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The Outlook for November 2nd

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

As alert readers of the Crystal Ball will note, we have not changed our projection of +47 Republican net House seats in many weeks. We made this prediction prior to Labor Day, and we were the first to say definitively that, in our estimate, the new House would be controlled by the GOP. At the time, our number startled many, though it now seems less surprising with just 19 days to go in the campaign.

As we pledged six weeks ago, we will tweak our House number in the final days of the campaign. If we were to do so today, we would expand the GOP gains by single-digits. But we see no reason to change it just now since (1) we’ve been pleased to see other nonpartisan prognosticators moving ever closer to our number; and (2) factors specific to the closest House contests will play out over the dwindling days of the 2010 campaign. We retain confidence in our prediction as an approximation of the final results.

Concerning the Senate, the Democrats still appear to have a small edge to maintain narrow control—but Republicans have the opportunity to run the table, win a net +10 seats, and gain a one-seat majority. For now, we are raising (by one seat) the likely Republican Senate gain, from +7-8 to +8-9. This was the level at which we had the GOP before its disaster in Delaware.

Christine O’Donnell’s GOP primary victory in the First State in mid-September was a momentum-breaker for the Republicans, depriving them of a near-certain pick-up of a critical Senate seat. The O’Donnell upset of Mike Castle caused virtually the entire political community to downgrade the party’s chances of seizing the magic ten in the Senate. Precisely because of O’Donnell, the Crystal Ball lowered its forecast Republican gain of +8-9 Senate seats to +7-8. O’Donnell’s macabre campaign, including the ludicrous “I’m not a witch; I’m you” spot that will live forever on the political blooper tape, has likely insured her defeat, despite strong fundraising numbers.

However, Republicans have begun to do better in a couple of other states, and in this edition of the Crystal Ball, we are changing ratings in those two states: West Virginia and Wisconsin.

When Sen. Robert Byrd died in June, it was simply assumed that Gov. Joe Manchin (D) would take the seat, through appointment or election. His high popularity preordained it. But Manchin didn’t count on the deep unpopularity of President Obama in a state he lost by a wide margin to both Hillary Clinton and then John McCain. The Republican candidate, John Raese, is a self-funder but also a three-time statewide loser (twice for the Senate and once for Governor). But his message for 2010 is simple and powerful: “Manchin will be a rubber-stamp for Obama and I am the Nobama.” Nobama has edged ahead, though we believe the well regarded Manchin has just enough time to come back. West Virginia Senate goes from Lean D to Toss Up.

In and out of Wisconsin, there is considerable surprise that 18-year Senator Russ Feingold is in serious trouble, trailing in virtually every poll to self-funding businessman and Tea Party candidate Ron Johnson. To Feingold’s credit, he is running a candidacy based on who he actually is and how he has actually voted. To his detriment, voters in the Badger state no longer appear to want his kind of liberal populism, at least in this GOP wave year. As in West Virginia, Feingold is being hurt by low ratings for President Obama, and also by the deep unpopularity of retiring Gov. Jim Doyle (D). The Republican candidate for Governor, Scott Walker, is also favored over his Democratic foe, Tom Barrett. Wisconsin Senate goes from Toss Up to Leans R.

There is some good news for Democrats on the Senate front. In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) has finally achieved a small but stable lead over Republican Carly Fiorina. Given the strongly underlying Democratic nature of the Golden State, we are moving California Senate from Toss Up to Leans D.

The final Senate changes are expected ones in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. For some time now, we have had Republican Marco Rubio the favorite over Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Rubio’s lead is now so large, and the changes of Crist and Meek joining forces to unite behind one candidacy are now so small, that we are changing Florida Senate from Leans R to Likely R. Similarly, in the Show-Me State, Republican Roy Blunt is now considered well ahead of Democrat Robin Carnahan. Missouri Senate from Leans R to Likely R. In the Granite State, Republican Kelly Ayotte is having little trouble with Democrat Paul Hodes. New Hampshire Senate from Leans R to Likely R. And in the Keystone State, Democrat Joe Sestak has shown no real ability to catch up to Republican nominee Pat Toomey in what has turned into a very GOP year in normally Blue Pennsylvania. Accordingly, we are tilting Pennsylvania Senate from Leans R to Likely R.

We noted before Labor Day that whenever the House has flipped parties since World War II, the Senate has changed party control in the same direction, even when election observers didn’t see it coming. If the Senate falls into the GOP column in 2010, it will do so right at the end of the campaign by a relative handful of votes in a couple of states. The closest contests are in Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Washington, and West Virginia. To take control of the Senate, Republicans must win all of these seats, or pull off an unexpected upset in Connecticut or California. Again, it would have been a lot easier for the GOP with Delaware in hand.

The Crystal Ball has been bullish on GOP prospects for Governor all year, and currently has Republicans picking up a net of +8 seats, winning current Democratic berths in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and quite possibly Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon. Democrats are balancing these gains with probable pick-ups in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island. Many of these “classified” states are close, and there are at least four more governorships (Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont) still teetering as Toss-Ups, so stay tuned. As always, we will attempt a call in every contest before Election Day, realizing that inevitably, some will be wrong.

For all our current ratings for Senate click here. Our current Governor ratings can be found here.

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

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