The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 33

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This week:

  • With primaries over, the big Senate picture.

Senate 2014

With primary season behind us, the big question now is whether Republicans will take the U.S. Senate. Depending on whose computer model you look at, their chances range from good to pretty decent. Here’s a rundown of the competitive races, six weeks out from the general election. Republicans have a great chance to seize control of the Senate, but it will require them to flip at least one of the close races that is still leaning toward the Democrats at the moment. 

Alaska: Senate turnover is not common in America’s final frontier. The defeat of Sen. Ted Stevens, R, in 2008 made Mark Begich, D, only the third man to hold the Senate seat up this year since Alaska statehood. What’s more, Stevens in that election became the first sitting U.S. Senator in Alaska history to lose office in a general election (two others had been defeated in party primaries). 

Begich now faces the possibility of following Stevens in this regard. He was never considered the most vulnerable of 2014 Democratic incumbents, but he was certainly in everyone’s top five. Republicans avoided a divisive primary this summer, going with former Bush administration official, state attorney general, natural resources director, and military veteran Dan Sullivan (not to be mistaken for the Republican Anchorage mayor of the same name, no relation).   

Polls: Sullivan led by six points in the last CBS/NY Times poll at the beginning of September. This is significant because he trailed by 12 in the same poll in July. Aside from that, there hasn’t been much polling in the race lately. 

Campaign Ads: Begich and his allies were up on the air attacking Sullivan long before the GOP primary, fearing him as the strongest opponent in the field. Only recently, Begich went nuclear with an ad blaming Sullivan for a double-murder and sexual assault. He later withdrew the ad under pressure from the victims’ family. It had all the signs of a Hail Mary pass, indicating that Begich feels his situation is desperate.

There are hints that the ad has backfired — it remains to be seen how badly. Not only that, but it could also dampen the effect of any future negative ad blast from Begich, and he might well need one to win.

Outside Groups: Between Begich’s “own” SuperPAC and other Democrat-aligned groups, the pro-Begich forces have outspent pro-Sullivan ones about five-to-three. Nearly $7 million has gone just to attack Sullivan. In Alaska, that’s a lot of money — in 2010, all outside groups and candidates combined spent less than just the outside groups have already spent this year, and that was a three-way race.

Outlook: Begich barely won in 2008, and that was largely because his opponent had just been convicted of a federal crime. It’s just hard for Democrats (even popular ones like former Gov. Tony Knowles, D) to win statewide in Alaska nowadays unless their opponents are badly flawed. Sullivan, the first choice of both party regulars and the conservative Club for Growth, shows no signs so far of being a “Joe Miller” or other kind of problem candidate. Leaning Republican takeover.

Arkansas: As we have noted here previously, Arkansas is just now getting to the point that Alabama and other Southern states reached more than a decade ago — it has thrown out most of its Democratic officeholders and begun electing Republicans at every level. The change has been swift — as recently as 2000, Arkansas was a swing state where Al Gore had a serious chance of winning. 

This cycle, even safe Democratic state legislative districts have been flipping in special elections. The legislature is now Republican-controlled, and could well remain that way for a decade or more. In sharp contrast to last decade, all of the state’s congressional districts are currently GOP-held. That is also likely to continue.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., is nearly the last man standing after the 2010 landslide defeat of Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. All of the fundamentals are working against him as the state’s voters increasingly see Republican red. And unlike 2008, when the state GOP failed even to find a candidate, they have a strong one this time — Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., an unreconstructed conservative from 2004 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan before running for Congress in 2010.

In fundraising — which is not only a tool for winning but also an sign of elite opinion about a candidate’s chances — Cotton has surpassed Pryor since entering the race.

Polls: There were a few glimmers of hope for Pryor over the summer, but the state’s fundamentals are catching up with him as his opponent builds up name-identification. He has trailed in nine of the last ten polls.

Ads: Pryor has little to lose, so he’s trying something interesting — running on Obamacare, but obviously without calling it Obamacare. His father (a former governor and senator) appeared in an ad for him. His negative ads mostly attack Cotton for wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare. The basic idea is that Cotton is some young, irresponsible whipper-snapper. The one backfire came when his campaign misled a tornado victim into letting him film an ad attacking Cotton over his votes for disaster funding.

