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Senate Control, and the Strategy to Secure It, at Stake Today

Senate Control, and the Strategy to Secure It, at Stake Today

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 4, 2014

With a slew of polls trending in their favor, Republicans believe they are on the brink of victory. The U.S. Senate majority that has eluded the GOP over the past several cycles is now within reach, but several races still remain within the margin of error, opening the door for some election night nail-biters.

Republicans have had several built-in advantages on their side this year, most notably a favorable map and the president’s sinking job approval rating. But the party can also be credited with having learned lessons from past failed campaigns. Party leaders focused heavily on candidate recruitment in the run-up to the primary season, consciously seeking to avoid the specter of nominating fringe candidates who caused heartburn en route to their defeat in past winnable races. The GOP also concentrated on data collection and ground operations to maximize Election Day turnout in an effort to compete with the Democrats’ prized get-out-the-vote infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Republicans this cycle involves questions about the party’s national viability beyond a low-turnout midterm election featuring key seats in red states. While Democratic-held seats in conservative states like Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, South Dakota and Louisiana offered Republicans great pickup opportunities, the party is out to show its winning potential isn’t limited to places that already vote their way in presidential years. The GOP is hoping for victories in Colorado, Iowa, and even New Hampshire to demonstrate that it has national appeal.

But if the Senate is now the Republicans’ to lose, the Democrats’ path to retaining the majority hasn’t completely evaporated. Today’s election will be the biggest test yet of the party’s trumpeted ground game and data collection efforts, which party operatives predict will help make the difference in some key races.

Either way, Tuesday’s results aren’t likely to produce a clear national mandate. Republicans have made this election a referendum on President Obama -- tying nearly every Democrat running for virtually any office to him -- and a GOP Senate victory will mostly reflect a distaste for the president. But if Republicans net the six seats needed to gain control of the upper chamber, the message from voters may not be so much that they are clamoring for conservative policies as they are eager for change in Washington.

The incumbent president’s party typically loses seats in midterm years, but this election could leave Obama without his only legislative backstop since the party lost the House four years ago. Tuesday’s results will shape the remainder of Obama’s tenure in the White House, and have an impact on policy issues like immigration reform and also judicial nominations. But a GOP majority could be short-lived, as Democrats feel they will get a fresh start with a new presidential candidate and a more favorable map in 2016.  

Until ballots are officially counted, that vision remains hypothetical. And given that races in Louisiana and Georgia are projected to go into runoffs, as no candidate in either state is likely to garner more than 50 percent of the vote, the balance of power in the Senate may not be determined until December or perhaps even January.

In Louisiana, polls show Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu leading Republicans Bill Cassidy (by nearly six points) and Rob Mannes (by much more) in the RCP average. But the lawmaker competing for her fourth term registers at 40 percent, far from the number needed to avoid a Dec. 6 runoff. A two-way race between Landrieu and Cassidy shows the challenger leading by nearly five points. Landrieu is used to tough races, and Democrats had hoped her family legacy in the state and her own longtime service, including her chairmanship of the Energy Committee, would shield her from a difficult climate. But this race is much tougher than her others.

In Georgia, Michelle Nunn appeared last month to be providing Democrats a bright spot in an otherwise dim cycle by leading David Perdue in several polls. But those polls have tightened, giving Republicans an edge. Still, a runoff is likely, and this race might not be determined until after the new Congress is sworn in in 2015. Georgia is one of two states where Democrats played offense this year, hoping to stem the tide of losses elsewhere. The other was Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is leading Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by 7.2 points in the RCP average. McConnell looks well positioned to return to Congress in January, but the question now is whether he will do so as majority leader.

Another wild card is Kansas, where independent Greg Orman is taking on longtime incumbent Republican Pat Roberts but refusing to say which side of the aisle he’d caucus with in Washington. And for those looking for early indications tonight, New Hampshire and North Carolina are two states that will offer real-time indications about which party may be headed for Senate control.

In the Granite State, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s lead over Republican Scott Brown has tightened to less than one percentage point, according to the RCP average. Throughout the cycle, Shaheen has appeared less vulnerable than many of her Democratic colleagues, thanks in part to a long GOP primary process. Brown also weathered the accusation that he is a carpetbagger, having moved to the state after losing his Senate seat in Massachusetts. Brown has pegged Shaheen to Obama at every turn and on nearly every policy and current event. Obama carried New Hampshire twice, but Shaheen has had difficulty distancing herself from the president. A Republican win here is less likely than in other states, but a victory would likely signal many others for the GOP.

In North Carolina, the race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis is virtually tied. But the incumbent has shown notable strength this cycle, partly because her opponent comes out of a state legislature even less popular in the Tar Heel State than the president.

Unlike her Democratic colleagues who are also running in states won by Mitt Romney, Hagan has been able to build an offensive strategy to counter the anti-Obama attacks, waging a campaign against Tillis’ record in the polarizing legislature. Tillis isn’t running from his record, but he has framed this campaign as a vote against the president and the Democratic Senate. Foreign policy and the health care law have played key roles in the Republican’s campaign. Hagan could be the lone red-state Democrat to survive this cycle, but her defeat Tuesday could also be a harbinger of more GOP victories.

Colorado and Iowa will offer important insights for the parties on Tuesday. The campaigns in these two states illustrate how Republicans have learned from past mistakes -- and how Democrats have been unimaginative.

Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa are the Republicans’ top recruits this cycle and serve as examples of the lessons Republicans learned in 2010. Ernst has apparent momentum in the Hawkeye State, where Democrat Bruce Braley has shown himself to be one of the weaker recruits this cycle. (A recent NBC-Marist poll shows him trailing in his own congressional district.) The two are competing for the seat left open by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin, who got into some hot water this week by commenting on Ernst’s looks. The RCP average shows Ernst leading by 1.4 percentage points.

In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall waged his campaign against Gardner almost solely on abortion and contraception, recycling a successful playbook used by Democrats four years ago.  Udall and his allies have relentlessly attacked Gardner on air for his support for a personhood ballot measure, which the Republican rescinded when he entered the race. But the strategy may be backfiring, as Udall is perceived negatively by voters and his support among women has decreased. Gardner leads Udall by 2.5 points in the RCP average.

Current projections already assume Republicans will pick up seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. The GOP must net at least three more to take the majority -- and more if Georgia and Kansas flip. Alaska and Arkansas are also moving to the Republicans’ favor, according to recent polls.

All told, this election is projected to cost nearly $4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- the most expensive midterm ever. Voters have certainly seen the results of that money on air and in ads -- to the point of exhaustion. But the efforts won’t likely rest after Tuesday. Both sides will be prepared to compete in the runoffs. Even before then, the 2016 presidential race will quietly kickoff, too.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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