What To Expect In The Senate Battleground On Election Day

What To Expect In The Senate Battleground On Election Day

After a long, expensive, and uninspiring campaign season, voters will finally head to the polls on Tuesday to decide the midterm elections. Republicans are almost certain to expand their 34-seat majority in the House of Representatives, while Democrats are poised to unseat several incumbent Republican governors. But the main event will be control of the U.S. Senate.

The GOP needs to win a net six seats to claim a majority, and the polls suggest that they are likely to do so; the top Senate forecasts peg their odds between 63 and 96 percent.

That said, there are still several highly volatile races across the country, and Democrats still have a very real (albeit narrow) path to saving their majority. Here’s how the Senate battleground looks headed into Election Day:

The latest poll of Alaska’s Senate race, from Public Policy Polling, finds Republican Dan Sullivan leading Democratic incumbent Mark Begich by just 1 percent. That’s a 2-point improvement for Begich from PPP’s last poll in September, and narrows Sullivan’s lead in the Real Clear Politicspoll average to 2.4 percent.

Although Sullivan should be considered the favorite going into Election Day, the true state of Alaska’s race remains a mystery. The state’s vast geography and fluid population make it notoriously difficult to poll, and Democrats believe that Begich’s robust ground game could put him over the top in the tossup election.

For months, Democratic senator Mark Pryor appeared to be defying the odds and holding off Rep. Tom Cotton, whose brilliant résumé was not helping him overcome a bumbling campaign. That is no longer the case. Cotton seized the lead in most polls over the summer, and he appears to have a stranglehold on the race as it enters its final 24 hours. The three most recent polls, from PPP, Rasmussen Reports, and the University of Arkansas, find Cotton ahead by 8, 7, and 13 percent, respectively. He holds a 7.1 percent lead in the poll average.

Democrats have long protested that Colorado polls systematically undercount Democratic voters — they significantly underestimated Senator Michael Bennet’s odds of victory in 2010, as well as President Barack Obama’s chances in 2012 — but at this point it seems clear that Republican Rep. Cory Gardner holds a real advantage over Democratic senator Mark Udall. Gardner has held the lead in all but one public poll since October 1, and he has a 2.5 percent lead in the poll average.

Udall still has a realistic path to victory — early voting returns give him some resasons for optimism, as does the state’s vote-by-mail system’s potential to broaden the electorate — but a Democratic win would qualify as a definite upset.

One of the only Democratic Senate campaigns to gain momentum in the campaign’s home stretch has been that of Michelle Nunn, who built a narrow lead over Republican David Perdue in the polls with about two weeks until Election Day. That lead has since evaporated. All four public polls of the race over the past week have found Perdue ahead, and the Republican has restored a 3.2 percent lead in the poll average.

Still, Perdue remains unlikely to sew up a win on Tuesday. Due to the presence of Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford, who averages about 3 percent in the polls, neither candidate is expected to crack 50 percent on Election Day. That would send the race to a January 6 runoff. Georgia Republicans have historically thrived in runoff elections, but given Perdue’s apparent inability to stay out of his own way, another two months on the campaign trail may ultimately play to Nunn’s advantage.

Although the media seems to have written off Democratic congressman Bruce Braley’s chances of defeating Republican Joni Ernst, the final polls tell a different story. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday finds Braley and Ernst deadlocked at 47 percent; that result is much more in line with other recent surveys than a highly publicized Des Moines Register poll which found Ernst up 7 percent. Ernst leads by 1.4 percent in the poll average.

Unfortunately for Braley, the final day of the campaign largely mirrored the rest of the race. Instead of focusing on a moment of genuine extremism from Ernst — the Republican accused President Obama of being a “dictator” who doesn’t care if Americans get Ebola, and challenged a reporter’s assertion that only one American has the virus by saying “you’re giving me your opinion” — the media obsessed over a Democratic gaffe (retiring senator Tom Harkin’s tone-deaf comparison between Ernst and Taylor Swift).

Kansas’ contest between Independent candidate Greg Orman and Republican incumbent senator Pat Roberts is a true tossup as voters head to the polls. Orman is up by less than 1 percent in the poll average, but the final polls of the race have all found huge numbers of undecided voters, suggesting that the contest could break in either direction.

There is some reason to believe that the undecideds will ultimately turn to Orman; Republican governor Sam Brownback is sputtering to the finish line, and the Republican Governors Association has reportedly given up on his re-election hopes. The fewer Republicans that turn out for Brownback, the more difficult it will be for Roberts to win a third term.

If Orman does win, he has said that he will caucus with whichever party holds the majority (although Republican have publicly dismissed the possibility that Orman could join the GOP).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was Democrats’ top target going into the midterm cycle, but the final polls of the race strongly suggest that he will survive to see a sixth term — possibly as majority leader. NBC News/Marist finds McConnell leading Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by 9 percent, while PPP shows his advantage at 8 percent. McConnell is now up 7.2 percent in the poll average, and Grimes’ odds of an upset are almost nonexistant.

Democratic senator Mary Landrieu is primed to finish in first place on Election Day — but it probably won’t do her much good. The poll average finds Landrieu leading Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy and Tea Party-backed Air Force veteran Rob Manness, 40 to 35 to 11 percent. That would leave Landrieu short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a December 6 runoff against Cassidy. And with Maness out of the race, Cassidy takes a solid 5 percent lead over Landrieu.

That said, Landrieu has survived two runoffs in the past, and she would have a plausible path to victory this December. To beat Cassidy in a head-to-head matchup, she would need strong turnout from black voters; that may have motivated her controversial (though indisputable) comment that “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.”

New Hampshire
Although former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown successfully expanded the Senate map when he moved to New Hampshire to challenge Democratic senator Jeanne Shaheen, it appears that his quest to return to Congress will fall just short. Most polls of the race have shown Shaheen with a narrow but consistent lead; she is up by less than 1 percent in the poll average, but that metric includes a survey from Republican firm Vox Populi, which finds Brown with a 4 percent lead (but has skewed far to the right this election season). Furthermore, polls have consistently shown Shaheen’s favorability ratings up around 50 percent, in sharp contrast to most of her fellow Democratic incumbents.

A Brown upset is definitely within the realm of possibility, but Shaheen goes into election night as the favorite. If she does lose, then it will signal a very long night for Democrats across the country.

North Carolina
In an election cycle full of bleak news for Democrats, Senator Kay Hagan’s durability in North Carolina has been a pleasant surprise. Although the electoral landscape seemingly favors the Republicans — the state has taken a sharp right turn since President Obama won it in 2008, and the NRSC got its preferred candidate in state House Speaker Thom Tillis — Hagan has clung to a narrow but consistent lead in almost every public poll of the race. She leads by 0.7 percent in the poll average, and the early voting returns suggest a robust Democratic turnout.

Like many Republican gubernatorial candidates, Tillis has been hurt on the campaign trail by Republican overreach. North Carolina’s education cuts, which Tillis strongly supported, have been particularly problematic for the GOP nominee.

Photo: Former president Clinton stumps for U.S. Senator Kay Hagan during a campaign rally on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, at Broughton High School’s Holliday Gymnasium in Raleigh, NC. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

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