With primary season almost complete and political campaigns nearing the final sprint to Election Day, it is a good time to review which races are most competitive heading into Labor Day. In the Senate, Republicans need to pick up six seats to win a majority and control both houses of Congress. The last three years of a divided Congress (Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate) has led to gridlock in Washington. The Congress can’t even muster the political fortitude or agreement to name Post Offices and bridges anymore, much less pass things like an annual budget or appropriations. The result is the lowest approval ratings of Congress in history. Dissatisfaction with Washington is at depths never measured since polling began tracking such things.
Three seats currently held by Democrats are highly likely to switch to Republican control. Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota are all Democratic held seats in very heavily Republican states with well-funded and well liked Republicans. So, with three seats “in the bag” for Republicans, they need three more to win control of the Senate. The most competitive seats where they will try to do that are:
Incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu is running against Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy and a handful of other candidates. Louisiana voted for Romney by 18 points and holds an open primary on Election Day with all candidates on the ballot regardless of party. If no candidate receives 50%, a runoff election is held in December between the top two finishers, again, regardless of party. Polls show Cassidy and Landrieu neck and neck, but both under 50%, meaning the two will likely face off in a December 5 runoff. Landrieu is one of the most pro-business Democrats in the Senate and as the chair of the Energy Committee has been supportive of the extensive oil and gas interests in Louisiana, giving her a boost. In a run-off scenario however, Landrieu would face an uphill struggle to turn out base Democrat voters in a non-traditional election time. There are fewer African Americans in the state as many were displaced after Hurricane Katrina and base Democrats who remain are disenchanted. Landrieu’s family’s political legacy and her ability to bring independent and some Republican crossover votes make this an enormously competitive race.
Democratic incumbent Senator Kay Hagan is facing Republican state house Speaker Thom Tillis in what has been the most expensive election to date. Outside groups have already spent over $15 million on this race with pledges of much more to come. This attests to the very close split in the campaign. Hagan has been much more adversarial to the business community than Pryor in Arkansas or Landrieu, but North Carolina is a true swing state and Democrats are much better organized than in Louisiana or Arkansas. The massive number of attack ads already aired has had the effect of diminishing both candidates severely and many North Carolina voters already view the election as a choice for the lesser of two evils as each candidate is highly unpopular and there is a much larger number of undecided voters than would be expected at this point in an election. Polling has the race neck and neck with each candidate in the low 40s.
Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Pryor faces a tough re-election bid in 2014. He is being challenged by freshman Rep. Tom Cotton. While Pryor is relatively well liked in Arkansas, President Obama’s approval numbers in the state are dismal. The state is trending red and went to 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by over 20 points but has a solid history of electing Democrats to the Senate and Governorship. Both candidates are showing impressive fundraising numbers and polling on average, has Cotton up three points. However, taking on an incumbent is hard especially for a newcomer like Cotton against Pryor whose family has generations of elected service in the state. Pryor is typically considered a pro-business Democrat in the state though his support of Harry Reid has made it difficult for him to break from his party on many significant occasions. Cotton has frustrated the business community on a handful of occasions as well as he has aligned himself with Ted Cruz and other tea-party oriented groups that are not always supportive of a pro-growth agenda.