Cotton has alternated between positive ads featuring his mom and dad on the one hand, and negative ones on the other that essentially try to paint Pryor as an Obama-drone who will do anything to sell out his state for liberalism. (Oh, and “retire” rhymes with “Pryor,” by the way.)

Outside Groups: Pryor had a bit of a scare early on when anti-gun groups started attacking him for opposing gun control measures after Sandy Hook, but he has managed to get Team Left to behave ever since — in fact, he has even used those attacks to strengthen himself. Meanwhile, Democratic-aligned groups have spent nearly $10 million against Cotton — twice the amount spend to oppose Pryor. The failure of all this to give Pryor a comfortable lead is probably a good illustration of the fact that money really can’t buy elections. 

Outlook: With President Obama’s numbers so foul in his state, and Arkansas trending so heavily Republican, Pryor can run the perfect campaign from here on out with all the advantages of incumbency, and still come up short. And that’s probably what’s going to happen. Leaning Republican takeover.

Colorado: This race was never supposed to be competitive, and in fact Republicans were lining up quite late to nominate candidates for both governor and Senate who wouldn’t be competitive. Then everything changed: Rep. Cory Gardner, R, reconsidered and jumped into the Senate race, and former Rep. Bob Beauprez, R, jumped into the governor’s race. The question in Colorado this year is whether a strong ticket can reverse the long slide of the state Republican Party, which hasn’t won for governor or Senate in more than a decade.

Polls: Gardner had a huge eight-point lead in the recent Quinnipiac poll, but that shouldn’t be trusted without further confirmation, as this is the firm’s first year polling the state. He has, however, improved his position in that poll, from 44 to 48 percent, over the last two months, which suggests that he is gaining popularity as he gains name recognition. The recent USA Today/Suffolk poll had Gardner up one.

But in many polls, Udall’s numbers have been miserable for an incumbent — usually stuck in the mid-to-low 40s. He’s quite beatable. This is likely to be a very close race with a ferocious and lively finish. 

Ads: Udall’s campaign has focused heavily on the 2012 Democratic playbook with contraception, at times even going beyond it to abortion. It’s a risky play – the entire goal is to convince white liberals and social moderates to turn out and back him. Udall has gone negative (not as negative as in Alaska), a hint that his own team believes he is tied or behind. His most recent ad hits Gardner over the government shutdown.

Outside Groups: Republican-friendly groups haven’t been too active here — Democratic groups have outspent them more than two-to-one. The Democratic groups — of course Senate Majority PAC, but also NextGen Climate Action, Tom Steyer’s group — have come in with a uniformly negative independent expenditure campaign. An incredible $12 million has been spent just attacking Gardner (very little has been spent building up Udall) compared to $3.5 million attacking Udall.

Judging by the polls, the large investment has failed to strangle Gardner’s campaign in the crib, which means the spending will likely continue through Election Day.

Outlook: Gardner has an excellent chance against a weak incumbent. That said, the burden is still on him to finish the job, and he isn’t there yet. The polls are at least moving his way. Leaning Democratic retention.

Georgia: Democrats read the election results from 2008 and 2012 and discerned that Georgia — which only truly finished realigning with the GOP in 2002 — is turning purple. It would be refreshing for them, since they haven’t won any important statewide election since last century. But they could face disappointment on this score, even with respect to presidential years, simply because no future Democratic candidate for president will inspire the kind of black turnout that Barack Obama did.

As for midterms, this will probably be as good a shot as they’ve had in some time. The Republican governor, Nathan Deal, is at the top of the ticket with his ethical problems (although this was also true in 2010). And although their bench is pretty weak, Georgia Democrats found a good nominee for Senate — Michelle Nunn, the daughter of a famous and popular former senator.

If anyone can test the upper bounds of the Democratic vote in a Georgia midterm, it’s probably her. She even has the support of former Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, who famously spoke at the 2004 Republican convention.

As her own campaign’s memo noted, Nunn’s biggest downside is that she is new to politics and susceptible to being written off as a lightweight. But not to worry — her opponent, businessman David Perdue, is another political novice with a famous name (cousin to a popular former governor) That creates ideal conditions for her — except that she’s running in Georgia. This, along with Kentucky, is the great hope of the Democrats — if they can capture this open Republican seat, that’s one less seat they have to defend.

