Midterms Digest: Nate Silver tells Democrats not to panic just yet

Plus: Why so many governors are vulnerable this year, and how the House GOP could get even more extreme

Published September 29, 2014 6:57PM (EDT)

Nate Silver                        (ABC)
Nate Silver (ABC)

Last week brought a spate of bad news for Democrats hoping to retain control of the U.S. Senate, with polls showing their candidates falling behind in Colorado, Alaska and Iowa. But statistics whiz Nate Silver says it’s too early for the party to panic just yet.

In his latest Senate forecast, the FiveThirtyEight founder writes that the GOP remains a slight favorite to win Senate control, pegging the party’s chances at 60 percent. According to FiveThirtyEight’s model, Democratic seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia are likely to flip Republican. With Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., forecast to lose to independent Greg Orman – whom Democrats hope caucuses with their party – that means Republicans need to pick up just one additional seat to take over the Senate. And given the extremely tight races in Iowa and Colorado, the party stands a decent chance of doing just that.

But don’t panic, Silver tells Democrats – at least not yet. The narrative that the GOP is now a lock to win the Senate, he cautions, “conceals too much of the uncertainty in the outlook.” There are still five weeks to go until Election Day – plenty of time for the conditions to change in key races.

Five weeks ago, after all, it looked like Roberts’ worst-case scenario was an embarrassingly close finish on Nov. 4. The withdrawal of Democrat Chad Taylor from the Kansas Senate race on Sept. 3 upended the contest, setting up a head-to-head matchup against Orman. And until recent weeks, Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall clearly had a fight on his hands, but polls suggested he was headed for a narrow victory. With GOP challenger Cory Gardner now in the lead, conventional wisdom holds that the tide in that race has turned, too.

So the next five weeks could witness states like Colorado and Alaska swinging back in the Democratic direction. Or, Silver warns, we could see the ground begin to shift underneath candidates like North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. Despite a barrage of Koch-backed attacks early in the 2014 cycle, Hagan has held a steady lead in recent polls. But given the narrowness of her lead – 3.5 points in RealClearPolitics’ average – it would take only a small shift to see things start to turn the other way.

In short, the GOP is much better positioned going into the home stretch – even Princeton neuroscientist and election prognosticator Sam Wang, once among the most bullish analysts on Democrats’ prospects, is starting to have his doubts – but there’s a lot we still don’t know, even this late in the midterm cycle.

In other midterm news:

  • Anti-incumbent sentiment might be disadvantaging mostly Democrats in Senate races, but it’s a far more bipartisan curse in gubernatorial contests. That’s what the Washington Post’s Dan Balz points out in his latest column, which notes the striking number of competitive governor’s races this year. Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Kansas, Maineand Pennsylvania either find themselves in toss-up races or are expected to lose (in the case of Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett), while Democratic incumbents in Colorado, Illinois and Connecticut are locked in tight contests. Many of the governors preside over purplish states where elections are always close, Balz notes, but many are bearing the brunt of voter anger over “state-specific issues.” Perhaps the most interesting case is that of Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback’s supply-side economic program met with disastrous results and revenue shortfalls. Brownback has trailed Democrat Paul Davis in most public polls.
  • For all the talk of a resurgent GOP establishment, we’re likely to see a new crop of inflammatory Tea Party types sworn in to the House in January. Today’s New York Times looks at how many House GOPers who are either retiring or seeking higher office are likely to be replaced by even more conservative Republicans – suggesting that Speaker John Boehner is unlikely to be any more successful reining in the more unruly factions of his party once the new Congress begins.

By Luke Brinker

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