The Humble American Heartland: Key to Senate Control?

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.




The U.S. Senate

The U.S. Senate







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 1 or 2 seats for a net gain of only 5 or 4 seats (Republicans need 6 seats to take control of the Senate). Of course, many of the states, such as Colorado and Iowa are razor close and could go to either party’s candidate.

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. New mail-in voting and same-day registration will increase turnout and help Democrats. 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.


David B. Miller, Assistant Professor, Geography, NVCC-Alexandria

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.

Special Election for Virginia’s 33rd State Senate Seat, January 21, 2014

The Washington Post blared on a January 20 header: “Outcome Could Decide Senate Control.” Of course, the Post is referring to the three-way race for the 33rd district between Democrat Jennifer Wexton, Republican John Whitbeck, and Independent candidate (and former Republican) Joe May.

This is shaping up to be a LARGE Democratic win. Why you may ask???

  • The 33rd district leans Democratic, as described in my 1 January blog.
  • Whitbeck and May will likely split the Republican vote.
  • As of 10 January, Wexton has raised $835,000 versus $259,000 for Whitbeck and $168,000 for May (see VPAP).
  • Perhaps the most telling sign of all is the overall low level of contributions from Republican Party groups to Whitbeck (see below).
  • The Virginia Senate Republican Caucus seems to lack faith in Whitbeck, who has received about $72,000. This pales in comparison to $578,000 given to Republican Wayne Coleman in his race for the 6th Senate district earlier this month.graph

There is a wildcard factor—the forecast calls for snow on Election Day! Snow is expected to start at 9 am. We will see if this affects the election.

In any case, control of the Virginia State Senate does hang in the balance. Democrats must win the election for the 33rd district tomorrow, as well as the election recount for the 6th district.

locatorStateSenate Elections


Race for the Northam & Herring Virginia Senate Seats: A Geopolitical View




As predicted in my 21 October blog, the Democratic candidates won the elections for Virginia Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General. That is the good news for Democrats. The not so good news is that Lt. Governor-elect Ralph Northam and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring resigned their state senate seats to take their new offices. Prior to these two resignations, the Virginia State Senate was tied with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans — now it is 18 Democrats and 20 Republicans. Control of the senate will hinge on these two special elections in deeply purple Virginia. As a political geographer, I was interested in seeing whether Democrats or Republicans had a geographic advantage in either special election.

locatorStateSenate Elections

State Senate District 6: Election on Tuesday, January 7, 2014. This election pits Democrat Lynwood Lewis against Republican Wayne Coleman. Lewis represents the Eastern Shore and Norfolk in the Virginia House of Delegates; Coleman, CEO for CV International, a Norfolk-based shipping firm, is running for his first elected office.

District 6 Geopolitics. The district represents traditionally Democratic Norfolk City and Northampton County (about 67% of the district’s vote), the tossup county of Accomack (23% of the vote), strongly Republican Mathews County (7% of the vote), and tossup city Virginia Beach (3% of the vote). In summary, about 67% of the vote favors Democrats, 7% trends toward Republicans, and 26% of the vote could go either way (a political tossup). The new senate district boundaries in 2011 made district 6 slightly more Democratic by removing areas in Virginia Beach and adding areas in Norfolk City. In the 2012 election, President Obama garnered 57% of the vote in this district, compared to 42% for Mitt Romney.

District 6 Election Prediction. Based on the geospatial characteristics of the district, the Democratic candidate, Lynwood Lewis, should win easily. Democrat Lynwood Lewis has a good record of working with both parties in the House of Delegates. The Republican candidate, Wayne Coleman, does not seem ready for prime time, even though he is well funded. When asked how to improve education in Norfolk (a city that is 43% black), Coleman replied:

“I’m old enough to have lived during the desegregation of the schools here locally. And busing children, in my opinion, around the different districts, getting them out of their local neighborhoods, really was the beginning of the decline in some of the school districts.”

In the gaffe-celebrating 24-hour news cycle, this statement became “things were better before desegregation.” Of course, this alienates blacks and characterizes Coleman as an OWG (Old White Guy). Something Republicans have been trying to avoid in their rebranding effort.

State Senate District 33: Election on Tuesday, January 21, 2014. This election pits Democrat Jennifer Wexton, former Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Loudoun County, against two Republicans: John Whitbeck, described as a Tea Party activist, and Delegate Joe May (Loudoun), a member of the Virginia House of Delegates for 20 years. Delegate May was defeated in his reelection effort by Tea Party-endorsed Dave LaRock in the June 2013 primary election. Joe May is running as an Independent candidate.

District 33 Geopolitics. The district consists of parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Urbanized Fairfax is more liberal than Loudoun, which has large rural areas. Loudoun holds 72% of the district’s voters and Fairfax 28%. Within the 33rd State Senate district, 35 out of 40 precincts in Loudoun and all 8 precincts in Fairfax favored Democratic candidates in the 2012 elections for U.S. Senator and President. President Obama captured 59% of the vote in this district, compared to 39% for Mitt Romney. In 2013, both Loudoun and Fairfax provided a majority of their votes to Democrat Terry McAuliffe over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Overall, the 33rd district leans to Democrats, but off year or special elections with low turnouts often elect Republicans.

District 33 Election Prediction. The geopolitical landscape indicates that Democrat Jennifer Wexton should win the election by a wide margin. Whitbeck and May will split the Republican vote. Regarding issues, Jennifer Wexton states, “The legislature needs to spend more time on improving our economy and less time on ideological pursuits and divisive social issues.” The Whitbeck campaign seems to be focusing on “no taxes, no abortions, no gun control, and especially no Obamacare.” This kind of rhetoric did not work for Ken Cuccinelli in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, so it is unlikely to be effective in this election. The “Party of No” will need to do better. Regarding Joe May, the Independent candidate, I could not find his campaign website, which is a problem if he wants to win.

Control of the Virginia Senate. At is point it looks likely that Democrats will win both state senate seats. This means that the Virginia Senate will have 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, with Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam providing the tiebreaking vote if needed. The Virginia Senate is not up for election until 2015, so the winners will have a definite impact.

David B. Miller, Geography Instructor, NVCC-Alexandria

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.





Just 2 Weeks to Election Day & It’s Shrill Time in Virginia

Have you noticed that you are looking at more political ads on TV and seeing more political signs along the road? You are not alone!

The link below highlights the status of the Virginia race for governor as of mid-October.The political rhetoric is getting shrill as we approach Halloween.

The Virginia Race Oct-21-2013 

David B. Miller, Geography Instructor, NVCC-Alexandria

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.