Politico kicked off the week with a bang by declaring that “Republicans are as close to winning the Senate as they’ve been since losing it in 2006.”
Republicans can high-five each other about their early winnings in the expectations game, but there’s a world of difference between “a lot of potential wins” and “a lot of wins.” The outlook for the Senate races will clear up after Labor Day, and it’s worth noting that today’s conventional wisdom is shaped by little fresh data.
Pollsters released few head-to-head surveys of the top Senate races in June and early July. The campaigns in these states, committees, and some outside groups are undoubtedly conducting their own internal polls, but at least for now, they’re not sharing them.
To a Republican, the overall contours of the map look good — a lot of vulnerable Democratic incumbents in states Romney won, and a bunch of open-seat races with good GOP challengers in purple or light-blue states. But going through each race, we don’t find that the numbers look all that dire for Democrats, at least in what we could see in June.
Republicans begin with 41 seats safe or not up for reelection, and we’re likely to be able to throw Kansas’s Pat Roberts and Mississippi’s Thad Cochran onto that list — presuming Cochran can overcome bad blood from his runoff-primary win and Roberts survives his primary challenge. That puts them at 43 seats.
Begin with the three seats currently occupied by Democrats where the GOP is favored heavily: West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana. In West Virginia, the last survey came in mid-May, when the West Virginia Poll found Republican Shelley Moore Capito ahead by 11 percentage points over Democrat Natalie Tennant. In South Dakota, the lone poll released in June showed Republican former governor Mike Rounds ahead by 15 over Democrat Rick Weiland. Finally, in Montana, John Walsh was appointed to fill out the final months of Max Baucus’s term. In the lone poll released since April, Rasmussen found Republican representative Steve Daines leading Walsh by 18.
This puts them at 46 seats. Now move to the three Democratic incumbent senators widely perceived to be among the most vulnerable this cycle — all trailing, but modestly.
In Louisiana, Mary Landrieu is expected to face an early-December runoff with GOP representative Bill Cassidy. (Under Lousiana’s election laws, there are no primaries, and if no one gets 50 percent on Election Day, the top two finishers go to a runoff.) Only two polls have surveyed the state’s voters on this race since early June: GOP firm Magellan Strategies put Cassidy up by 6; Democratic firm Public Policy Polling had the candidates tied.
In Arkansas, incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor faces Representative Tom Cotton, and after a slew of polls in the spring, only one has been conducted since June. Magellan Strategies puts Cotton up 4.
In North Carolina, incumbent Kay Hagan, a Democrat, faces GOP challenger Thom Tillis, and here there’s been a relative plethora of polls, all offering modestly good news for Hagan. Magellan Strategies puts her up 1, PPP puts her up 4, and Civitas, a Republican firm, puts her up 4 as well.
Cassidy, Cotton, and Tillis are all doing well for challengers, but it’s worth contrasting their races with the Arkansas Senate election in 2010, when incumbent Blanche Lincoln, the Democrat, consistently trailed GOP challenger John Boozman by double digits before losing handily to him.