Multiple Factors Driving Midterm Results

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Bob Bupreauz, GOP candidate for Colorado Governor. is one of several Republicans who has strengthened in recent polls.

One would be forgiven if they have become confused by the plethora of polls released showing such diverse results.  On the one hand the generic ballot is now tilting decisively in the GOP’s favor as many analysts expected once it transitioned to the Likely Voter Model.  But individual Senate and Governor’s races have produced results showing the power of candidate characteristics and how state races can avoid being driven solely by national politics.

Consider several Governor’s races that have long been considered competitive or potentially competitive and cover different political regions; Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Arizona.  In Florida, Rick Scott was long assumed to be vulnerable.  Despite the recovering economy the Governor had terrible poll numbers.  His opponent, former GOP Governor turned Democrat, Charlie Crist, appeared to be a bipartisan bridge builder.  But if the newest polls are accurate Scott has used his massive cash advantage and the recovering economy to hammer Crist.

Wisconsin and Michigan were long assumed to be tough holds for the party.  Rick Snyder and Scott Walker have endured rough first terms after taking on unions to balance their state budgets.  Walker reformed CBA rights for school teachers and Snyder took the dramatic step of making Michigan the 24th Right to Work state.  Those same unions have come out in force for their opponents.  Wisconsin does not feature a Senate race this cycle but Walker’s struggles are a reminder of just how polarized the state is.  Michigan boasts a competitive Senate race which means Snyder needs to work even harder to win.  The GOP Senate nominee has struggled and trails but Snyder narrowly leads in his race suggesting he is managing to get crossover votes.

Arizona is an open seat race that pits a strong conservative against a moderate Democrat.  While Arizona is strongly Republican at the federal level it has seen a Democratic resurgence in local and states races. Few polls are out but those that are show a close race.  This explains why the RGA is planning to invest in the race.

The Senate, unlike Governor’s races, seems to be driven far more by perceptions of Congress, the President and the parties political brands.  While candidate qualities do matter it seems to be mattering less and less as polls show where the leanings of voters are going.

Consider several competitive states this cycle that illustrate this point; Arkansas, Louisiana, Colorado, Iowa, Georgia and Kentucky.  Arkansas and Louisiana are both strong GOP states at the Presidential level.  Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to carry either state (a place called Hope).  But they also have a history of electing two particular Democratic dynasties, Landrieus and Pryors.  Yet, both states electorates strongly disapprove of the President and it is finally showing as the GOP has two credible challengers running.  In Arkansas, Pryor has been unable to run well enough ahead of the President to lead in the polls.  Louisiana features a similar dynamic but Mary Landrieu has severely damaged her candidacy with campaign finance violations.

Both Arkansas and Louisiana illustrate just how much disapproval of the President is driving their votes.  The batch of states-Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, and Georgia illustrate just how much candidate quality matters as well.  In the open seat Georgia race, businessman David Perdue has been able to eke out a lead over moderate Michelle Nunn because he has avoided gaffes and been able to keep the GOP advantage in suburban Atlanta.  It also helps the President is unpopular in the state.  In Kentucky, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has clawed out a fairly strong lead over Allison Grimes because of his playing up social issues and coal.  Grimes has certainly not been helped by the President and has been unable to win over voters with her bio.

Colorado and Iowa are unique in this regard as well.  Republicans, once pessimistic about Colorado, seem to be increasingly coming around to the possibility of an upset.  Congressman Corey Gardner has done a 180 on abortion and contraception and according to new polls it has worked to woo female voters.  The state Democrats have dominated in recent years through a combination of upscale and downscale female and Hispanic support is now teetering.  Gardner is ahead or essentially tied with Senator Udall.  In Iowa, little known state senator Joni Ernst has been competitive almost solely due to her personality.  The wave of attacks against her have dented her poll numbers but her responses have been well-timed and charismatic.

I left Alaska off the list simply because nobody really knows what is going on there.  Polling of the state has been historically inaccurate and both Senator Mark Begich and Tom Sullivan are damaged brands.  However, the recovering favorability of the GOP in a state that leans red and Begich’s ad fiasco might explain why the few polls of the race show Sullivan head.

North Carolina remains a unique case where a cascading sequence of events is driving the Senate race.  Senator Kay Hagan appears to be the only Democrat likely to hold a seat in the Deep South after 2014.  This is not because of her personality but rather the fact her opponent, state Speaker Thom Tillis, is a damaged candidate.  The state legislature is deeply unpopular and it appears to be driving his numbers.  Hagan has focused exclusively on his legislative record and Tillis has yet to counter.  The disapproval of the President and Obamacare certainly has to be hurting Hagan but Tillis has been unable to effectively attack her on it.  In this case, North Car0lina appears to be an exception from the norm; state issues are eclipsing all other factors in the race.

All in all, the latest slate of polls have provided good news for the GOP.  They lead or are tied in battleground Senate and Governor’s races and appear to have convinced some well-known analysts they are on the rise.  Whether this holds until November is unclear, after all, we are past Labor Day and the polls show mixed results.  Still, one thing is clear.  Unlike 2010, when the economy and Obamacare were paramount and overwhelmed money and candidate traits, multiple factors are driving voters ballots this November.

 

Roberts Could Still Win in Kansas with Less than 50%

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Pat Roberts is in his toughest race yet against Independent Greg Orman.

As unlikely as it appeared at the start of the cycle Kansas is playing host to both a competitive gubernatorial and Senatorial election.  Republican Governor Sam Brownback is facing blowback after cutting education (and revenues) while Pat Roberts is suffering from incumbent fatigue and a divisive primary.

Roberts is now perhaps the most endangered GOP incumbent of the cycle.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has opened a clear lead in his race and no other incumbent Republican Senator faces a serious challenge.  By contrast, Roberts, has no edge in his contest.

