WASHINGTON – At first glance, the numbers seem almost too good to believe, for hopeful Republicans.
In fact, the blaring headlines are startling, and they come from sources not known for pushing GOP fortunes.
- The Washington Post’s election model gives Republicans a 96 percent chance of winning the Senate.
- The New York Times predicts there is a 71 percent chance Republicans will retake the Senate.
- And, the highly respected data-analysis website FiveThirtyEight gives the GOP a 61 percent chance.
If the GOP wants to roll back what it regards as President Obama’s attempt to fundamentally transform America, the party must retake power: the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016.
The House looks secure for the GOP, where analysts predict it will keep, and maybe even increase, its majority. Attention is now riveted on the Senate, where 35 seats are up for election on Nov. 4., and Republicans must make a net gain of six seats to achieve a majority over Democrats.
And, suddenly, the prize of Senate control appears tantalizingly close for Republicans.
Helping fuel the GOP momentum is the president’s nosedive in the polls.
In 2009, Newsweek editor at large Evan Thomas called Obama “sort of God.”
But the publication that nearly deified the president was singing a much different tune last week: “What is certain is that the president remains a drag for his party. He’s barely been invited to campaign with members. His role in the race is as a punching bag for Republicans and as an off-camera fund-raiser for Democrats.”
The president himself boldly proclaimed voters should consider the midterm election a referendum on his policies, telling students at Northwestern University on Oct. 2, “I am not on the ballot this fall. … But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot … Every single one of them.”
For the GOP, that may be a gift, and for Obama it may be a case of “be careful what you wish for,” because an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed his job approval rating hit a new low of 40 percent.
Additionally, it showed the Democratic Party’s popularity as the weakest in 30 years, with GOP candidates holding a 50-to-44 percent lead among likely voters and with two-thirds of respondents saying the country is seriously off-track.
Public skepticism of the president’s handling of recent crises may also affect the election.
The same poll found just 35 percent approve of Obama’s response to the threat posed by jihadist army ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and only 29 percent approve of his handling of the immigration crisis.
And another ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday, even before news broke of a second case of Ebola in the United States, showed 46 percent of likely voters strongly disapprove of the federal government’s response to the health crisis. Only 19 percent strongly approved, and 22 percent somewhat approved.
However, despite encouraging poll numbers for Republicans, longtime political observers note the GOP has a propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
With less than three weeks before the crucial midterm election, the devil is in the details, and the details are entirely a numbers game.
The important numbers are 51, 55, 6, 3 and 6, again.
- The GOP needs 51 seats to control the Senate.
- Currently, the Democrats control 55 seats. (The pair of independent senators caucus with, and generally vote with, the 53 Democrats in the Senate.)
- To gain control of the Senate, Republicans will need to win six seats.
- The GOP is a virtual lock to win three of the seats up for grabs.
- So, Republicans must win at least half of six key races that are toss-ups. That is, the path to the Republicans taking control of the Senate lies in just three key races.
The three Senate races most political analysts agree the GOP is nearly certain to win are in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota.
As for the best chance of securing the three more needed to gain control of the Senate, the highly regarded website FiveThirtyEight has identified six races it considers key.
The website is run by renowned baseball statistician Nate Silver, who astounded the world by correctly predicting the outcome of 49 of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election and all 35 of the Senate races that year. In 2012, Silver correctly predicted the outcome in the presidential races in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and correctly predicted the winners in 31 of 33 Senate races.
FiveThirtyEight doesn’t conduct polling but it does forecast odds based on polling data.
Based on its analysis of that data, the website predicts Republicans must win three of these six key races to gain control of the Senate:
- North Carolina
Here is a detailed look at those races using poll numbers from the website Real Clear Politics, as of Thursday. The website is regarded as having a strong track record because it averages the major polls to come up with its figures.
GOP contender Dan Sullivan leads incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Begich by 4.4 points. Sullivan is at 47 percent, and Begich has 46.2 percent.
Begich is trying to avoid running against President Obama, as well as his Republican opponent.
The incumbent senator told a crowd of about 30 at a strip mall last in Juneau week, “This is about Alaska’s future. Not his, ours.”
He asked voters not to transfer their anger with Obama against him, arguing the race should be about veteran’s care, what he called reproductive rights and education, while not diving into the debates over Obamacare, Ebola and ISIS.
