A no-good very bad Senate election cycle for Democrats?

     Democratic incumbent seeking re-election           Democratic incumbent retiring  
     Republican incumbent seeking re-election          Republican incumbent retiring           No election     

In a better world, political journalism would be less about constantly predicting and then repredicting the results of the next election cycle. It would be more about constantly informing the electorate about the issues of the day, the various policy options for dealing with those issues, the arguments for and against those policies and, in an election year, the stands on those issues that the candidates have espoused, all so that an informed citizen-voter can exercise his or her franchise to increase the likelihood that his or her representatives will advance the policy options he or she believes is best for the city, county, state and nation.

And now, if you’ve finished laughing…

I would at least suggest that March 13 is way too soon to be obsessing on week-to-week fluctations in the polls. In contemplating the U.S. Senate elections that will be held in 36 states this fall (that includes three special elections to fill unexpired-term vacancies,) it’s best to look at longer-term enduring factors, like the lineup and map, both of which have always prefigured that the 2014 Senate elections will be a good year for Republicans.

That starts with the huge fact that of those 36 Senate seats, Democrats currently occupy (and therefore must defend in order to avoid losing ground) 21; Republicans just 14. Barring unexpected deaths or retirements, that fact won’t change.

Democrat-held Senate seats

West Virginia  27%*
Arkansas  24%
South Dakota  18%*
Louisiana  17%
Alaska  14%
Montana  14%
North Carolina  2%
Virginia  -4%
Colorado  -5%
New Hampshire  -6%
Iowa  -6%*
Minnesota  -8%
Michigan  -9%*
New Mexico  -10%
Oregon  -12%
Illinois  -17%
New Jersey  -18%
Delaware  -19%
Massachusetts  -23%
Rhode Island  -27%
Hawaii  -43%
*Indicates retiring incumbent.

Speaking of retirements, of the 21 states that have elections this year and have a Democratic incumbent, the incumbent is retiring in four (South Dakota, Michigan, West Virginia and Iowa). So the value of incumbency goes away for the Dems in four states, none of which are so solidly blue in their general politics that a non-incumbent Democrat starts with a huge advantage.

Of the 14 Senate races that will be held in states with Republican incumbents, the incumbent is retiring in just two (Georgia and Nebraska, both fairly solid red states, although the punditocracy currently believes that the Georgia seat is somewhat in play for the fairly silly reason that the Democrat in the race is the daughter of a popular former incumbent).

A Wikipedia map, showing all of the states with races, which party controls them, and where the incumbents are retiring is here.

2014 is also a (presidential) midterm election. That fact will certainly not change. And it is a virtual law of American politics that midterms have lower turnouts than do presidential elections. It is not quite a law, but also a powerful tendency that Democrats tend to benefit from high turnouts and Republicans benefit from low turnouts. Chalk up another semi-immutable factor that favors the Repubs in 2014.

Checking out the map

Next is the map itself. If we take the most recent presidential vote as a sign of the blueness or redness of a state, Democrats are “defending” Senate seats in seven states that were carried by Mitt Romney: Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, North Carolina. Every single one of those is rated as somewhat of a pickup opportunity for Republicans.

Republican-held Senate seats

Wyoming  41%
Oklahoma  34%
Idaho  32%
Kentucky  23%
Alabama  22%
Nebraska  22%*
Kansas  22%
Tennessee  20%
Texas  16%
Mississippi  12%
South Carolina  10%
Georgia  8%*
Maine  -15%
*Indicates retiring incumbent.
†South Carolina has two Senate
seats up in 2014.

By contrast, just one of the 14 states in which Republicans are defending a Senate seat they now hold was carried by President Obama. That’s Maine where the incumbent Republican is Susan Collins who is universally rated as a solid bet for reelection.

These factors are all baked in the cake. They don’t depend on any recent polling of the various Senate races, the latest fund-raising figures, clever attack ads, gaffes committed by one of the candidates nor the other changeable factors that every pundit loves to introduce, including Obama’s fairly awful current standing in job approval polls. Before you even take note of the names of the candidates, it’s a pretty solid argument that the Repubs are likely to make some pickups in 2014. But will it be enough to take over control of the Senate?

That’s where the one substantial advantage breaks for the Dems. Counting the two independents who caucus with the Democrats (neither of whom, by the way, is up for reelection this year), the Dems currently control the Senate by a 55-45 margin. They also control (and cannot lose control in 2014) the vice presidency, which is relevant because the veep casts the deciding vote in case of a tie in the Senate. That means that Democrats can lose up to a net of five seats in November and still hang onto control of the Senate.

