10 key questions in the fight for Senate control

With just two weeks until Election Day, here's what we need to know

Published October 21, 2014 12:35PM (EDT)

For all the twists and turns of this midterm campaign season, one constant has held true – the Republican Party is well-positioned to retake control of the U.S. Senate.

A GOP majority may not materialize on election night. The party may well have to wait for runoffs in Louisiana (Dec. 6) and Georgia (Jan. 6) before it nets the six seats necessary to win power in the chamber. But the sheer number of Democratic seats up for grabs – RealClearPolitics rates seven as tossups and forecasts that Republicans will pick up another three – gives the GOP multiple paths to capturing the majority. Meanwhile, Georgia, Kansas and (to a lesser extent) Kentucky are the only GOP-held seats in danger of slipping from the party’s grasp.

A lot would have to go right for the Democrats to maintain their grip – and their best-case scenario at this point is probably a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Joe Biden breaking the tie. But a Democratic victory isn’t out of the question, as even some of the party's most vulnerable candidates have displayed surprising strength throughout the cycle.

With precisely two weeks until Election Day, here are 10 vital questions in the contest for Senate power.

1. Can Bruce Braley make the Iowa Senate race a referendum on the issues?

Every public poll since mid-September, save one, has given Republican Joni Ernst a modest lead over Democrat Bruce Braley in the race to replace Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Ernst’s lead has narrowed of late, though, and newly unearthed audio in which Ernst rails against “a generation of people that rely on the government to provide absolutely everything for them” may well damage her standing.

Ernst has kept the race close by emphasizing discontent with the status quo in Washington and running a personality-based campaign touting her bona fides as a middle-class Iowa farmer. She has lambasted Braley over an episode in which he and his wife became embroiled in a dispute with a neighbor over wandering chickens, and she has also seized on Braley’s inartfully worded questioning of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s qualifications to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Republican's greatest liability, however, is her ultraconservative agenda. She favors abolishing the EPA, the Education Department and the IRS; opposes raising the minimum wage; has flirted with Social Security privatization; has endorsed arresting federal officials for implementing Obamacare; and backs “personhood” legislation that would ban abortion and some forms of contraception. The Des Moines Register’s most recent poll of the race finds that on a majority of issues, Iowans prefer the progressive populist Braley’s positions to Ernst’s.

The bottom line: If this race is a referendum on Washington, Braley’s in real trouble. If he can make it a referendum on the issues, he has a real shot.

2. What is going on in South Dakota?

Pundits spent most of the 2014 cycle assuming that former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds was a shoo-in to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota. No more. Dogged by questions over an immigration investment scandal that has engulfed key members of his administration, Rounds finds himself in an unexpectedly competitive three-way race against progressive Democrat Rick Weiland and independent Larry Pressler, who held the seat as a Republican from 1979 to 1997. (A minor independent candidate, conservative Gordon Howie, threatens to siphon right-wing votes from Rounds.)

Three polls released earlier this month showed Rounds, who had been polling north of 40 percent, slipping into the mid-30s. Public Policy Polling showed Rounds at 35 percent, followed by Weiland at 28 percent and Pressler at 24 percent. Shortly thereafter, SurveyUSA found Rounds barely leading Pressler, 35 to 32 percent, with Weiland not far behind at 28 percent. Harper then released a poll showing Rounds with a 4-point lead – but this time over Weiland, whom he edged 37 to 33 percent. Pressler was further behind at 23 percent.

It’s now been a week since we saw a new poll from the state, and we still don’t really know whether Weiland or Pressler is in second place, if this is a genuine three-way race, how badly Rounds has been damaged by further scrutiny of his administration’s immigration investment deals, or just how much support Howie is likely to draw away from Rounds. This one is maddeningly difficult to peg, but if Weiland or Pressler (whom many Democrats expect would caucus with the party within the Senate) prevails, the Democrats' chances of holding the Senate will increase sharply.