According to a new poll conducted by Survey USA for KSN.com, Roberts and his Independent challenger Greg Orman are basically tied with Orman holding a statistically insignificant 37%-36% edge.  Most notable in the poll is not that Roberts trails but that he could still win with less than 50% of the vote.  Former Democratic nominee Chad Taylor, who dropped out of the race but has to have his name stay on the ballot according to the Secretary of State, is polling at 10%.

It was widely assumed that after Taylor dropped out Democratic support would consolidate around Orman.  This poll shows that assumption might have been a stretch.  Orman’s support in the poll comes from 52% of Democrats, 42% of Independents and 26% of Republicans.  Orman’s failure to consolidate the Democratic vote may come from the fact that among the voters who had planned to back Taylor merely 43% now support Orman, 30% still plan to back Taylor and Roberts gets 15% of their votes.  A full 71% of voters were aware Taylor had suspended his campaign and 58% knew his name had to stay on the ballot.

Orman is hardly getting overwhelming support from Democrats after Taylor dropped out and that opens up an opportunity for Roberts that seemed to drop away after Taylor’s exit.  Specifically, Roberts could still win with a mere plurality of the vote.  When Taylor was running Robert’s campaign hoped to win with around 40%-45% of the vote.  With Taylor’s name still on the ballot this remains a possibility.

National Republicans in recent weeks have grown increasingly concerned about Robert’s campaign.  He had not campaigned in the state since his primary and his campaign manager made a significant gaffe about Roberts spending time in DC (as opposed to Kansas).  In response, Republicans sent a well-known consultant, Chris LaCivita, and a legal adviser to Kansas to take over his campaign.  Robert’s former campaign manager was recently released.  Politico is reporting that multiple GOP senators are planning to barnstorm the state and fundraise for Roberts.

The GOP playbook against Orman is the same as it would be if both he and Taylor were in the race.  Tie Orman to Obama and do not let him get away with appearing as a moderate.  Robert’s has taken this advice to heart.  In the candidates first debate last Saturday Roberts took every opportunity to tie Orman to Obama.  He charged Orman (correctly) with supporting Obama in 2008 and warning Orman supporters (including 26% of Republicans, 42% of Independents and 19% of conservatives) that he would support Harry Reid’s liberal agenda in the Senate.  Orman, for his part, did little to convincingly fend off these attacks.

It remains to be seen whether Roberts can reunite the statewide GOP coalition of conservative Independents and Republicans.  Moderate Republicans have been turned off by Governor Brownback’s conservatism and Robert’s trek to the right during the primary.  They may see Orman as a viable protest candidate.  Independents seem largely drawn to Orman because of his business background and soft-spoken manner.  Robert’s attacks will likely prove fruitful however if they are not effectively answered..  Unfortunately for Orman’s camp, when they do answer they will have to be careful in how they do so as not to turn off Democratic support.

Already this has become a problem for Orman.  Orman has said he would not have voted for Obamcare but the idea of full repeal is unrealistic.  This middle ground might appeal to moderates but Orman needs some conservative and liberal support to win.  The kind of argument he is making seems destined to turn both ideological camps away from his ccampaign.

Ultimately, this poll suggests a number of Democrats will vote for Taylor regardless (see 2010 CO gubernatorial results for comparison) and if they do Roberts has a shot to escape with a victory by taking a mere plurality of the vote. Partisan loyalties run deep, even among Kansas Democrats desperate for wins this cycle.

 

 

A GOP Wave May Finally be Forming

Mitch McConnell looks increasingly safe according to a set of new polls.

Mitch McConnell looks increasingly safe according to a set of new polls.

The long-awaited Republican wave may finally be forming.  A series of new Senate polls from YouGov, a new generic ballot from WashPo and several independent analysts now indicate the GOP is on firm ground to take the Senate and win additional seats in the House.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Consider the words of Stu Rothenburg at Roll Call who writes, “After looking at recent national, state and congressional survey data and comparing this election cycle to previous ones, I am currently expecting a sizable Republican Senate wave.”

Just as important for Republicans are a set of new generic ballot polls among likely voters showing the GOP edging ahead.  Most notably, a GWU/Battleground survey finds the GOP ahead 46%-42% among likely voters.  The latest WashPo generic ballot test shows the GOP ahead of Democrats 47%-44%, fueled by a healthy lead among Independents.  On the issues Republicans have edged ahead on dealing with the budget, economy, taxes and immigration.

YouGov’s Senate findings (Governor and House results forthcoming) are ominous for Democrats.  Republicans hold healthy leads in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia (best pickup opportunities of the cycle).  They also lead narrowly in North Carolina and Michigan.  Republicans hold slim leads in Arkansas and Alaska and are holding their own in Kentucky and Georgia.  Equally as important, the GOP is keeping Iowa and Colorado competitive and staying within striking distance in Minnesota and New Hampshire.

This marks a turnaround from June to August where little changed in the race for the Senate.  While the President’s popularity continued to stay at record lows, Senate Democrats seemed to be holding their own in key races.  But not now.  The widening GOP leads in Arkansas and Alaska suggest voters ares starting to become more receptive to the GOP message.  While North Carolina remains close it is a bit of a surprise Michigan is as well, especially considering how weak of a nominee Land has been for the GOP.

Republicans appear especially strong at the state level with numerous legislative generic ballot questions showing the GOP ahead in states with split legislatures including Iowa and Kentucky.  Republicans hope to add to their margins in Montana and other red leaning states.