Polls: Perdue, who has his own money to burn, leads in five of the last seven polls, and convincingly in many of them. 

Ads: Perdue is attacking Nunn on immigration and advertising himself as a home-grown farmer. Nunn is attacking him out of the War on Women playbook, for a gender discrimination lawsuit against Dollar General during his time as CEO.

Outside Groups: Ending Spending and the NRSC — both on the GOP side — are the two biggest players here, which is a departure from the norm. The largest expenditure category has been for ads attacking Nunn. As her accidentally leaked campaign memo suggested, Nunn is struggling to compete for scarce resources in the Democratic Party and on the Left. 

Outlook: Perdue showed in the primary that he could close strong, defeating both the Tea Party-backed and Chamber of Commerce-backed candidates. This one isn’t a runaway, but it’s probably his to lose. Although if he were to make a few undisciplined comments and blow it, it wouldn’t be completely out of character. Leaning Republican retention.

Iowa: This race, to replace retiring liberal Sen. Tom Harkin, D, is an example of Republicans making something out of nothing. From a field of nobody candidates, in a race where there was little hope to begin with, a celebrity was born overnight when state Sen. Joni Ernst, R, produced her now-famous hog-castration ad. With all the national attention came money, endorsements, and a decisive primary victory over a better-funded opponent.

Democrats, meanwhile, congratulated themselves early on for their recruit — Rep. Bruce Braley, D, who represents the northeast section of the state. They probably don’t feel quite as good about him now. Braley has proven to be one of the most overrated candidates of 2014 — gaffe-prone, completely unsympathetic, riddled with minor baggage. His campaign has been busy trying to explain away his threats to sue a neighbor over a chicken, his disparaging comments about the venerable senior Sen. Chuck Grassley, R, and his failure to attend hearings on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Polls: Four of the last eight polls are tied, one gives Ernst a significant six-point lead, and three show Braley ahead within the margin of error. This may well end up being the closest race of 2014. Ernst has managed to stay in it despite an onslaught of negative advertising.

Ads: Braley’s early efforts to define Ernst as a ditsy chick candidate were ineffective, and perhaps even backfired a bit. 

Outside Groups: Nearly nine million dollars have been spent by outside groups solely to trash Ernst, which is pretty impressive when you consider that she was a nobody candidate in a non-competitive race just a few months ago. NextGen has just now jumped in as a major player, after two Democratic groups, the DSCC and Senate Majority PAC.

Outlook: Republicans have to love where they are in this race. But at the end of the day, it’s Iowa. As long as it looks like a coin-toss, assume the Democrat will win until you’re proven wrong. Which could happen. Leaning Democratic retention.  

Kansas: To say Kansas is a Republican state is to oversimplify. Yes, the voters are generally registered Republicans, and they vote for Republican presidential candidates without fail, but there are two Republican parties there – the conservative one and the moderate one. This makes Kansas a natural place for an independent candidate like Greg Orman to catch fire in the right sort of year, which 2014 is proving to be.

As in many other states, moderate Republicans tend to turn out in general elections and vote Democratic when they get unhappy – as opposed to conservatives, who at worst abstain from voting. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., didn’t personally do too much to inflame ideological passions, but he is caught in the middle of the battle — partly from his own fault, partly from circumstances that were outside  of his control. 

The part out of his control pertains to Gov. Sam Brownback, R, his former Senate colleague, will appear with him on the ballot in six weeks. Brownback has turned the moderate-conservative battle into a white-hot conflagration. Once viewed as a conservative unifier of the state party, Brownback departed from his previous policy of not endorsing in primaries. When moderates blocked his agenda in the state legislature, he backed conservative primary challengers. What’s hurting Brownback even more with the general public is his new school-funding, which works against rural parts of the state where he needs huge margins to win.

But Roberts has no one to blame but himself for the rest of the story. His failure to be in touch with his state allowed a Tea Party primary challenger to rough him up pretty badly. The primary highlighted Roberts’ lack of a true residence in the state, and that charge has stuck.

