photo courtesy the Center for American Progress Action Fund
Sen. Harry Reid is an astute politician, so he knows that his Democratic majority is not likely to survive tonight’s election results. But hope dies hard, and Reid probably hopes voters in Colorado and Alaska will defy the polls and keep Democratic hopes alive, at least until a Louisiana runoff next month.
It might happen that way. A cliffhanger election could keep Reid and a lot of political junkies, myself included, up well past our usual bedtimes tonight as we await results from the West. (There will almost certainly be some very close gubernatorial elections that will remain undecided until well past midnight, and not necessarily even tonight’s midnight.)
But the political winds have blown in Republicans’ favor for most of this year, and those winds have been strengthening in recent weeks. The balance of Senate power may be decided even before the evening news has finished airing in Reid’s home state of Nevada, and long before the polls close up in Alaska.
The earliest signals for tonight’s elections will come in the two closely fought East Coast races. In New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen is trying to hold off recently relocated Republican Scott Brown, while in North Carolina, Kay Hagan is defending against a challenge from state lawmaker Thom Tillis. Until just the past week or two, Shaheen and Hagan seemed likely to buck this year’s GOP tide. Both of their positions appear to have deteriorated as the ballot-counting drew near.
Shaheen had been favored because New Hampshire is not as much a Republican outpost as it was a decade or two ago. She ran a play-it-safe campaign that painted Brown as a carpetbagger who is hostile to women and the middle class. But Brown, who briefly held the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat from Massachusetts, has a well-honed everyman touch, and neither his record nor his persona matched the Democrats’ war-on-women rhetoric. Shaheen’s chances slid downward along with the poll ratings of her party’s practical and symbolic leader, President Barack Obama.
Hagan may have run the smartest campaign of any Senate Democrat this year, and it kept her ahead in the polls through most of the campaign season. While Republicans wanted to tie her to the president, Hagan relentlessly accused Tillis, the state House leader of the GOP, of being a hard-line conservative who wants to gut funding for schools and other public services. Much of Hagan’s campaign sounded more like a race for North Carolina governor than for a U.S. Senate seat. But it kept Tillis, who had to first get through a primary campaign, on the defensive until the campaign’s closing weeks, when the race seemed to tighten.
Reid knows that his party is in deep trouble even if it holds the seats in North Carolina and New Hampshire. Losing one of those states would put the Democrats in dire straits. Losing both would make the outcome inevitable.
Republicans need to pick up a net of six Senate seats to take the majority. Three, which were vacated by Democrats in South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia, are a foregone conclusion, and Arkansas pretty much falls into that category as well. Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska are running in states where Obama is deeply unpopular and which he lost by a wide margin in 2012. Those defeats would give the Republicans six seats even without those held by Hagan and Shaheen, and without considering races where polls have been quite close in Colorado (held by incumbent Democrat Mark Udall) and Iowa (a seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin).
Democrats hope they can hold their majority even against six or seven GOP victories by flipping Republican-held seats in Georgia and Kansas. Kansas is a particularly odd case because, thanks to some maneuvering by Reid and his associates, there is actually no Democrat on the ballot. Instead, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts faces a stiff challenge from Greg Orman, who is officially independent and has said he will caucus with whichever party holds a majority. He has not said what he will do if his is the seat that determines the majority. But Orman has previously run as a Democrat, he has the Democrats’ tacit backing, and Republicans have been trying to rally Kansas voters (who are solidly Republican) to reject Orman as being a closet Democrat.
Democrat Michelle Nunn has run a good race in Georgia against David Perdue. She may manage to keep it close. But Georgia is still Republican in statewide elections, and it is a state Obama lost two years ago, when he was much more popular than now. Nunn is probably a long shot. Democrats once also held high hopes of unseating the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, in Kentucky. Those hopes effectively collapsed when his opponent refused to say whether she had voted for Obama in 2012. So much for rallying the Democratic base.
If the Democrats have such a bad night that they lose in New Hampshire or North Carolina or both, then their chances of winning in Colorado and Alaska are almost vanishingly small. They might steal a seat in Kansas, and pull out squeakers in Iowa and Georgia, and it still may not be enough. (Georgia’s final result may not even be known until January, because a third-party candidate might keep both Perdue and Nunn below the required 50 percent vote total. In a head-to-head runoff matchup, Nunn will probably lose.)
In Louisiana, Landrieu may actually get the most votes today against two Republicans, but she is expected to be far below the necessary 50 percent to avoid a runoff in December. In that runoff, a head-to-head contest against a single Republican, her chances, like Nunn’s, are poor.
Here is my election viewing plan in a nutshell: First, watch Georgia, North Carolina and New Hampshire. Then pay close attention to Iowa, which Reid himself has called a Democratic must-win, and see if Republican Tom Cotton defeats Democrat Mark Pryor in Arkansas, as expected. The Democrats must win at least three of those five races to still have a chance at their majority. If they do, or if they take two of the four not counting Georgia, then Colorado and Alaska will be critical battlegrounds tonight, along with Georgia and Louisiana in their runoffs. But if the Republicans deny Democrats those Eastern and heartland states, Harry Reid can turn off the lights.