So if you want to play the game (I don’t particularly advise it) of speculating day by day on whether the Repubs can come up with six net pickups, you eventually have to get past the immutable factors and deal with the actual races, which we the obsessed generally do by listening to the horserace handicappers who follow each race and rate it according to the likelhood that one party or the other will prevail, based on all of those more mutable factors like recent polls, fundraising reports and so on.

Which brings me to the piece that set off this whole primer. Kyle Kondik, managing editor of one of those handicapper sites, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, listed all of the Senate races that his site currently ranks as anything other than safe for the incumbent or (if the incumbent is retiring) the incumbent’s party. There are 16 of them. The Al Franken race in Minnesota, by the way, appears on the list. The Crystal Ball ranks it “likely Democratic,” meaning Franken is likely to be reelected but not considered a “safe” Democratic hold. Most of the major ranking sites agree with this ranking.

Anyway, Kondik’s first big point: of the 16 races that are at least somewhat competitive, 14 are currently held by Democrats. Of the 10 that the Sabato site considers most likely to turn over from the current incumbent party to the other, all are now held by Republicans. Lastly, if you were to assign each race to the party that Crystal Ball currently believes is most likely to win, even if only slightly favored, you end up with four Republican pickups (South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana and Arkansas), zero Democratic pick-ups, and three toss-ups all involving Democratic incumbents in states that went for Romney (North Carolina, Louisiana and Alaska).

That would produce a Senate of 49 Republicans, 48 Democrats and three races too close to call, with Democrats needing to win two of the three toss-ups to maintain the barest control.

The full Kondik overview, with maps and charts, is here.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/19/2014 - 09:33 am.

    What is the cutoff

    for a ‘safe’ seat?
    Since the repubs appear to be running Tweedledum and Tweedledee against Franken, I’d say that he has better than a 2:1 chance of winning. Given that incumbents retain their seats better than 90% of the time, I’d say that that’s an underestimate.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/19/2014 - 01:19 pm.

    Short-lived GOP majority

    I would expect a narrow Republican Senate majority for the reasons cited, but the situation reverses in 2016 when the Republicans have many more seats to defend. Figure in higher turnout generally helping Democrats, and the most likely result is a two-year GOP majority, then back to the Democrats.

    Unless that plan to break up California comes into reality, in which case Democrats hold the Senate for the foreseeable future.

    I assume Democrats will lose House seats too given that it’s a midterm and how he district lines are drawn, but Democrats will pick up some governorships, just because the GOP has so many vulnerable seats.

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 03/19/2014 - 01:22 pm.

    GOP Takes Senate

    It will be interesting if that happens….

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/19/2014 - 01:24 pm.

    Franken at 49-50%

    In a new KSTP/Survey USA poll, Franken holds slim leads over his most likely republican opponents who have virtually zero name recognition.

    Franken 50%, Republican Mike McFadden 40%
    Franken 49%, Republican Julianne Ortman 41%

    We should wait until the campaign ads featuring Obamacare start before we pay attention to the polls.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/19/2014 - 03:13 pm.


      That will certainly help Franken!

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/20/2014 - 08:50 am.


      I’d love to see Franken lose but I’ll be surprised if it happens. However, if Franken has trouble in Minnesota, then the national mood against Dems will be so bad that the GOP will pick up about ten seats in the Senate. Maybe more.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/19/2014 - 02:53 pm.

    Franken’s polling percentage

    For a change, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Tester, though for different reasons than his own. I do think he’s correct that Franken’s Republican opponents have almost no name recognition among the general population. Before we go too far with that, however, there are two other factors to consider.

    First, as the campaign evolves, name recognition will improve for the Republican candidates, and as it does, their right-wing positions (or in McFadden’s case, the lack of ANY position about anything) will counterbalance the increased recognition with simultaneously increased disappointment.

    Secondly, in common with citizens across the country, unfortunately, there are people who will vote for the DFL candidate in Minnesota no matter what policy positions s/he espouses. Similarly, there are people who will vote for the Republican candidate no matter what policy positions s/he espouses. The key question regarding these unthinking party loyalists is whether, in either or both cases, they represent the majority of votes that a particular candidate or party is likely to attract on election day. Not being a political professional, or even someone as obsessed by these things as Eric seems to be, I have no idea what the answer to that question might be, at least not at this point in the play. The actors have barely taken the stage, and only a few fragments of the plot have begun to emerge from the political shadows.

    Eric has often cautioned against reading very much into polls that are months ahead of an election, and the one Tester cites simply seems one more example of why that’s the case. It WILL be interesting to see campaign ads surrounding the Affordable Care Act, since several of the early ones from Republicans have been shown to be blatant and outright lies. As more and more people register for the ACA and insurance exchanges, I expect there will be some evolution of opinion, which has already begun to take place.