Campaigning with the first-term senator, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., called Begich a moderate who was not afraid to stand up to Obama.
Sullivan isn’t shying away from a strong Washington connection, having just released a 30-second television ad featuring an endorsement from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Our nation and the world face serious threats to our security. And who we send to Washington really matters,” said Rice in the spot, while adding, Sullivan’s “extensive national security experience will make our country better.”
Sullivan worked under Rice as director on the National Security Council staff when she was secretary of state and national security adviser.
He is currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, having served for 20 years as an infantry and reconnaissance officer.
Sullivan was appointed attorney general by former Gov. Sarah Palin in June 2009 and commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources by Gov. Sean Parnell in December 2010.
Republicans are doing what they can to make the election a referendum on the top Democrat, with State GOP chairman Peter Goldberg calling Begich “a Democrat who does not support our own principles and is voting with a liberal president and Senate majority leader, like President Obama and Harry Reid.”
Republican candidate Tom Cotton has a 3.6 percent lead over Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor. Cotton has 45.2 percent, and Pryor is at 41.6 percent.
Cotton is making sure voters know he is running against the president as well as his opponent, telling the media immediately after the candidates’ first debate, “[W]e just reminded my opponent and the voters that he has voted with Barack Obama 93 percent of the time, and on critical issues such as Obamacare, immigration, and foreign policy.”
The Republican has hammered Pryor for his support of Obama on all those issues.
Cotton contrasted his support for “securing our border and enforcing immigration laws already on the books” with his opponent’s vote for the immigration bill the Senate approved, adding, “Anything that’s close to Barack Obama’s amnesty, I will fight.”
As for the negative effects of Obamacare, Cotton noted, “[O]ver 4,000 Medicare Advantage plans have been cut and Walmart has just cut health benefits for 30,000 part-time workers. Other retailers such as Target, Home Depot, Walgreen’s and Trader Joe’s are making similar moves. not to mention lumber mills and other employers right here in Arkansas.”
On national security matters such as ISIS and Russia’s backing of rebels in Ukraine, the first-term congressman said Obama “doesn’t have a political strategy in dealing with situations such as these. He’s not engaged at all.”
Before his election to the House of Representatives, Cotton was an Army Ranger who completed two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was awarded the Bronze Star. In Iraq, he led an infantry platoon on daily combat patrols.
On the campaign trail, Pryor has chosen to appear several times with a president other than Obama, Arkansas native son Bill Clinton.
Pryor’s official biography touts his ability to bring federal money home, citing the “millions of highway dollars for Arkansas.”
In their debate Monday, Pryor’s main attack against Cotton was his reluctance to secure more Washington dollars for Arkansas in the form of subsidies for farmers.
The Democrat blasted Cotton’s vote against the farm bill, a hot topic in Arkansas, and one the Democrat called the most important issue for state residents.
“This is not just about the farmers,” said Pryor, adding , “This is about rural farmers, rural broadband. All those things are in the farm bill. We need the farm bill to pass so we can help Arkansas stay competitive in the global economy.”
In rebuttal, Cotton agreed the farm bill was indeed about more than farmers, noting it also provides food stamps, saying, “We need a farm bill that’s truly focused on farmers, but we also need a food stamp bill without the waste, fraud and abuse.”
GOP challenger Cory Gardner has a three-point lead over Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall. Gardner is at 46 percent, and Udall is at 43 percent.
FiveThirtyEight called Colorado a bellwether state because, “If Republicans can win here in the fall, it would mark a turnaround from four years ago, when the GOP lost a hotly contested Senate race by just under 2 points. If the GOP wins a state like Colorado in November, it probably means Republicans will gain Senate control.”
Colorado has one of the most expensive and closely contested races, one that has been a dead-heat for months.
Gardner is fond of referring to a study showing Udall has supported the president’s policies 99 percent of the time, while the Democrat says another study shows the Republican congressman is the 10th-most conservative member of the House.
Udall has attacked Gardner’s alleged lack of support for women’s issues and for supporting last year’s government shutdown in the battle to defund Obamacare.
Gardner isn’t shying away from criticizing his own party when he feels it necessary, saying he will challenge Republicans when they are wrong.
But he focuses his ire on Udall, accusing his campaign of having become “too tired and too mean.”
