Politics & Policy

What to Watch for in Tomorrow’s Senate Races

From left: Kelly Ayotte, Roy Blunt, and Richard Burr (Photos: Gage Skidmore; James Lawler Duggan, Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The real Election Day drama may come in the fight for the upper chamber. Here’s where each race stands.

On Election Night, watch the battle for the Senate. Most analysts and strategists who have been following the campaign closely are predicting that the presidential race will be called early for Hillary Clinton. Several operatives involved in Senate races, all of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly, say that the real drama tomorrow will be in the fight for the upper-chamber — and right now, the reality is that nobody knows which party will emerge victorious.

Tomorrow marks the first presidential race in eight years without Barack Obama at the top of the ballot. Obama, of course, upended conventional turnout models and, in 2012, helped drive African-American voter participation past white turnout for the first time in history. Though that’s unlikely to happen again this year, pollsters remain unsure what the electorate will look like, and how it will affect Senate races across the country. “The reality is that there’s more uncertainty this year than there has been because of the presidential [race], which has the two most hated candidates in history on the ticket,” says one Republican pollster involved in multiple Senate races. “It injects a degree of volatility that is usually not present.”

Several races are polling within the margin of error and likely to be close, meaning the composition of the electorate could make a huge difference. Much has been made of the early-voting tallies, particularly in states such as Nevada and Florida, but there are reasons to read those numbers with caution: First, early voting could indicate unusual enthusiasm among the most partisan voters; second, the available data tells us only which party a voter has been historically affiliated with, not how anybody voted early this year; and third, for a number of Senate candidates — Nevada’s Joe Heck, who has served as the congressman for a big, diverse, Democratic-leaning district comes most obviously to mind — voters may be more willing to cross party lines or split their ticket.

Republicans are staying in the game in a rough year in part because Democrats put up bad candidates, the lone exception being Missouri’s Jason Kander. This became a real factor when the Senate map expanded, unexpectedly endangering incumbents such as Kander’s opponent, Roy Blunt, and North Carolina’s Richard Burr. In the latter contest, Burr — a weak candidate himself — is facing the former American Civil Liberties Union state director Deborah Ross. “If Deborah Ross were anyone other than Deborah Ross, she would be blowing Richard Burr out of the water,” one GOP strategist tells me. By the same token, he notes, if Kander were running against Blunt in any state besides deep red Missouri, where Donald Trump is running well ahead of Clinton, he would win easily. As it stands, both races are toss-ups. Among the other Democrats who have managed to keep eminently winnable races close are Pennsylvania’s Katie McGinty, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto, and Florida’s Patrick Murphy.

Over at the Washington Post, James Hohmann has an excellent rundown of the Senate landscape. He concludes the Democrats are likelier than not to take the Senate. Below is my own analysis of what to watch for tomorrow in the marquee races. I think it’s impossible to say whether Mitch McConnell remains majority leader or Chuck Schumer replaces him. But the Republican strategists I talked to were surprisingly optimistic about getting to 51 seats, given the generally depressive mood on the right side of the aisle these days. “As pessimistic as I am generally, it’s not impossible that we hold the Senate,” says a top Republican strategist.

Democrats need to pick up four seats if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, and they have many ways to do that. Republicans see a path to 51 seats if they can hold on in North Carolina, Missouri, New Hampshire, Florida, and Ohio, the latter two of which are considered relatively safe.

Illinois

Republicans have written off Senator Mark Kirk’s seat, and it’s likely he will lose to congresswoman Tammy Duckworth by double digits. Kirk took a cringeworthy shot at Duckworth during their first debate in late October. When Duckworth, whose, whose father was a Marine and whose mother is a Thai immigrant, noted she is a Daughter of the American Revolution, Kirk retorted, “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” It marked the effective end of a race Kirk never had much chance of winning.

Ohio

If Illinois is a lock for Democrats, Ohio is a virtual lock for the GOP, thanks to the methodical and relentless campaign run by freshman senator Rob Portman, which I chronicled in mid-September. Portman managed to secure the endorsement of four local unions that had backed his opponent, former governor Ted Strickland, in previous races. It was a testament to the elbow grease he and his team put into the race, but also an illustration of the broader political realignment underway across the country that has blue-collar, non-college-educated voters coming into the Republican party and white-collar elites leaving it. Portman is the Senate candidate who has benefited most from this trend, in part because, as a Dartmouth graduate and wealthy businessman, he has kept many white-collar voters in his camp. In a state that remains a toss-up at the presidential level, he may win tomorrow by a 15–20 point margin.

Pennsylvania

This is a nail-biter of a race pitting a strong Republican candidate, freshman senator Pat Toomey, against a weaker Democratic opponent, the former Clinton administration official Katie McGinty.

Toomey, who won an insurgent bid in 2010, made moves to the middle over the past six years. He refused to join the Tea Party Caucus and offered a compromise amendment on gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. One of his ads now features President Obama offering kind words for him. But his campaign was predicated on there being a “normal” Republican presidential candidate from whom he could distinguish himself on gun control, racking up votes in Democratic Philadelphia and the four so-called “collar counties” that surround it. Instead, the Republican nominee is Trump, who has trailed Clinton consistently by about a half-dozen points in Purple Pennsylvania, weighing down Toomey in the process.

