Heading into the 2014 election season, the political climate seemed to forecast a solid Republican year. That general theme hasn’t changed much as the summer has transitioned into fall and we’ve rounded the final turn. But there are striking differences in the expectations of certain races. Some contests that were on everyone’s target lists have faded to the background, while others passed over in the spring as only potentially competitive have moved to the fore.
Altered Field of Play
Game-changing events either vaulted these races into competitive territory or took them out.
Alaska Governor – Sean Parnell-R: One place Democrats are expected to enjoy mild success in an otherwise disappointing year is among the nation’s contested governorships. One governor’s mansion Republicans did not expect to lose is in Alaska. Until the end of September, incumbent Sean Parnell seemed headed to double-digit victory over his two opponents – Democrat Byron Mallott and Bill Walker, an independent former mayor of Valdez. But then Mallott and the Alaska Democratic Party decided to abandon their nomination and combine forces with Walker. With Mallott now his running mate, Walker is looking like the man to beat.
Colorado Senate – Mark Udall-D: This time last year, Republicans could envision plenty of chances to take seats away from Senate Democrats. Mark Udall’s Colorado seat wasn’t very high on their list. Sure, he was potentially vulnerable in this purple state, but the GOP’s field of challengers was less than ideal. Cory Gardner, Republican congressman, changed all that when he decided to jump into the race. The GOP slate quickly cleared for him to breeze to the nomination, and his candidacy has proven worthy ever since. At the time of this writing, polls show him up by a couple points.
Hawaii Governor – Open (Abercrombie-D): Before the Democratic primary on August 9th, the Aloha State appeared poised to scuttle their sitting chief executive, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, for a Republican. That’s quite noteworthy for a deep blue state who voted for hometown hero Barack Obama at a greater clip than any other state in 2008 and 2012. But Democratic voters decided instead to hand Abercrombie the largest primary defeat of any incumbent governor in U.S. history. Their choice, state Senator David Ige, has put the blue team back in front here.
Kansas Senate – Pat Roberts-R: Like the Alaska gubernatorial election, the Senate race in Kansas was supposed to be a headache-free proposition for Republicans. Incumbent Senator Pat Roberts should have had little problem earning re-election in this bright crimson state. But weakened by a spirited primary battle and ill-equipped for a close general election battle, the 33-year veteran found himself ensnared in just that when independent businessman Greg Orman’s campaign began gaining traction. And when Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race and succeeded in getting his name off the ballot, Roberts fell well behind Orman in the polls. Things have improved on that front recently for Roberts, but the GOP never expected to have to come from behind to win this one.
Massachusetts 6th District – Open (Tierney-D): With a cloud of scandal hanging over him, incumbent John Tierney looked a lot like an endangered Massachusetts Democrat, a supremely rare breed in this liberal bastion, as he looked toward a very tough battle against Republican nominee-apparent Richard Tisei. Whether he would have survived his rematch with Tisei (he won by just a point in 2012) will never be known. Instead, Massachusetts Democrats in this district threw their lot behind Iraqi War veteran Seth Moulton. Now that the struggling incumbent is no longer in the picture, Moulton seems likely to keep this seat in Democratic hands.
Fizzled Takeover Targets
Considered vulnerable early on, these seats aren’t especially competitive anymore.
Kentucky Senate – Mitch McConnell-R: As this election season dawned, Senate Minority Leader McConnell was the only sitting Republican senator that Democrats had a legitimate chance to beat. To accomplish that task, Kentucky Democrats selected Alison Lundergan Grimes. As Kentucky’s secretary of State, Grimes had already proven herself in statewide elections, and in a few polls over the last few months she even polled ahead of McConnell. However, recent developments indicate that this race is moving decidedly in the Senate minority leader’s direction – so much so that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has decided to stop spending money for her in Kentucky. McConnell looks now to have survived both his Democratic opponent and lingering angst among the Tea Party.
Michigan Senate – Open (Levin-D): Republican Terri Lynn Land made splashes back in January and February by polling ahead of Democrat Gary Peters in the race to replace retiring Democratic Senator Carl Levin. The GOP welcomed another great takeover opportunity on a 2014 Senate election map already filled with ripe targets. That excitement began to fade soon after as Peters mounted a comeback in the polls. Now, with less than three weeks remaining until Election Day, the Democrat appears to have staked out a comfortable lead.
These contests feature late surges by the challengers.
Maine 2nd District – Open (Michaud-D): The incumbent congressman here, Democrat Mike Michaud, is running for the governor’s mansion. The open seat he leaves behind wasn’t included on most competitive race lists earlier this year. That has changed dramatically recently with Republican Bruce Poliquin polling neck and neck with Democrat Emily Cain. Poliquin seems to have the momentum and could be a surprise winner.
South Dakota Senate – Open (Johnson-D): This one makes the list because it once was a sure-bet Republican takeover. Mike Rounds, former GOP governor here, was the prohibitive favorite – until recently. Democrats have stepped up efforts to retain this seat, previously thought all but gone, in the light of possible scandal. A viable independent run by former Republican Senator Larry Pressler only complicates Rounds’ presumed coronation.
Still Foregone Conclusions
As a bonus, here are some races that were viewed as sure takeovers from the beginning – and still are.
Montana Senate – Open (Baucus-D): Republican Steve Daines has taken care of business and maintains a large lead over fill-in Democrat Amanda Curtis.
North Carolina 7th District – Open (McIntyre-D): No polls needed here. Republican David Rouzer holds a projected 14.3% advantage based on pundit ratings.
Pennsylvania Governor – Tom Corbett-R: This most vulnerable incumbent’s numbers are exactly where they were in January – down the drain.
Utah 4th District – Open (Matheson-D): It’s almost a certainty that Republican Mia Love will be the first African-American female Republican in the U.S. House.
West Virginia Senate – Open (Rockefeller-D): Republican Shelley Moore Capito has turned out to be as strong a candidate as we all thought she would be.
Election Day is just days away now, and the results should show strong gains for the GOP on Capitol Hill and less drastic gains for Democrats among the nation’s statehouses. That’s pretty much what we expected going in, but the makeup of the “holds” and “gains” has change a bit in the interim. Such is the reality of the shifting tides of electoral politics.