One day to go: Where things stand in 10 Senate battlegrounds

With control of the chamber slated to come down to these races, a look at the current state of play

Published November 3, 2014 2:12PM (EST)

With just one day to go before voters head to the polls, the fight for Senate control remains fiercely contested. Though forecasters predict a Republican Senate come January 2015, razor-thin margins separate the candidates in enough races that Democratic control is far from inconceivable.

Here's where the Senate map currently stands. Republicans are safe bets to pick up Democratic-held seats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, all states where incumbent Democrats opted not to seek reelection. Meanwhile, the GOP is virtually certain to hang on to seats in Alabama, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming and Mississippi. Democrats are slated to keep control of seats in Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia.

That puts us at 45 Democratic seats and 45 Republican seats, leaving 10 battlegrounds of varying competitiveness to be determined. This morning, Salon looks at the state of play in those 10 key states.


Last week, Salon observed that Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who's seeking a second term, appeared to be making a comeback in the polls against GOP challenger Dan Sullivan. Subsequent surveys confirm that the race, in which Sullivan built a lead in the mid-single digits starting in early September, has indeed tightened. A Public Policy Polling survey released this morning shows Sullivan leading by just 1 point, a statistically insignificant margin. Overall, Sullivan leads by 2.4 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average -- hardly the decisive edge required to pronounce this seat a safe GOP pickup. Polling in Alaska is notoriously difficult, and Begich's much-touted ground game may propel the incumbent to a come-from-behind victory.


The recent pattern of polls underestimating Democratic performance at the ballot box in Colorado left reason for skepticism of surveys showing Republican Cory Gardner narrowly leading Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. However, it's increasingly difficult to escape the conclusion that Udall is in real trouble. Gardner now leads the incumbent by 3.9 points in RealClearPolitics' average -- nearly a point more than the margin by which GOPer Ken Buck led Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet on Election Day 2010, when Bennet ultimately prevailed. Moreover, early voting returns paint a bleak picture for Colorado Democrats, so a Udall win would have to be considered a major upset.


While Republican nominee David Perdue's remark that he was "proud" of his background outsourcing jobs helped Democrat Michelle Nunn build a small lead in the polls, that edge has vanished of late, with Perdue reclaiming the lead in most recent surveys. It isn't clear that Perdue will exceed 50 percent -- the threshold required to avoid a Jan. 6 runoff -- tomorrow, but  the Republican would likely be the favorite in a runoff contest. In five statewide runoff elections since 1992, the Democrat lost in each.


Is the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin tightening or breaking toward Republican Joni Ernst? Recent polls disagree. Most surveys show the race effectively tied, with Democrat Bruce Braley mounting a comeback after Ernst had seemed to assume control of the race. But a Des Moines Register poll unveiled this weekend showed Ernst leading Braley by 7 points, 51 to 44 percent. That's much larger than the 1.8 point margin by which Ernst leads in the RealClearPolitics average, although even that much more modest edge underscores the reality that this race hasn't made the clear break toward Braley that Democrats hoped it would by this point. Still, early voting numbers look fairly good for Braley, and this contest remains very much in play.


The withdrawal of Democratic Senate nominee Chad Taylor suddenly put the Kansas Senate race in contention this September, as polls showed that independent Greg Orman had a real shot at knocking off three-term GOP Sen. Pat Roberts. Roberts waged a vigorous fight-back, bringing in boldface conservative names like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, and his attacks on Orman helped narrow the challenger's lead. Still, Roberts' unpopularity -- borne of the widespread impression that he's lost touch with the state -- has prevented him from claiming a clear advantage, despite Kansas' deep Republican roots. This race remains a pure tossup at the 11th hour; RealClearPolitics gives Orman an average lead of just 0.7 points.


Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is poised to win the most votes against her two Republican challengers, Bill Cassidy and Rob Maness, tomorrow. But as in Georgia, that won't be enough -- a candidate must receive 50 percent plus one to win outright. Landrieu isn't going to hit that magic number, setting up a Dec. 6 runoff between the senator and Cassidy, who leads Maness by a healthy margin. While Landrieu won close runoffs in 1996 and 2002, she's likely to be at a disadvantage next month, particularly if control of the Senate hinges on the outcome. RealClearPolitics' polling average shows Cassidy with a 4.6 point lead in a head-to-head faceoff.

New Hampshire

After trailing by up to double digits in the polls, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who moved to New Hampshire to challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, has narrowed the incumbent's lead to just 1 to 3 points in recent surveys, and Shaheen now leads Brown by just 0.9 points in RealClearPolitics' polling average. However, RCP's database includes a Vox Populi poll that gave Brown a 4-point lead, skewing the results; the GOP-leaning pollster is far from reliable, and even showed Republican Monica Wehby leading Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley earlier this year; Merkley has led by double digits in most other surveys this cycle. Moreover, Brown suffers high unfavorable ratings, and is unlikely to exceed 48 percent of the vote. That will make for a closer-than-once-expected race, but Shaheen is probably going to win reelection.

North Carolina

Having withstood a fusillade of outside attacks, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan looks like she'll be the target that eluded the national GOP this year. Her lead over GOP challenger Thom Tillis is small, but resilient, and Hagan has been helped by the fact that Tillis, North Carolina's House speaker, is the face of an unpopular right-wing Legislature. Given the small margin by which Hagan leads, there's still a path to victory for Tillis, but few forecasters expect him to pull it off. Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, for instance, gives Hagan a 71 percent chance of keeping her seat.


Unlike Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who trailed by double digits the entire 2010 cycle, Sen. Mark Pryor managed to keep his race against GOP challenger Tom Cotton close for most of the year. But Arkansas' rightward drift will likely prove too much for the incumbent to overcome, and late-stage numbers show an unmistakable drift away from the Democrat; Cotton now leads by 7.1 points in RealClearPolitics' polling average. The state that gave Pryor 80 percent of the vote in his 2008 reelection campaign is ready to boot him from office.


Once a top Democratic target, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is well positioned to win a sixth term on Tuesday. Boasting a 6.5 point lead in RealClearPolitics' average, the incumbent is slated to dispatch Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes after a nasty, expensive campaign. While McConnell's unpopularity presented Democrats with a rare pickup opportunity this year, he has benefited from a favorable national climate and President Obama's poor approval ratings in the commonwealth. Grimes now looks unlikely to exceed -- and may fall a few points short of -- the 47 percent of the vote won by Bruce Lunsford, McConnell's opponent in 2008.

By Luke Brinker

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