Polls: In a head-to-head against Orman, Roberts is at best ahead within the margin of error and at worst down by five points or more. Democrats have embraced Orman after dumping their own nominee, Shawnee County D.A. Chad Taylor, whose presence in most polls up to this point complicates matters.

Roberts faces the uphill task of defining, tearing down, and surpassing an undefined outsider candidate in a very short period of time.

Ads: Roberts is running a campaign that touts his clout and ability to bring home pork, combined with negative ads painting Orman as an Obama clone. Orman is running ads portraying himself as an independent outsider.

Outside groups: Very little has been spent by outside groups since the primary — the question of whether Democratic groups decide to play here will be interesting.

Outlook: This race isn’t lost for Republicans yet, but they have some serious catching up to do. Orman would probably win if the election were held today. Leaning Democratic takeover.  

Kentucky: Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has never been Mr. Popular back home in Kentucky, and this spring he faced a ferocious, well-funded conservative attempt to knock him off the ballot. Yet he’s now a clear favorite to win re-election. Chalk it up to his extraordinary fundraising, his ability to reconnect with voters when it counts most, and the unwillingness of stronger Democratic candidates to take him on, even when he looked more vulnerable.

Kentucky is a conservative state and it votes Republican in presidential elections, but it’s still a Democratic state. Its overall realignment to the GOP has never happened. It was halted abruptly when Gov. Ernie Fletcher, R, was booted from office amid a huge hiring-and-pardons scandal after one term in 2007. Democrats still dominate elected state offices and control one house of the legislature (although that latter could change soon).

After singer Ashley Judd declined to seek the Democratic nomination against McConnell, and most of the state’s formidable Democrats bowed out, Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes decided, reluctantly and at the last minute, to make a go of it. Grimes, daughter of a former state party chairman, is a fine candidate on paper and would probably do pretty well in an open-seat race. The last few months have suggested that she’s probably not up to the task of beating McConnell.

Incredibly, the disappearance of McConnell’s campaign manager in connection with a payoff scandal from a previous campaign (Ron Paul for president in Iowa) has had no effect on this race. It helps that it all went down in the Labor Day news dump.

Polls: McConnell leads in the last eight consecutive polls. There’s a strong sense that he’s pulling away. Barring some sort of dramatic development, Democrats may soon decide that their resources are better spent elsewhere.

Ads: If you’re wondering what effect Obama’s low ratings have on these Senate races, look no further. Obama’s approval rating in the state is 29 percent, which means Grimes has had to spend money for the sole purpose of distinguishing herself from Obama. And of course, McConnell’s campaign got the better of her even here — it responded to within hours with an ad that used Grimes’ own footage to repeat the accusation that she is a mere Obama clone.

Outside Groups: McConnell has the better game here, too. Outside groups (including McConnell’s SuperPAC) have spent more than $13 million in negative ads alone, with most of the money going to negative advertising. Republican-linked groups have spent $8.3 million trashing Grimes — the dollar totals spent against McConnell is $5.8 million, but a good chunk of that was spent by conservative groups in the primary.

Outlook: McConnell was looking soft for a bit, but with Republican voters coming back into the fold and Obama so unpopular in the state, it’s no surprise that the polls are all moving in his direction. As with Kentucky’s last Senate race, it’s not hard to imagine him winning what seemed like a close race by a large margin. Likely Republican retention.  

Louisiana: Sen. Mary Landrieu, D, has survived tough races before — both before and after Hurricane Katrina. But she may finally meet her match this year against Rep. Bill Cassidy, R.

With President Obama at 38 percent approval in her state, facing an opponent with no serious baggage or discipline problems, she is now being weighed down by scandals related to billing taxpayers for air travel to fundraisers and the lack of a true residence in her home state. Take everything you hate about Washington, distill it, and you get those two mini-scandals. 

Polls: Landrieu leads in only one of the last eight polls taken of the race. The most recent poll of the almost-certain runoff election has her below 40 percent. She hasn’t polled anywhere near the 50 percent she will need to win under Louisiana’s unusual runoff system.

Ads: Recently, Cassidy has been hitting Landrieu on immigration. She has been running on her clout in the Senate, taking advantage of her appointment as chairman of the Energy Committee. 