    As for Eric’s larger point about control of the Senate, there may not be quite enough turnover to – officially – put the Republicans in charge of both houses. Should that be the case, there will be some interesting political negotiations taking place. I’ll be very surprised if there are veto-proof majorities in a Republican Congress on any substantive measures, and if that proves to be the case, we can look forward to at least two more years of gridlock. Of course, Mr. Obama has already been co-opted by corporate interests to such an extent that maybe vetoes won’t even be an issue, and Republicans will take over the government.

    Should that happen, there ought to be some interesting headlines and news images over the two years or so that it remains the case, barring an armed uprising among the general population.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/20/2014 - 09:02 am.

      Lies and Polling

      RB, the ACA was sold with ‘blatant and outright lies’. So far it has turned out to be much worse than was promised. Dems will almost certainly pay a heavy price at the ballot box, much like the GOP did with the Iraq debacle. At this point it would be surprising if the 2014 election isn’t a wave in the same way that 2006 was.
      As to your contention that there will be some evolution of opinion now that people are using the insurance exchanges, I’m afraid that polling doesn’t show it. This link is handy: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/obama_and_democrats_health_care_plan-1130.html
      Right now the public is unhappy with it, about 39/54. It’s been consistently 10-15% underwater for months now.
      Unless some big things happen to change the dynamics of the race, the Dems are cooked.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/20/2014 - 06:52 pm.

        You might look at some other sources

        from Wikipedia:
        “The site was founded in 2000 by conservatives,[5] former options trader John McIntyre and former advertising agency account executive Tom Bevan. [5][6][7] Forbes Media LLC bought a 51% equity interest in the site in 2007.[8] RCP has expanded to include a number of sister sites.”
        You’ll find a more nuanced picture at the Kaiser Foundation web site:
        In brief; most people are not satisfied with it, but they want it fixed, not abolished.

        • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/21/2014 - 08:34 am.


          The link that I gave merely aggregates polls so an attack on the founders of the site seems completely beside the point. If other people are reading that as a signal to disregard, then they should know that there is no need for concern. The act of averaging out polls hasn’t been polluted by conservative cooties.

          The link that you give is very interesting. Yes, most people when polled choose the ‘middle option’ and want to fix rather than repeal. And then, if you read a bit further down, you’ll see that by 2 to 1, the uninsured feel that they were better off before the law. Think about that for a second. Helping the uninsured was one of the key tasks of the ACA and it has failed utterly.
          The link that you provided was for their January results. Here is February: http://kff.org/health-reform/poll-finding/kaiser-health-tracking-poll-february-2014/
          Please note that the numbers don’t get better. The uninsured are even more unhappy and this time there are more of them that have been personally effected. Yes, the majority still want the middle option of fixing the law. Say, have you seen any fixes proposed by Dem lawmakers? Do we know what Franken wants to do to make it better? I’m sure that he’ll be facing aggressive questioning on that soon, right?

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/21/2014 - 11:40 am.

            Look at

            his Web site.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/21/2014 - 12:17 pm.


            A description (whose accuracy you are not questioning) of the people providing a source of information constitutes an “attack” on them? Only if you’re assuming that there is something morally reprehensible about being Conservative ;-).

            The kicker in all of these polls is that they simply ask for opinions, without verifying if and how the respondents have actually been affected by the ACA. We will have a better idea of its popularity once more people are in fact directly (rather than just potentially) affected.

            • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/21/2014 - 04:38 pm.


              Paul, to a large number of people that read this site, the description ‘conservative’ *is* morally reprehensible. 🙂

              You have a good point about the polls. They’re a fairly blunt tool. Let me make another point in your favor. A national poll doesn’t capture any kind of state by state breakdown. For instance, Obamacare might be much more unpopular in places like Oregon where the technical limitations have been disastrous. Here in Minnesota, the biggest problem is the sky high deductibles. That might cause a much more uneven spread of opinion.
              But man, it doesn’t look good for the Dems.

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/22/2014 - 10:20 am.

                We’ll see

                “Paul, to a large number of people that read this site, the description ‘conservative’ *is* morally reprehensible. :)”
                You must be referring to the right wingnuts.
                Most Progressives don’t find true conservatives reprehensible (although some do seem to have prehensible tails). We just don’t see too many of them around (I suspect that you are one). A conservative is reluctant to change things that work. A reactionary, on the other hand, wishes to backward to a time that never was. The Tea Party is a good example. And then there are the Libertarians, who are to the left on some issues and the right on others. They have to be taken as individual cases (even more so than everyone else).

                • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/22/2014 - 04:16 pm.

                  Tea Party

                  Paul, you’re completely wrong about the Tea Party. They aren’t trying to return us to the 50’s or something like that. They simply think that government has over-reached and should be smaller. In large part they don’t think that Progressives are nearly as smart as Progressives do. Which explains why the Tea Party has blossomed while Progressives have been in control. They have a lot in common with libertarians. In fact, there is a tremendous overlap. In many ways, they’re the modern counterpart to the Perot voters of the 90’s.
                  And man, your experiences with how people on this site (and in the Cites) deal with conservatives is much different than mine. ‘Morally reprehensible’ is the polite version. It’s not hard to find liberals who deal with conservatives like they’re some kind of mash-up of the KKK and the Nazi party. In any case, I’m glad you don’t feel that way.

                  • Submitted by jason myron on 03/24/2014 - 02:05 pm.

                    Well then…

                    these fiscal revolutionaries must have been dozing peacefully on their respective couches during the previous eight years of the Bush administration. Interestingly enough they’ve only seemed to “blossom” when a black democratic president with the middle name of Hussein, was inaugurated. Excuse me while I connect the dots.

                    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/25/2014 - 07:57 am.

                      Connecting Dots

                      There is an enormous amount of laziness in the idea that opposition to Obama = racism. In this specific case, it ignores that there was unhappiness on the right with spending under Bush. I can point you to a stream of editorials from such places as NRO and WSJ if you need. The spending problem (and other gov’t growth) is one of the reasons that the GOP took a thumpin’ in 2006. The voters that became the Tea Party mostly stayed home. They had this idea that spending under the Dems couldn’t be any worse than it was for the GOP during the Bush years. Well, we found out the truth of that.
                      The ‘racist!’ argument also ignores how different things were in 2009 than they were earlier. During the years when the GOP was running the show in DC, we had deficits in the order of a couple of hundred billion dollars. Under Obama that shot up to a trillion and stayed there. In 2009 we had just bailed out the banking industry and auto industries. There was talk of bailing out everyone who overbought on their mortgage. Throw in the hard move to screw up the health care market and there you go.
                      If John Edwards had been president in 2009 and followed the same path, he would have gotten the Tea Party too. Same with Hillary Clinton.

                    • Submitted by jason myron on 03/26/2014 - 07:12 am.


                      Hardly…I couldn’t give a rip about who wrote editorials, but I guarantee you that local Tea Party groups weren’t engaged, active or even prevalent before Obama took office. And by the way…the bailouts happened under George Bush. But to deny that the Tea Party hasn’t interjected itself into social issues or that a large faction of its members aren’t racially motivated is laughable. The evidence is easily found and irrefutable.

  6. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 03/19/2014 - 08:42 pm.


    A Republican majority in the Senate will almost certainly lead to overreach. Which will, in turn, almost certainly lead to a Democratic win in the 2016 presidential election.

    As to the ACA, we have to see how the news stories go. Typically the cycle is “the story” (in this case, the screwed up implementation), then the “anti story” (how, in spite of the screwed up implementation, it’s working), then the “story about the story” (why all we heard about at first is the screw ups).

    Unless Putin decides to invade yet another country and fill the news pipeline.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 03/20/2014 - 09:04 am.

      Counting on Overreach

      So if Dems want the Presidency in 2016, they should cheer for GOP wins in 2014, right? Ok folks, go out and work against a Franken victory. It’s for the future good of the party.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/19/2014 - 10:44 pm.

    What happens in ..

    Kentucky will tell us all !

  8. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 03/20/2014 - 08:44 am.

    In March, the environment for Dems looks miserable…

    …fortunately the election is in November.

    Furthermore, the same kinds of factors that make 2014 look difficult for Team Blue indicate that this is nothing but a swan song for Team Red. The electoral map, continued (but slow) demographic changes, the GOP lack of a platform, voting patterns of millenials, etc. look as bad for the GOP long term as other factors look for the Democrats short term. If I had to choose between which hand I had to play, I’d choose the Democratic one. Neither is without pain or setbacks, but one looks a lot more robust in both the medium and long terms.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/20/2014 - 09:56 am.

      Time will Tell

      I think a lot will rest on if the GOP can become more socially main stream. Simply stopping the fight against gay marriage and war on abortions before 20 wks would do wonders for them.

      I think a lot of the millenials will start earning significant money as the baby boomers exit the job market, and this will quickly convert them into financial conservatives.

      I think the DFL will need to stop relying on offering Paul “handouts” paid for by Peter as a vote generation platform, or they will continue to lose elections.

      Unlikely either group will change anytime soon.

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