Fight for Senate Control Down to Five States

by Stuart Rothenberg September 25, 2014 · 12:28 PM EDT

With six weeks to go, the fight for control of the Senate is down to five states, four of them currently held by Democrats.

Republicans must win only two of those contests to guarantee the 51 seats they need to control the Senate for the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. And they need to win only one of the Democratic states if they hold the only GOP seat at serious risk.

While things could still change — and national polls continue to show an environment that may produce a substantial GOP wave in the House and Senate — the Senate battle has boiled down to two reliably red states and three swing states.

While you can find Democrats spinning a yarn about how their party could pull off an upset in a multi-candidate race in South Dakota, that state, plus West Virginia and Montana, look poised to flip to the GOP in November.

Two Southern Democrats, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary L. Landrieu, have run aggressive races as they try to survive the Republican wave that has swept over their states during the past four years. But Arkansas Republican Rep. Tom Cotton has finally opened up a small but decisive lead in his race, a lead likely to grow in the coming weeks.

The Louisiana contest will probably go to a December runoff, and while runoffs are unpredictable, the almost certain GOP alternative to Landrieu in that race, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, has the advantage.

If they win both races, Republicans need to net only one more seat to win Senate control, with the focus, at least right now, on Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa and Kansas.

Mark Begich is widely credited with running the best Democratic race in the country, and he may be ahead of challenger Dan Sullivan by a couple of points. But Begich remains well under the 50 percent mark, and Alaska’s strongly Republican bent means the senator has no room for error.

Local observers are wondering whether a controversial TV spot aired by Begich’s campaign may have backfired, and the closer Election Day gets, the more difficult it may be for Begich to keep voters’ focus on the state rather than on Obama or the stakes for control of the Senate.

North Carolina is proving to be a major headache for the GOP. Not nearly as red as Alaska — Obama carried it narrowly in 2008 before losing it narrowly in 2012 — Republican challenger Thom Tillis appears to be trailing Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by more than a couple of points.

Democrats have poured resources into this race, and by November they are likely to have out-spent Tillis, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and GOP-allied groups by $7 million.

Democratic attacks definitely hurt the challenger, particularly on education, and many Republicans are growing skeptical that Tillis can overtake the incumbent. At some point, the NRSC may have to decide whether to stay in the race or pull out. But for now, Hagan’s weakness, the state’s competitiveness and the president’s unpopularity keep this contest in play.

Colorado remains extremely competitive, and Democrats must be concerned their attacks on Gardner on cultural issues did not destroy his campaign. But Gardner’s positive personality and more moderate message, combined with a Udall fumble here and there, has clearly made this a key contest.

You don’t have to believe the recent Quinnipiac University Poll that showed the Republican nominee with a double-digit lead in the state’s gubernatorial race and Gardner ahead by 8 points (I certainly don’t) to believe Udall is in great danger.

Some observers seem to think Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has grabbed the momentum in Iowa. But while Democrats obviously have stopped the bleeding in the Hawkeye State, the contest certainly looks like a tossup. That may be different from six weeks ago, when Republican Joni Ernst appeared to have the momentum, but it’s also very different than a year ago, when Democrats were oozing confidence in Braley.

The fifth decisive race looks to be Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts appears to be trailing independent Greg Orman by anywhere from a couple of points to a half-dozen.

Roberts has not run a good race, and his lack of a residence in the state is a dumb mistake. But questions about Orman’s relationship with a jailed businessman could help Roberts alter the contest’s trajectory. More importantly, given the state’s strong GOP bent and Obama’s unpopularity, all Roberts must do is nationalize the Senate race. That shouldn’t be impossible.

Still, if Orman wins (and caucuses with Democrats, as almost everyone seems to expect), that result in itself could cause Republicans to fall short in their bid to win back the Senate.

There are other contests, of course.

Two Democratic women hoping to pick off GOP seats, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Michelle Nunn in Georgia, look to be in roughly the same place. Neither of those contests is over now, but both Democrats continue to face uphill fights.

In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has opened up a small but clear lead over Grimes, and the state’s strongly anti-Obama bent makes things harder for her with so little time left.

Georgia Republican David Perdue has a small lead over Nunn, and unlike McConnell, Perdue has never been tested, so he could make a mistake in the final furious weeks of the campaign. But he will win if he is error-free.

New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen has seen her advantage shrink but continues to hold a narrow lead over challenger Scott P. Brown. The former Massachusetts senator still needs a big Republican wave to be swept to victory. Michigan GOP nominee Terri Lynn Land looks to be in even worse shape.

Republican nominees in Minnesota, Oregon and Virginia probably need divine intervention to have any chance of winning.

My ratings continue to reflect Republican Senate gains most likely in the five to eight seat range, with the eventual outcomes in the five most crucial contests likely to determine Senate control in 2015.