Three ‘Fear Factors’ That Could Tip the Senate Race
Policy + Politics

Three ‘Fear Factors’ That Could Tip the Senate Race

Republicans are increasingly confident about a major midterm election victory on November 4 that will give them control of Congress for the first time in a decade. With only minor caveats, pollsters and political prognosticators are saying that Republicans will pick up at least six seats to win a majority in the Senate while slightly expanding their hold over the House.

But a witch’s brew of complications in the final campaign weeks – among them runaway fears of Ebola – could either seal the deal for the Republicans or give the Democrats a last-minute escape hatch.

Related: Ebola Czar’s First Challenge – Calming the Public

These three critical developments could easily tip the campaign one way or another:

Ebola as a Campaign Wildcard: Most candidates have no control over the nation’s response to Ebola – but the deadly virus may still play a prominent role in election results. Right now, the response to the (very limited) appearance of Ebola in the U.S. is being handled almost solely by agencies of the executive branch. In the public’s eye, that puts the responsibility for Ebola squarely in the hands of the president and, by extension, the Democratic Party.

Republicans, even those not up for reelection, have been hammering the administration for failing to take more drastic measures, including stricter quarantines of people believed to have come in contact with Ebola patients and a ban on all travel to and from affected countries.

Several scenarios could play out regarding Ebola’s spread. First, the “outbreak” in the U.S. could be controlled. It’s quite possible that, three weeks from now, no new cases of the disease will have appeared here. That would be a clear victory for Obama’s policy – so far at least – of letting the scientific and public health communities take the lead on the proper response to the disease. While the danger of another infected person entering the country would still be a threat, the U.S. would have demonstrated that the progress of the disease could be stopped.

Related: It’s Not Just the Senate – What’s Really at Stake in the 2014 Elections

Second, there could be many new cases, if other infected people enter the country or if health care workers and relatives were exposed to the handful of current Ebola patients. A surge in the number of U.S. cases would have a very different political result. Republican calls for quarantines and travel bans, could be seen not as alarmist but prescient. The president’s reliance on non-extreme measures to battle a threat that looks increasingly extreme could rattle confidence further and make voters more inclined to give Republicans more power.

Finally, if there are limited new cases, public health officials would probably be unsurprised and would consider their efforts a success. Every report of a new infection would garner massive media attention and would allow Republicans to keep insisting on stronger public protection. This scenario also looks like a win for Republicans, if only because public worry and uncertainty, even if unfounded, will be hung around the neck of the president and his party.

Independents May Have Peaked Too Soon:  Only a week ago, a pair of Independent candidates seemed poised to seriously disrupt the Republicans’ journey to a Senate majority. In Kansas, Greg Orman was polling ahead of GOP incumbent Senator Pat Roberts. In South Dakota’s three-way race, a new poll showed former Governor Mike Rounds losing ground rapidly to Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent candidate and former Republican Senator Larry Pressler. Crucially, Pressler polled better than Rounds in a head-to-head matchup.

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A week can be a lifetime in the final months of a campaign, and the two Independent candidates, who had political junkies handicapping their chances of caucusing with one party or the other, now look less threatening. For a while there was speculation Orman and Pressler could join with Maine Senator Angus King and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to form an “independent caucus,” but that may not happen now.

In Kansas, Orman was leading Roberts in virtually every poll through the end of the summer and into early October. Recently, Roberts’s support has begun to rally. Some polling now shows him in the lead, and other surveys, while still favoring Orman, give the Independent candidate a much smaller advantage. The website, which aggregates polling data, now shows Orman and Roberts locked in the “closest” race in the country, with Orman’s chances of winning at 57 percent and his expected margin of victory a narrow one percent.

In South Dakota, a Survey USA poll from early October that showed Pressler surging past Weiland and threatening control by Rounds has been counterbalanced by a newer finding from Harper Polling more in line with previous polls. This result gives Rounds a plurality of 37 percent, with Pressler dropping to 23 percent and Weiland 33. now lists Rounds as having an 87 percent chance of winning and puts his expected margin of victory at 10 percentage points.

The only Independent whose position became more comfortable in the past week was Bill Walker, who is not for running for the Senate, but to unseat Alaska’s Republican Governor Sean Parnell. Alaska is notoriously difficult to poll, but in a recent survey by Rasmussen Reports, Walker had a healthy 9 percentage-point advantage over Parnell.

Related: Here’s How the GOP Could Win Control of the Senate

TV campaign Ads Again Choke the Airwaves: Nearly $1 billion will be spent on political ads by Election Day in key battleground states, driven in part by a stronger Democratic presence on the airwaves than in 2010, according to a new study by the Wesleyan Media Project.

While the battle for Senate control has dominated media coverage, the largest share of TV spending surprisingly has gone to the governor’s races, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data analyzed by Wesleyan. Roughly $337 million has been spent so far to air more than 728,000 advertisements in the Senate contests, only slightly more than was spent in the 2012 Senate election campaigns.

Democrats still enjoy an advantage in the on-air media warfare, in part because a larger share of pro-GOP ads have been run by outside groups that must pay higher ad rates than candidates, according to The Washington Post. For instance, in Louisiana – where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is struggling for survival – 4,682 pro-Democratic ads aired in the last two weeks, compared to 3,129 pro-Republican ads.

The biggest Democratic ad advantages were in Louisiana, Georgia, South Dakota and Oregon, while the biggest Republican ad advantages were in Kentucky and West Virginia, says Wesleyan. In South Dakota, “there were approximately four times as many ads favoring Democrat Rick Weiland as ads favoring Republican Mike Rounds,” according to the analysis.

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“While the top issues mentioned by Democrats varied widely by state, pro-Republican ads are sticking to more similar scripts across the country, discussing Obamacare, the deficit/budgets and employment/jobs,” explained Erika Franklin Fowler, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

A Wesleyan Media Project analysis, in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics, showed that just under 26 percent of ad airings were paid for by non-profit political action organizations that aren’t required by law to disclose donors. Another seven percent of ads were financed by Super PACs and other groups that have to disclose at least part of their funding.

An important footnote to all this spending: When it comes to choosing a venue for media buys, TV still eclipses online advertising, even in this digital age. Although outside groups have slightly increased their spending on Internet advertising, as The New York Times said recently, these organizations still spend most of their money on TV ads to influence voters.

According to The Times analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, outside groups poured 82.2 percent of their funds into TV ads during the 2014 election, compared to only five percent for online ads and 2.5 percent for radio. By comparison, these groups spent 80.2 percent of their funds on TV ads during the 2012 presidential campaign and only 3 percent on online ads and 1.7 percent on radio.

Related: Can Kay Hagan Beat the One-Term Curse in North Carolina?

What’s clear is that campaign strategists in both parties continue to target older Americans, who are more reliable voters than millennials and other younger voters. And campaigns are far more likely to reach older Americans on television than on the Internet.

Sixty-one percent of citizens age 65 and older voted in the November 2010 election, “the best turnout of any age group,” according to U.S. News and World Report. More than half of those ages 55 to 64 also cast a ballot. People under age 45 are much less likely to vote. Just 37 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds made it to the polls in November 2010.

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