The 2015 U.S. Senate: What to Expect?

Yes, the media is all abuzz about the new Republican-dominated Congress that starts on January 9, 2015. Pundits still talk about Democrats losing 9 seats in the 2014 election results (my previous blog on Senate predictions was way off).

The Blame Obama Option!

For Republicans, blaming Obama seems the answer for everything. However, it should be noted that the only new Democratic Senator in the 2014 cycle, Senator-elect Gary Peters from Michigan, was the only Democratic U.S. Senate candidate to embrace President Obama and invite him to campaign. Peters won in Michigan with 1.7 million votes, beating his Republican opponent by 410,000 votes—this in a state that reelected a Republican governor in 2014. Most Democrats distanced themselves from the President, even though they were elected in the Obama-engineered Democratic wave of 2008.

Blame Obamacare Option!

This GOP attack on “job-killing Obamacare” will be used early and often in 2015, pointing to the will of the American people in voting Democrats out in 2014. Of course, Republicans will fail to mention their loss of 6 Senate seats in 2006 and another 8 seats in 2008. In reality, the Democratic wave of 2008 brought about the Republican wave of 2014. This is part of the Senate cycle as designed in the U.S. Constitution. I should add that Republicans gained 6 seats in their 2010 wave, and many will be vulnerable in 2016.

Blame Low Voter Turnout Option

Democrats expected to lose some Senate seats, but low voter turnout (see graph below) likely hurt Democrats even more. Why the low turnout? Because Democrats were divided, failing to support President Obama and many Democratic policies. Republicans have always portrayed Obama and the Affordable Care Act as unpopular, and many Democrats took the bait by distancing themselves from the President. This confused message from Democratic candidates resulted in low voter turnout.

Comparing Presidential Votes to 2014 Senate Votes by State
Comparing Presidential Votes to the 2014 Senate Votes (by State)

What Can We Expect from the 2015 Senate?

Many Republicans believe they have a voter mandate to confront Obama, even though 2014 saw historically low voter participation. Senator McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, will need to balance cooperation with confrontation. Cooperation with the White House is needed to show that Republicans can govern. However, confrontation will likely be the natural order of things, with Republicans passing legislation that they know will be vetoed by the President.

Senate Control?

The new Senate, with a 54-member Republican majority, will convene on January 9 in what Republicans are calling the “New American Congress.” It should be noted that no party “controls” the Senate unless it has a 60-member majority. Democrats can now reciprocate with tactics used by Senate Republicans since 2009. Undoubtedly, some Democrats gleefully look forward to “holds” or “filibusters” on Republican legislation. Again, this is part of the natural Senate cycle.


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.

The Midwest: Key to Senate Control in 2014

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 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 below).



Republican Senate Plans & Assumptions

First, let’s take a quick look at 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 vintage political prognosticator Larry Sabato. According to their plans, the GOP 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.

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 Republicans 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 even 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. The Republican brand has seen growing difficulty in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (other than West Virginia).

Republicans are also 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 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 felt 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.

The map (above) show a series of toss-up Midwestern states (brown) swirling around Kansas:

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 exhibits 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 gone or unenthusiastic. 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 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. Udall should pull in enough votes from Denver, Boulder, and central Colorado to win. Republican Cory Gardner, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011, will sweep his rural district in eastern Colorado and will do well in the far western counties, but this will likely not be enough to win the election.

The Independent Midwest and Senate Control 

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 2015, depending on runoff elections and negotiations with Independents in the Senate.

The 2014 Kentucky Senate Race: Irony & Political Theater

Political candidates are often compared to actors trying to win over an audience while on stage, using scripts written by others . As in any drama, elections can have surprise endings. On June 10, House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election in one of the biggest political upsets ever. Was this a freak electoral storm, or should other Republican leaders worry, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell?

The political stage loves irony, or at least finds it entertaining, and the Senate race in Kentucky could be truly ironic if:

  • Mitch McConnell is defeated, and his loss means that Republicans fail to take control of the Senate.
  • Republicans take control of the Senate, but McConnell is defeated in his reelection effort, and he never becomes Senate Majority Leader.
  • Former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.), who oversaw Republicans’ failure to take back the Senate in 2010 and 2012, becomes Senate Majority Leader in 2014 after McConnell’s election loss.
  • Republican Senate Minority leader McConnell loses his election on the 10th anniversary of Democratic Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle losing his seat in a historic political upset.
Screen shot 2014-06-08 at 1.57.20 PM
Political Theater: Comedy, Tragedy, and Irony in McConnell-Grimes Race

The stage is truly set for an ironic ending, but can McConnell really be defeated? University of Virginia’s political prognosticator, Larry Sabato, could answer such a question. According to Sabato’s Crystal Ball website on June 4, it appears that McConnell will easily win reelection and Republicans will take 4 to 8 seats in the November elections.

Could Sabato Be Wrong? A good geopolitical analyst looks at more than just one source, so I reviewed some current polls, headlines, and election trends.How is Mitch McConnell doing in the polls? Polls at Real Clear Politics look pretty bad for an incumbent. His campaign suffered negative publicity after a tape emerged in April 2013 of plans to attack Ashley Judd’s mental health. He averages only 45% of the vote in polls ending June 5, 2014. The Democratic candidate, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, is running very close to McConnell in most polls, and a Courier-Journal poll actually shows Grimes edging ahead.

Healthcare Debate. McConnell hates Obamacare (a Republican mantra), but Kentuckians seem to like their state healthcare exchange, Kynect. Confusingly, McConnell says that repealing Obamacare would have no impact on Kynect; this brought doublespeak charges from the Lexington Herald-Leader and criticism from Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear. McConnell could become more unpopular as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) becomes more popular.

Kentucky Elections. Kentucky has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in 2011 Kentuckians elected six Democrats and one Republican to statewide offices, ranging from Governor to State Treasurer. Alison Lundergan Grimes garnered 60.6% of the vote to become Secretary of State in 2011 (see map below). Mitch McConnell won his Senate reelection in 2008 with 53% of the vote.


Geopolitically, Democrats tend to do best in the urban areas of Louisville, Lexington, and Owensboro and in eastern Kentucky. Republicans get most of their votes in central and southern Kentucky. Grimes won her 2011 election by holding Democratic counties and gaining votes in normally Republican regions.

McConnell’s 2008 election (map below) shows Kentucky as a purple state. Many counties show as varying shades of purple–neither firmly Republican nor Democrat. Individual campaigns and debates make a big difference in such areas.

McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.
McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford with 53% of the vote in 2008. Many of the swing counties (purple) went for Grimes in 2011.


2012 Senate Elections. Finally, let’s consider that Republicans forecast they would take the Senate in 2012. How did that work out? Well, Republicans won only 8 of 33 Senate races, with Republicans barely winning in Arizona and Nevada. Republicans ended up losing 3 seats in 2012—in Indiana, Maine, and Massachusetts. The Republican brand looks vulnerable in statewide races.

Toss-up Election? This looks more and more like a toss-up election. Now, I am the first to admit that I am no Larry Sabato (twitter: @larrysabato), nor even Ben Tribbett (twitter: @notlarrysabato). Both are Virginia political institutions. However, I question Sabato judging the Kentucky Senate race as “Likely R” (likely Republican). It seems like a “Toss-up,” or maybe a “Lean R” at this point.