None of this is to say a GOP wave for sure is coming.  But the GOP appears sure to pick up at least five Senate seats if recent history is any precedent.  Returning to Rothenburg’s analysis, “In 2006, for example, Democrats won three of the four closest Senate contests, in Missouri, Montana and Virginia. Only Tennessee went Republican, and it wouldn’t have been close if Democrats had not had a strong wind at their backs nationally. In 1986 — like 2006, a second midterm election — all six of the closest Senate contests were won by Democrats, including three (Colorado, California and North Dakota) where the Democrats drew less than 50 percent of the vote.”

In short, midterm history where a President has been unpopular and his party has been defending multiple seats in swing or opposite partisan leaning states has not been kind.  This election does not look much different.  Democrats hopes that disapproval of Congress will benefit them seems foolhardy.

I have written before that while Senate Democrats are usually tied or close to their GOP opponents they are usually mired in the low to mid 40’s.  These incumbents just cannot seem to get above 50%.  In some cases such as Arkansas and Louisiana, polls have shown the pool of undecided voters is overwhelmingly made up of voters who disapprove of Obamacare and the President.  This makes a Democratic incumbent’s job of getting their votes that much harder.

Republicans should not get overly giddy about the new numbers.  Democratic incumbents retain a healthy cash advantage in many races and billionaires such as Tom Steyer and Super PACs are spending heavily on their party’s behalf.  These ads have done damage to GOP nominees across the board.

But, if Republicans are smart and hammer away at the weak economy, the President’s fecklessness on immigration and the coming premium hikes due to Obamacare they may well find they will easily surpass the six seat threshold needed to regain the Senate in 2015,  This would be huge considering the GOP will be defending multiple Senate seats in 2016 that are not friendly to the party.

 

Addendum: A new CNN/ORC generic ballot survey was released showing the GOP ahead 49%-45% among likely voters on Wednesday.

Obama’s Handling of Immigration a Boon to GOP

immigrationBarack Obama should really stop making self-imposed deadlines.  Every time he has it has come back to haunt him.  On immigration it is no different and it has made Republicans increasingly giddy about the midterms.  Late last week the President announced he would delay a decision on immigration until after the election.  This marks a stunning turnaround from the President’s position at the start of the summer.

In June, Obama made clear that he was willing to act alone on immigration after comprehensive reform was pronounced dead in the House.  More specifically, on June 30th the President announced in the Rose Garden, “I have also directed Secretary Johnson and Attorney General Holder to identify additional actions my administration can take on our own, within my existing legal authorities, to do what Congress refuses to do and fix as much of our immigration system as we can.  If Congress will not do their job, at least we can do ours.  I expect their recommendations before the end of summer and I intend to adopt those recommendations without further delay.”

It is easy to see why Obama thought the move would be politically popular at the time.  It would make the President look strong to his progressive base, appeal to Hispanics and make Republicans look like obstructionists if they attacked the move.  But the President and his closest advisers should have considered the opposition the move would engender from his party.  Few of the most endangered incumbents for the party are sitting in states or districts where the move by an unpopular President would be popular (Tom Udall in CO the exception).  Between June and early September the President received pleas and warnings to not take executive action on immigration.

Endangered Democrats through the media and private phone calls argued forcefully against the President taking unilateral action.  Both Democratic and GOP polling showed such a move would play strongly in several Senate races (including those Democrats are favored to win).  By the time the President visited Wales and discussed the issue it was clear that his thinking had changed.  Faced with overwhelming opposition from within his party and a GOP ready to crush Democratic candidates nationwide over the issue the President backed down.  Such a move is yet another remarkable turnaround by the President and suggests this White House is once again politically naive from over two dozen Democrats.

These pleas also did not all come from conservative/moderate Democrats running in red states.  Liberal stalwart Al Franken (MN) reportedly phoned the White House to say he opposed such a move.  Franken is currently leading his Senate race by high single digits.

The full blame cannot go solely to the White House.  Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic leadership strongly backed the move despite reservations from many of their members.  Perhaps Reid did not expect his members to so openly use the media to express their displeasure with the move.  However, he should have considering how the electorates of their states would have reacted to such a move.

It is questionable whether delaying a decision until after the election will benefit Democratic candidates.  Republicans made clear such a “cynical” move was unlikely to be forgotten.

Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that Democrats would have Obama’s “executive amnesty threats hanging over their campaigns like a storm cloud” until November, “The president and Senate Democrats are playing a cynical game, hoping that Americans paying attention now won’t be after the election,” Dayspring said. “And it will backfire.”

Still, Democrats would rather not have to defend the reality rather than a hypothetical.  For many Democrats it may not matter though.  A slate of new polls out on virtually every Senate race from YouGov shows Democratic incumbents trailing in Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina. Further, Republicans lead in open seat races in West Virginia, Montana Michigan and South Dakota.  Republicans had sizable leads in Georgia and Kentucky (Kansas had poll numbers for Roberts and former Democratic candidate Chad Taylor).  Democrats only bright spot in the polling was Colorado Senator Mark Udall leading by three and Congressman Bruce Braley leading in Iowa.  A set of polls from NBC/Marist largely backed up the YouGov findings (GOP leading in KY, AR, trailing in CO).

The new polls suggest a GOP wave may finally be forming or that the partisan lean of several Senate race starts are finally reverting to their GOP norm.  With all campaigns now fully engaged and voters tuning in GOP attacks may finally be starting to make an impact.  Worse, progressives and immigration advocates could finally start to be registering their disengagement in this election.  The White House and endangered Democrats certainly hope they do not stay home this November.  This flip flop certainly did not help remedy the party’s problem.

The White House’s handling of immigration has been a boon to the GOP.  Yet again, the President has simultaneously given the GOP an issue to campaign on and disappointed his base yet again.  Immigration reform groups have promised they will not forget the flip-flop and the GOP has made clear they will not let the issue drop before November.  In short, the White House has given the GOP an even better chance of retaking the Senate in November.  Now the GOP just needs to seize it.

