Four years ago, Republican Sharron Angle enjoyed the pre-election lead in the Nevada Senate race. Polls found her opponent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, floundering below 45%. Republicans nationwide, energized by an onrushing wave, were especially excited about the prospects of toppling one of their most bitter rivals.
Funny thing about pre-election leads, though. They aren’t worth even one vote. And when the real votes were counted, Senator Reid still owned his place behind the Senate podium.
In 2014, like every election year, upsets are bound to happen. Candidates who aren’t expected to outperform their opponents will carry the day. But which ones? Here are five races that might supply some of this year’s surprises.
Hawaii 1st District – OPEN (Hanabusa – D)
What is happening in the Aloha State? This district wasn’t supposed to be competitive. When Colleen Hanabusa decided to run for the Senate, most figured Democrats would retain the seat she left behind without much fuss. For much of the year, that perception remained. Something happened along the way, however, and lately this race has become very tight.
Over the summer, Election Projection’s aggregation of pundit ratings had Democratic nominee Mark Takai up by 14 points. By the end of September, that margin had been cut in half. Now, Takai is up by just 4. And pundit ratings are just half the story. Polling also shows a very competitive race. Of the four polls published in October, three peg the race exactly tied. The fourth gives Takai a 7-point edge – but that poll was conducted by the Democratic polling firm Global Strategies.
Clearly, this race is becoming a nail-biter, one that Republican Charles Djou could win. You might remember Djou from his 2010 special election victory. He carried this seat by benefiting from a split opposition vote against several other candidates – only to become one of just two Republicans to lose congressional elections in the red wave elections later that year. A Djou victory this year, in a regular election against just one Democrat, would be an upset of much greater magnitude than his 2010 triumph.
Rhode Island Governor – OPEN (Chafee – D)
Democratic Governor Lincoln Chafee used to be a Republican senator before he became independent Governor Chafee after his victory in the 2010 Rhode Island gubernatorial election. In May of 2013, Chafee switched his registration to the Democratic Party, just months before declaring he would not seek re-election in 2014.
At first glance, this open-seat race should be an easy victory for the Democratic nominee. After all, Rhode Island has a long history of voting Democrat. However, in an interesting twist, Rhode Islanders have not elected a Democratic governor in over 20 years. Bruce Sundlun’s win here in 1992 was the last time the blue team was victorious in a gubernatorial election.
This year, Republican nominee Allan Fung, mayor of Cranston, is polling just behind Democratic state Treasurer Gina Raimondo. The EP poll average gives Raimondo a 39% – 36% edge with Robert Healey, the Moderate Party nominee, polling in the high single digits. With over 10% of Rhode Island voters still undecided, time will tell whether these folks will be swayed more by the state’s Democratic tilt or by the tendency of undecideds to break for the party out of power.
New Hampshire Senate – Jeanne Shaheen (D)
Scott Brown’s famous upset victory in the special election to fill the senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy in January, 2010 heralded the beginning of a massive Republican wave. Could Mr. Brown pull out another upset this year? After losing a bid to keep his Massachusetts’ seat in the Senate in 2012, Brown moved his residency to New Hampshire, raising suspicion that he had his eye on the Senate seat there.
Sure enough, Brown threw his hat into the ring and launched a bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Over the summer, Shaheen enjoyed large leads against Brown in the polls. But things have tightened considerably lately. So much so that, by the time Election Day arrives, the last round of polls may make a win by Brown not so unexpected. Nevertheless, if Brown wins after being so far behind and ridiculed for even running there, I think the upset label would definitely apply.
Colorado Senate – Mark Udall (D)
Wondering why a closely fought Senate election would be considered in a list of upsets? I’ve included this one for the odd reason that the incumbent might win. Even though polling of this race shows a tight race, a consensus has developed around the perception that Republican nominee Cory Gardner enjoys a close but consistent advantage.
But what if Colorado voters choose Democrat Mark Udall despite what the polls, and the perception, say? It’s my view that won’t happen. I, too, think Gardner will win. But political observers would be remiss to ignore what has happened here in the past. Just four years ago, a Republican Senate candidate named Ken Buck led Senator Michael Bennett in eight of the last ten polls released before that tremendous red wave election in 2010.
Election polls and political climate didn’t matter. Senator Bennett went on to win the election anyway – even though the last poll which gave him the edge was a Public Policy survey conducted a full month before Election Day. So this year, regardless of what the polls say or how favorable they are for the rising GOP star, I’m not looking past this one.
Nevada 4th District – Steven Horsford (D)
In 2006, Democrat Nancy Boyda blindsided pundits by stealing away Jim Ryun’s Kansas CD-2 seat. It wasn’t until very close to the election that anyone gave her any chance to win. This year, this Silver State seat has much the same feel. For most of the election season, Democratic Congressman Steven Horsford was regarded as a pretty safe bet for Democrats. Recently, however, political experts have begun shifting their ratings away from “Safe DEM” territory.
In fact, over the last several days, all four pundits I use in Election Projection’s House projection calculations have moved this race toward Republican challenger Cresent Hardy. They must be noticing some early voting trends coming out of the district showing the GOP performing very well. As of this writing, I am not even tracking this race on my 2014 House elections page – a testament to how quickly it has become competitive. I’ll be adding it this weekend, and you might want to keep an eye on it as the returns come in election night.
Just hours remain until the wait will be over. After months of campaigning and spending, debating and spinning, Election 2014 is nearing its end. Most races are already decided; many will be predictably close. But there will also be that handful that take us all by surprise. Perhaps a couple will come from this list.