Back In The Real World: GOP Control Of Senate In Jeopardy

Posted on October 29, 2016 by

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Overshadowed at times by the bizarre side-show that is the 2016 U.S Presidential election, but every bit as important, is the battle for control of the U.S. Senate. With Fridays announcement by FBI director James Comey that there are potentially additional Clinton emails subject to investigation, the race remains as unpredictable as ever.  The Republicans currently hold a 54 to 44 advantage, with two independents (Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont) caucusing with the Democrats. If, as currently projected, Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election the Democrats need to win four seats to gain control of the upper chamber (In the event of a 50-50 split, the vice-president would provide the tie-breaking vote). In the 2016 election there are thirty-four total seats at stake, comprising twenty-four for the Republicans and ten for the Democrats. Only the seat of retiring minority leader Harry  Reid (D-NV) is really in play for the Democrats, and the seat in California is, in fact,  already guaranteed to remain under  Democratic control. Of the Republican seats, there are currently three seats (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) that are virtually guaranteed to change hands,one seat (Missouri) that is in play  but leaning Republican, and three seats (New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania) that polls show are within three percentage points (In NH and PA, Republican candidates Kelly Ayotte and Patrick Toomey, respectively, are trailing, while in NC Richard Burr is currently leading).  In addition, Reid’s now open seat in Nevada is currently polling as a dead heat. By this count, the Democrats need to win two of the four races in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, or Pennsylvania. In a normal election year, I would say that the fate of these candidates would be tied to the fortunes of their corresponding presidential candidate, but this is not a normal election year. In fact, there is little evidence so far that Trump is hurting down-ballot candidates from his party, but there is ample historical evidence that a strong past showing by a presidential candidate buoys senate candidates in the future. mehtaenten-datalab-straightticketvoting1

There is also the relevant fact that fifteen million people have already cast their ballots, with 40% of the electorate expected to cast their ballots before election day. In this scenario, election results are much less likely to be skewed by late revelations. What follows is what may be a futile attempt to predict the outcomes of these four battleground states in the face of unprecedented unpopularity at the top of the ticket.

North Carolina

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While this race is close, incumbant candidate Sen. Richard Burr has yet to trail in any polls versus Democratic challenger Deborah Ross. FiveThirtyEight predicted a  probable Burr victory several months ago, but circumstances have changed. By their reasoning, Burr would eke out a victory based on North Carolina’s status as a slightly leaning red-state that had Donald Trump and Senator Burr ahead in the polls. But much has changed. The most recent composite polls show that Hillary Clinton has taken the lead in the state and Burr’s lead has been cut roughly in half. While it remains to be seen if the latest “scandal” will affect Clinton’s support in North Carolina, in a race this close any advantage can mean the difference. Assuming that Donald Trump doesn’t do anything too stupid in the next week and a half, Burr looks like he should pull this one out.

New Hampshire

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This race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte and  challenger New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan was looking like a toss-up until the last couple of weeks.As recently as two-weeks ago, the composite polls were exactly even 43 to 43 percent. While still within the margin of error, Hassan has opened up nearly a three-point lead in the latest polls. At the same time Clinton has opened up a six point lead in the state, and it appears that she may be taking Hassan with her. FiveThirtyEight predicts a Democratic win if Hillary prevails by more than a few points, and it is beginning to look like her lead will hold. Score one for the Democrats.

Pennsylvania

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Due to an infusion of outside money, this race between incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey and challenger Katie McGinty has become the most expensive senate race in history. As of October 25th, candidate committees and independent groups have spent more than 113 million on the contest. according to the most recent composite poll McGinty leads by less than a single point, 43.6 to 42.9%. This doesn’t bode well for Sen. Toomey as he captured his seat in the Republican wave of 2010 by only 2 percentage points. Pennsylvania hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Clinton currently holds a six-point edge in the polls. Toomey has mostly maintained a small lead throughout, but if Clinton’s margin doesn’t shrink, he may be in trouble. Score another one for the Democrats.

Nevada

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This race between U.S. Rep Joe Heck and former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is as close as it can be with the polls showing a 42.7 to 42.7 tie as of October 29th. Heck has not trailed, but Nevada can be notoriously difficult to forecast (In 2010 polls showed Harry Reid trailing, but he won by 6 points). Clinton currently leads in Nevada by a couple of percentage points, and  Cortez Masto is not failing to remind voters that until the release of the Access Hollywood tape, Heck was a Trump supporter. Heck represents a relatively heavily populated urban  near Las Vegas, while Cortez Masto hopes to win the support of the state’s Latino population which numbers around 25%. Perhaps as much as any other state, the support for either Clinton or Trump could prove decisive. Based largely on the inaccurate polling of the past, and the fact that she is Harry Reid’s handpicked successor, I am predicting a Nevada victory for the Democrats.

Conclusion

I said at the beginning that in a normal election year I would have said that each candidates fortunes were tied to that of their corresponding candidate, and that there is little evidence to show that Trump is harming Republican candidates. I still believe that to be the case, but upon closer examination it appears that his down ballot brethren could actually use a little extra push. Unless the FBI arrests Clinton before election day, that help is unlikely to be forthcoming. Of course I could be wrong, but as of October 29, 2016, I am predicting Democratic control of the Senate with the independents’ votes to spare.

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