 

 

Kansas: The Sleeper Senate Race of the Cycle

FINANCE COMMITTEEThe Kansas Senate race has gone from boring to interesting to closely watched in the span of less than a month.  Senator Pat Roberts, assumed safe at the start of the cycle, now may be in for the fight of his political life.

Roberts has historically benefited from the Republican tilt of his state.  First elected in 1996 with 62% of the vote, Roberts has cruised to reelection with 82% in 2002 and 60% in 2008.  He has faced minimal primary competition.  Until recently.

Roberts survived a brutal primary with Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf by the skin of his teeth, garnering 48% to Wolf’s 41%.  It is arguable in a two-man race Roberts would have lost.  During the campaign Wolf hit Roberts on his tenure in DC and how little time he spends in the state.  It didn’t help Robert’s campaign was/is still using 1996 tactics and technology.

Roberts was expected to face a little known Democratic challenger, Chad Taylor, who won his primary unconvincingly (53%) and a well-known Independent candidate, Greg Orman.  Polls showed the three-way race close, evidence Roberts was badly damaged due to the GOP primary.

However, eyebrows were raised when PPP (D) found Roberts at a horrid 27% approval rating with 44% disapproving.  Interestingly enough, 39% of voters did not know enough to offer an opinion (unheard of for a three term incumbent).  In the three-way race Roberts led with 32%, Taylor was at 25% and Orman at 23%.  But in a head to head with Orman Roberts lost 43%-33%.

This poll undoubtedly led to Democratic efforts to lobby Taylor to drop out of the race (just as Alaskan Democrats did).  It worked.  Taylor dropped out of the race this week, setting up a 1-1 match-up between Roberts and Orman.

At the fundamentals level the race favors Roberts.  Kansas is a strongly Republican state even when the conservative/moderate divide in the party is considered.  Obama is deeply unpopular in the state and FiveThirtyEight shows this gives Roberts a huge edge. But, the national environment against incumbents and the moderate profile of Orman give him an edge, especially since he is not well-defined to many voters.

Roberts could knock out Orman at this stage of the race.  But the incumbent, according to the Rothenburg Political Report, has not been actively campaigning since he won his primary.  This is political suicide with the threat of a well-funded Independent looming over Robert’s head.

Robert’s does have a warchest and with polling showing such a close race his start-up campaign and national Republicans will certainly delve into Orman’s record.  The national GOP has sent a prominent consultant to lead his nascent campaign. What they find could be a boon to Roberts even if Orman does not have a voting record to dissect.

For his part, Orman is being smart.  Orman is airing ads showcasing his moderate, business friendly profile and subtly feeding the GOP feud in the state.  He has yet to say who he would caucus with if elected and has not been happy to disclose he voted for Obama in 2008 (Robert’s campaign material one assumes).

Polls have shown Orman winning around 20%-30% of Republicans and a plurality of Independents.  He also garnered a decent share of Democrats in a three-way race.

Orman’s path to victory relied on consolidating Democrats (easier with Taylor out), winning Independents and taking a chunk of Republican voters.  Ironically, Orman may have traded one problem for another.  He would have struggled to get Democratic votes with Taylor in but now with Taylor out he may struggle to get GOP votes.  Republicans will certainly highlight that Democrats are pushing Orman forward.  They would also be foolish not to raise the specter he would caucus with Harry Reid and support Obama’s agenda.

National Democrats have been mum on what they will do in the race.  If they support or endorse Orman it may drive away Independents and definitely hurt him among Republicans.  But, if they do not back Orman they may fail to expand the Senate map in their favor.  Orman, though well-funded, does not have Robert’s cash and thus without Democratic support could be bombarded with a wave of negative ads he cannot respond to.

Considering all these factors Kansas has to be considered the sleeper race of the cycle.  Not only will the state feature a surprisingly competitive gubernatorial race but also its first competitive Senate race in over two decades (in the age of Obama no less).  Republicans should come out on top, especially with Roberts ramping up his campaign and Orman still relatively undefined, but combined with Louisiana’s unique jungle primary, Alaska’s close Senate race and now Kansas we may not know who controls the Senate until well after November.

 

Addendum: PPP has an interesting and questionable methodology and combined with the sheer number of surveys they have put out their results should be taken with some skepticism.

Addenum 2: The Kansas Secretary of State announced Thursday the Democratic candidate had to remain on the ballot.  Taylor has announced he will challenge the ruling, citing documentation he says shows he had fulfilled the requirements to remove his name from the ballot.

Democrats In Trouble in Arkansas and Kentucky

Allison Grimes, once leading in Kentucky, has now seen the race fundamentally swing against her.

Allison Grimes, once leading in Kentucky, has now seen the race fundamentally swing against her.

Democrats have struggled in the South under Obama, perhaps nowhere more so than Arkansas.  In 2008 Democrats controlled three of the state’s four Congressional districts and both of its Senate seats.  They also controlled the legislature and Governor’s mansion.  Oh how times have change.  Today, the GOP controls all four of the state’s Congressional districts and one of its two Senate seats.  The GOP also controls both chambers of the legislature and is favored to win the state’s open Governorship this cycle.  The only holdout to the state’s reddening hue is Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, son of former Governor and Senator David Pryor.  Challenging him is freshman Congressman Tom Cotton.  The race remains neck and neck but probe the underlying dynamics of the race and it becomes clearer the race is Cotton’s to lose.

It did not always look so rosy for Cotton.  After bursting out of the gates early Cotton and his campaign made a series of gaffes.  First, Cotton voted against the Agricultural Bill and failed to explain why.  Pryor’s campaign pilloried him over the vote.  Cotton also came out in favor of Paul Ryan’s budget to phase out Social Security.  In a state that skews older and more tradition it was a grave error.  Despite his mistakes however, Pryor was unable to open up a significant lead, albeit largely because Pryor’s campaign went negative all the time.  Cotton’s campaign also failed to respond in any meaningful way until late into the summer.  But the response has turned the race back in Cotton’s favor.  Or perhaps Obama’s unpopularity has.

