The Complicated Senate Scene

Sabato’s Crystal Ball had an interesting article about the Senate elections this year and the possibility that we may not really have a clear indication of control of the Senate come Election Day.  As they note, there are five races where the average poll results between the Republican and Democrat are less than three percentage points at this stage in the game-  Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and Louisiana.  In addition to the closeness of the races at this point, there are further complicating factors intrinsic to certain states, especially Louisiana and Georgia.

The first complicating factor is the actual closeness of the races.  If one year ago anyone would have predicted that Kansas would be a Senatorial battleground, especially involving a Republican incumbent in a red state, they would have been laughed out of town.  However, Pat Roberts entered his reelection campaign carrying some baggage that was highlighted by his primary opponent, Milton Wolf.  That baggage and damage is following Roberts into the general election campaign.  If Wolf had won this would not be considered a battleground today and would have been a safe GOP bet.  However, we have to deal with reality and GOP control of the Senate is dependent on not only winning 6 seats (three are sure bets), but keeping all their seats.  This turn of events- the emergence of independent Greg Orman and the Democratic challenger dropping out of the race- places the whole scenario in jeopardy now.  For better or worse, we need to root for a Roberts victory.

There exists the possibility of recounts in close races.  There is recent history here in the Coleman-Franken race from six years ago.  Unlike a presidential election where there is a time limit to certify ballots and assign electoral votes (see: Florida 2000), there are no such restrictions on Senate elections.  Also, the polls close in Alaska four time zones behind most other polls.  However, if history is any indication, one or another candidate will pull away as Election Day nears.  In fact, the Coleman-Franken example is an outlying one.

Louisiana has a unique electoral system where “Election Day” to the rest of the country is a big open primary.  If no one gets 50%, then the top two finishers advance to a run off on December 6th.  That coincides with the SEC Championship game and if LSU makes it, it will likely affect turnout.  Sabato puts this as the most likely scenario of all.  What complicates things here is the presence of several other candidates on the ballot beides Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy.  No one doubts that if no one gets 50% on November 4th, these two will advance to the run off.  Dating back to 1990 in Senate races, it has been rare when there were only two candidates on the ballot.  In the races where there were additional candidates, however, these other candidates garnered an average 1.8% of the vote.  This year, the presence of Rob Maness, who has received some heavyweight support, should pull votes away from Bill Cassidy which would prevent either (1) both Landrieu and Cassidy from reaching 50%, or (2) allow Landrieu to slip through with a very narrow victory.

In Georgia, a similar chain of events can take place since they require that both gubernatorial and Senate “winners” get 50% of the vote or they face a runoff.  A gubernatorial runoff would be held on December 2nd while the Senate runoff would occur on January 6, 2015- after the 114th Congress convenes.  In Georgia Senate races since 2000 (nine total), a candidate ran unopposed (Sam Nunn) once.  In the remaining eight, a Libertarian Party candidate garnered an average of 2.49% of the vote.  Personally, I do not believe this will be enough to affect this race if the historical average holds.  Unless Republican David Perdue does something unbelievably stupid in the next few weeks, he should skate through.  Michelle Nunn was the Democrat’s answer in the Peach State and despite an early surge, Georgia is showing its red color of late and Perdue- although not out of the woods- is starting to consistently poll in the lead which seems to be widening.

As for Nathan Deal, the incumbent GOP Governor, the scenario can be a lot different.  Here, a Libertarian presence on the ballot- Andrew Hunt- can force this race into a runoff.  Since 1990 in Georgia gubernatorial elections, third party candidates (mainly Libertarian) have garnered an average of 3.25% of the vote.  Deal’s average poll lead is under that 3.25% difference.  A gubernatorial runoff is more likely than a Senate runoff in Georgia.

Moving back to Kansas, let’s assume the polls hold and independent Greg Orman defeats Pat Roberts.  And let’s just assume everything else goes as planned; the GOP wins six seats but “loses” Kansas.  That would make Greg Orman the most politically powerful man in America.  He stated that if one party has a clear majority, he would caucus with that party to increase his clout and that of Kansas.  But, if its 50-49 in favor of the GOP then Orman’s influence increases exponentially if he chooses the Democrats because a 50/50 split gives control to the Democrats (because of Biden’s vote).  Therefore, there is added pressure on the GOP to win control outright by taking a race like Colorado, Michigan or another state.  Colorado would seem the most likely at this point, but that is no given.

Finally, there is the possibility of a party switch, though doubtful.  But, the chances of it happening increase with a very closely divided Senate as a switch would advance the influence of the person switching and, by implication, the relative clout of their state in the Senate.  Usually, party switches in midstream are done out of political expediency (see: 2009 and Arlen Specter).  In 2001, Jim Jeffords switched from the GOP to independent and caucused with the Democrats. So there is recent history here for a switch.  The two most likely are Angus King of Maine (currently independent but caucuses with Democrats) or Joe Manchin of West Virginia.  If King, it would be for political expediency to further Maine’s influence in the Senate.  If Manchin, it would be more ideological while also increasing West Virginia’s relative clout.  Personally, I believe Joe Manchin talks and acts more like a Republican than some Republicans and if Mitch McConnell had any brains, he would be working on this scenario.

Of course, all of this punditry may be moot and not everything plays out as expected.  The GOP, after all, has a penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  But, the scenarios are interesting to muse over.  You have to love American politics.

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