Let’s face it: the only thing any one in DC is talking about these days is which party will control the Senate after Election Day. With only 6 seats in play, Democratic incumbents fighting to retain red state seats, and a wildly unpopular
Democratic president, Senate Democrats are at a serious disadvantage. And yet Republicans are not yet measuring the drapes. Why? Because, despite a formidable political advantage, the polls are dead even. Vulnerable Republican candidates, superior Democratic ground games and a relentless get out the vote (GOTV) effort on the part of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) have kept 2014 competitive and stand to carry Democrats to a narrow victory on November 4th.
Granted, Senate Democrats have a steep uphill road to climb. Only six seats separate the two parties in a mid-term election where, historically, the party of a sitting President consistently loses seats. They are playing defense in two blue stalwarts: Colorado and Iowa. And there are the much-talked-about six seats that Mitt Romney carried in 2012: Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina, Montana and West Virginia. Yet, Democrats are still in it. Democratic incumbents in four of the six “Romney states” are within the margin of error, Independent candidates have moved Kansas and South Dakota out of the “Safe Republican” column, and Democrat Michelle Nunn is gaining in Georgia. Assuming Republicans lose Kansas, Democrats need only to hold Colorado and two of the “Romney states” in order to retain control of the chamber. *
At the top of the list for Democratic holds is North Carolina. Senator Kay Hagan has run an exceptional campaign, hammering her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, for being too conservative for this trending blue state. And the DSCC has double downed in North Carolina, investing heavily in GOTV efforts as well as political ads – nearly $10 million alone on ads from August through Election Day. Hagan is up in the polls and Democrats and non-partisan politicos alike are increasingly bullish on her ability to hold her seat.
In Alaska, Democrat Mark Begich is running what many believe is the best campaign of 2014 and one that will put him back in his seat in November. His field operation, focused on turning out the vote among Native Americans, is unprecedented in the state. Native Americans make up roughly 20% of Alaska’s population and they helped carry Begich to victory in 2008. Shored up by substantial DSCC resources, the Begich field operation has courted Native leaders and registered voters throughout the state, including far-flung villages only reachable by boat. Their investment in tribal turnout is given a leg up by a unity ticket in the state governor’s race where Native leader Byron Mallet is running for lieutenant governor as a Democrat alongside Independent Bill Walker. Add the notable GOTV efforts of local labor, which has pulled out all the stops to reach the one in four Alaskans with a personal or family connection to a union, and you have a formidable voting block that keeps Alaska blue.
Despite a recent downturn in the polls for Colorado Democrat Mark Udall, a superior Democratic ground game and new state voting system stand to give him an advantage. Democrats have invested $4.4 million on the ground in Colorado compared to a mere $556,000 by Republicans in the state. And they recently shifted their focus, which was nearly singularly focused on female voters, toward turnout among Latinos who make up 14% of the state’s population. According to a La Raza Action Fund poll, Latino voters favor Udall over his Republican challenger, Cory Gardner, by a decisive margin: 55% to 14%. Moreover, this year for the first time Colorado will conduct their mid-term elections entirely by mail. Under the new system, voters have four weeks to return their ballots; thus, Democratic voters who historically skip voting booths during midterms due to work or family obligations may be more inclined to cast their ballots. The mail-in system also favors sophisticated, highly targeted voter turnout operations where Democrats exceed Republicans in both experience and resources.
And the GOP is playing defense in red states they relied on as Republican holds. It’s looking more and more likely that they will lose Kansas, a result that no one thought possible a few short weeks ago. But when Democratic candidate Chad Taylor withdrew from the race last month, Independent Greg Orman shot to a quick lead over Roberts. Roberts is arguably the most vulnerable Republican running in 2014. He is an entrenched incumbent who doesn’t live in, or return regularly to, the state – two negatives that nearly lost him a bruising primary. At a minimum, Orman, who has committed to caucus with whichever party is in the majority, has thrown a wrench in the GOP path to victory and given Democrats a considerable shot at a red state pickup.
Georgia and South Dakota are both in play as well. A recent poll has Democrat Michelle Nunn gaining ground on Republican David Perdue after transcripts were released of Perdue publicly fending his role in corporate outsourcing at a former company. And in South Dakota, Independent candidate Larry Pressler is within striking distance of Republican Mike Rounds and the DSCC recently invested $1 million in the race. South Dakota is still an uphill battle for Democrats but Georgia is a toss up and complicating the math for a GOP Senate majority.
With less than three weeks to go, nothing is settled and Democrats continue to hold on in states they should have lost months ago. Despite the perfect storm of a mid-term election with Democrats defending 21 seats to a Republican 15 while saddled with an unpopular Democratic President, it is not a wave election in favor of Republicans. Democrats are well aware that turnout is key for them and they have invested heavily in producing it in battleground states. Come November 4th Democrats will certainly lose seats, yet I predict they will retain the majority by the slimmest of margins and Harry Reid will continue to be Majority Leader.
*with Vice President Joe Biden as the tiebreaking vote
Stacey Rampy is a Democratic lobbyist and founding partner at the bipartisan boutique lobbying firm of Rampy Northrup LLC.