3. Will Colorado Sen. Mark Udall outperform the polls?

After narrowly leading GOP challenger Cory Gardner for most of the cycle, Sen. Mark Udall saw his lead vanish in mid-September. While Gardner was a vocal supporter of last year’s Tea Party-led government shutdown and harbors hard-line conservative views on women’s rights, the environment and economic policy, he has managed to convince many credulous media figures – including the Denver Post editorial board – that his moderate tone is indicative of moderate politics. Gardner now leads Udall by 3 points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average.

But Democrats have a history of outperforming the polls in Colorado. On Election Day 2010, for instance, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet trailed GOP nominee Ken Buck by 3 points in the RealClearPolitics average, the same margin by which Udall currently lags behind Gardner. Udall’s supporters are counting on a repeat, and two internal polls released over the weekend gave them reason for hope. Both found Udall leading Gardner by 3 points.

4. Can Michelle Nunn avoid a runoff in Georgia?

In the wake of GOP nominee David Perdue’s tone-deaf boast about his record outsourcing jobs, Democrats feel increasingly optimistic about Michelle Nunn’s chances in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. Perdue’s lead has vanished, and Nunn’s internal polls reportedly show her inching closer to the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a Jan. 6 runoff. That’s a hurdle Nunn will likely need to clear if she’s going to win the seat. Perdue would probably be favored in a runoff, particularly if control of the Senate is at stake.

5. How serious is Scott Brown?

Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s decision to move to New Hampshire and challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen looked like a fool’s errand for most of the cycle, with many polls showing Brown at a double-digit disadvantage to the incumbent. But Brown may be making inroads with his fear-mongering over the Islamic State militant group and Ebola, having narrowed Shaheen’s lead to just 2 or 3 points in recent polls. This is a race Democrats have been counting on winning, and if Brown scores an upset here, that’s an ominous sign of what will be happening in other contests around the country.

Still, the most recent poll of the race, which shows Shaheen leading by only 3 points, finds that she’s much more popular than Brown, whose favorability rating is 13 points underwater. Shaheen’s favorability rating, by contrast is 6 points above water. Brown’s ceiling of support is probably about 48 percent. So he’ll likely come far closer to Shaheen than observers had originally expected, but it’s still hard to see him pulling this one off.

6. Will Kay Hagan’s narrow lead in North Carolina hold?

Once considered the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has capitalized on popular discontent with North Carolina's right-wing Legislature and strong support among women voters in fighting back against state House Speaker Thom Tillis. Since early September, Hagan has led in all but two public polls, although her edge has narrowed of late, in the midst of a new $6 million GOP ad blitz. One source of angst for Democrats has been the likelihood that support for Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh will collapse as Election Day draws near, potentially boosting Tillis. But the latest poll in the state, from Public Policy Polling, shows that Hagan leads Tillis by 3 points both when Haugh is listed and in a head-to-head matchup.

The persistence of Hagan’s small lead and her proven ability to withstand withering, well-financed attacks from outside groups give her a narrow but distinct edge.

7. Can Bill Clinton save Mark Pryor in Arkansas?

In 2008, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor glided to reelection, winning 80 percent of the vote against a Green Party opponent.

What a difference six years make. Weighed down by an unpopular president and facing an electorate that’s increasingly Republican, Pryor, scion of an Arkansas Democratic family, is in the fight of his political life against first-term congressman Tom Cotton, a Harvard Law graduate and military veteran. Pryor has trailed in most public polling, although he’s generally been able to hold Cotton to a lead no larger than the mid-single digits. That’s a marked contrast from then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s long march into political oblivion in 2010, when the Democrat trailed by double digits the entire race and lost reelection by 21 points.