The President’s unpopularity in the state has proved impossible for Pryor to shake.  The closeness of the polls belies just how hard it will be for Pryor to win.  A recent PPP survey shows the President with a 61% disapproval rating and Pryor is not in much better shape with 51% disapproving.  A YouGov survey found Cotton leading 49%-45% and both Pryor and the President deeply underwater in approval.  Perhaps the most telling sign Pryor is living on borrowed time is a Talk Business poll that found Pryor ahead by two points but more importantly it found Cotton ahead in the swing Congressional district in the state, CD-4 (Cotton’s district).

Pryor going negative has kept the race close but it has not moved his numbers.  Going negative has only led to more voters identifying as undecided but none of them have moved to his side.  Traditionally, if attacks are working Cotton’s numbers should go down and Pryor’s up, as the alternative to the incumbent is seen as unfit to lead.  But instead Pryor and Cotton are stagnant meaning the undecided will likely break for Cotton late.

While Democrats struggle, seemingly futilely, to hold traditionally Southern states they hope to turn the region a tint of blue by defeating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.  McConnell is tied to an unpopular Congress, has horrid approval ratings and is facing Democratic darling Allison Grimes.  Both have spent millions on the race and at the start of the summer Grimes had an edge.  But since that time McConnell has hit her on not defending coal and being light on policy ideas.  The pertinent political issues of immigration and national security have highlighted her lack of national policy experience.  More importantly however, the fundamentals of the race have swung decisively in McConnell’s favor.

This can be seen in the most recent survey on the race from Survey USA.  The poll finds McConnell has opened up a 46%-42% lead over Grimes.  More important, however, is where McConnell’s lead comes from.  McConnell has a commanding lead among men, not surprisingly.  But he trails by a mere 1% among women.  He only trails among 18-29 year olds and by a small 8% margin.  McConnell has recovered from his tough primary and is holding almost 80% of his party while Grimes is stuck at 67% with self identified Democrats (McConnell steals 25%).

Kentucky Democrats have been competitive in federal races but never been able to get over the hump.  The reason is simple.  Democrats have been unable to maintain Democratic loyalty at the federal level in the Eastern part of the state (coal country).  Grimes is having arguably less success with these traditional Democrats than prior candidates.  While she leads in Louisville (45%-40%) and North Central Kentucky (49%-40%) she trails in Western Kentucky (long a stronghold of the GOP) and Eastern Kentucky by a whopping 59%-32% margin.  Eastern Kentucky only contributes 15% of the sample in the survey but McConnell’s lead in the region is giving him a cushion in the race.

Grimes campaign has worked hard to appeal to these voters.  But her lack of policy ideas on how to combat the President’s “War on coal” and battle the EPA have made McConnell’s claim she does not support coal stick.  It has not helped her campaign is embroiled in a campaign finance scandal.

Democrats are bullish that polls show their incumbents/challengers running competitive in these red states.  But the polls mask the electoral and political dynamics of each race.  For Arkansas, this means Pryor has only been able to keep the race tied but unable to get ahead of Cotton (despite vastly outspending him).  In Kentucky, the geography of the race is working in McConnell’s favor (just as in 2008) when he needs it to most.  Democrat can deny it all they want but these races have turned away from their party for the cycle.

 

Addendum: Two new polls have come out on Kentucky from CNN and Rasmussen.  You can see them here and here.  The upshot being McConnell appears to have built a four to five point lead in the race that is being reflected in the polls.

Midterm Expectations for GOP Equal Unrealistic

Let the midterm sprint begin!

Let the midterm sprint begin!

I don’t make a habit of responding to political articles but a recent Politico article caught my attention.  The article (can be read in full here) cites GOP worries over their lack of a clear advantage in the House.  Republican expectations of a double-digit seat gain have been tempered by the reality of few true swing districts left after redistricting, sagging numbers for both parties and a lack of dough for the midterm sprint to the finish.

While I have no doubt the analysts, strategists and experts Politico interviewed are experts in their trade I have to wonder whether their perceptions are jaded by unrealistic expectations.  Just less than a year ago Republicans could have been expected to lose seats after the Government Shutdown.  Then we met the Obamacare rollout disaster and expectations changed overnight.

What seems to be forgotten overnight is that midterms are often decided by the intangibles.  Consider 1998 and 2002 (non-wave midterm years).  Those elections were not defined by big ideas or ideological fights.  They were defined by the candidates, their individual personalities and turnout.

Of course, it should seem obvious the party most analysts expect to gain seats should come out with big ideas and lay out a clear agenda for the country.  But consider how voters view both parties.  The GOP brand is in tatters (thanks to some Republicans not viewing their party favorably).  The Democratic brand is not much better.  In this environment it would be political suicide to lay out a massive agenda that you know you cannot pass (especially for the GOP).

This will not stop analysts and editors from pining for it though (see example here).  What is often forgotten is that the party has many strong recruits (and some weak) who are tailoring their races to local issues.  This seems counter-intuitive when the national GOP has done everything it can to tie Democratic incumbents to the President.  Further, incumbent Democrats are trying to survive the storm by campaigning on local issues.

But notable GOP candidates have done all they can to make their campaigns local.  In Arkansas, freshman Congressmen and Iraq war veteran Tom Cotton has run on strengthening national defense in a state with many veterans.  Ben Sasse in Nebraska is talking about higher education reform.  Joni Ernst in Iowa has come out on the military handling sexual assault cases (against).  In Colorado, Congressman Cory Gardner is in favor of immigration reform in some form.

