What to Expect in the November Midterms

Author: McHenry Lee, Johns Hopkins


On November 4th, Americans will once again head to the polls and vote as they do every two years. Although it is not a Presidential year there is still much at stake, mainly the control of the US Senate. If the Republican Party can pick up 6 seats they will have the 51 votes necessary to control the majority in both Houses of Congress for at least the last two years of President Obama’s term, giving them the ability to control the process of writing of legislation on Capitol Hill.

This is a strong possibility, given that Republicans have lucked out in this cycle. Many of the seats that are being contested are either in conservative states or have incumbent Democrats retiring, meaning that the possibility of republican pickups are large. Republicans are expected to easily win the seats of retiring Democrats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana, solely because of the political demographics of these states. The GOP also has a slight lead in Iowa where another longtime Democrat is retiring, with the polls showing that Republican Joni Ersnt is doing better as Election Day draws nearer.

If the GOP can win all of these elections, then they would only need to win races in two states that Democrats controlled last cycle. These seats can be picked up in any number of states including North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, or New Hampshire. All of these states either voted for Romney or were hotly contested swing states that barely supported President Obama two years ago. This bodes well for Republicans considering that they have another advantage in midterm years, voter turnout. As noted political statistician Nate Silver points out, Republicans have historically had much more success in turning out their voter base in off year elections. That is because older and white voters tend to show up to the polls more often than their counterparts, and the former tend to vote Republican. This was largely the case in the 2010 as well where the GOP won a commanding majority of the House of Representatives. In order to avoid of repeat of 4 years ago, Democrats have to ramp up their ground game considerably and turnout urban, young, and minority voters at similar levels to 2008 and 2012 if they want to hold the Senate.

Republicans also have another advantage. The party of President historically loses seats in almost every midterm election. This has happened in both of the last midterm years in 2010 and 2006 when control of Congress shifted away from the party of the sitting President. Since the Democrats and President Obama are in the majority right now, this trend happens to benefit the Republicans.

Most likely the seats Republicans need to pick up would come from Arkansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, and Alaska. If current trends hold, then Republicans would need to pick up just two of these seats, possibly three if they can’t hold down their own incumbents. In Arkansas, another highly conservative state with a Democratic incumbent, Republican Tom Cotton has lead Democrat Mark Pryor by at least 4 points in all four of the last polls. In Louisiana, Republican challenger Bill Cassidy leads incumbent Mary Landrieu by an average of 5.3%. In Alaska, Democrat Mark Begich is down by an average of 4.4%. North Carolina is in a dead heat with Democrat Kay Hagan up by only 1.5 %, while in Colorado Republican Cory Gardner is up 2%. Republicans need only 2 of these races to go in their favor, which seems very likely considering that every single one of these candidates entered the race losing to their Democratic opponents but have been trending upward ever since they began their campaign efforts. I personally see the GOP candidates pulling it out in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana while I see the Democrats winning in Colorado and North Carolina, thus putting the Republicans over the threshold for the majority.

There are also several wildcards that could change these dynamics. If Democrats unseat any incumbent Republicans, then the GOP would have to win 7 seats instead of 6. The only two likely states where this could happen would be in either Georgia or Kentucky. Even though both of these states historically have been bastions of conservatism, Democratic candidates still have a shot. In Georgia, longtime Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss is retiring leaving his senate seat vacant. In a hotly contested primary, Republicans nominated businessman David Perdue, while Democrats chose Michelle Nunn, the daughter of popular former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn. Even though Georgia is a deep red state, Nunn is running very close with Perdue because of her high name recognition. Democrats have also made an effort to get African American voters in Atlanta to turnout on Election Day, which could swing the numbers in her favor.

In Kentucky, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is facing a tough challenge from Alison Lundergan Grimes, the current Kentucky Secretary of State. Although this race is starting to favor McConnell, largely because of outside spending and Grimes lukewarm and tepid rejection of unpopular coal regulations passed by the Obama administration, Grimes is still hanging in. She is benefiting from national Democratic Party’s efforts to try and unseat McConnell because of his leadership position in the Republican Party. However, if Democrats can win either one of these two elections, it would make it much harder for the GOP to get the majority.

Perhaps the most interesting and unorthodox race is in Kansas. After winning a bitter primary in August against a Tea Party Challenger, incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is now facing a tight race from independent Greg Orman. In order to try and oust Roberts, the Democrats in Kansas actually pulled their party’s nominee from the race in order to stop him from siphoning off votes. This was a risky strategy considering the fact that Orman hasn’t decided which party he’ll caucus with if he wins. If things fall the right way, he could end up being the deciding vote in the Senate for the next two years. Polls show this race as a dead heat, but expect Republicans to spend lots of money to ensure that nothing too crazy happens.

Even though midterm elections are often hard to predict, it seems safe to say that the Republicans have an easier road to the majority than their Democratic counterparts. 2016 is a different story altogether though. Next time around several conservative Senators are up for re-election in blue states. So even if they win the majority on November 4th, Republicans will have a tough time keeping it in two years when Presidential candidates are on the ballot.


*All poll numbers are taken from the Real Clear Politics averages of national and local Senate polls

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