The midterm elections are 50 days away. In many states, early and absentee voting will begin in the coming days. National polling numbers can hardly get worse for President Obama and the Democrats. Substantive news, whether the economy or foreign affairs, is unlikely to evolve favorably with Obama’s policies. In addition, it is hard to imagine a political landscape more favorable to Republicans. Yet, with the election fast approaching, it is still an open question whether the GOP will capture the Senate. What is going on?
The RealClearPolitics analysis of Senate races, based on an average of all polling, has changed little over the summer. At the beginning of August, the GOP had the edge with 46 seats, Democrats with 45 and 9 races rated as “toss-ups.” Today, the overall numbers are the same, even though some individual states have moved around in the rankings. As of today, the RCP polling average predicts the GOP picking up the bare minimum 6 seats it needs to take control of the Senate. This is down a notch from the 7 seats predicted last week.
The terrain of the Senate battleground is roughly the same as it has been all year. Three states, half of what the GOP needs to take control, are already lost for the Democrats. Senate seats in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota will all flip to the Republicans in November. Arkansas is the next likely state to move out of reach of the Democrats. With a late primary finally behind the party in Alaska, Republicans seem to again have the advantage there. Louisiana likely won’t be decided until a run-off in December. The Republican candidate leads the incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, but is unlikely to clear 50% because of a crowded election field.
So, as has been the case for the past several months, the battle for control of the Senate will be decided in toss-up states like North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado. Republicans will have to fend off aggressive challengers in Kentucky, Georgia and, apparently, Kansas. McConnell is in command of the race in Kentucky and the other two states will likely come “home” to Republicans by the end of the campaign.
Interestingly, though, all of the above could have been written, and likely was by someone, two or three months ago. In that time the economic news hasn’t really improved. Arguably, it has gotten worse. International affairs have worsened and have reversed any gains Democrats made on that front in the aftermath of the quagmire in Iraq. Obama’s approval ratings have settled at historic lows. Yet, Democrats continue to meet or exceed Republicans in fundraising. A number of its candidates have committed gaffes on the campaign trail on par with Todd Aiken.
Outside of the states won by Mitt Romney, i.e. the party’s natural base, Republican candidates aren’t yet showing real competitive grit. It is entirely possible the Republicans take control of the Senate with the country simply reverting to the political mean. Republicans seem preternaturally unable to capture “Democrat” states or seats. Since 1980, Republicans have never defeated more than 2 Democrat incumbents in any one election cycle. They will likely break that record in November, but only if voters revert to their natural political default.
That may be enough for a majority, but it isn’t a wave.
Even with just 50 days to go until the election, it is still early in the campaign. Most voters are only now beginning to pay attention to the candidates. Campaigns have their own rhythm. We are just now out of the early phase, when campaigns rally the faithful and raise the resources they need to compete. Outside groups finalize their overall plans and strategy. In the coming weeks, the campaigns will begin in earnest.
Here is a quick cheat sheet on whether or not a GOP wave is building. If, one month from today, we are still discussing North Carolina, Arkansas or Alaska, the chances of a GOP wave have probably passed. If, however, column ink is being spilled on Minnesota, Virginia, Illinois or Oregon, then the Democrats are in for a very long election night.