Cramming for the Midterms? The 11 Senate Races You Should Be Following

December 12th 2014

Mike Vainisi

Welcome back. In Part 1, we talked about what's at stake in next month’s Midterm Elections and sifted everything down to the 11 competitive Senate races.

Today, we’re going to look at those 11 races, starting with the most competitive. Before we start, here are some general trends affecting every race. They are sort of like the keys to the game, to use a sports analogy:

  1. Democrats need their supporters to show up and vote. As we discussed last time, Democrats have trouble turning out their voters in Midterms, and this gives the Republicans a built-in advantage.

  2. Republicans need this race to be about President Obama. President Obama is less popular today than he was when he was reelected in 2012. Thus, even in states the president won in 2008 and 2012, Republicans are trying to portray their Democratic opponents as being another version of President Obama. Of course, this is an effective message in a Midterm where Democrats vote less anyway.

  3. Incumbent candidates -- that is, Senators who are trying to get reelected this year -- were all last elected in 2008. That’s important. Why? Because 2008 was a huge year for Democrats. Barack Obama won the presidency, and he and his party were extremely popular. Additionally, to beat a dead horse even further, because it was a presidential election, the 2008 electorate was much more favorable to Democrats. So, for Democrats like Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado or Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska, the environment is considerably less favorable than the one that elected them in 2008. Incumbent candidates are noted with (inc.) below.


Kansas Senate Race
This race is weird. So, there was a Democrat running here. He had no chance to win, so he dropped out. The independent candidate, Greg Orman, was a Democrat. Now, he’s an independent. “If he wins, how would this affect control of the Senate?” you’re asking. Great question. Well, Orman says he’ll side with whichever party has more seats. The problem is: What happens if he wins and neither party can achieve a majority without him? In that situation, he could possibly extract goodies -- such as a valuable committee position or pork for his state -- from either party in exchange for his support. But no one really knows what will happen.RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Tie
FiveThirtyEight projection: 57% chance Orman wins
The Upshot projection: 60% chance Orman wins

Orman had a consistent lead until Sen. Roberts closed the gap this week.

The Big Questions

Fiscal issues. Kansas is a solid Red State, yes, but Republicans have gotten themselves in hot water after the Republican governor and legislature passed a major tax cut that really hurt the state budget. Is there enough dissatisfaction with Republicans that Kansas voters will risk electing a Senator who could be the deciding vote that hands the Senate to the Democrats? Roberts has made the case to voters that a vote for Orman is not a vote for an independent. It’s a vote for a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Do you live in Kansas? Register to vote here.



Georgia Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Perdue +0.6%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 66% chance Perdue wins
The Upshot projection: 64% chance Perdue wins

Democrat Michelle Nunn is an interesting candidate in an interesting state for Democrats. Nunn was CEO of Points of Light, a non-profit organization that is close with the Bush family. She’s run as a moderate in this race, trying to distance herself from the unpopular Obama administration. This can be difficult, though. Her stance on Obamacare, for instance, has been vague.  David Perdue, the Republican nominee, is a former businessman in the Mitt Romney mold. While he has campaigned as a job creator, he’s also been attacked for outsourcing jobs overseas.

Nunn tightened the race this week, although Perdue has maintained a lead throughout. Our major takeaway from this polling is that Republicans cannot take Georgia for granted in the 2016 presidential race.

The Big Questions
The Mitt Romney Question. In 2012, we all saw the Democrats’ playbook for defeating Wall Street Republicans. Can Nunn execute a similar takedown of Perdue in this conservative state?

Do you live in Georgia? Register to vote here.



Iowa Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Ernst +2%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 66% chance Ernst wins
The Upshot projection: 66% chance Ernst wins

Rep. Bruce Braley got off to a shaky start, making some ill-advised comments about the intelligence (and lack there of) of farmers...while running for Senate in Iowa of all places. But Braley -- like all Democrats in tight Senate races -- is mostly fighting charges that he’s an avatar for President Obama in a state where Obama’s approval rating has dropped since the president won Iowa in 2012. Like fellow Democrat Mark Udall in Colorado, Braley’s five-point lead eroded over the course of the summer, and most polls now see Ernst slightly ahead, but within the margin of error.

