Senate Forecast: More Potential Problems For Democrats
Brandon Finnigan
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With another month down, we’ve seen some additional movement when it comes to the upcoming battle for the Senate, almost all of it still in the GOP’s favor. Former Senator Scott Brown has finally made it official in New Hampshire, polling has been finally released out of Oregon, new approval rating polls in Minnesota may hint at trouble for Senator Al Franken, Cory Gardner has locked up the Colorado Republican primary, and Democratic Senate Candidate Bruce Braley has been on damage control in Iowa. With all of this, the months ahead will be a critical time determining whether we are going to witness a blow out, a close turnover, or yet another year of frustration for the Republicans. The map looks great for the GOP as things stand today, but six months is years in the world of politics.

It is important to stress that the forecast here is NOT a polling average, though it does factor in polling. Instead, this map displays how each race pans out in November, with states color-coded by not just the party of the winner, but the rough margin of the winner. For example, I see Mark Pryor losing, right now, by less than ten but greater than five points. He has enjoyed a late “surge” in polling (mostly by Democratic and left-leaning sponsors) that has defied much of the ground reports of the campaign. If that is sustained, that seat’s status will change. For another example, look at Alaska. Toss-up races are those which I am uncomfortable calling, and Begich’s seat has been sparsely polled. An explosion in polling may not clarify the situation, either: visit RealClearPolitics and look at the polling percentage for both 2008 and 2010, and then check out the results.

Please note: at the time this month’s forecast was being compiled, the NYT/Kaiser polls had not been published. Their release today found a ten-point lead for Pryor, his best performance by a mile in nonpartisan polling. Nate Cohn, writing on these polls for the New York Times, questions this sizable Pryor lead himself:

"The new poll represents his best showing in any nonpartisan survey this cycle, and even high-quality surveys, like this one, have a margin of error related to sampling. Particularly surprising results are often outliers. Not even the Democratic Senate campaign committee, which released a poll showing Mr. Pryor leading by 3 points last week, has him ahead by so much.

The rest of the releases are consistent with the current averages. Until we see a replication of the Arkansas findings by another non-partisan pollster, “outlier” seems a prudent designation for their Arkansas results.

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That disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to this edition’s changes:

IOWA: Lean Democratic to Toss-Up

Bruce Braley sure wishes there wasn’t a camera, but YouTube is forever. While he still leads in the sparse polling released since that rather unfortunate and revealing moment, Republicans are fundraising and advertising like mad off of it, so much so that relatively unknown Jodi Ernst (sworn enemy of Wilbur) has lept to a lead in her party’s primary. Every photo-op Braley is forced to stage to rebuff his comment is a mini-victory for the Republicans trying to define him early in a swing state that has voted Democratic in six of the last seven elections. The seat is now a toss-up, but may change back if polling continues to give him a modest lead in the weeks ahead.

MINNESOTA: Moderately Democratic to Lean Democratic

Incumbent Senator Al Franken is still the clear favorite here, but his eventual win will be a bit closer than it has been forecasted. Franken’s approval rating, along with the President’s, has dropped in recent polling, not to the levels his far more vulnerable collegues face, but enough to help fuel an actual effort by state Republicans to try to unseat him. There are three kinds of races in an election year that the parties pay attention to. The first are the obvious wins or, at least, obviously competitive races. Parties will dump millions of dollars and hours into winning these. Lousiana and Colorado are clear examples of this. Then there are the races that could theoretically be competitive but need a push, or at worst could prove to be an expensive distraction for the other party if vulnerable. Franken’s seat seems to be transitioning up and into this category. Lastly, there are the races that really won’t become competitive, but a party will pretend they are to make noise and, in the event of a national blowout in their favor, perhaps miraculously break their way.

Right now in Minnesota, Republicans seem willing to sponsor and hype polls, talking up the seat, and are beginning to really open their pockets. If  Franken’s numbers worsen, his seat adds to the multitude of interesting races. For now, Franken eking out a narrow-but-larger-than-2012 victory seems about right.

OREGON: Moderately Democratic to Lean Democratic

Finally we get some polling data out of the state- the first in almost two years! Against near-total unknowns, Merkley is enjoying 7-12 point leads, per Harper’s latest release. While he is still favored to win, this is a lot closer than the Senator would like. Both of the potential Republican nominees, Dr. Monica Wehby and Jason Conger, have been making their respective rounds of interviews, and Dr. Wehby has raised nearly $1 million since last fall. Merkley will have a warchest dwarfing either Republican going into the general, the state leans Democratic, and the solitary poll still gives him leads, but with the CoveredOregon debacle on state residents’ minds, he’ll be facing a closer finish than he would like.

Over the next few months, we’ll begin to see which races are truly competitive, which were just early cycle wishful thinking, and which became blown opportunities. May features many contested primaries that could make or break each parties’ chances in several seats. Uncertainty remains.

The GOP seems planted in the drivers seat, but with unknowns at every corner. The President may or may not be enjoying a slight bump off the Obamacare enrollment numbers. Democrats may actually start campaigning on the health care law. Bigfoot might vote. And the Republican party might just close victory’s mouth long enough to avoid yanking out defeat.

I’m a bit too broke to bet on that last one.

Brandon Finnigan has been covering polls and elections at the blog Ace of Spades HQ and on Twitter at @conartcritic since 2010. Between races, he shares his love of art, astronomy, and craft beer with his wife in Southern California.

Photo Gregory Hauenstein
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