Heading into tomorrow, the race is dead even. Watch for turnout in Philadelphia, a majority black city that delivered voters in record numbers for Obama. One GOP strategist described the City of Brotherly Love as the place where Pennsylvania “Democrats will either succeed or fail on turnout.” Trump and Toomey need voters to come out in ex-urban Pittsburgh and the suburbs outside of Scranton.

Both sides agree: This is going to be close.

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New Hampshire

Republican Kelly Ayotte has been assiduously courting independent and crossover voters throughout the campaign, going so far as to distribute condoms at one campaign rally in early October as a token of her support for making birth control available over-the-counter. She’s also stumbled a couple of times, most notably by saying she considered Trump a role model for her children, a remark she quickly walked back but which took its toll nonetheless.

Overall, Ayotte’s strategy seems to have been successful. Both she and Toomey have been badly outspent by their Democratic counterparts and particularly hard hit by Democrat-affiliated outside groups. But while the state remains a toss-up on the presidential level, Trump’s improved position there has boosted Ayotte’s fortunes. Strategists agree she’s heading into Election Day about two points ahead.

Missouri

Republican Roy Blunt is one of the few Senate candidates underperforming Donald Trump, who is on track to win Missouri easily tomorrow. Blunt’s race remains a toss-up, and it’s one where Democrats have the better candidate. Blunt, the consummate insider — virtually every member of his family is a lobbyist — is facing the sprightly, young, and talented Secretary of State Jason Kander, who also put up one of the best political ads of the cycle. (In it, Kander, an Army vet, assembles a rifle blindfolded.) Kander is the breakout political star of 2016, but he’s also a Democrat running in a red state. To survive, Blunt needs to do well in Springfield, his hometown, and to perform adequately in Missouri’s populous suburbs, which also happen to be its Democratic-leaning areas: St. Louis County, neighboring St. Charles County, and suburban Kansas City.

North Carolina

Several Republicans who have seen private polling say they’re somewhat surprised it looks like Burr may pull this race out. The third-term senator waited much longer than he should have to start campaigning in the state and to go up with ads. During that time — June, July, and August — his weak challenger, the former ACLU state director Deborah Ross, gained ground.

Burr has since started stumping, though he has continued to dodge the press and eschew the trappings of a modern campaign. “It was amateur hour for a House campaign let along a swing-state Senate campaign,” one Republican strategist says of the Senator’s effort.

But Trump has held his own in the state, which, along with Ross’s lackluster candidacy, is keeping Burr afloat. One thing to watch tomorrow: black turnout, in a state where African-Americans make up over 20 percent of the population. It was way down from 2012 in a shortened early-voting period, but surged in the final days — and could tip the scales tomorrow.

Wisconsin

Once written off entirely, Republican Ron Johnson surged in the final month of his rematch against former Democratic senator Russ Feingold. Helping Johnson is Wisconsin’s extreme polarization in the era of Scott Walker, and the fact that Feingold is the sort of career politician voters have revolted against this year; hurting him is Trump’s abysmal performance in the state, and the fact that being a career politician has its perks for Feingold, including an enormous fundraising network and experience campaigning. Johnson is the outsider, but Feingold is the superior candidate. Despite his last-minute comeback, most believe Johnson is unlikely to pull out a win tomorrow.

Nevada

Ace Nevada reporter Jon Ralston’s dispatches on early voting in the state have a lot of Republicans depressed. Sunday night’s was titled, “Early voting kills Trump in Nevada.”

The race for Harry Reid’s seat is likely to hinge on Clark County, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of Nevada’s population. Hispanics make up 30.6 percent of all county residents, and they showed up to vote early in record numbers. Ralston says the Latino vote has exploded from 15 percent of the electorate in 2008 to 18 percent in 2012 to potentially 20 percent this year.

That said, Republicans point out that Heck currently represents Nevada’s third congressional district, which is large and diverse (16 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian) and has voted Democratic in the presidential race both in 2008 and 2012 — but which Heck won by 25 points in 2014. So they hope Heck, who is running against former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, will do similarly well winning over Democratic voters across the state.

Republican senator Dean Heller defeated his Democratic opponent in 2012, another bad year for Republicans, by 12,000 votes. This race is likely to be decided by a similarly margin.

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Indiana

Barely a day has gone by that Evan Bayh, one of the Democrats’ prize recruits this cycle, hasn’t been hammered in the press. “Nobody’s had a worse week than Evan Bayh,” says one Republican strategist. And it’s true: Once heavily favored to win this race, Bayh trailed Republican Todd Young by five points in a recent poll. He has been weighed down by a slow drip of stories revealing that he hasn’t spent much time in Indiana since he left the Senate in 2010, that he lunched with Wall Street lobbyists as the housing market went up in flames, and that he stayed in an Indianapolis hotel on the taxpayer’s dime. If he pulls it out, it’ll be because of the strength of his name ID (another benefit enjoyed by career politicians) and of his big war chest. Young, on the other hand, will need to run up big numbers in Southern Indiana — including in his congressional district, which comprises the city of Bloomington and the Louisville suburbs — as well as in Hamilton and Hancock counties outside of Indianapolis.

—​ Eliana Johnson is National Review’s Washington editor.

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