Morning midterms update: 3 Senate contests have Princeton’s Sam Wang “tearing my hair out”

Plus: The latest on Obamacare at the ballot box, North Carolina's Senate race, early voting in Iowa, and Greg Orman

Published September 25, 2014 1:18PM (EDT)

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, speaks at an event at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska.    (AP)
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, speaks at an event at his campaign headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP)

With the race for Senate control tantalizingly close just six weeks out from Election Day, Princeton University neuroscientist and electoral prognosticator Sam Wang says he’s “spending a lot of time thinking about” the too-close-to-call races in Colorado, Iowa and Alaska, with the Alaska contest proving particularly vexing.

Wang’s polling-based model currently gives Democrats a 70 percent shot at maintaining Senate power, but in a new podcast with Political Wire, Wang says that that number doesn’t reflect the dynamics that could easily tip a few key Senate races toward the GOP.

At this point, Wang expects independent Greg Orman to knock off incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas. Noting that all head-to-head polls in the state have shown Orman with a lead, Wang said he isn’t spending as much time dwelling on Roberts’ fight for political survival as many midterm watchers are.

“Actually, I’m not paying that much attention to Kansas at the moment. Greg Orman, the independent, is ahead by a median of about five points, and things look like he’s currently the front runner and I think that it’s unambiguous,” Wang told Political Wire.

But while a Republican loss in Kansas would complicate the GOP’s path to winning back the Senate, Wang isn’t ready to write off the party’s chances.

“Honestly, the places where I’m spending a lot of time thinking about right now are Colorado, Iowa, and Alaska. These are places where it’s really close, and Alaska currently has me tearing my hair out because it’s got very few polls and Alaska seems to be a hard place to survey.”

There’s been a split in Alaska between polls conducted by Democratic-aligned organizations and those by non-partisan polling companies. The former have shown incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich leading GOP challenger Dan Sullivan, while the latter find Sullivan moving into the lead. Statistics guru Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, however, contends that the partisan polls may actually boast higher-quality methodologies. At any rate, polls haven’t always been reliable predictors of what will happen in the state, where remote populations like Alaska Natives are difficult for pollsters to reach. Polling in 2004 suggested that Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was headed for a loss, even though she retained her seat, while Begich barely defeated indicted Sen. Ted Stevens in 2008, despite polls that showed him trouncing the incumbent.

Put simply, it’s not difficult to see why Wang is finding Alaska so maddening.

In other midterm news:

  • It might have seemed unlikely at the height of last year’s bed-wetting over, but Obamacare may actually be helping a vulnerable Senate Democrat – in a red state. A new USA Today-Suffolk poll finds that among Arkansas voters for whom healthcare is the top issue heading into the midterms, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor leads Republican Tom Cotton by 11 points, 50 to 39 percent. Pryor, a conservative Democrat, is running ads touting his support for Obamacare, while Cotton is an inveterate opponent of the Affordable Care Act. Overall, the poll showed Pryor with a narrow 2-point lead, 45 to 43 percent.
  • In a fusion of the 2014 and 2016 contests, Jeb Bush traveled to North Carolina on Wednesday to campaign with GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis. Underscoring the challenges Bush would face among Tea Party voters in the 2016 GOP primaries, the New York Times reports that Tillis distanced himself from Bush’s positions on immigration reform and the Common Core education standards. Meanwhile, over at the Times’ Upshot blog, Nate Cohn looks at the “surprising strength” of Tillis’ opponent, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Recent polls show Hagan with a narrow but consistent lead, despite fears earlier this cycle that her unimpressive approval ratings would spell defeat. While Hagan still isn’t particularly popular, Cohn observes, Tillis’ favorability is even lower – likely thanks to the unpopularity of the right-wing North Carolina Legislature, where Tillis is speaker of the state House.
  • Early voting begins today in Iowa, where the Senate race between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst couldn’t be closer. Democrats lead Republicans in absentee ballot requests in the state by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, while RealClearPolitics’ polling average shows Ernst ahead by 0.2 points.
  • Conservative columnist George Will sounds like a fan of Kansas Senate candidate Greg Orman. The independent might be seen as the de facto Democratic candidate in his race, but in an interview with Will, Orman decried “the beehive of regulations” from the federal government and mentioned that he’s reading Paul Ryan’s new book, "The Way Forward." Orman also told Will that he’d caucus with the Republicans if they control at least 51 seats after the election, but that he’d weigh his options with both parties if neither held a majority. While Will writes that Orman would increase the Senate’s “intellectual voltage,” he concludes that “improving 1 percent of the Senate is less important than taking 100 percent of Senate control from Harry Reid.”

By Luke Brinker

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