The fourth Democrat incumbent running in a state carried by Mitt Romney is Mark Begich, who won the seat following the indictment and scandal surrounding longtime Senator Ted Stevens (R). Begich is the former Mayor of Anchorage whose father was a leading political figure in the state until his death in a plane crash in the 70s. Begich is the first Democrat to win federal office in Alaska in over 30 years. He faces former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan who won the GOP primary against Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell and tea-party activist Joe Miller. Begich has run a disciplined campaign to date and has highlighted his work in bipartisan collaboration with fellow Alaska Senator Republican Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski has pushed back however, asking him not to mention her in his ads and if Begich pushes too far he could draw Murkowski further into the race, but in active opposition to him. Polling has the race neck and neck and Sullivan has done an admirable job of positioning himself as a practical, business oriented Republican.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall looked to be safe in his re-election bid, until Rep. Cory Gardner jumped in the race in February. Once Gardner entered, polling soon showed the two candidates statistically tied. Colorado went to President Obama (D) in 2012 by six points. As is the trend nationally, Obama’s approval ratings have dropped significantly in Colorado, hurting Udall’s election chances for 2014. Gardner got a boost when Bob Beauprez won the GOP nomination for Governor making that a competitive seat as well rather than the highly controversial Tom Tancredo which would have forced a large amount of ticket splitting for Gardner to win. Udall was helped when the anti-fracking ballot initiatives were shelved recently. The ballot issues caused a huge rift between the business community and environmentalists, both of whom Udall needs to be successful and having them off the ballot means he will not have the difficult balancing act he had before. This race is generally seen as the barometer of whether Republicans will sweep a large number of seats or not. If Colorado goes Republican, it is probably an indication of a larger Republican wave. If it remains Democrat, it likely means the Democrats have held off the worst of the GOP attacks.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) is retiring, leaving an open seat for 2014. The Democrats quickly rallied around Congressman Bruce Braley, while the Republicans had several candidates compete for the nomination. State Sen. Joni Ernst overwhelmingly won the GOP primary, despite the crowded field and that created momentum that has carried her into one of the most competitive races in the country. Ernst has proven to be an impressive candidate and is running one of the most disciplined campaigns in the field this year. Even in the primary, she consolidated tea party supporters with more traditional business establishment support and that broad appeal has served her well. Braley is a standard issue Democrat and even though Iowa has tilted Democratic at the Presidential level the last few years, Braley has made a number of unforced errors including disparaging comments about farmers and senior Senator Charles Grassley who is highly popular in the state. Also helping Ernst’s prospects is the highly popular Governor Terry Branstand running for reelection who has made high turnout amongst Republicans a priority. Branstand is close to Ernst and is putting the full force of his political organization to work to support her election. Polling at this point shows a dead even race.
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell faces a competitive race from Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell also had a primary challenger, but McConnell's superior fundraising and organizational capacity left him little to worry about. The real competitive race is the general, and this is one of the Democrat’s two opportunities to pick up a seat in 2014. Current polling has the race very close despite the outsized Republican performance in Kentucky at the Presidential level. McConnell is known for his fundraising and campaign prowess, but Grimes is holding her own and even recently outraised the Senator. Grimes, 35, has a political pedigree in the state and has proven her ability to win statewide in the Republican heavy state as she currently serves as Secretary of State. The position, as in most states, is administrative and she hasn’t had to take any difficult votes and is attempting to position herself outside of the Obama administration, which is highly unpopular in the state, especially in the coal producing areas. McConnell, meanwhile, is the embodiment of “Republicans in Washington” as the Senate GOP leader, and has served as Senator for almost 30 years in a year when members of Congress generically are literally held in lower esteem than Darth Vader.
Republican business executive David Perdue, former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General Stores, won a crowded and hard fought GOP primary and will take on Democrat Michelle Nunn in this open seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. While Georgia hasn’t voted for a Democrat for Governor or Senator in over a decade and the state went solidly for Romney in 2012, Democrats are hoping Nunn can draw on the goodwill towards her father, former Senator Sam Nunn who is still very highly regarded in the state, as well as the fact that she has no voting record to pick apart. She will attempt to paint Perdue as a Romney-like corporate raider but in a Republican leaning state in a Republican leaning year, the odds are with Perdue. Ironically, Perdue can demonstrate his independence from the corporate world thanks to a high profile spat with the US Chamber of Commerce during the primary.
This open seat features Democrat Congressman Gary Peters against Republican former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. The state went for Obama by 10 points in 2012 but has a Republican Governor, Republican Legislature and a majority of its Congressional seats are Republican. When Land was elected Secretary of State, it was with the highest percentage of the vote of any Republican running statewide in recent history. She also has the ability to partly self-fund the campaign and has already put in over $2 million of her own money. Union groups in the state, especially autoworkers, are furious with Governor Rick Snyder for passing Right to Work legislation last year and have vowed an all-out voter mobilization and turnout effort that would benefit Peters should it materialize. While every state tends to see non-Presidential year electorates that are slightly older and less minority than Presidential year turnouts, this is especially pronounced in Michigan for some reason, giving Republicans an almost even playing field in off-year elections as opposed to Presidential year turnout. Peters has still been able to maintain some lead in the polls and the Democratic tilt of the state make it an uphill climb for Land though it is a race both parties are heavily invested in.
Republican business executive Mike McFadden is taking on Democrat incumbent Al Franken. Franken has been a reliably Democratic vote, sometimes at the expense of home state interests but has proven himself to be a serious policy maker who gets the job done for his constituents. McFadden is an attractive candidate with the ability to raise substantial financial resources. Franken won in 2008 by less than 1000 votes but polls to date show him with a consistent lead but still with less than 50% of the vote and Obama with a surprisingly weak approval rating in the state.