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Midterm Morsels: Senate and Governor Ratings Changes and Observations

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Below we list some changes to our Senate and Governor ratings in a few key states, as well as a smattering of thoughts on a few other races of note. Next week the Crystal Ball will revisit some of our House ratings, with several significant changes in the works. Stay tuned.

OHIO GOVERNOR (CHANGE: Toss-Up to Leans R)

With the national and state economy in the dumps, incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Strickland’s campaign seems to be headed that way as well. A slew of polls, both partisan and independent, now show a discernible edge for the Republican nominee, former Congressman John Kasich. The television ad war is in full swing; the candidates met last week in their first debate; and Vice President Joe Biden has been making frequent trips in an attempt to boost Strickland’s fortunes. Despite a ratcheting up of rhetoric on both sides, it will take a major change in the midterm election atmosphere to alter the trajectory of this contest. Change from Toss-Up to Leans R .

OHIO  SENATE (CHANGE: Leans R to Likely R):

What is happening in the Ohio Governor’s battle is even more apparent in the U.S. Senate contest in the Buckeye State. All of the recent independent polling shows a double-digit lead for Republican nominee Rob Portman over Democratic Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, with Portman nearing or clearing the 50% mark. With the huge financial disadvantage facing Fisher—more than 7-to-1 as of the last reporting deadline—his revival is difficult to imagine. If Portman continues to dominate Fisher on television and the economic mood remains glum, this race may be out of reach for the Democrats, prompting the Crystal Ball rating to shift from Leans R to Likely R .

FLORIDA  SENATE (CHANGE: Toss-Up to Leans R):

Revelations earlier this week about Independent Charlie Crist and former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer’s improper spending has shaken up this already unsettled contest. With the same report more or less clearing Republican nominee Marco Rubio, everything is coming up Senate roses for Republicans in the Sunshine State. (The contest for Governor is another story. See below.) At this point, Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek looks a near-certain also-ran and the only question remaining for him is how many of his voters will defect to Crist in an attempt to deny the GOP an additional Senate seat. National Democrats may have to walk the plank with Meek. Meanwhile, Crist’s brand appears further tarnished. Thus, the Crystal Ball is moving this race from Toss-Up to Leans R .

FLORIDA GOVERNOR (Toss-Up):

This race is a particularly tough one to lean one way or the other. If this were a normal year, it could be called for Democrat Alex Sink, but there’s nothing normal about 2010. Instead, we are simply waiting to see how high the Republican wave gets prior to election day—or whether intensive Democratic campaigning can reduce the height of the wave and make it less threatening to their interests. GOP nominee Rick Scott is doing what he can to paper over the deep divisions in his party, but defeated candidate Bill McCollum isn’t helping. And where will the Charlie Crist for Senate vote go? Those independents will determine this gubernatorial Toss-Up .

GEORGIA GOVERNOR (Toss-Up):

It has become crystal clear that the GOP made a giant goof when they nominated Nathan Deal over Karen Handel for Governor in their summer primary. Handel would have quickly put this election away, but even though Georgia is as politically Red as its clay, Deal is on the verge of blowing it. Things have spiraled downward so quickly for Deal that one wonders if he can even survive as the nominee. Deal has suffered from a string of revelations about his ethics and financial situation, stemming from a failed loan of over $2 million to his son-in-law. With reporters and opposition researchers poring over Deal’s past financial disclosures and documents, the momentum behind his campaign has screeched to a halt. This shows how individual scandals can change individual races almost overnight. At the end of the day, we don’t know what we don’t know. This race serves as a cautionary tale not to assume that the November election results will mirror a snapshot of any race on a particular day when there are weeks to go in an election. At this point, Deal and former Democratic Governor Roy Barnes appear deadlocked in a tight race, leading the Crystal Ball to hold tight to our Toss-Up  rating.

Senate Snapshots:

We are also keeping a close eye on four swing Senate seats. In Washington  Democratic Sen. Patty Murray appears to have gained an edge over Dino Rossi (R), and the same for Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer over Republican Carly Fiorina in California . This is good news for Democrats if the new trends hold . Meanwhile in Wisconsin  it is the Republicans who sense a lead. Their new nominee Ron Johnson is leading Sen. Russ Feingold (D) in several public and private polls. Feingold is a tough, experienced competitor, though, and no sensible observer is going to count him out at this early point in the general election, especially with the debates still to come. Finally, in West Virginia , which we have as leaning Democratic, it is now obvious that Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has an unexpectedly difficult election on his hands with Republican John Raese. Manchin is very popular by every objective measure, but the dislike of President Obama and some of his policies in the Mountain State is so manifest that even an admired Democrat is struggling. There are no new calls in this quadruple electoral twist, but we like for our readers to follow the progression of our thinking where possible.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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