Warning: Senate Races Aren’t as Close as They Appear

by Stuart Rothenberg April 30, 2014 · 2:14 PM EDT

I’ve noticed with some alarm how many people fail to make reasonable distinctions among races that admittedly have some factors in common.

So let me make an important distinction: While Democratic Senate candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes, 35, and Michelle Nunn, 47, have difficult races ahead of them in Kentucky and Georgia, each has a path to victory.

Conversely, I don’t currently see a path for West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant, 46.

Grimes’ likely general-election opponent, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, 72, has been in Congress for 30 years. He’s part of his party’s leadership and his personal poll numbers are mediocre, at best.

Grimes offers an obvious contrast on many levels to McConnell, and she has the resources to mount a formidable campaign. Of course, there are many hurdles ahead of her, but they don’t negate her assets and opportunity.

Nunn has a terrific name in the Peach State and in Washington, D.C. Her father was (and is) a highly regarded pragmatic Democrat, and her association with the Bush family through her connection with the Points of Light Foundation is an asset.

To have a serious chance of victory, Nunn probably needs to run against a Republican who would have problems within his or her own party. Rep. Paul Broun, a libertarian-leaning Republican member of Congress with a penchant for saying stupid things — for example, that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell” — obviously would give Nunn her best chance for success, but he may not be the only Republican unable to hold the seat in the fall.

Interestingly, while the Club for Growth has endorsed four Senate candidates this cycle (in Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi and Nebraska), it has not endorsed Broun’s Senate bid, even though the Georgia congressman has a 99 percent lifetime rating from the group. The conservative group knows his tendency for saying the outlandish could come back to haunt him — and the club.

So, while I continue to rate Grimes and Nunn as underdogs in the Kentucky and Georgia Senate races, I certainly see paths, albeit narrow ones, for victory for the two Democratic women in those races.

I can’t say the same thing about Tennant in West Virginia.

Yes, Grimes, Nunn and Tennant are all younger (under the age of 50) women. Grimes and Tennant are sitting secretaries of State. None of the three has held legislative office, meaning not one has a lengthy voting record that her opponents can exploit.

And all three have “political connections.” Grimes’ parents are both active politically, while Nunn’s father is a former senator. Tennant’s husband is in the West Virginia state Senate and has run for Congress — against his wife’s 2014 opponent, no less.

And yes, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, 58, overcame long odds in 2012 to win a Senate seat in North Dakota, so underdogs can and do win from time to time.

But these three women running this cycle are simply not all in similar situations, and Heitkamp’s path doesn’t offer Tennant much reason for optimism (the senator has campaigned for Tennant). Heitkamp’s opponent, then-Rep. Rick Berg, had just come off a very bitter, very negative race for Congress and began his Senate run with high negatives.

Tennant’s biggest problem is that she isn’t running against a 72-year-old fixture of Washington, D.C., or a member of Congress with a crackpot reputation or high negatives.

She is running against Shelley Moore Capito, 60, a woman with a reputation as a pragmatic conservative — and with formidable political skills and excellent early positioning.

After serving two terms in the West Virginia House, Capito won a House seat in 2000. She has been re-elected since then, and she represents a sprawling district that stretches from Charleston to the state’s Eastern Panhandle (in the expensive Washington, D.C., media market).

Capito is less well-known in southern West Virginia, but she will benefit there from President Barack Obama’s “anti-coal” reputation — the same reputation that has put long-time Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall II on the defensive.

The president’s standing in both Kentucky and West Virginia is horrible. He couldn’t get even 40 percent of the vote last time in either state, so Democrats in those states (and other Romney states) know that they must “localize” their races if they have any chance of winning in November.

But Grimes has a much better opportunity to localize successfully than Tennant does, since McConnell’s personal standing in Kentucky is much worse than Capito’s is in West Virginia.

All of the polling that I have seen suggests that Capito starts off with excellent personal numbers and a double-digit lead over Tennant. So Democrats will need to tear down the GOP congresswoman to put the race into play. Unfortunately for Tennant, she had about $1 million on hand at the end of March, about one-fourth of the almost $4.2 million that Capito had in the bank.

There is still plenty of time for front-runners to stumble and underdogs to catch fire. But for now, Tennant’s situation isn’t comparable to Grimes’, Nunn’s or Heitkamp’s.

Grimes and Nunn need some breaks to win. Tennant needs divine intervention.