Cory Gardner is not going to win big.
The Republican Colorado Senate candidate has spent much of the past six months in the mid-40s in head-to-head matchups against Senator Mark Udall, trailing in 13 of the last 15 polls. Gardner’s best showing was 47 percent in July’s CBS News/New York Times poll; his worst was 41 percent in that month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
And yet, he’s still around, trailing slightly against an incumbent who’s also stuck in the mid-40s.
The national political environment is perhaps even worse for Democrats this year than in 2010. Obama’s approval numbers are dismal, and the news cycles feature one calamity after another, plenty of fodder for a challenger: unaccompanied illegal-immigrant children at the border, Obamacare’s painful implementation, chaos in Russia, Iraq, and Syria, and a job market that remains uninspiring. Yet Gardner and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, running against Senator Kay Hagan, can’t seem to consistently take the lead against opponents considered vulnerable.
One obvious reason is the advantages of incumbency. In every state that Romney won that features an open-seat Senate race, the Republican candidate is cruising to victory: Steve Daines in Montana, Mike Rounds in South Dakota, Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, Ben Sasse in Nebraska. But every Romney-won state with a Democratic incumbent features a close battle, where the Republican challenger sometimes enjoys the lead but can’t quite put it away. Besides Colorado and North Carolina, there’s Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Bill Cassidy in Louisiana, and Dan Sullivan in Alaska.
Beating a Democratic incumbent is strikingly rare: Since 1982, Republicans have flipped only twelve Democratic Senate seats where the incumbent was running again. Democrats have done it 38 times, including defeating seven GOP incumbents in 1986 and six in 2006.
In the 2010 cycle, the other midterm under President Obama, Republicans gained six seats, but only two of those came from defeating incumbents: John Boozman beat Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas, and Ron Johnson beat Russ Feingold in Wisconsin.
So how do the Republicans plan to knock off Udall and Hagan?
It may surprise you to hear that, by one measurement, Colorado is still a Republican state. As the Denver Post’s Mark Matthews reported, “As of Sept. 1, there were roughly 57,000 more registered Republicans in Colorado than registered Democrats. Last year the GOP’s edge in registration was about 28,000 — roughly half that.”
And according to Republican National Committee research data that matched Colorado voters who cast ballots to their party registration, Republicans have actually turned out more voters than Democrats have for the past four cycles:
2006: 39 percent Republican/34 percent Democrat/27 percent Independent
2008: 35 percent Republican/34 percent Democrat/31 percent Independent
2010: 39 percent Republican/33 percent Democrat/28 percent Independent
2012: 34 percent Republican/33 percent Democrat/33 percent Independent
So why has each of the past three cycles featured some disappointing loss for Republicans in Colorado? For starters, GOP candidates tend to lose the independent vote there; Colorado’s independents tend to lean more to the left or to be somewhat libertarian.
And Udall should do quite well with the independent vote in 2014, or at least much better than, say, Mark Pryor in Arkansas or Mark Begich in Alaska. In the latest Denver Post poll, Udall leads, 45 percent to 35 percent, among independents. But they’re a shaky foundation for a lead; independents are one of the demographics least likely to show up and vote in a midterm election.
Note that in the above figures, the Republican advantage is considerably higher in midterm years. Strategists close to the Gardner campaign are hoping for a similar margin in 2014 — though, out of caution, they are basing their turnout calculations on a much closer one. They’re also hoping that Gardner will do slightly better among rural Democratic voters than the average Republican would. The aim is to keep Udall in the high 80s of the Democratic vote, while Gardner captures 90 percent or more of the Republican vote.
The Gardner campaign’s messaging effort is simple: Find people who want a senator who will be a “check and balance” against President Obama and who are not yet committed to voting for Gardner. The good news for the Republican candidate is that there is a healthy supply of these voters: The NBC News/Marist poll in Colorado put Obama’s job approval at 39 percent, versus 53 percent disapproval.
But Gardner has been attempting to capture these votes in a relentlessly hostile paid-media environment. The amount of political advertising deluging the state is stunning — $60 million by September 5.
The good news for Colorado Republicans is that the airwaves should be evenly matched between the parties from now until November.
The Udall campaign had spent $7.9 million by June 30, with millions more to come. And yet the candidate’s numbers in the head-to-head matchups and his overall job-approval numbers are about where they were in the spring. Udall’s job approval is at 45 percent, and disapproval at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll; a late-July PPP survey put his approval at 36 percent, disapproval at 47 percent. The newest Denver Post poll puts his approval at 40 percent and disapproval at 47 percent.
Meanwhile, despite an avalanche of attack ads portraying him as Torquemada, Gardner is in acceptable shape. The Post poll found his favorable and unfavorable ratings at 36 percent each. The NBC poll put him at 38 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable. The PPP survey that had Udall underwater by 11 points put Gardner at 34 percent favorable and 39 percent unfavorable.
The best news for Republicans is that Udall and his allies have dumped millions in negative ads onto Gardner’s head and have managed to turn a slight Udall lead, with the incumbent in the mid-40s, into . . . a slight Udall lead, with the incumbent in the mid-40s. The early advertising appears to have been a waste. The key question is when — if at all — lower-intensity voters start tuning in. Mail-in absentee ballots will be sent to registered voters starting October 14.
The formula for Gardner is there: Get a solid turnout of Republicans, creating a slightly GOP-leaning electorate; keep it close among independents; and utilize the state’s overall lack of interest in another six years for Udall. It can add up to a Gardner win — though not by a large margin.
On paper, North Carolina should be one of the three best states for Republican challengers this cycle. Not in terms of voter registration, where North Carolina is the opposite of Colorado: The state has about 2 million registered Republicans, 2.7 million registered Democrats, 24,000 registered Libertarians, and about 1.7 million unaffiliated. However, a lot of those registered Democrats are conservative-leaning and have voted for Republicans in past cycles. The GOP is on a winning streak in North Carolina: In 2012, Mitt Romney won narrowly and Pat McCrory won the governor’s race in a landslide; incumbent Senator Richard Burr handily won reelection in 2010, and Republicans made huge gains in the state legislature that year as well.
But among the states with competitive Senate races this year, North Carolina is probably the most expensive, with ten television markets.
Like Gardner, Thom Tillis faced a barrage of negative ads this past month. In fact, the pair, along with Michigan Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land, have endured the most lopsided media markets in the first weeks of September:
North Carolina is a state that has seriously soured on President Obama; he’s at 38 percent job approval in the Elon University survey, at 37 percent in the Civitas poll, and at 42 percent in the most recent PPP poll.
The most recent Elon University poll puts Hagan at 41 percent job approval (roughly the same among likely voters, registered voters, and all residents). PPP puts her at 43 percent job approval.
Like Gardner, Tillis trails by one to six points — a GOP firm’s poll putting Hagan up ten looks like an outlier. Tillis is consistently in the low 40s, with Hagan in the mid-40s — not a terrible place to be when you’ve been dramatically outspent by the incumbent. As of June 30, Hagan had spent nearly $8 million, while Tillis had spent only $3.2 million.
A key element for a Tillis victory will be GOP-leaning outside groups coming in and keeping the television advertising closer to 50–50 from now until November.
If Tillis can stop getting blown out in ad spending, and can mobilize the voters who disapprove of Obama but aren’t yet certain to vote for Tillis, he can emerge with a win on Election Day.
As things stand now, neither Gardner nor Tillis is likely to win big. Luckily for them, a big win isn’t required.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.