New Alaska polls scramble Senate calculus

Plus: Dems fear GOP wave in House, Kansas rebels against conservatism, and the Senate races that got away

Published October 28, 2014 1:00PM (EDT)

As political observers game out Senate scenarios, most assume that six Democratic-held seats are relatively safe bets to flip toward the Republicans. Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Alaska have either been out of reach for Democrats for most of the 2014 cycle or have trended away from the party in recent weeks. And with Republicans needing to net only six seats to gain Senate control, those seats alone would be sufficient to install Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader, assuming the Republicans sustained no losses of their own. But new polls out of Alaska challenge the conventional wisdom that Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is headed toward defeat.

After barely prevailing in his 2008 Senate race against Sen. Ted Stevens, Begich entered the cycle as a top target for the GOP. Until late this summer, Begich maintained a modest polling lead over GOP challenger Dan Sullivan, but the tide turned against the incumbent in August. For nearly three months now, Sullivan has led by roughly four or five points in most polls. While Alaska is notoriously difficult to survey, few analysts in either party have disputed that Sullivan enjoys the momentum in the contest. Begich's hopes hinged on his much-ballyhooed ground game, one area in which he boasts a clear advantage over Sullivan.

There's new reason to believe that Begich's impressive voter outreach efforts may help him hold on, after all. On Friday, a GOP firm released a poll showing Begich with a 10-point lead over Sullivan, a result that almost certainly overstated Begich's advantage and appeared to be an outlier. But two other polls suggest that Begich is indeed very much still in the game. An Ivan Moore Research poll unveiled on Facebook last night gave Begich an eight-point lead among likely voters, while a Democratic poll released Friday shows the race between Begich and Sullivan deadlocked, with each candidate garnering 44 percent support.

So can Begich pull it off? A Democratic win in Alaska is far more conceivable than many pundits have acknowledged of late. As the New York Times' Nate Cohn observes, "[b]ecause Alaska’s population is no larger than the average congressional district, a startlingly small numbers of voters are enough to swing control of the Senate. Just 7,500 voters would be enough to overcome a three-point deficit."

For Democrats who watched a Democratic-held Senate seat in South Dakota become unexpectedly competitive earlier this month, only to rapidly slip away from the party, the apparent revival of Begich's fortunes is welcome news indeed.

In other midterms news:

  • While Democrats continue to harbor hopes of retaining the Senate, the party increasingly fears a GOP wave in the House of Representatives. Politico reports this morning that House Democrats are now worried about the possibility of losing seats even in liberal districts in Hawaii, Nevada, California, and Iowa. The surprising closeness of those contests means that a historic GOP majority of 246 seats -- which would require Republicans to net 12 gains in the House -- is far from unthinkable.
  • If  conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas loses re-election next week -- as he's at great risk of doing -- he can thank his deep, fiscally disastrous tax cuts. The Washington Post's Dan Balz is the latest political reporter to post a dispatch from the Sunflower State, where he writes that a Brownback loss may prove "an object lesson in the limits of conservative governance in a conservative state."
  • The Senate map includes no shortage of fiercely contested races, but FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver looks at some of the races that turned out to be far less competitive than expected. In Michigan, Silver notes, Republican Terri Lynn Land once posed a formidable threat to Democrat Gary Peters in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, but Land has proven a spectacular flame-out, and Peters is all but assured of victory. Similarly, Democratic-held seats in Minnesota, where Al Franken is seeking a second term, and Oregon, where Jeff Merkley is running for re-election, never moved in the GOP's direction. Meanwhile, Democrats are virtually certain to lose party-held seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana, even though the party once held high hopes of keeping the states in the blue column.

By Luke Brinker

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