The Senate in 2015: What to Expect?

Yes, the media is all abuzz about the new Republican-dominated Congress that begins on January 6, 2015. Pundits still talk about Democrats losing 9 seats in the 2014 election results (my previous blog on Senate predictions was a bit off). How did this happen?

By winning 9 seats in 2014, Republicans start 2015 with a majority of 54 (out of 100) seats in the U.S. Senate.
By winning 9 seats in 2014, Republicans start 2015 with a majority of 54 (out of 100) seats in the U.S. Senate.

The Blame Obama Option 

For Republicans, blaming Obama seems to be the answer for everything. However, it should be noted that the only new Democratic Senator in the 2014 cycle, Gary Peters from Michigan, was the only Democratic 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 Senate Democrats and candidates distanced themselves from the President, even though many were elected in the Obama-engineered Democratic wave of 2008. Lack of unity with the President and low voter turnout resulted in Republicans winning a Senate majority on Election Day by an average margin of some 72,000 votes per state–ranging from a winning margin of 6,000 votes in Alaska to 144,000 in Arkansas.


Was the GOP Wave Caused by Obamacare or by Senate Numbers?

GOP attacks on “job-killing Obamacare” will be used early and often in 2015, pointing to the will of the American people in voting Democrats out of the Senate in 2014. Of course, Republicans will fail to mention their loss of 6 Senate seats in 2006 and another 8 seats in 2008, when the will of the American people was unfavorable to Republicans. In reality, the Democratic wave of 2008 brought about the Republican wave of 2014. Change in party control of the Senate is part of a cycle as designed in the U.S. Constitution that requires a third of the Senate to be up for election every 2 years. I should add that Republicans gained 6 seats in their 2010 wave, and many will be vulnerable in 2016, because Republicans will be defending 24 seats versus 10 for Democrats. In 2014, Democrats defended 21 seats to the GOP’s 15.







Democrats expected to lose some Senate seats, because the party in the White House usually loses Congressional seats in midterm elections. But especially low voter turnout (see graph below) likely hurt Democrats even more. Why the lower than average voter turnout for the 2014 midterms? 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 created a dispirited Democratic base, which contributed to low voter turnout.

GraphPres&Senate2014Presidential vote totals compared to 2014 Senate votes where Republicans won a Democratic seat.

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 and not just be the “Party of No.” However, confrontation will likely be the natural order of things, with Republicans passing legislation that they know will be vetoed by the President.

The new Senate, with a 54-member Republican majority, convenes on January 6 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, all this is just part of the natural Senate cycle.


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.

The Fate of the U.S. Senate

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 declaring women’s issues irrelevant, sacrificing minimum wage earners, and taking away health care will win the Senate. 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:

The Senate Map After Election Day

The Senate Map After Election Day

The Map After 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.

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).

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.

The speed of election results is anyone’s guess, and if Democrat Mark Udall wins in Colorado, then Republicans will likely file a voter fraud suit because of the new mail in 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 until the Georgia election on January 6. The fate of the Senate may take weeks to determine.


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.





How Will Virginia Vote in 2014?

Okay, I just gave a test on political geography to one of my classes, and I decided to sit down and collect my thoughts on the election next Tuesday, November 4. After getting my students all hyped up about electoral geography, I am hoping some of that enthusiasm translates into a memorable blog. Well, here goes…

Virginia Geopolitical Predictions—The Senate

Virginia’s Senate seat will go to incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Warner. Surprise! Republican Ed Gillespie’s campaign boils down to, “Governor Warner wouldn’t recognize Senator Warner,” but candidate Gillespie does not offer much substance—just tired old Republican rhetoric. Gillespie will lose by some 500,000 votes, but Virginians will probably see him run for governor in 2017. Geopolitically, Warner will carry most of the counties and cities throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia, with the exception of some rural counties, especially in the west and southwest. Virginia went mostly blue (map below) in 2008, when Warner beat former Governor James Gilmore for the U.S. Senate seat.

Democrat Mark Warner was elected to the Senate in 2008. The Republican candidate only got a handful of counties (red).

A mostly blue Virginia: Mark Warner won most cities and counties in 2008







Virginia Geopolitical Predictions—U.S. House Seats

All 11 of Virginia’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up for election, and most will return the (mostly Republican) incumbents. Yes, people are vastly unhappy with Congress, yet they seem to return their representatives.Virginia races that are interesting or competitive this year are in districts 2, 7, and 10 (see map below).


U.S. House Races in Virginia: Both Boring & Exciting







District 2. The geography of the 2nd District is delightfully complex, thanks to Republican-led gerrymandering efforts in 2011. The district includes Accomack and Northampton counties and the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Newport News. Here, Democrat Suzanne Patrick is challenging Republican incumbent Scott Rigell. Normally the incumbent should win, but this district is competitive geographically. Rigell was elected in the Republican wave of 2010, but in 2012 the district gave Democrat Tim Kaine more votes than former Republican Senator George Allen. Rigell defended his seat in 2012 by spending $2.5 million—one of the most expensive 2012 House races in Virginia. The key to this district is Virginia Beach: The city split its vote in the 2013 gubernatorial contest between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Patrick’s military background could give her a boost on November 4, especially if turnout is high.

Redrawing the 3rd District will impact other districts.

Redrawing the 3rd District will impact other districts.

District 7. This district is not competitive, but it is exciting. David Brat’s upset primary win over Eric Cantor in June 2014 means this is an open seat—with a political newbie. The 7th District is safely Republican, based on the boundaries set in 2011 by Virginia’s Republican legislature. However, the boundaries for District 7 will change in 2015, because the neighboring 3rd District was declared unconstitutional in 2014. Looking at the map at left, changes to the 3rd District will likely give surrounding districts a greater minority population. Assuming he wins election, Representative Brat will have the least seniority in the Republican delegation, and his district could see the greatest change in boundaries, making it more competitive.

District 10. This is by far the most competitive Congressional district in Virginia. This is an open seat due to Republican Frank Wolf’s retirement. The candidates are Republican Barbara Comstock and Democrat John Foust. The district includes Fairfax, Frederick, and Loudoun counties, as well as the cities of Manassas and Winchester.

Delegate Barbara Comstock has represented District 34 in the Virginia House of Delegates since 2010. About two thirds of her district is in Fairfax, with the rest in eastern Loudoun County. Comstock won her last election with only 50% of the vote, versus 49% for her Democratic opponent. Also, Comstock has drawn fire from tea party activists, which could limit conservative support.

John Foust won his last election to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisions with 60% of the vote. Loudoun and Fairfax counties are key to this race, and Democrats have a voting edge in both counties. A recent Republican poll shows Comstock as winning big, but this seems to be a ploy to discourage Democratic voters from turning out. Other polls have been more competitive.

In the end, District 10 is the only one that I believe will change from Republican to Democrat on November 4. Based on the political geography of the 10th district, I think John Foust will win and the district map of Virginia will have one more Democratic district (map below). We will see on November 4.


Will Democrats gain a House seat in Virginia?









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.


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.