.  In fact, when I analyzed the Senate races in February, my simulation created a few scenarios where Republicans did, in fact, lose seats. (It’s also worth remembering that while a seven-to-nine seat Republican gain was the most likely scenario, in about 60 percent of the scenarios, Republicans gained some number other than seven, eight, or nine.)

Don’t get me wrong: For Democrats to gain seats this cycle would be the equivalent of drawing a straight flush. With that said, straight flushes do occur, so it’s worth examining how it might occur here.

The first thing that would have to happen is that the playing field would have to improve for Democrats. Of the 11 Democratic seats that RCP currently rates as leans Democratic or worse, Democrats are probably at least slightly favored in Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire, and perhaps Colorado. If the political dynamic were to shift toward the party, these seats would probably be out of the GOP’s reach on Election Day.

The way this could occur is fairly straightforward: The Affordable Care Act improves; there’s no massive rate shock for premiums in September or October; and the economy slowly gains ground.  This should propel President Obama’s job approval upward, lifting the collective Democratic boat.

Now we don’t see this occurring just yet.  The president’s job approval in the RCP average is 43.4 percent. This is roughly where it has stood all year (though it is up from late last year).  Likewise, public approval of the health care law stands at a net negative 12.5 percent.  This perception does seem to have improved slightly, but it is too early to tell whether this movement represents a regression to mean, or whether this is real improvement (perhaps tellingly, approval of the law hasn’t moved much; it is disapproval of the law that has fallen).

Still, one can at least imagine the president standing at 47 percent or 48 percent on Election Day, something that seemed flatly outside the realm of possibility five months ago. This change would narrow our playing field down to seven Democratic seats and two or three Republican seats.

Next, the four “red state” incumbent Democrats would have to win.  It’s unlikely, but hardly implausible.  No one really knows what is going on in Alaska, a quirky state where polling is notoriously unreliable. The GOP’s candidate field is relatively weak in North Carolina. Recent polls have shown renewed vigor for Mark Pryor in Arkansas (though many of those polls are done on behalf of groups with an agenda), and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu survives tough contests every six years.  None of these incumbents is in great shape, but no one is terminal either.

Next, Democrats would have to win one -- preferably two -- of the three open seats.  This is . . . tough.  Right now Republican candidates are above 50 percent in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia.  But the truth is that those last two states are much less heavily Republican than their presidential numbers make them seem. With Max Baucus’ appointment as ambassador to China, Republican Steve Daines finds himself in a race against an incumbent. Democrats also have a credible candidate in West Virginia in Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. I’ll just put it this way: If I went into a coma tomorrow and emerged from it the day after the election, South Dakota is the only one where I’d be truly bowled over if the Democrat ended up winning (assuming an improvement in the president’s standing).

The final step would require an assist from Republicans. Mitch McConnell would have to lose in Kentucky, which seems plausible, and three of the five credible Republicans in the Georgia Senate primary now seem to have exploitable weaknesses in the general election (although the degree of weakness varies considerably). Then there are three Tea Party challenges to incumbents floating around the periphery: in Kansas, Mississippi and South Carolina.  It would be a mistake to write off a Tea Party victory as a kiss of death for the Republicans, especially in red states such as these, but we certainly have a template for such nominees imploding.

So if Republicans lost two or three seats of their own, and only picked up the quasi-gimme in South Dakota, it would work out to a gain of seats for the Democrats.

Now . . . that’s a lot of ifs. But the thing is, we have a very recent precedent for this. As late as mid-May 2012, only one Republican seat leaned toward Democrats. The seats in Arizona and Indiana leaned toward Republicans, while Massachusetts and Nevada were viewed as tossups.

For Democrats, the picture was very different.  Their open seat in Nebraska was a lock for Republicans, while most thought that Heidi Heitkamp would eventually fade in North Dakota. Democrats had a pair of open seats in Wisconsin and Virginia, where Republicans were polling strongly, while incumbents in Florida, Missouri and Montana looked to be in pretty rough shape. Races in Connecticut, Hawaii, Michigan, New Mexico and Ohio were floating along the periphery.

The only question at the time was how many seats Republicans would gain; the battle for control of the Senate looked like a tossup.  But Democrats kept the seat in North Dakota, while Republicans imploded in Indiana.  Another Republican implosion moved Missouri into the Democratic camp, while the president’s improving job approval ratings took the remaining swing states off the table. Democrats gained two seats.

The odds of the Democrats repeating this feat are small -- their odds of gaining seats are clearly less than they were two years ago. At the same time, we shouldn’t write off the possibility of such a perfect storm occurring (just like we shouldn’t write off a different perfect storm resulting in massive gains -- more than 10 seats -- for Republicans).

If this scenario were to occur, it would have truly dire consequences for the Republican Party. In fact, if Republicans only gained a seat or two it would be a disaster for them.  The intra-party split would be the last thing the GOP needed heading into the 2016 presidential elections, especially since the playing field then is absolutely brutal for them. As I’ve noted, if Republicans don’t manage to win at least some seats this cycle, it would probably be a 50-50 proposition whether Democrats would win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in that cycle, and the House majority isn’t as invulnerable as many analysts seem to think. If 2014 goes south for the GOP, 2017 could look like 2009 all over again for the party.

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 strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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