Fight for the Senate Still Very Much Up in the Air

by Stuart Rothenberg July 15, 2014 · 5:01 AM EDT

The bottom line looks about the same in the fight for control of the Senate in November — but some of the pieces of the puzzle have moved around dramatically over the past few months.

Republicans need a 6-seat gain to take over the Senate next year. Three Democratic-held Senate seats continue to be headed to the GOP: Montana and open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia.

Most Democrats are pessimistic about all three, though some party insiders continue to hold out hope that appointed Montana Sen. John Walsh can close his early deficit against his Republican challenger, Rep. Steve Daines. If that should happen, of course, national Democratic money could flow into the race. But for now, Daines appears to have a clear advantage.

From that point on, things get a bit dicier for Republicans.

The next two most vulnerable Democratic seats are the same as they have been for more than six months: Arkansas and Louisiana.

Aside from a largely dismissed (on both sides of the aisle) New York Times/Kaiser Foundation April poll showing Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., with a double-digit lead over his challenger, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, surveys in the state have shown the race close for months. Some have had Pryor ahead, while others have shown Cotton leading.

My own reporting on the race leads me to believe that the contest is a statistical dead heat, though with Cotton holding a small advantage. (Not all of the polls, public and private, show this, of course.)

Cotton had slipped behind Pryor earlier in the year, but he appears to have improved his relative position through a series of positive TV commercials that have boosted his personal favorability ratings.

While Democrats have every reason to remain hopeful about the outcome, a well-known Democratic senator like Pryor — in a state where the president remains deeply unpopular — is in serious trouble if he is sitting in the low- to mid-40s and running even against the challenger. The Rothenberg Political Report rates the contest as Toss-up/Tilts Republican, and that is exactly where it should be.

Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu continues to run smartly and aggressively, but there is a broad consensus that she would get about 45 percent of the vote if the election were held today. That would place her far ahead of the almost certain second-place finisher, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, but force Landrieu into a December runoff.

In my view, the Senator’s prospects in a runoff would depend heavily on what happened in other Senate contests in November, and whether her seat would decide control of the chamber in 2015.

That said, she remains extremely vulnerable, even with her support in the business community. She isn’t in much better shape than Pryor, though the dynamics of the race are less clear because of Louisiana’s weird voting process.

If those two seats fall to the GOP, Republicans would need to net only one other seat to win control of the Senate, assuming they hold all of their own.

In something of a surprise, the sixth best Republican opportunity is now Iowa.

Barack Obama carried Iowa twice, so Democrats ought to have a narrow but clear advantage to hold retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s open seat. But the combination of an interesting Republican nominee, Joni Ernst, and Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley’s early missteps has smart Democrats fretting about the contest.

Polling shows the race extremely close now, and while Braley, a trial lawyer and four-term member of Congress, was expected to be the better campaigner in the contest, that has not been the case.

Ernst still needs to get up to speed on federal issues, and there will be an increasing focus on her now that the contest looks so close. Democratic attacks are likely to take a toll. But it’s no longer possible to see Braley as the clear favorite in this Senate race, which now looks like a Tossup.

As I have noted for months, Republicans have two other top-tier opportunities in Alaska and North Carolina, as well as an additional interesting opportunity in Colorado.

Alaska remains a serious Democratic problem, particularly given the national political environment. The state’s fundamentals obviously give a huge boost to the eventual Republican standard-bearer. But Republican prospects depend in part on the results of the Aug. 19 GOP primary, and Republican insiders acknowledge that Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is running a terrific re-election race. It remains a Tossup/Tilts Democrat contest.

North Carolina is something of a question mark, with Democrats feeling more upbeat about their ability to hold it in the fall. Knowledgeable observers agree Sen. Kay Hagan’s numbers crashed toward the end of last year, but they have recovered somewhat, and, more importantly, Democrats have scored points against GOP challenger Thom Tillis.

Tillis is the speaker in North Carolina, where the General Assembly is extremely controversial and has poor poll numbers.

Hagan appears to have a modest but clear lead at this point, and she certainly benefits from the fact that the Tar Heel State has been very competitive in the last two presidential contests. Obama won it narrowly in 2008 and lost it narrowly four years later. The president, then, isn’t as much of a drag in North Carolina as he is in places like Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

We have had this race rated as a Tossup but believe that Hagan has improved her position and note the financial advantage that she has over the challenger. We are moving the race to Tossup/Tilts Democrat, only a slight move but one that reflects how the race has changed recently.

In Colorado, which Obama carried twice, Sen. Mark Udall has a narrow advantage. Republican Rep. Cory Gardner is an excellent candidate, and his energy and sunny disposition will help make him broadly appealing. He had a strong fundraising quarter, ending June with $3.4 million in the bank.

But Democrats have already started to paint the challenger as out of touch on cultural issues, and he’ll have to keep the election’s focus on jobs and the economy to win. Moreover, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet, Udall’s Colorado colleague, and DSCC executive director Guy Cecil, are likely to pull out all the stops for Udall.

The two parties have significantly different views of where the race stands. We have had this contest rated as Leans Democrat, and we continue to believe that Udall deserves to have the advantage, both because of fundamentals and recent polling. But Gardner may well be the best GOP challenger in the country, and we are moving the race to Tossup/Tilts Democrat, which better reflects the overall competitiveness of the contest.

The three remaining GOP “opportunities” worth watching — in Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia — all look like far longer shots. Senate Democratic incumbents Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire and Mark Warner in Virginia continue to have good personal numbers and clear advantages in the polls, while Michigan’s fundamentals and an unproven Republican nominee in Terri Lynn Land raise big questions about Republican prospects.

Republicans continue to talk up both Minnesota and Oregon as opportunities, but they are such long shots right now that they don’t merit much discussion yet.

Democrats continue to believe that they have two opportunities of their own: Georgia and Kentucky.

Republicans have been embroiled in a primary (and now a runoff) in the Peach State for months, so I have given little or no credence to early general election polling in the state’s Senate race. We now know the GOP will have a credible candidate for the fall against an untested Democrat. The state’s fundamentals make it very uphill for Michelle Nunn, so unless she is running strongly in early October, there is no reason to think that Georgia is a particularly good opportunity for Democrats.

Kentucky, on the other hand, remains a risk for the GOP.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strong primary victory is worth noting, but the Senate race remains tight and antipathy in the state to the Republican Senate Leader remains considerable. In a bad Republican year, McConnell’s current positioning would be extremely worrisome for the GOP, but the president’s unpopularity and the midterm dynamic should help the incumbent.

Still, until (and unless) McConnell opens up a statistically significant lead, Democrats have every reason to focus their attention and resources on this race.

Substantial Republican gains seem certain. But while a Republican gain of at least six seats seems very possible, those six seats are not yet in the bag.