Gardner strongly supports the Keystone pipeline, which he says will create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs, and he supports the development of domestic energy sources, calling it crucial to national security.
His first official act after election to Congress was to co-sponsor a balanced-budget amendment.
Elected to the Senate in 2008, Pryor also supports a balanced-budget amendment, as well as a presidential line-item veto and a ban on earmarks.
His official bio mentions his efforts to “protect our service members by reducing the military’s reliance on fossil fuels.”
Republican candidate Joni Ernst has a two-point lead over Democrat Bruce Braley. She has 46.2 percent, and he has 44.2 percent.
Ernst instantly made a national name for herself in the primaries with, arguably, one of the most memorable political TV ads of all time when she declared, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
That line was immediately followed by a shot of a pig squealing.
Her opponent is having more difficulties with name recognition, as both Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton could not remember Braley’s name on the campaign trail.
They both called the Democratic congressman “Bruce Bailey.”
While attempting to appear moderate, Braley has still courted the party’s left-wing, as he is scheduled to appear with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., while Ernst has moved noticeably to the center, distancing herself from previous calls for Obama’s impeachment and appearing with Mitt Romney.
Braley has not helped himself in the farm state with such gaffes as calling Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
He also feuded with a neighbor who let her chickens into his yard, which prompted Ernst to ask, “How [can we] believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?”
Independent voters in Iowa outnumber both registered Republicans and Democrats, so both candidates are courting the middle by painting each other as extremists.
Braley accused Ernst of being a stooge for the Koch brothers, the conservative bankrollers, while she calls him a beltway elitist who subscribes to “Nancy Pelosi’s and Barack Obama’s liberal agenda.”
Independents in Iowa are a tough sell according to David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, who said, “These are people who pretty much hate everybody.”
So far, Ernst is winning that battle, with a lead of 48 percent to 32 percent among independents.
Ernst’s bio boasts of her identity as both a mother and a soldier, saying she teaches Sunday school in same church where she was married and baptized.
It also says she maintains a strong commitment to national defense as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, having served “as a company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom where my unit was tasked with running convoys through Kuwait and into southern Iraq.”
Braley touts his experience as an attorney for 23 years, “holding corporations accountable to their employees and consumers.”
The Iowa race was thrown for a loop with the death in a plane crash last week of Libertarian candidate Doug Butzier, who will remain on the ballot.
This state is peculiar in that it holds an open primary on Nov. 4. Any candidate who captures more than 50 percent of the vote will win the race. If no candidate breaks that threshold, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held on Dec. 6.
So, two polls are of significance, one that ranks all the candidates and one that focuses on the two leading contenders.
Among all candidates, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu leads the pack with a 2.8 percent advantage over the field. She has 38.6 percent while Rep. Bill Cassidy has 35.8 percent and Republican Rob Maness has 9.2 percent.
However, in a head-to-head poll between the two top contenders, Cassidy leads Landrieu by 5.3 percent. That poll gives Cassidy 49.3 percent and Landrieu 44 percent.
Although Cassidy has a relatively healthy head-to-head edge over Landrieu, if there is a runoff, control of Senate may not be known until Dec. 6.
Despite an endorsement from Sarah Palin, tea-party candidate Maness is lagging far behind in the polls.
Cassidy is an establishment candidate, having appeared across the state recently with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who emphasized the need to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Cassidy has been working hard to tie the incumbent to the president, declaring during their debate, “We need a better economy than the Obama and the Obamacare economy. Senator Landrieu, when she voted for Obamacare — essential vote — in a sense put a wet blanket over that economy.”
Cassidy called it the “unaffordable health care act.”
A physician, Cassidy’s bio mentions he “co-founded the Greater Baton Rouge Community Clinic, a clinic providing free dental and health care to the working uninsured.”
Landrieu, the first woman from Louisiana elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate, defends her vote for Obamacare but says it needs amending.
She has distanced herself from the commander in chief, saying, “While President Obama is not on the ballot, the future of Louisiana is,” and has highlighted her differences with the president, noting she supports the Keystone pipeline and expanding domestic energy production.
Maness may have helped Cassidy by taking aim at such remarks in the debate, sharply retorting, “The president’s policies are on the ballot, and they’re in your person. And we talked about energy jobs a moment ago, and (the president’s policies) are hurting energy jobs.”
