As the battle for control of the Senate enters its final critical month, Washington’s political prognosticators all seem to be pointing to a Republican takeover in November. But the experts have been wrong before, and some are hedging their bets.
With the Senate currently split 55 to 45 in the Democrats favor, the GOP will need a net pickup of six seats to reclaim a majority after nearly a decade in the minority – a goal that most analysts contend is within their reach:
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Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report predicts a GOP gain of between five and eight seats; Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report is slightly more cautious with four to seven seats; and University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato has the GOP picking up five to eight seats.
Things are so grim for the Democrats, Sabato insists in his latest “Crystal Ball” political forecast that at this point the best they can hope for is a “50-50” split between Democrats and Republicans. In that case, Vice President Joe Biden would have to break the tie to keep the Democrats in power.
“So many undecided contests are winnable for the GOP that the party would have to have a string of bad luck — combined with a truly exceptional Democratic get-out-the-vote program — to snatch defeat from the wide-open jaws of victory,” Sabato and his associate, Kyle Kondik, wrote on Thursday. “Or Republicans would have to truly shoot themselves in the foot in at least one race, which has become a clear possibility over the last few weeks in Kansas.”
What Sabato and other prominent political analysts are saying is that the embattled Democrats – burdened by a highly unpopular Democratic president – would have to beat very stiff odds to cling to power. In case you’re wondering what those odds are right now, The Washington Post Election Lab probability model puts the GOP’s chances at 78 percent, The New York Times “Upshot” model says the Republicans have a 65 percent chance, and Nate Silver’s “FiveThirtyEight Politics” pegs the Republicans’ chances at 53 percent.
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The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza noted recently that all three of these models favor the Republicans in five Democratic-held seats – including the open seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, and in Arkansas and Louisiana where Democratic incumbents Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu are struggling to overcome Obama’s low approval ratings in their states.
If those scientific, historical data-driven models are correct, that means the Republicans are all but assured of a five-seat gain and would need just one more pickup in order to claim a majority, Cillizza says. And there are a handful of races for Republicans to choose from.
For example, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) suddenly has her hands full in trying to stave off a challenge from Scott Brown, the former Republican senator from Massachusetts who has invaded her state. Republican state senator Joni Ernst has suddenly surged ahead of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in the battle to succeed retiring Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. And Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has taken a tiny lead over Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado’s seesaw Senate race.
The Republicans have a few headaches of their own. Veteran Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas appeared on track to win another term after surviving a tough GOP primary. But that was before Democratic nominee Chad Taylor dropped out of the race and ceded his support to Greg Orman, a wealthy businessperson who is running as an independent.
A recent poll from USA Today/Suffolk University found Orman leading Roberts, 46 percent to 41 percent; Orman now leads in both the HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics polling averages.
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Orman is a real wild card and mystery in the Senate campaign: He refuses to say whether he would caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans if he manages to unseat Roberts. If the election turns out to be as close as some are predicting, Orman could tip the balance one way or another in determining which party will be in charge next year.
William Galston, a government policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said that while the Senate race was relatively static through the end of August, there was a “not-insignificant shift in the direction of the Republicans” beginning in September. “And since then nearly all of the movement has been in the Republicans’ direction,” said Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “That’s true in Kentucky, that’s true in Louisiana, that’s true in Arkansas, that’s true in Colorado, that’s true in Iowa, and it’s true in Alaska and Georgia as well.”
“The only real outlier in the red states or purple states is Kay Hagan in North Carolina,” he said, referring to how the freshman Democrat has made a strong comeback. “By contrast, the race in New Hampshire is a whole lot closer than I’m sure Democrats expected it to be right now. Nobody can tell what the hell is going on there. Shaheen is not exactly a shoe-in incumbent.”
“You add it all up and Democrats would be doing very well to achieve Larry Sabato’s 50-50 break,” he said.
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As bleak as things seem for the Democrats, we have seen this movie before. In both the 2010 and 2012 elections, the experts predicted the Republicans would regain control of the Senate, only to see them crash and burn after numerous self-inflicted wounds and internal battles with the Tea Party.
While this time it looks like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his gang of Democrats is really boxed in, Sabato and others agree it’s dangerous to fully embrace conventional wisdom about the outcome.
“Absolutely, many things could happen in the last month to turn things around for the Democrats,” Sabato told The Fiscal Times Thursday. “Maybe it is something that boosts President Obama’s job approval, or maybe it is developments in individual Senate races. After all, many are quite close. This is no runaway, no slam-dunk for the GOP—and they privately admit it. Democrat Mark Begich could win the tight race in Alaska. The polls could be wrong, as usual, in Colorado, and Udall could pull out the win in his tied race. And so on.”
Jennifer Duffy, the Senate political analyst for Cook Political Report, admits that she sometimes loses sleep over the Senate contests and says, “I am not as bullish as a lot of the forecasters.”
“I’ve actually met these candidates and watched the ads,” she said in an interview. “It’s different when you’re just using numbers and not much else. So I’m a little over 50-50 [for the Republicans]. I think Kansas has really complicated things a lot, because you don’t know where Orman is going to go if he wins. This is the Rubik’s cube of Senate races. There are a million different combinations.”
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Like Sabato, Duffy can foresee some last minute surprises that would turn the election in the Democrats’ favor – surprises like Landrieu “pulling a rabbit out of the hat” and defeating Republican challenger Bill Cassidy in an almost certain December runoff or Orman winning and deciding to caucus with the Democrats.
“Again, I think it’s more likely that Republicans end up with 51 seats,” she said. “I don’t think we are going to know that until December…. So yeah, it’s possible [the Democrats could hang on]. Look, campaigns and candidates matter, and so the next 30 days are going to be important. Nobody can afford any mistakes.”
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