Off to the Races
A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley
Our pre-Labor Day midterm assessment, and a handful of Senate, House, and gubernatorial rating changes
Earlier this week we offered a pre-Labor Day assessment of the midterm state of play in the Senate, House, and gubernatorial races coming up in November. The conclusion of that piece, written in Politico Magazine, is as follows:
The overall picture is this: A Republican Senate gain of four-to-eight seats, with a GOP Senate pickup of six-to-seven seats the likeliest outcome; a GOP gain of somewhere around a half-dozen seats in the House; and little net party change in the gubernatorial lineup even as a few incumbents lose. So what could shift these projections in a significant way, beyond candidate implosions that move individual races on and off the board?
For Democrats, the road to a better result than what we’ve sketched out is Republicans’ ideological disunity and their refusal to march together tactically and strategically. (The destructive sideshow over potentially impeaching President Obama is a prime example.) Last October, Democrats saw, briefly, how the government shutdown boosted their numbers. When Congress returns next month, Democrats hope Republicans will act foolishly just before the election, perhaps during consideration of a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government that Speaker Boehner will have to get through the House.
For Republicans, a further curdling of President Obama’s approval ratings would be welcome. Foreign crises haven’t really moved the needle yet, but one wonders if the racial passions unleashed by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, combined with international strife, could have some cumulative effect. The president’s approval rating — though low — has remained fairly stable in 2014, ranging between about 41% and 44%. That could change as crises develop and partisan rhetoric escalates in the campaign’s concluding months.
For political junkies, the election season never ends. But Labor Day, the traditional starting point of the general election for most normal people, draws near. The state of many key races, including enough Senate seats to decide the majority, remains fluid, and it is the Senate that will define this midterm. Given electoral conditions and the red-leaning geography of the map, Republicans have few credible excuses if they don’t take Senate control in January. GOP hopes in the Senate have been dashed in the previous four elections; if there’s a fifth this November, Republicans will have only themselves to blame.
With that in mind, we are tweaking a handful of ratings this week in all three of our categories.
We’ve been noting for months the odd circumstances in the Kansas gubernatorial contest, where Gov. Sam Brownback (R) is in a Toss-up race with state House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D) despite the state’s inherent conservatism. But it’s also become clear that Sen. Pat Roberts (R) is also not exactly as safe as one might think.
Despite facing a weak primary opponent in physician Milton Wolf (R), Roberts didn’t even crack 50% in the primary held earlier this month. The primary campaign revealed Roberts to be rather weak himself, particularly because he basically doesn’t even live in Kansas, a modern-day political no-no. Some recent polls, have shown Roberts leading but under 40% against two main opponents: Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor (D) and businessman Greg Orman, an independent former Democrat who can heavily self-fund.
Let’s be clear: Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’ poor performance as a candidate isn’t by itself enough to change that, particularly because the split field might actually benefit the incumbent in a state with no runoff. But to be cautious, we’re moving this race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
A pair of Midwestern Republican governors, Terry Branstad of Iowa and John Kasich of Ohio, have long held strong positions in our ratings, in part because of weak, underfunded opponents. Branstad’s challenger, state Sen. Jack Hatch (D), got the nomination only because it seemed like no one else wanted it. The same could arguably be said for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D) in Ohio, where Democrats have a surprisingly weak bench given the state’s longstanding status as a political battleground. It now appears that the outcome in both races isn’t much in doubt, so we’re switching both from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.
For Branstad, this isn’t in reaction to anything that has happened recently. We were just keeping the race on the board as a precaution given that there is some generic fatigue with the longest-serving governor since the signing of the Constitution. But that’s not nearly enough to keep Branstad from winning a sixth, non-consecutive term in office.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, we were always more bullish on Kasich than others: We never had the race as a Toss-up even though Kasich appeared damaged from a rough start to his governorship. But now it has become clear that FitzGerald, Kasich’s challenger, is an absolute dud. He has raised very little money and the only press he’s gotten lately has been bad: He strangely went for years without a driver’s license, an unhelpful problem that was discovered after another bizarre story emerged about him being in a car with a woman who was not his wife in a parking lot at 4:30 a.m. FitzGerald appears to just be playing out the string now as a candidate: Much of his campaign staff has deserted him and he is using some of his dwindling resources to assist in Democratic field operations to try to help downballot Democrats in other statewide races. One of them is state Rep. Connie Pillich (D), who is running against someone readers will remember: state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who failed in his bid to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) last cycle.
Neither Branstad nor Kasich is assured of winning in blowout fashion, but it’s just nearly impossible to imagine either losing at this point.
Meanwhile, the candidates in a governor’s race that has been a sleeper so far this cycle, Arizona, are now set: state Treasurer Doug Ducey (R) won the right on Tuesday to face former state Board of Regents Chairman Fred DuVal (D). We’re holding this race at just Leans Republican for now: Despite Arizona’s federal Republican leanings, we think DuVal has the makings to be a solid candidate, and he doesn’t have to put his party back together after a tough primary, unlike Ducey.
Speaking of Arizona, Republicans are targeting three House seats there. We’ve known for months that the rematch between Rep. Ron Barber (D, AZ-2) and retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally (R) is going to be one of the top races in the country, and it remains a Toss-up after McSally officially won the nomination Tuesday. Also remaining a Toss-up, with a caveat, is the race between Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and, probably, state House Speaker Andy Tobin (R), who is just barely leading in his primary in a race that the Associated Press has yet to call as of this writing (Wednesday afternoon). If Tobin, a favorite of national Republicans who nonetheless has disappointed on the fundraising front, ends up winning, this race stays a Toss-up. If he ends up losing to rancher Gary Kiehne (R), a more right-wing candidate, it goes to Leans Democratic. In any event, the fact that there’s no Libertarian on the ballot this year helps the GOP: A Libertarian got 6% last time, allowing Kirkpatrick to win with less than 50% (49% to 45% for the GOP nominee).
Meanwhile, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) remains a favorite (Leans Democratic) in her race against Wendy Rogers (R), who like McSally is also an Air Force veteran. This race is closer to Likely Democratic status than Toss-up, but let’s see how it shakes out.
For Republicans to make double-digits gains in the House, they presumably will need to net a seat or two out of Arizona. This is the only state won by Mitt Romney where Democrats control the House delegation (five to four). The Barber-McSally race (AZ-2, formerly held by Gabby Giffords) remains their best chance to pick up a seat here.
One other race of note this week: We’re moving NY-18 from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. There’s not a specific development that’s prompting this change in the rematch between Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D) and former Rep. Nan Hayworth (R): Rather, we’re just getting the sense that it’s more competitive than we previously thought, which makes sense in a district where the 2012 presidential results (51%-47% Obama) were the same as the national results (AZ-9, the Sinema seat mentioned above, is another 51%-47% Obama seat). Maloney, perhaps best known these days for the aerial photography at his recent wedding, remains a favorite.
Table 1: Crystal Ball ratings changes
Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato
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