It makes sense candidates would localize their races (incumbent or challenger). We live in a candidate centered system where 100% allegiance to party is not demanded (unlike Europe’s electoral systems).  Candidates can differentiate themselves from their parties on a host of issues which helps make our democracy work.  In a political environment where it is unwise to link oneself to big ideas candidates are offering solutions that fit their electorates (a joy of the federalist system).

The ultimate point being Republicans are putting forth ideas and their values.  They are just doing it at the local and not national level.  In 2010, it was clear the GOP could ride out public angst over the economy to victory.  They did.  This time, candidates know they need to do something more to win, even if it means waiting on unveiling big ideas.

All this brings us back to the Politico article linked at the start of this post.  The article focuses on only what can be measured in polling and candidate qualities.  Republicans are struggling in key races in FL-2, VA-8 and Nebraska.  Likewise, Democrats in New Hampshire and Texas appear to be imploding.  In any election there will be good and bad candidate and in wave elections bad candidates can be carried to victory regardless of voter views of the national party.  Oftentimes, this is not swayed by money.

Consider 2010.  The Politico article cities 2010 as being the election where the GOP dominated the money race but this is not necessarily true.  While new groups spent on the GOP’s behalf, Democratic incumbents dominated fundraising.  Many still lost.  The case is the same for 2014 except for two twists.  This time, GOP incumbents are largely out-raising their challengers but Democratic 3rd party groups and the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) are out-raising their GOP counterparts.

This rightly worries Republicans but probably more than it should.  The DCCC is dominating the money race for the same reason GOP non-candidate entities did in 2010.  There simply are not that many Democratic incumbents in danger to receive donations and the star of Democratic fundraising, Obama, is more likely to campaign for the Congressional arm of the party than individual candidates.

This obvious reality won’t alleviate GOP worries.  Congressional Republican leadership is trying to coerce their members to donate to the NRCC.  So far, no luck.  But the party has a trump card often ignored, the RNC.  Yes, the largely ignored Republican National Committee has seen a revival under new leadership and new donations have fueled its effort to aid individual campaigns through data, volunteer registration and analysis.  Assuming the RNC’s massive, $100 million data effort pans out it would go a long way to leveling the playing field.

Ultimately, combine all the factors of this midterm; money, candidate qualities, the House map, lack of big ideas, Obama’s unpopularity and some I didn’t mention (gerrymandering and GOP voters more motivated to turn out) and you find the GOP could easily gain 10-15 House seats but they could also gain none.  This is just the way the election looks right now without a national issue defining the election.

Republicans AND Democrats should both be worried.  Public attitudes towards both parties is at end of days levels and incumbents, well, let’s just say their numbers have seen better days.  But GOP strategists need to take a chill-pill.  The GOP does have an advantage in this midterm. The party could screw it up just as cash and party popularity could eat into their gains.  Honestly though, it probably won’t.

 

 

Where is the GOP Wave?

countymapUMich2012rb1024As we approach Labor Day weekend, after which traditionally voters start to tune into elections, the question of “Where is the GOP wave” has been popping up more and more.  Democratic analysts are buoyed by polls across the country that do not reflect a national, partisan tilt towards the GOP.  Recently, gubernatorial polls in Wisconsin and Michigan have shown the GOP incumbents trailing, albeit very narrowly.  A poll in Georgia showed Michelle Nunn leading the state’s Senate race by 7%.  In the battleground states of North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska, polls show the incumbents ahead or narrowly trailing their challengers.

A number of political analysts have taken to looking into this question in detail.  In Trende’s case at RCP, he finds it is just to early to tell whether a wave will develop or not.  His models are compelling.  Over at the Upshot, Nate Cohn also looked at this question and found, like Trende, it is just to early to tell.  Cohn and Trende both found Democratic incumbents outperforming Presidential performance in their states.

I don’t have an issue with either analysis.  As I said above their evidence is pretty compelling.  But what if the signs are already showing for a GOP wave and we just have not noted them yet?  This would make irrelevant the question about the wave and instead lead to the question of “how big the wave will be?”

It strikes me we should consider what is a wave for the out of power party according to recent elections (1980 and above). Certainly 1994, 2006, 2008 and 2010 come to mind (though 2008 was a Presidential year).  In 1994 the GOP won eight Senate seats even though they defeated a mere two incumbents.  In 2006 Democrats won six seats by defeating a whopping six incumbents and in 2010 the GOP won six seats but only defeated two incumbents (one horribly damaged). Note: I am omitting House and gubernatorial results from this analysis for the sake of simplicity.

Understanding the geography of past wave elections is important.  In 1994, GOP gains came across the board with four seats coming from the Rust Belt and Northeast, two from the South and one from the West.  In 2006, Democratic gains came from defeating two incumbents in the South, two in the Rust Belt, one in the Northeast and one in the West.  GOP gains in 2010 came from Arkansas, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Admittedly, the geography of Senate races this cycle favors the GOP.  The party has excellent shots to win seats in AR, LA, MT, WV, SD, NC and AL.  Strong candidates have put perennial swing states Iowa and Colorado in the toss-up category and on the fringe are Michigan, Oregon, Virginia and New Hampshire.

I can understand if one looks at this map and does not call a GOP gain of six seats (enough to control the Senate) a wave election.  The partisan tilt of the states sharply leans towards the GOP.  But, since 2000 the GOP has only defeated three incumbents (Tom Daschle-2004, Blanche Lincoln-2010, Russ Feingold-2010).  To win six seats the GOP must defeat at least three incumbents.  Despite the partisan tilt of these states each of the Democrats are running ahead of the President (although many undecided voters could swing races).  So one could call a GOP gain of six seats (defeating three incumbents) a wave election.  Most analysts seem to have different expectations however.

