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.