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
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
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.