It seems expectations of what constitutes a wave election have drastically shifted since the botched rollout of Obamacare.  At the time polls in Michigan showed a GOP lead on the generic ballot and Republicans had leads in seats they needed to win to get to the majority.  But since that time polls have stabilized more or less.  Many of those races are now one to five point affairs, Iowa and Colorado have now become competitive but Michigan has moved left.  GOP hopes for making New Hampshire, Virginia and Oregon competitive have been dashed and Minnesota has not moved much.  Considering this, the expectations seemed to have stayed the same (GOP needs to win at least one state outside of those Romney won) to really call it a wave election.  This seems unfair compared to past waves but I will leave that alone for now to focus on signs a wave election may be forming.

Despite the close of the polls GOP candidates have solid leads in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia (notably no incumbents running).  Republican voters shown though voter intensity surveys they are more likely to be interested and enthusiastic in voting (among all age groups, including the young).  Right leaning Independents echo this sentiment over left leaning Independents.  In a number of surveys, undecided voters overwhelmingly disapprove of the President.  Trende notes in his analysis that Senate races tend to follow Presidential approval (even if incumbents outperform the President).  This election appears no different which might explain why no endangered Democratic Senator is above 50% and so many undecided voters remain.  These undecided voters did not break until late in many races, giving the GOP strong victories in many cases.

These two factors, found in numerous surveys, suggest a GOP wave is building and is yet to be reflected in polls.  Arguably though, it is.  Undecided voters in many races skew conservative, white as well as vastly disapproving of the President.  Logic would dictate that these voters vote majoritarian for the GOP in November.

There is also the fact that many voters have just started tuning into these races.  Ironically, this might help Republicans more in a state like North Carolina where Thom Tillis, the state House Speaker, presided over a contentious special session of the legislature to balance the budget and fund education.  Democratic and Hagan attack ads hammering Tillis have hurt him over the session but they arguably could have done much more damage if they aired in September or October.

Ultimately, the GOP ability to defeat incumbents might come down to turnout.  Democrats argue their massive Bannock Street Project will help them overcome the lack of Obama on the ballot.  Republicans are unconvinced and argue their GOTV efforts will be 100% digital, something that matches Democratic efforts.  If the parties fight each other to a draw on turnout, individual races will ultimately be decided by the undecided.  Not a good scenario for the incumbent party.

Traditionally, wave elections have largely been defined by undecided voters largely disapproving of the President and turning against the incumbent late.  If we see this occur, as it did in the closing stages of 2010, we will know a wave election is coming and the GOP has a strong shot at gaining more than six seats (they have multiple routes to this number). If it does not occur and undecided voters start showing inclinations to split their vote between the incumbent and challenger, the GOP will have to scrap and claw to hit six seats. And it will also mean the debate about whether 2014 was a wave election or no will continue beyond November.

 

For a full look at Trende’s and Cohn’s analyses see here and here.

 

 

 

Democrats in Panic Mode in Iowa and Colorado

1k2hfj.AuSt.91At the start of this year Democrats knew they had a tough fight ahead to hold the Senate.  The GOP establishment was supporting several credible nominees in red states (NC, AR, AK, WV, SD, MT and LA) and the party was making a serious play for Michigan.  Never did it enter Democrats minds that they would have to play defense in two Obama strongholds, Iowa and Colorado.  This being the same Iowa that anchored the President’s Midwest Firewall and the same Colorado that has not seen a Republican win a statewide federal election since 2004 (Bush).

Now, Democrats find themselves fighting to hold these two states.  In Iowa, the party initially thought a scattered and (presumably) weak GOP field would buoy their star recruit, Congressman Bruce Braley.  In Colorado, Senator Mark Udall was supposed to sail to victory over a Tea Party challenger.  However, these expectations collided with reality and reality won.

The GOP has star recruits in both Iowa and Colorado.  Initially rejecting overtures by the NRSC to enter the race, Congressman Cory Gardner is fighting hard to show Colorado’s blue lean is not a permanent phenomena.  Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst busted out of a crowded GOP field by appealing to primary voters in a gusty and folksy way (castrating hogs and setting sights on Obamacare).  Both are running neck and neck against Democratic incumbents.

Udall has run a decent campaign in Colorado but has struggled to effectively label Gardner.  The “War on Women” meme Democrats used so effectively in 2010 and 2012 has run smack dab into a savvy candidate who has so far dodged the attacks by backing off support for a state Constitutional amendment based on personhood and supporting contraception availability over the counter.

Congressman Bruce Braley’s campaign has been a disaster.  Instead of being coronated as the heir to retiring liberal Senator Tom Harkin, Braley has made a number of unforced errors. Braley made a massive error when he commented to a group of trial lawyers disparaging fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as “A farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”  Braley soon apologized but the damage was done and Ernst’s campaign hammered him for his elitist views.  Braley has also been targeted for forcing a neighbor to put her hens in a fenced area after they wandered over onto the Congressman’s vacation home lot or be served.  This just gives the GOP and outside groups more ammo to hit Braley with.

The state of these races stands in stark contrast to the last campaigns Udall and Braley ran.  In 2008, Udall easily won Colorado’s open Senate seat with 53% of the vote.  Braley faced a tough Congressional race in 2010 but after his district was redistricting he won with 60% in 2012.  Both candidates do not have such easy races on their hands this time.

It is clear Democrats are in full on panic mode about the state of both races.  Braley has been unable to gain traction against Ernst, even as his campaign and outside groups have attempted to paint her as a Tea Party accolyte.  They point to comments she made in the past about climate change, Agenda 21, her support for a Personhood Amendment (banning Plan B contraception) and being an ideological extremist.  The endorsement of Sarah Palin has also been a target.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairman of the DNC, recently called Ernst, “An onion of crazy,” at the Iowa State Fair.  So far none of these attacks have worked.

