PJ Media

Top 4 Senate Campaign Storylines at Midsummer

Four months from now, we’ll be looking back on Election 2014 evaluating the votes and how they were cast.  Will Republicans succeed in their quest to gain the majority in the Senate, or will Democrats weather the six-year itch and retain control?  With primary season taking a month-long break, it seems a good time to pause and look back on how the election season has progressed so far.  There have been plenty of intriguing storylines surrounding the 36 Senate races on tap this year.   Here are four that have caught my attention.

Tea Party influence in Senate races comes up short

A popular theme all year has been the numerous failures of the Tea Party movement.  Media outlets have been quick to herald the disappointments as an indication of Tea Party decline. Some conservatives, however, like to point to certain situations where this is simply not true.  They say that narrative is just wishful thinking by a liberal media hoping to temper the Tea Party’s effect and hasten, if possible, its demise.

They point to Eric Cantor’s primary defeat to unknown Tea Party challenger Dave Brat last month as evidence of the earth-shaking punch the Tea Party still packs. To be sure, Cantor’s loss rocked the electoral landscape – and the GOP leadership – but as PJ Media’s David Steinberg pointed out, the shocking result came about through a perfect storm of many circumstances, only one of which was Brat’s Tea Party backing.

While House primary elections have produced Tea Party successes, and, fundamentally, the Tea Party continues to change “the dynamic of Republican politics,” the fact that several Senate primaries have been disappointing to Tea Party enthusiasts is undeniable.  And the list is not short:  Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, even John Cornyn in Texas.  All won the GOP nomination in races where the Tea Party had high hopes going into the 2014 election season.  In North and South Carolina, efforts to nominate a Tea Party candidate couldn’t even force a runoff against the establishment favorite.

Terri Land’s fast start fizzles in Michigan

Democrats have dominated Senate elections in Michigan since current Senator Debbie Stabenow unseated Republican Spencer Abraham in 2000.  Between 2002 and 2012, she and senior Michigan Senator Carl Levin never won reelection by less than 15 points.  So when Public Policy Polling released a poll back in December giving Republican Terri Land a two-point lead in the race to replace Levin, Republicans cheered the prospect of a competitive race in a state void of GOP Senate election success so far this century.

Polling early this year did nothing to quench Republican excitement.  Six of the first eight polls of 2014 put Land ahead of the Democratic nominee, Congressman Gary Peters.  Until April, this race clearly leaned in the GOP’s direction and represented an unexpected pickup opportunity that threatened to make Democrats’ task of holding the Senate in a difficult year that much more challenging.

But the arrival of spring ushered in Peters’ striking resurgence.  All seven polls released since mid-April give him leads ranging from 3 to 9 points.  As a result, Election Projection projects Peters will triumph with a 5.6% margin of victory.  That doesn’t mean he’s a lock to follow outgoing Senator Levin and keep this seat in Democratic hands – Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, is a legitimate contender.  But what looked early on like a very promising Republican surprise has taken on the characteristics of a hard-fought Democratic hold.

Cory Gardner brings a serious challenge in Colorado

As the election season began to take shape late last year, highly competitive Democratic Senate seats abounded.  Mark Udall’s seat in Colorado wasn’t on the list.  Cook Political labeled the race “Likely D” along with such races as Hawaii and Massachusetts.  Initially, Republicans were looking at a weak field of potential challengers.  While the incumbent’s job approval suggested potential vulnerability, Republicans did not appear to have a candidate to exploit that possibility.

That all changed on March 1st when Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner announced he would mount a run.  Gardner quickly surged to a commanding lead among Republican contenders, and when the primary field subsequently got out of the way, he enjoyed the further benefit of avoiding a prolonged nomination battle.

Since Gardner’s entrance into the race, polls have revealed an ever-tightening contest.  In fact, taken together, the two latest polls, both conducted in June, give Gardner a fractional advantage.  Election Projection has Colorado colored red on the latest Senate map as a result.  And in response to Gardner’s candidacy, political handicappers have made similar adjustments as illustrated by Charlie Cook’s rating.  Colorado is now classified as a “Toss-up.”

Udall remains a formidable incumbent who likely still holds a slight upper hand, but this race has a completely different feel to it since Gardner jumped in.

Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia – steady as she goes

In contrast to the shuffling that has marked Senate races in Michigan and Colorado over the first half of 2014, the Senate races in three other states have maintained the same outlook all along.  Senate Republicans’ task of capturing the majority requires them to gain a net 6 seats in November.  Most likely, that job is effectively half-accomplished already.  Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, barring drastic unforeseen developments, will be won by Republicans this year.

In Montana, the retirement of long-time Democratic Senator Max Baucus gave Republicans a golden opportunity to pick up his seat.  When Baucus resigned earlier this year to become U.S. ambassador to China, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock appointed his lt. governor, John Walsh, to serve the remainder of Baucus’ term.  Walsh is running for election in his own right, but Republican Steve Daines, Montana’s at-large congressman, has enjoyed double-digit leads in every poll since November last year.

Like Baucus in Montana, Tim Johnson’s retirement opened the door for Republicans in South Dakota.  And when former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, a Democrat, decided not to challenge for the seat and former Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, did, the race was all but over.  Rounds was an overwhelming favorite the minute he announced, and with polls giving him consistent double-digit leads over Democrat Rick Weiland, he remains the overwhelming favorite.

Finally there’s West Virginia, where a dramatic rightward lurch over the last generation and the retirement of a West Virginia institution, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, combine to give Republicans another almost certain takeover.  Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore-Capito, the best person for the task, announced way back in November 2012.  Less than two months later, Rockefeller announced his retirement.  From that point, Capito was the odds-on favorite, and recent polls confirm nothing has changed.  Election Projection currently rates this race a Strong GOP Gain for Capito against her Democratic opponent, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

With Republicans poised to hold onto the majority in the House and among the nation’s statehouses, the biggest question of the 2014 election is who will control the Senate come January 2015.  Based on what these storylines tell us, the answer is still very much up in the air.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)