The Fate of the Senate


A Republican Wave?

The so-called Republican wave should swamp the Senate on Election Day, according to most pundits, including Virginia’s Larry Sabato. The Republican’s seem to be winning the sound-bite war, declaring that their purported war on women is “tiresome,” raising the minimum wage would “kill jobs,” and repealing Obamacare is “job one.” I am not sure that snarky comments, rationalizations, and vilifying Obamacare are good reasons to get the Senate majority. I rather expect the GOP wave to miss some Democrats on Election Day, leaving them high and dry.

In this election cycle the GOP seems much like the self-congratulating braggart, who is being set up for a fall. Of course, polls show that Republicans are favored to take the Senate, but this reminds me of the Scottish referendum in September, where polls indicated that 52% wanted independence, but the actual vote revealed that only 45% wanted to break free from the United Kingdom. A poll can be wrong, slanted, or political propaganda, depending on who is paying for it.


Why Are So Many Senate Races So Close?

Money! The media like close elections because they sell political ads. The campaigns make elections look close, so money keeps coming in for their candidates. So with polls that are potentially erroneous and races that are engineered for excitement, how can we anticipate results? Well, there are some basic trends in Senate elections:

  1. Incumbents usually win—91% were reelected in 2012; 84% in 2010
  2. More Republican than Democratic incumbents have lost in recent election cycles—14 Republican and 4 Democratic incumbents have lost reelection since 2004.
  3. Lopsided Senates tend to see the biggest change in seats. For example, before the 2010 elections Democrats held 57 seats versus 41 for Republicans—and Democrats lost 6 seats. Currently Democrats have 53 seats versus 45 for Republicans, and GOP chances of getting 6 seats are less likely.

Keeping in mind that most incumbents win reelection and that Democratic incumbents tend to lose less on average, I made the following map of predicted election results for November 4, 2014:

Predicted Results on Election Day

The Map on Election Day!

Looking at the map, it looks like Republicans will gain (+R) 6 seats, picking up seats currently held by Democrats in Montana, South Dakota, Iowa, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana—although the results of the Louisiana race may have to wait until December 6, if none of the candidates get over 50% of the vote. My allocation of states to Republicans or Democrats is largely based on recent polls and voting trends. However, close states like Colorado and Iowa have the potential to surprise.

Democratic incumbents in Arkansas and Louisiana are expected to lose reelection. Republican Senator Pat Roberts seemed to take voters for granted until it was too late, and Independent Greg Orman should win the Senate seat in Kansas (+Ind). Future Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell  may squeak out another victory in Kentucky, but then he may have the daunting task of running the Senate, which is much like “herding cats.” 

Finally, Democrat Michelle Nunn looks to take a Senate seat from Republicans in Georgia (+D), but a runoff election scheduled for January 6 could leave control of the Senate in limbo until January 6. Also, many of the winning margins could be razor thin, which could bring recounts and court challenges. Anyone remember how long it took to resolve the Minnesota Senate race in 2008 between Al Franken and Norm Coleman? Eight months!

The speed of election results is anyone’s guess. For example, if Democrat Mark Udall wins in Colorado, then Republicans will likely file a voter fraud suit because of the state’s new mail  voting system. Assuming runoff elections in Georgia and Louisiana, Democrats should have 47 seats—or 49 if one includes the two Independents from Maine and Vermont. Republicans, with 48 seats, will need to win Louisiana and Georgia to get to 50 seats, then convince Greg Orman (Kansas) to caucus with them (and not the Democrats) to get to 51. The three Independents in the Senate will have real power at a time when most voters are unhappy with the two major political parties.

Senate control may not be known for months, and Independent Senators may be key in determining which party claims a majority.