Many people focus on the South when talking about Senate control in the November 4, 2014, elections. Republican campaigns and PACs have spent tens of millions of dollars on Senate races in the South: Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. However, it is the American Heartland, or Midwest, region that may be key to the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, with 5 key elections in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Dakota (shown in brown and green on the map).
The American Heartland looms large and has varying extents, depending on the person. Geographers have done many studies on what people consider to be the Heartland/Midwest region. States like Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota are solidly Midwest, but Colorado and Kentucky have split personalities. Eastern Colorado, where most Coloradans live, is part of the High Plains and is often grouped with the Midwest region, while lands beyond the Rockies are West. Northern Kentuckians, like those in Louisville and Owensboro, often identify with Midwest, although some use the term “Mid South,” and those near the Tennessee border consider themselves Southern.
Republican Senate Plans & Assumptions
First, let’s take a quick look at the Republican strategy for Senate control in 2014, which has largely been parroted by the media and pundits, such as The Washington Post and Virginia’s political prognosticator Larry Sabato. According to GOP predictions, their candidates could take Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, and West Virginia, while holding all their existing seats for a gain of 8 seats. Except for Virginia and North Carolina, the South looks friendly to Republicans, who should take seats from Democrats in Arkansas and Louisiana and win a very close race in Georgia.
The 8-seat gain is based on pretty simple math. Of course, Senate elections are far more complex. As of early October, North Carolina looks like a lost cause for Republicans, South Dakota has a vulnerable Republican candidate, and Republican incumbents could lose in Kansas and Kentucky. Suddenly, Republicans could gain just 6 Democratic seats and maybe lose 2 seats for a net gain of only 4 seats (Republicans need 6 seats to take control of the Senate).
At times, Republicans have somewhat arrogantly claimed that Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Virginia would fall to them, but Democratic candidates in these states are considered reasonably safe as of early October. In my home state of Virginia, Democratic Senator Mark Warner will win re-election easily; rumors are that his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, is using this race as a trial balloon to run for Governor of Virginia in 2017.
Republicans also are assuming lower voter turnout for an off-year election. Some 130 million voters cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012, but only about 90 million voted in 2010. Republicans gained 6 Senate seats in 2010, but lost 8 seats in 2008 and 2 seats in 2012. It is generally considered that lower voter turnout favors Republicans, and that is why Republican-controlled states have passed voter-ID laws, which often discourage minorities and college students from voting.
Finally, Republicans hold the advantage in this election in that they are defending only 15 Senate seats compared to 21 for Democrats. However, Republicans are expected to defend 24 seats in 2016, versus only 10 for Democrats. In other words, Republicans will have little hope of taking the Senate in 2016, if they fall short in 2014.
The Midwest Upsets Republican Plans: Starting in Kansas
The three-way race for Kansas’s Senate seat experienced a geopolitical quake in early September, when Democratic candidate Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, leaving incumbent Senator Pat Roberts (R) facing Independent candidate Greg Orman. Non-partisan polls indicate that Republicans will likely lose this seat. Orman intends to caucus with the majority party, but Republican attack ads may spoil any future relationship with the GOP.
The map above highlights the 4 toss-up Midwestern states (brown), with Kansas at the center:
South Dakota. Republicans took neighboring North Dakota for granted in 2012 and lost the Senate seat to Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp. Currently, there is a three-way race to succeed Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, who is retiring. Mike Rounds, the Republican, leads with only 35% of the vote, while Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent candidate Larry Pressler continue to gain. Like Pat Roberts in Kansas, polls show Mike Rounds to be unpopular, and this race could become quite close. Should Pressler win, along with Orman in Kansas, the number of Independents in the Senate would double to 4 — a storybook outcome at a time when voters are unhappy with both political parties.
Iowa. U.S. Representative Bruce Braley (D) is running against state Senator Joni Ernst (R) to succeed retiring Senator Tom Harkin (D). Braley’s base in northeast Iowa includes urban and rural constituencies; Ernst is from rural, conservative southwestern Iowa. Des Moines, in Polk County at the center of the state, is the electoral prize for both candidates. Geographically, eastern Iowa will favor Braley and western Iowa will go for Ernst. This will likely be a nail-biter election, but I give a slight edge to Braley.
Kentucky. Polls show that incumbent Republican Senator Mitch McConnell is struggling in his race against Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell is unpopular in polls, and tea party support is unenthusiastic or gone. Mitch McConnell has a host of geopolitical vulnerabilities, which I covered in June. Kentucky is usually one of the first states to report election results, but November 4 could be a long night.
Colorado. Senator Mark Udall (D) is purportedly on the ropes, according to conservative commentators, but the state that legalized recreational marijuana last year is not likely to go conservative in a statewide election. Republicans point to two Democratic state senators, who were recalled over gun control legislation in 2013, but this was not a statewide effort. Udall should pull in enough votes from Denver, Boulder, and other cities in central and eastern Colorado to win. Republican Cory Gardner, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011, will sweep most of his rural district in eastern Colorado and will do well in the far western rural counties, but this will likely not be enough to win the election.
Kansas: Center of a Gathering Political Storm
If Republicans win in all 4 of the toss-up Midwest elections (in brown on the map), then they will gain 7 seats; however, if the GOP loses all four then they will only gain 3 seats. Assuming that Republicans win in other regions of the country and that Kansas goes to Independent candidate Greg Orman, Republicans need to take 3 of the 4 Midwestern Senate seats to win the Senate (a tall order). Also, there will be Senate uncertainty, pending any general runoff election in Louisiana (December 6, 2014) and Georgia (January 6, 2015).
In the end, it appears that Republicans will not take the Senate outright and that control of the Senate may not be determined until early 2015, depending on runoff elections and negotiations with Independents in the Senate.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the view of the NOVA Institute for Public Service or Northern Virginia Community College as a whole. All materials may be reprinted with permission, for more information please contact the IPS Coordinator.