The Big Question
Rural voters. There’s evidence that Braley’s comment about farmers is hurting him with rural voters. One poll found Braley down by more than 40 points among rural voters. That same poll found that two-thirds of rural voters in Iowa were bothered by the comments. Of course, correlation ain’t causation. Regardless, can Braley make up ground in the last couple weeks?

Do you live in Iowa? Register to vote here.



Colorado Senate Race

​RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Gardner +3%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 70% chance Gardner wins
The Upshot projection: 76% chance Gardner wins

That the Democrats might lose this seat is a sign of the times. When Congressman Cory Gardner announced a bid for Senate, political observers were surprised that Gardner -- a rising star in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives -- would give up his safe seat to roll the dice and challenge Democrat Mark Udall, an incumbent Senator in a recently reliable Blue State. (President Obama won Colorado in 2008 and 2012). But the president’s popularity has sunk in 2014, and it’s dragged down Udall. Gardner is a talented campaigner, who has so far successfully pivoted attention away from his fairly conservative record to President Obama’s record. With just more than three weeks left till Election Day, the race appears to be a dead heat.

The Big Questions
Immigration and the Latino vote. Democrats have turned Colorado blue with the help of Latino voters in the state. Turning out minority votes is traditionally a challenge in Midterm Elections. And it could be more difficult to motivate Latinos to vote for Democrats in 2014 as many in the community are frustrated with the Obama administration’s inaction on immigration. Will those Latino voters show up this time around?

Do you live in Colorado? Register to vote here.



Arkansas Senate Race

​RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Cotton +3.6%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 75% chance Cotton wins
The Upshot projection: 77% chance Cotton wins

President Bill Clinton has been dispatched to save the Arkansas Democratic Party and with it Democratic Senator Mark Pryor. Since Clinton won the state -- his home state -- twice in presidential elections, Arkansas has become a very reliable Republican state at the national level, voting against Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Pryor has swam against the tide in his state by maintaining a very moderate voting record in the Senate.

While Tom Cotton, a Republican congressman, has attempted to equate Pryor with President Obama, Pryor’s strongest argument has been that Cotton’s financial support has come from out-of-state billionaires.

The Big Questions
The appeal of moderate Democrats in Red States. Will Arkansas voters choose Pryor's moderation even though the state has trended for Republicans? Polls have shown Cotton with a steady lead just above the margin of error, but the occasional poll has shown Pryor ahead.

Do you live in Arkansas? Register to vote here.



Kentucky Senate Race

​RealClearPolitics Polling Average: McConnell +3.0%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 73% chance McConnell wins
The Upshot projection: 88% chance a McConnell wins

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has to feel like he has no friends. First, he fended off a primary challenge from a Republican who accused him of being not conservative enough. Then, his campaign manager resigned. Now, after crusading against Obamacare since 2010, he is running for reelection in a state that is an Obamacare success story. Despite all of that, McConnell has maintained a lead over Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, and he’s so close to becoming Senate Majority Leader if his party takes the Senate.

The Big Questions
Obamacare and Coal. Even though many in Kentucky appear to like the benefits of Obamacare, they still don’t really like the law. They also don’t like the president's position on coal, an important industry in the state. In response, Grimes, currently Kentucky’s Secretary of State, has said that she opposes the president’s actions on coal and that she wants to improve Obamacare. (She also won’t say whether she personally voted for Obama. Which is silly on many levels.) Will those moderate positions be enough to topple McConnell, who, though he is not well-liked in Kentucky, is still a Republican in a Republican state?

Do you live in Kentucky? Register to vote here.



