Two things are becoming clear about this November’s U.S. Senate races. First, more and more analysts now say Republicans are likely to win at least the 51 seats needed for control of the Senate. Second, the result is that Democrats will run even more desperately negative campaigns in an effort to hold onto power. But don’t expect too much media thumb-sucking about “attack ads” this fall, since the worst are almost certain to come from the left.
In the battle for Senate control, analysts from left to right give the GOP an edge. Mark Blumenthal, the pollster for the Huffington Post, this week gave Republicans a 55 percent chance of taking back the Senate, which the Democrats have held since 2007. Among the close races, he says Arkansas and Louisiana are likely to tilt Republican, while Colorado and Iowa are “truly 50–50 races.”
Other analysts ranging from Larry Sabato to Charlie Cook to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver also give the GOP the edge. Silver, who predicted Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection on the nose, says the GOP has a 65 percent chance of capturing the Senate. In his analysis: “Republicans can win the Senate solely by winning Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, states which voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by an average of 19 percentage points in 2012.”
Then there is political analyst Stu Rothenberg, who has been observing elections since 1980. This week he wrote in Roll Call that he now believes the Republicans will crest a political wave and make a net gain of seven Senate seats, but he wouldn’t be surprised if they went higher. “The combination of an unpopular president and a midterm election (indeed, a second midterm) can produce disastrous results for the president’s party,” he concluded.
Even before this week’s predictions of doom by political analysts, Democratic senators were already running hysterical ads against their opponents. The Washington Free Beacon noted that “Senator Mark Begich (D., Alaska) was recently forced to pull an inflammatory ad falsely linking his GOP opponent, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, to a gruesome murder, after the victims’ family expressed outrage at not being consulted and accused Begich of exploiting a tragedy for political gain.”
In Arkansas, Senator Mark Pryor sparked ridicule by running an ad with scary images of the Ebola virus that then segues into an argument that his Republican opponent, Representative Tom Cotton, voted against preparedness measures that could help prevent the virus from spreading to the United States.
David Ray, a Cotton campaign spokesman, dismissed the ad. “Senator Pryor’s desperation is comical,” he said in a statement. “In Senator Pryor’s world, he doesn’t have to take responsibility for rubber-stamping the Obama agenda over 90 percent of the time, but wants Arkansans to believe Tom Cotton is responsible for everything from Ebola to crabgrass and male pattern baldness.”
Cotton told me in a phone call that he expects more “low, dishonest, and vulgar” ads to be run against him. “The Democratic playbook, starting with Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC, is clear,” he told me. “Run negative ads that turn off voters enough so they don’t go to the polls, and that scare their own base voters into coming out. It’s the height of cynicism.”
Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa, concurs. She told me that Democrats spent $5 million before the GOP primary was finished attacking her and other Republicans. “It all smacks of desperation,” she says, noting that the latest Democratic ad ties her to the Koch brothers.
Indeed, Democrats can’t seem to stop running cookie-cutter anti-Koch ads in state after state. “There’s no downside to any elected official in this country attacking the Koch brothers. None, zero, zip,” Jim Manley, a former Reid aide, told the BuzzFeed website earlier this year.
But others aren’t so sure. The late Alan Baron, an astute observer of politics from a liberal perspective, once told me: “When you’re reduced to attacking your opponent’s supporters, you show the lack of a positive agenda and an obsession with the process of campaigns that voters don’t have. You’re wasting your air time.”
Democrats are even dusting off their old “war on women” memes, accusing Republicans of everything short of wanting to put women into chattel slavery.
On that issue, Republicans need to pay attention. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, as NBC put it, “showed Democrats at the tipping point of big losses this midterm season.” The complication is that women preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress by seven points, while men preferred a GOP-controlled Congress by twelve points. Republicans will have to fight back against images of their candidates as extremists, while making their point that job opportunities and wage increases for women have stagnated or decreased during the Obama years.
Barring a dramatic surprise, the basic contours of this year’s Senate races are pretty much set. They will be defined by President Obama’s extraordinarily low 40 percent approval rating, a stagnant economy for those in the middle class, and the White House’s inability to tout any policy success stories that voters care about. That said, Republicans have clearly decided to play it safe and not put forward a national reform agenda similar to the 1994 “Contract with America.” If the GOP’s performance this fall is only good — as opposed to “a wave” — one reason could be that Republicans decided to copy the Democrats’ decision to avoid controversy by not injecting ideas into the campaign.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.