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News from the Votemaster

Summary of the Prognosticators on the 2014 Senate Races

The New York Times has a table summarizing the predictions of five well-known political oracles (The Times itself, Nate Silver, Charlie Cook, Stuart Rothenberg, and Larry Sabato) about the 2014 Senate races. On the easy races, such as Jack Reed (D-RI) or Michael Enzi (R-WY), they all agree--reelection. On the tough races, such as Kay Hagan (D-NC) or Mark Begich (D-AK) they mostly throw up their collective hands and say: "Beats me."

We agree with the easy races and also with "Beats me." It is simply too early to tell, in some cases because there is a primary that will determine if an establishment candidate or a tea party candidate will face the Democrat in November. This time around the establishment knows full well what happens to candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock, and will go all out to prevent more of them from getting nominated. Needless to say, far-right candidates backed by the tea party see this merely as an invitation to fight harder.

North Carolina Primary is Next

The first real test will come in North Carolina on May 6, when eight Republicans will face off in the Republican senatorial primary for the right to take on Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) in November. The establishment has agreed on a single candidate, speaker of the North Carolina house, Thom Tillis. He is well funded and has endorsements from all of the state's top politicians.

One of his major opponents is physician Greg Brannon, who has the backing of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and FreedomWorks. As a physician, Brannon is naturally making the horrors of the ACA a major issue, but he is also skeptical of vaccinations. On the other hand, he does believe in global conspiracies of various sorts.

Another serious opponent of Tillis is fiery pastor Mark Harris, who has the backing of many of the state's Baptist churches. His focus is also on what he is against (abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) rather than what he is for, although he does believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, who created the earth less than 10,000 years ago as described in the Book of Genesis.

Normally, when two serious tea party candidates are competing against a single establishment candidate they split the vote, letting the establishment candidate get a (narrow) plurality. However, in North Carolina, that is not enough. To win the race, a candidate must get at least 40% of the vote; otherwise, there is a runoff on July 15. The most recent polling, by PPP (which is based in North Carolina), has Tillis at 18%, Brannon at 15%, and Harris at 11%, with the other five candidates all in the single digits. PPP's conclusion is that there will be a runoff, but it is hard to say who Tillis will face there. A SurveyUSA poll Put Tillis at 23%, Brannon at 15%, and Harris at 11%, again, with all the others in single digits. So this data, too, strongly suggests there will a runoff.

Obviously a lot depends on what the roughly 80% of the people who don't get their first choice do in the runoff. While Tillis has better name recognition and more money than whoever comes in second, the fact that four-fifths of the voters are not behind the establishment candidate has to be worrisome to Tillis. Of course, the big money will show up during the runoff and pound Brannon or Harris mercilessly. Of note here is that independents, who tend to be more moderate than Republicans, may vote in the primary.

General election polling shows that Hagan is trailing each of the Republicans by a very small amount. This is why all the prognosticators say "Beats me." If the Republicans can unite after the runoff, and the big money begins flooding in, she is certainly beatable. Of course, the Democrats are also going to pull out all stops to save her.

Other Southern Races Tight

North Carolina is not the only close Senate race in the South. Potentially close races in Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia could determine control of the Senate in 2015. In Kentucky, minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) first has to stave off a tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, on May 20 before he can face Kentucky's secretary of state, Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. All recent polls show McConnell with large double-digit leads against Bevin, but very small leads against Lundergan Grimes. Also factors here are the fact that McConnell is extraordinarily unpopular in his own state (32% approval, vs. 34% for Obama) but also that, at least in presidential elections, Kentucky is strongly Republican. Countering that, though, is that in the general election, McConnell will have a tough time running against "Obamacare" since Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY) has set up a well-functioning state health exchange that has signed up over 400,000 Kentuckians, many of whom may decide to vote to protect their new health care.

Louisiana is yet another state with a hot primary. Like North Carolina, there is a single establishment candidate, Rep. Bill Cassidy, and two challengers, state representative Paui Hollis and retired Air Force colonel Rob Maness. Cassidy is certain to swamp Hollis and Maness in the Nov. 4th primary (election day!), but if neither he nor Landieu get 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff in December. Heaven help the country if a runoff in Louisiana in December determines control of the Senate. Could we see $100 million spent on a single Senate race? Don't bet against it. The real winners here will be Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, since the only thing live TV will be showing for over a month after the primary will be horrendously harsh attack ads.

The final Southern state with a teetering Democratic senator is Arkansas. At least here the candidates are known: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) and Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR). Two recent polls show Pryor with small leads. A Hendrix College poll shows him up by 3% and a poll by Opinion Research shows Pryor ahead by 10%. Of course, these result will simply cause Karl Rove and the Koch brothers to up the ante and funnel even more money into negative ads. Like the other three Southern races, this one is simply too close to call at this point.

Finally, we come to Georgia, which has an open Senate seat due to the retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Louisiana, there is a primary here, probably the most ferocious of all. Three far-right congressmen, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), are battling each other and also former Georgia secretary of state Karel Handel, as well as wealthy businessman David Perdue and two unknowns. Polling shows the major candidates bunched together, with no one even hitting 20%. This means the May 20th primary will not be the end of the battle; there will be a runoff on July 22. The danger for the Republicans is that everyone will have moved so far to the right that whoever finally comes out on top will not be able to pivot to the center in time for the general election. The Democratic candidate will be Michelle Nunn, daughter of legendary senator Sam Nunn. General election polling shows Nunn trailing all the Republicans but within the margin of error in each case. If the Republicans manage to bloody each other enough in the primary and runoff, Nunn has a real shot at it, especially if an extreme candidate emerges from the runoff and proceeds to insert his foot into his mouth.

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---The Votemaster
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