Ernst has a moderate image in terms of her policy successes.  She took on her own party to help pass bills which required public schools to test for dangerous toxins in their buildings, protected funding for mental health services for Iowans and allowed parents of children with severe epilepsy to buy non addictive cannabis oil.

Udall’s campaign is continuing to try to hammer Gardner on women’s issues and immigration reform.  However, Gardner voted for the DREAM ACT in the House and voted against repealing DACA.  Even in his strongly Republican district, Gardner was a vocal proponent of a piece-meal approach to reform and urged leadership to act before the midterms.

The wildcards in each race are ultimately things none of the candidates have control over, the President’s approval rating and what happens to Healthcare premiums.  The President has horrid approval ratings in both states which might depress Democratic turnout.  Further, according to the Health Research Institute of PricewaterhouseCoopers insurance premiums are expected to spike in Colorado and even more so in Iowa.  Voters can expect this whammy to hit right before the midterms.

The individual dynamics of each race matter as well of course.  Gardner and Udall are both sociable fellows who connect with voters well.  In Iowa, only Ernst can lay claim to that title while Braley comes off as insecure and less willing to talk to voters (according to media outlets).

Gardner has separated himself from the party on immigration and contraception while Ernst has broken with her party over the military handling sexual assault cases.  Udall supports fracking in the state and the Keystone Pipeline.  However, Braley is running as a conventional Democrat who supports Obamacare and the President in every way.  This won’t help him come November.

Democrats claim their ground game will save them both seats and surprise in several red states as well.  Maybe so.  But right now Democrats look befuddled as to how these two sure-thing races got away from them so quickly even as Michigan appears to be leaning Democratic for the first time this cycle.

 

 

Ad Highlights A.J. Balukoff’s Problem in Idaho

A.J. Balukoff's liberal views doom his candidacy in Idaho.

A.J. Balukoff’s liberal views doom his candidacy in Idaho.

Since 2006 Democrats have run against the same GOP face for Governor, Butch Otter.  Both times (2006 and 10) the party has come up short against what they view/viewed as a flawed Republican. Otter is considered a heretic by some in the party for supporting a state exchange and the state party has deep divisions.  This go-round, Democrats have a solid candidate in AJ Balukoff.

Balukoff brings to the table everything Idaho Democrats could want in a candidate.  He is an accomplished businessman, serves on several charitable boards and is Chair of the Boise School District Board of Trusetees.  His campaign is full of young talent (just look at his staff) and his message is one that speaks to fiscal conservatism and anti-cronyism, all things conservatives and liberals alike love to hear.

But for all his strengths A.J. is inevitably tied down by the two labels he cannot shake, he is a liberal and a Democrat.  Since 1994, no Democrat running for the governor’s post has been able to shake these labels.

One ad in particular highlights Balukoff’s problem.  The ad, now on TV and also online at http://www.liberalaj.com, portrays Balukoff as an out of touch liberal elitist whose values align with Obama (judge for yourself here). Fair or unfair these attacks work.

The lines of attack in the ad are particularly effective when you consider the issues they touch on; taxes, spending, supporting Obamacare, giving Idaho land to the federal government (Boulder-Whiteclouds Monument), taxpayer-funded campaigns (public financing), wolves and guns.  In all cases, Balukoff is to the left of the general Idaho electorate.  Today, many of the stances the IACI website highlights are considered “liberal” in the state.

But Democrats have won elections In Idaho even while being to the left of the electorate on some issues.. Cecil Andrus won four terms amidst an electorate that was more pro-gun and anti-union than he was.  However, Andrus was a special candidate that came to power due to unique circumstances. He had a touch with voters no other Democrat since has been able to match.

The rise of polarization nationwide also means the other title Balukoff claims, “Democrat,” sinks his campaign.  Especially when you consider a prior statement the IACI ad highlights, “I am a Democrat because the values of the Democratic Party most closely align with my own.”  Balukoff might have been able to run as being an Independent Democrat, one who puts Idaho first but that statement damns him.  Conservative Independents and Republicans link him to Obama and inevitably moderates do as well.

There are not many ways for a Democrat to combat this image once it is ingrained in the Idaho electorate.  Business groups such as IACI and the Otter campaign are working hard to ensure it is by November.  Meanwhile, the Balukoff campaign is simply trying to introduce their candidate to the broader electorate.

Balukoff faces other issues as well.  He is from Boise (politically different from the rest of the state), has the support of LBGT groups and heads a school district most Idahoans view as a boondoggle.  The Otter campaign has hammered him for supporting multiple levies since 1997 when he first started serving on the School Board.

Balukoff has tried to head some of these issues off.  He has themed his support of LBGT rights around libertarianism.  He has hammered Otter on the Luna Laws and education funding (though the FY 2014-2015 budget increases spending 5%) and cites his tenure on the Boise School Board as a strength.

N0ne of these efforts are strong enough to overcome Idaho’s partisan lean in a good year for Democrats however.  This election is not looking kind to Democrats anywhere.

Democrats remain bullish on Balukoff but history offers a grim assessment of his chances.  Since 1990, when Andrus hit 61% in his successful bid for a fourth term as Governor no Democrat has even reached 45%. Only two have hit or exceeded 40%.  Outside of Sun Valley and Boise the party has little base.  Further, Idaho has only become more Republican in the age of Obama.

Balukoff is probably the best candidate Democrats could run this cycle.  Unfortunately, he is not nearly a good enough candidate to attract the broad support he needs to win against a subpar incumbent.  Considering this, the party should consider it a win if he hits 40% this November (I go with 35%-38%).