Cassidy also attacked Obama, calling him a “zero,” but the establishment Republican also agreed with Landrieu that health care is a right.
In what is described as an increasingly red state, most political observers doubt Landrieu will avoid a runoff, where the polls show Cassidy will be favored.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan is clinging to a 1.8 percent lead over GOP challenger Thom Tillis. She has 44.8 percent, and he has 43.4 percent.
Issues have taken a backseat to campaign politics in the “Tar Heel State.”
Hagan seems to have hurt her chances with recent missteps, such as admitting to skipping an Armed Services hearing on ISIS in February to attend a fundraiser.
She has also taken heat for her husband’s company allegedly profiting from money that came from the $767-billion stimulus legislation, for which she voted.
Politico reported he received almost $400,000 and pocketed the savings after lowering the cost of a stimulus-funded energy project, returning none of the difference to taxpayers.
However, Politico also charged Tillis with voting in 2010 for a bill that allowed a bank in which he had a financial interest to receive energy credits.
Both candidates have filed ethics complaints against each other.
GOP Senate seats in danger
The numbers in the key races would seem to give Republicans a good shot at taking the Senate. GOP candidates lead in four of those races.
However, the GOP leads could also be regarded as razor-thin, as most polls have a margin of error of about three points, and none of the GOP leads is greater than 4.4 percent.
Additionally, FiveThirtyEight’s Silver cautions although he has Republicans favored in each individual race, “[I]t will be hard for them to go six for six.”
He compared it to football, where a team which is favored to win every game is very unlikely to win all of the games it plays in a season.
Additionally, Republicans have to play defense as well as offense, and avoid losing seats.
The GOP will have to win more than just three of the key states listed above if it loses any seats it either currently holds or had expected to win easily, which it is in peril of doing in Kansas, Georgia and Kentucky.
The race in Kansas race is a dead-heat with Sen. Pat Roberts tied with independent challenger Greg Orman at 45.2 percent.
Roberts is having an unexpectedly tough time securing a fourth term in the Senate, even though there is no Democrat in the race.
Orman, a wealthy businessman, is hoping to capitalize on disgust with both major parties by running as an independent.
He said he hoped to inspire more independent candidates so “Voters who are dissatisfied with the status quo – voters who are dissatisfied with more of the same from Washington – might have real options in the future.”
Roberts claims that is a ruse and charged Orman would help Democrats keep control of the Senate.
After their debate, Roberts exclaimed, “We’re going to win this election once people understand that my opponent is not shooting straight,” adding, “He is a liberal Democrat — by deed, by word and by campaign contributions.”
Roberts also charged Orman “knows he has a much better chance” of winning as an independent than a Democrat in a state where 31 percent of voters are not affiliated with either major party.
This is another state where the Republican was expected to win easily but has found himself in a dogfight.
It is also another state, like Louisiana, that will have a runoff if neither candidate gets 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 4., a prospect that looks increasingly likely in Georgia.
With Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., retiring, GOP candidate David Perdue holds a slim 1.2 percent lead over Democrat Michelle Nunn.
A businessman, Perdue has followed the strategy of fellow Republicans attacking the president, particularly on his handling of ISIS and Ebola.
But Democrats have fallen back on a strategy used against Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, attacking Perdue for outsourcing jobs. And it is apparently working.
Perdue has mounted a defense similar to the one employed by Romney, telling reporters he was “proud” of his record.
“The criticism I’ve gotten over the last few weeks is coming from people who really have no business background and really don’t understand, you know, what it takes to create jobs and create economic value – which is really what this free enterprise system is based on,” he said recently.
According to the Washington Post, the recent focus on outsourcing has caused a turning point in the race, “with Nunn gaining ground and even leading the contest in some polls.”
Democrats are now using money they have taken out of other races to buy millions of dollars of ads charging Perdue outsourced services and jobs to other countries.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has responded by spending at least $1.45 million on ads in Georgia, and a PAC has spent $2 million on ads.
In one ad, Perdue insists, “I’ve helped create and save thousands of American jobs, regardless of what Michelle Nunn says.”
In the bluegrass state, a gaffe by Democratic contender Alison Lundergan Grimes may have cost her a chance of unseating incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell.
During a recent interview, she refused to say whether she had voted for President Obama. The backlash was so strong to that and other gaffes, the Democratic Party stopped spending money on her race.