Outside Groups: Landrieu has been hit by conservative groups over Obamacare, but this has gotten a lot more play on the Internet than it has in terms of actual ad spending. In fact, nearly all of the independent expenditures in this race have been for ads slamming Cassidy — $6 million worth, mostly from the DSCC, Senate Majority PAC, and Patriot Majority USA — all Democratic groups. 

Outlook: Landrieu has never been in such bad shape as she is now. She hasn’t made much of a dent in her opponent, who in turn hasn’t done or said anything particularly stupid to ruin his chances. All hints at this moment suggest a runoff in which Cassidy would be the favorite. Leaning Republican takeover.  

Michigan: Here’s another race that wasn’t expected to get legs at all. Detroit-area Rep. Gary Peters, D, faces former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, R, for the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Carl Levin, D. Land has outraised Peters, but she faces a tough fight in a bluish-purple state, and she’s taken a lot of heat lately for avoiding the media and attempting to limit the number of debates against her opponent.

Polls: Peters enjoys significant leads in three of the last four non-partisan polls. 

Outside groups: As in many other states, Democrats dominate the outside spending. Their groups have spent $9.6 million attacking Land, more than twice the amount spent by outside groups to attack Peters. 

Outlook:  At the moment, Peters remains the favorite. Leaning Democratic retention.

Montana: As we have previously noted, Democrats have all but given up on this one after their original nominee, Sen. John Walsh, D, quite amid a plagiarism scandal. They chose a non-viable nominee in his place.

Polls: Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., leads the new nominee, Amanda Curtis, by 18 points. He will probably win by more than that. But Montana is a growing and changing state — Curtis will test the floor for Democratic votes and it should be interesting to see where it is.

Outlook: Stick a fork in this one. Likely Republican takeover.  

North Carolina: The GOP establishment got its nominee in state House Speaker Thom Tillis, R — the question is whether he has it in him to beat Sen. Kay Hagan, D.

Polls: Hagan holds the lead in the last six consecutive polls — including some partisan Republican polls. 

Ads: Hagan is attacking Tillis for supposed education cuts passed the North Carolina legislature. Tillis is attacking her for voting with President Obama 96 percent of the time.

Outside Groups: People talk about the money spent against Hagan, but most of the independent expenditures in this race have gone against her opponent. Tillis has weathered nearly $15 million in negative ads if you count the primary. And forget the Koch Brothers — Democratic money completely dominates this race so far, which might explain Tillis’ failure to gain more traction.

Outlook: Hagan isn’t out of the woods yet, but she’s definitely the favorite for now.  Leaning Democratic retention.  

South Dakota: With Sen. Tim Johnson, D, retiring, South Dakotans seemed likely to elect a Republican in his place. They still do, but it’s gotten more interesting. Democrats failed to nominate anyone formidable, and former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler has filled the vacuum as a liberal-leaning independent. The race between him, Democrat Rick Weiland, and former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, R, favors the GOP, but it isn’t the landslide you might expect.

Polls: Rounds enjoys double-digit leads in the few polls taken so far, but those leads have shrunk over time. In the most recent poll, Pressler and Weiland each draw about a quarter of the vote, with Rounds at 39 percent with an 11-point lead.

Ads: Weiland is attacking Rounds for South Dakota’s participation in the EB-5 visa program when he was governor, accusing him of selling citizenship to wealthy foreigners. Rounds is having to defend himself against these ads. Pressler, whose wife has long been a top realtor in Washington, D.C., is running as an outsider.

Outside Groups: Not too much happening here — one liberal SuperPAC has helped amplify Weiland’s anti-immigration message.

Outlook: Leaning Republican takeover.  

West Virginia: West Virginia has been growing increasingly Republican, and the retirement of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D, offers voters an easy opportunity to confirm the trend by electing Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. All indications are that they will do so.

Polls: Capito’s lead hovers around 20 points.

Ads: Capito, the congresswoman, is running against Washington and against Obamacare. Tennant is running on a sympathetic personal story about health care.

Outside Groups: Democrats and left-wing groups have lost interest in this race, viewing it as a fait accompli.

Outlook: Likely Republican Takeover.