Louisiana Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average (Landrieu vs. Cassidy): Cassidy +5.3%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 76% chance a Republican wins
The Upshot projection: 88% chance a Republican wins

Sen. Mary Landrieu is another Democratic Senator defending her seat in a state where Mitt Romney easily defeated President Obama in 2012. (This is a trend, you’re probably noticing.) Louisiana has a run-off system, meaning that multiple candidates will be on the ballot on Nov. 4. If no individual candidate exceeds 50%, the top two candidates advance to a second, run-off election. That’s what’s expected to happen as Landrieu will have to make significant progress in the final weeks to crack 50%. (She’s at about 38% now.)

The Big Questions
The appeal of moderate Democrats in Red States. Like in any other Red State, can Landrieu show she’s moderate enough to earn a trip back to the Senate from a state that has largely voted for Republicans?

Do you live in Louisiana? Register to vote here.



Alaska Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Sullivan +4.4%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 77% chance Sullivan wins
The Upshot projection: 77% chance Sullivan wins

Democrat Mark Begich eked out a win in 2008 over a Republican that was then facing indictment. Alaska is usually a solid Red State (Democrats have won the state in a presidential election just once since 1960), and President Obama is unpopular there. Thus, with this being a Midterm year, the Republicans feel very confident they’ll take back this seat in 2014.

So far though, Begich has kept it close, playing up his deep Alaska roots against Dan Sullivan’s more recent move to Alaska. Begich has great name recognition as his father was a prominent Alaska politician.

The Big Questions
Energy. There’s no fooling anyone that Begich is a Democrat running in a Republican state. Can he make the case that, despite his party affiliation, he will better represent Alaskans on local issues such as fishing and oil extraction than his Republican opponent?

Do you live in Alaska? Register to vote here.


North Carolina

North Carolina Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Hagan +1.4%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 77% chance Hagan wins
The Upshot projection: 81% chance Hagan wins

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is among the many vulnerable Red State Democrats trying to hold onto a seat in a state where the President lost in 2012.

Republican Thom Tillis is currently the Speaker of the North Carolina House. In 2010, Republicans took over North Carolina state legislature for the first time since the 1870s. Since then, Tillis has led the fight for some of the most conservative legislation in the country, such as cuts to public education and tough restrictions on voting that are said to hurt minorities, the elderly, and college students.

The Big Questions
The appeal of moderate Democrats in Red States. I’m getting repetitive, but you’re seeing the trend: Can Hagan convince North Carolinians  -- who aren’t big fans of President Obama -- to back a moderate Democrat over a Republican who has helped push the state to the right?


New Hampshire

New Hampshire Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Shaheen +3.5%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 81% chance Shaheen wins
The Upshot projection: 75% chance Shaheen wins

Remember Scott Brown? He was the Republican who shocked the world back in 2010 by winning Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat in Massachusetts. He lost that seat in 2012, but he’s back -- this time running for Senate in New Hampshire. Brown is running as a moderate Republican. Like most Republicans this year, he has tried to tie his Democratic opponent to President Obama, whose popularity has dipped in the Granite State. Meanwhile, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen is a former governor who is a New Hampshire lifer. She’s portrayed Brown as a carpetbagger attempting to use the state only to extend his own political career.

The Big Questions
A Senator from Massachusetts or New Hampshire?
Can Brown turn this race into a referendum on President Obama? Can Shaheen make this race about local issues and point out Brown’s shallow roots in the state? Shaheen has led the whole way, but her double-digit lead has shrunk in October.



Michigan Senate Race

RealClearPolitics Polling Average: Peters +9%
FiveThirtyEight projection: 93% chance Peters wins
The Upshot projection: 91% chance Peters wins

In what has been called a “low-key” race, Democrat Gary Peters has recently expanded his lead over Republican opponent Terri Lynn Land. The consensus is that Land, a former Michigan Secretary of State, hasn’t been a very good campaigner, avoiding the press and debates. (Although now her campaign says that it’s Peters who refuses to debate her.) U.S. News dubbed her the “invisible Senate candidate.”

The Big Questions
The Wave. It looks like Land can only win if Democrats have a very bad year. If they do, a candidate like Land can ride a wave to a Senate seat. If not, Michigan’s Senate seat will remain blue for now.