McConnell has now opened up a three-point lead over Grimes by a margin of 45.5 percent to 42.5 percent.
Grimes may have sabotaged her own campaign in other ways, in what initially seemed like a surprisingly good shot at knocking off the Senate minority leader.
The Washington Post fact-checker gave her campaign “4 Pinocchios” for what it called a “flimsy and misleading” attack ad that claimed McConnell and “his wife personally took $600,000 from anti-coal groups.”
The Post concluded, “What did McConnell have to do with of any of this? Nothing.”
But that may not have been the worst of it, in a state where coal is king.
Guerrilla journalist James O’Keefe secretly filmed Grimes supporters and volunteers at a Harvey Weinstein fundraiser, one of whom insisted Grimes would (expletive) the coal industry after she got elected.
Grimes has insisted she strongly supports the coal industry, but Democratic fundraiser and real estate businessman Niko Elmaleh gushed on camera, “She’s going to have to do what she has to do to get elected and then she’s going to (expletive) them.”
Grimes is even taking heat from the left for an ad that accuses McConnell of supporting amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants.
There are a few other Senate races worth watching in New Hampshire, Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota that could still go either way.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaeen has a 3.5 percent lead over former GOP senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown in the “Granite State.”
Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts who lost his seat in 2012, has switched states and is challenging the only woman to have served as both a governor and a senator in America.
Brown, with his three decades of service in the National Guard, has narrowed the gap by linking Shaheen to Obama and focusing on the threat posed by ISIS.
In a twist from the usual divide between the major parties on the abortion issue, Shaheen has countered by attacking Brown’s “pro-choice” record.
Brown defended his position, telling a Newsweek reporter he voted to protect money for Planned Parenthood because of his concern for women who are assaulted, and that “he has a house of daughters and defended his family against an abusive father.”
The race to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin in Michigan is led by Democrat Gary Peters, who has a nine-point lead over Republican Terri Lynn Land.
Running against the grain, Peters is the only Senate candidate who plans to campaign with Obama.
But even Peters is distancing himself from the president, telling the Atlantic he’s had areas of agreement and disagreement with Obama.
If the president endorses Peters, he shouldn’t expect a reciprocal gesture, as the candidate remarked blithely, “The president will come to Michigan to campaign, and I’m going to stand next to the president.”
However, Land has apparently squandered her early lead with campaign mismanagement, despite much greater name recognition in the state and a family fortune to supplement healthy fundraising.
Critics blame her for giving no advance notice before campaign appearances, ducking the press when she feels threatened by questions and running an “invisible” campaign.
Former Republican state Rep. and Sen. Bill Ballenger, who is editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, told ABC News no one had expected Land to be “as inept and inarticulate as she’s proven to be.”
He suggested everyone assumed any strong GOP candidate could easily win the seat, “But everyone backed away, and they’re left with Terri Land.”
Republicans may have given up on the Senate race in a state where they have had increasingly little success in recent years, and where GOP challenger Ed Gillespie is trailing by 11 points.
Even though Gillespie is considered “one of the Republican establishment’s most respected advisers and powerful fundraisers,” he is short on cash and has stopped running TV ads.
By contrast, Democratic incumbent Mark Warner is covering the state with ads, and his campaign recently announced it had more than $8 million to spend.
Gillespie’s struggles might also contradict the belief of Karl Rove that establishment candidates are more electable than conservatives.
The Virginian has served as Republican National Committee chairman, was a top adviser to President George W. Bush’s administration and a key aide to Mitt Romney in his 2012 presidential campaign.
Democrat Sen. Al Franken has an 11.5 percent lead in Minnesota over Republican Mike McFadden, but the Republican’s campaign manger disputes the lead is as big as some polls indicate.
Political analysts thought Franken’s strong support of Obama might make him vulnerable, as he has voted with the president 99 percent of the time.
But Franken has recently opened up a double-digit lead in the polls, while maintaining an extremely low profile and offering little defense on the campaign trail for his voting record.
McFadden campaign manager Carl Kuhl acknowledges his candidate is trailing but disputes the accuracy of the polls, especially one that shows Franken with an 18-point edge.
“With control of the Senate on the line, it strains credulity to believe that liberal causes would throw money at a race in which they lead by 18-points,” he insisted.
He added, “Given the stakes on November 4th, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to spend precious funds on a race they believe is over.”
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth