Divining Larry Sabato's Predictions

Larry Sabato is a political science professor at the University of Virginia and leader of the online “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” He recently became a weekly contributor at Politico. On balance, I have found him to be one of the most non-partisan analysts of American politics. I have read his books and his website religiously. So given his track record, he recently made some predictions regarding the 2014 elections which he bases upon past history and the current political atmosphere. In his first Politico posting, he noted that 2014 could be a banner year for the GOP.

First, he predicts that fewer than six incumbent governors eligible to run for reelection will lose their bids for another term. Analysis: The most likely candidates for electoral defeat are Rick Scott in Florida, Pat Quinn in Illinois, Paul LePage in Maine and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania. All four of these current governors have low approval ratings under 45% in their respective states and all are facing serious challengers. At this point, approval ratings are better indicators than hypothetical polling against possible challengers. Those polls become more important as the general election campaign unfolds. Furthermore, some may point to possible close races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio which would put the number at 7- clearly over Sabato’s less than a half dozen prediction. But, on their current job approval trajectories, by the time Election Day actually rolls around Rick Snyder and John Kasich should be above that magical 45% mark and Scott Walker is already there above 50%. Of course, no challengers have been set except in Michigan as candidacy filing deadlines are fast approaching. Still, as it stands now it would appear that this prediction will ring true come November.

Second, Sabato predicts that at least one more current Senator will announce their retirement in 2014. Analysis: He admits to leaving himself leeway here in that such an announcement will not necessarily include a member of the class up for reelection this November. The somewhat surprising announcement that Thad Cochran of Mississippi would seek reelection (he was on everyone’s watch list) eliminates him from the mix. There can be many reasons for retirement including health, age and personal factors or even another job opportunity closer to home. Counting those who were first elected to the Senate before 1990, that leaves a pool of seven Senators as possibilities: Richard Shelby of Alabama, John McCain of Arizona, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Harry Reid of Nevada, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Pat Leahy of Vermont. Here, I believe that the outcome of the battle for control of the Senate in 2015 will play somewhat of a role. Should Republicans gain control, three of these “old timers” are slated to assume major committee chairmanships- Richard Shelby on the Appropriations Committee, Grassley on the Judiciary Committee and Hatch on the Finance Committee. Using a best-case scenario analysis where the GOP wins Senate control, we can eliminate these Senators. Another consideration would be whether they hail from a red or blue state and that their possible replacement would be of the same party. Here, only Mikulski and Leahy have that advantage so they may be candidates for a retirement announcement. Harry Reid is not going anywhere because he loves himself too much. That leaves John McCain as the most likely candidate to announce that this will be his last term in office. As a side note- good riddance. Incidentally, retirements of Senators like Ted Cruz and/or Rand Paul to run for the presidency is also a possibility.

Next up, he predicts that at least one current GOP incumbent will lose their primary fight against a fellow GOP challenger. Analysis: Here, the most likely candidates are Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, John Cornyn in Texas and Thad Cochran in Mississippi. McConnell has drawn four opponents with Matt Bevin being the toughest one. However, Bevin has yet to crack 30% in polls against McConnell with the most recent poll having McConnell ahead 53-26%. Additionally, other polls show likely Republican primary voters preferring a more conservative candidate but the spread is only three points (42-39%). Although many readers would like to see McConnell gone, I do not believe this will be the surprise. In South Carolina, Lee Bright would be the most likely one to defeat Graham among his 4 challengers. Unlike Kentucky, only 40% of likely Republican voters would like someone more conservative to Graham versus 51% who prefer Graham. This may explain why Bright seriously lags behind Graham in hypothetical polls. Again, no surprise here. John Cornyn has drawn seven challengers with Steve Stockman the most formidable. Here, 49% would prefer someone more conservative compared to 33% who prefer Cornyn which puts him on shakier ground than McConnell. But, since entering the race, Cornyn leads in all polls.

In South Carolina and Texas, there are crowded fields which complicates matters since both states require a follow-up runoff should no one get 50% of the vote. Given the huge advantages currently held by Graham, he may very well avoid that runoff. However, that may not be the case in Texas where a Cornyn-Stockman runoff may be a reality. Although an incumbent losing a runoff election is not out of the realm of possibility, it is also a rarity. Incumbency certainly has many advantages and the initial primary is usually a shot over the bow of the incumbent who generally gets the message. Thus, even though there will be a likely runoff in Texas, look for Cornyn to prevail. That leaves Cochran in Mississippi as the most likely candidate to be the surprise primary loss. And it makes perfect sense given polling data. First, Chris McDaniel entered the race before Cochran announced his intentions to run again. Second, McDaniel polls very close to Cochran in hypothetical match ups trailing by less than double digits. With a June 3rd primary, there is plenty of time to catch up and surpass Cochran. Third, 55% of likely Republican voters would like someone more conservative than Cochran while 35% prefer Cochran. These are not good numbers, especially the 20-point spread. Thus, you have a perfect storm in Mississippi pointing to Cochran being defeated. And although Mississippi does have a runoff option, there are only these two candidates. Cochran’s best chance would be if someone else entered the race, no one got 50% and there was a runoff. With a March 1st filing deadline, time is quickly running out. If there is to be an upset, it will be in Mississippi.

Sabato predicts there will be more House retirements. Analysis: The midterm average is 22 retirements per cycle. When he made the prediction 9 Republicans and 3 Democrats had announced their retirement and were not running for higher or another office. Since then, Republican Gerlach in Pennsylvania and Democrats McIntyre of North Carolina and Maloney of New York have announced their retirements bringing the number to 15. The list may grow as this ties into another of his predictions about possible scandal-tainted incumbents who may just read the tea leaves and retire rather than be dragged through a primary fight. Furthermore, they may be more inclined to retire if they hail from a non-swing district. Therefore, it is possible we may see the resignations of Scott DesJarlais in Tennessee, Trey Radel in Florida and Charles Grimm in New York which would bring the total to 18 which is in the historical average general neighborhood. I am not saying it will happen, but these are possibilities as there may be surprise retirements due to health or family matters that need to be factored in.

Thus, taking Sabato at his word, the following will occur in 2014 assuming Sabato to be correct (and as I said, he has a good track record her) and putting names to his predictions: (1) four current governors will lose their reelection bids- LePage, Corbett, Quinn and Scott (special note: if any of these prevail, he would still be correct); (2) John McCain will announce before the end of 2014 that this will be his last term in the Senate; (3) Thad Cochran will lose his primary in Mississippi, and (4) at least three more current House members will announce their outright retirement from Congress one of which, at least, will be associated with ethical challenges.