‘Yes, But’ Optimism for the GOP

by Jim Geraghty
A long drought of fresh polling obscures Republicans’ Senate takeover prospects.

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.

Sweeping those three races would put Republicans at 49 seats, and needing two more to control the U.S. Senate beginning in January 2015. (Vice President Joe Biden would break ties in a chamber split 50–50.)

While the Republicans have many opportunities to win those next two seats, GOP challengers in those races have steeper climbs.

In Alaska, the outlook is foggy, as Republicans still have to select their nominee in August’s primary. Senator Mark Begich will face either former natural-resources commissioner Dan Sullivan, Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, or Joe Miller, who defeated Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 primary and lost in the general. The only head-to-head polling in Alaska came in May from PPP, finding Begich ahead of front-runner Sullivan by 5.

In Colorado, only two polls asked voters about their Senate preferences in June. Rasmussen Reports puts incumbent Democratic senator Mark Udall up by 1, while Magellan Strategies puts GOP challenger Representative Cory Gardner up by 2.

In Iowa’s open-seat Senate race, Republicans have high hopes for Joni Ernst against Democratic representative Bruce Braley. Here three polls were conducted in June: Rasmussen Reports put Ernst up 1, and Loras College put her up 6, but Quinnipiac put Braley up 4.

In Michigan’s open-seat Senate race, three surveys in June put Democrat Gary Peters ahead of Republican Terri Lynn Land: PPP had Peters up 5, Magellan Strategies had Peters up 9, and Mitchell Research put Peters up 3.

In New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown is taking on incumbent senator Jeanne Shaheen, June brought only two new surveys. The Suffolk University/Boston Herald survey put Shaheen up 10, while American Research Group put Shaheen up 12.

Then there are a trio of states where incumbent Democrats are favored, in some cases heavily. In Minnesota, Senator Al Franken led businessman Mike McFadden in June’s two surveys — a 6-point lead in the KTSP/Survey USA poll and an 11-point lead in the PPP one. In Oregon, only one June poll paired Senator Jeff Merkley against his challenger, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, and SurveyUSA found Markley ahead by 18. In Virginia, only Rasmussen surveyed how Senator Mark Warner is faring against former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, and it found Warner up by 17.

Then there are two potentially vulnerable GOP-held seats the party needs to hold. Losing either of these would mean that Republicans need to make up for it in one of the other races listed above.

In Kentucky, pollsters released three surveys in May, but only Magellan Strategies released one in June, showing Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes up by 3 over Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

In Georgia’s open-seat Senate race, Democrat Michelle Nunn will face either Representative Jack Kingston or David Purdue after the July 22 GOP runoff. In early June, Survey USA put runoff front-runner Kingston up 6 over Nunn, and Purdue up 5 over Nunn.

Add it all up and the Republicans can feel confident about 46 seats and pretty good about three more. They have a decent shot at five more, and then three could break their way if the political atmosphere favors them in the final weeks. The floor is 47 or so, and the ceiling is 57 — but the space between 50 and 51 is a political world of difference.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO and is the author of The Weed Agency.