With Cotton’s election not the foregone conclusion that now-Sen. John Boozman’s was four years ago, native son Bill Clinton has been barnstorming the state to save Pryor and the rest of Arkansas’ Democratic ticket. A Pryor loss wouldn’t necessarily indicate that the Clintons’ reservoir of goodwill in the state has dried up, but the popular former president’s passionate appeals to the state’s voters will almost certainly be credited with pushing Pryor over the top if he manages to eke out a win.

That scenario isn’t looking likely, however. A poll released last night showed Cotton opening up an 8-point lead over Pryor, garnering 49 percent to the incumbent’s 41 percent.

8. Does Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu have a path to victory in the runoff?

The polls in Louisiana have told a consistent story this cycle: Sen. Mary Landrieu leads her Republican challengers in the state’s Election Day “jungle primary,” but she lacks the 50 percent support required to avoid a Dec. 6 runoff and trails likely GOP finalist Bill Cassidy in head-to-head polls.

Landrieu is no stranger to tough runoff contests. She won squeakers in 1996 and 2002, defying many pundits’ expectations. This year may be different, however. For starters, it’s a midterm in the sixth year of an incumbent president who belongs to the same party as Landrieu – never an ideal situation for a vulnerable senator. And Obama is deeply unpopular in Louisiana – except among African-American voters, who will be crucial to Landrieu’s coalition. Whether Landrieu can thread the needle of distancing herself from the administration while getting enough of its most fervent supporters to the polls remains to be seen. But as with Georgia’s Nunn, a runoff presents Landrieu with two key challenges: Runoffs tend to have lower turnout, and Republicans will likely be far more motivated to show up, assuming Senate control is within sight.

9. Can Mark Begich’s ground game save him in Alaska?

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich sustained a heavy blow when Alaska Republicans this August opted not to nominate their disastrous 2010 Tea Party Senate nominee, Joe Miller. Instead, Begich faces former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who’s as close to a generic Republican as you can get. And given that it’s a midterm year and this is Alaska, a generic Republican should be about all you need to defeat a Democrat like Begich, whose narrow 2008 win over Sen. Ted Stevens was largely seen as a fluke. (Stevens was under indictment for ethics charges of which he’d later be convicted, but his conviction was soon vacated.)

But Begich has proven remarkably resilient, building up a formidable ground operation and cultivating ties with Alaska Native voters, who could prove decisive in a close race. Begich, however, hasn’t led a poll since August, and while polling in the state is notoriously tricky, the fundamentals of the race make Sullivan the favorite. If Begich triumphs, however, expect his vigorous voter turnout efforts to become much-ballyhooed.

10. Whom do Kansans dislike more – Pat Roberts or Harry Reid?

Three-term GOP Sen. Pat Roberts wasn’t supposed to find himself in a competitive race this year. A party stalwart who’s served the state in Congress since 1981, Roberts won his 2008 reelection campaign over former Rep. Jim Slattery by nearly 25 points.

But Roberts – badly damaged by the revelation that he doesn’t actually live in the state and dogged by accusations of insufficient conservatism – barely even survived the GOP primary, fending off Tea Party challenger Milton Wolf by just 7 points. With a Democrat and independent slated to split the anti-Roberts vote in the general election, however, his GOP primary victory seemed to secure the senator another term. But then Democrat Chad Taylor exited the race, leaving wealthy businessman Greg Orman, the independent, as Roberts’ sole major challenger. Polls showed Orman with a decisive edge over the incumbent, and while Orman has refused to say which party he’d caucus with if elected, Democrats salivated at the prospect of defeating a Republican senator in Kansas for the first time since 1932.

Recognizing the threat to his political career, though, Roberts has waged a relentless fight to keep his seat, portraying Orman as a liberal foot soldier who will vote to keep Harry Reid in the Senate majority leader’s office. That strategy appears to be working. Voters may not be enamored of Roberts, but this is rock-ribbed Republican Kansas, and recent polls show that the incumbent has pulled even with Orman. A fourth Roberts term is far from assured, but the senator is betting that Kansans will revert to their GOP mean come Nov. 4.

By Luke Brinker

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