Senate Ratings vs. Senate Expecations

by Stuart Rothenberg September 10, 2014 · 10:56 AM EDT

While the current Rothenberg Political Report ratings don’t show it, I am now expecting a substantial Republican Senate wave in November, with a net gain of at least seven seats.

But I wouldn’t be shocked by a larger gain.

Rothenberg Political Report ratings reflect both where a race stands and, more importantly, where it is likely headed on Election Day. Since early polls rarely reflect the eventual November environment, either in terms of the candidates’ name recognition and resources or of the election’s dynamic, there is often a gap between how I categorize each race (my ratings) and what I privately assume will happen in November.

That gap closes as Election Day approaches, of course, since polling should reflect changes in name identification, candidate and party spending, and voter attitudes as November approaches.

Right now, for example, the Rothenberg Political Report Senate ratings suggest Republican gains in the mid-single digits. My newsletter has the most likely outcome of the midterms at Republican gains of 5 to 8 seats, with the GOP slightly more likely than not to net the six seats it needs to win Senate control.

Of the seven Romney Democratic seats up this cycle, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia are gone, and Arkansas and Louisiana look difficult to hold. Alaska and North Carolina, on the other hand, remain very competitive, and Democrats rightly point out that they have a chance to hold both seats.

But I’ve witnessed 17 general elections from my perch in D.C., including eight midterms, and I sometimes develop a sense of where the cycle is going before survey data lead me there. Since my expectations constitute little more than an informed guess, I generally keep them to myself.

This year is different. I am sharing them with you.

After looking at recent national, state and congressional survey data and comparing this election cycle to previous ones, I am currently expecting a sizable Republican Senate wave.

The combination of an unpopular president and a midterm election (indeed, a second midterm) can produce disastrous results for the president’s party. President Barack Obama’s numbers could rally, of course, and that would change my expectations in the blink of an eye. But as long as his approval sits in the 40-percent range (the August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll), the signs are ominous for Democrats.

The generic congressional ballot currently is about even among registered voters. If that doesn’t change, it is likely to translate into a Republican advantage of a few points among “likely” voters. And recent elections when Republicans have even a small advantage have resulted in significant GOP years.

The map, which has always been the single biggest reason why Republicans will gain Senate seats, continues to give Republicans plenty of opportunities and Democrats relatively few (though the Kansas developments change that slightly). In an anti-Obama election, most of those Democratic opportunities will evaporate.

Given the president’s standing, the public’s disappointment with the direction of the country, the makeup of the midterm electorate and the ’14 Senate map, I expect a strong breeze at the back of the GOP this year.

And if there is a strong breeze, most of the races now regarded as competitive will fall one way — toward Republicans. That doesn’t happen all of the time, of course, but it’s far from unusual.

In 2006, for example, Democrats won three of the four closest Senate contests, in Missouri, Montana and Virginia. Only Tennessee went Republican, and it wouldn’t have been close if Democrats had not had a strong wind at their backs nationally.

In 1986 — like 2006, a second midterm election — all six of the closest Senate contests were won by Democrats, including three (Colorado, California and North Dakota) where the Democrats drew less than 50 percent of the vote.

Democratic incumbents Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina all would be headed for re-election in a “good” Democratic year, such as President George W. Bush’s second midterm, when voters were unhappy with a Republican president and Democrats constituted the alternative.

But if history is any guide, at least two of them, and quite possibly all four, will lose this year — even with all the huffing and puffing from journalists over how brilliant their campaigns have been and how weak the GOP challengers are.

Although there are exceptions, state-level polls generally show Pryor, Landrieu, Begich and Hagan stuck in the mid-40s against their Republican opponents. Sometimes the Democrat is ahead by a point or two, and sometimes he or she is even or a point behind. But that doesn’t really matter. Either way, all are in precarious positions, particularly given the national atmosphere against their party.

Right now, this cycle looks much like 2010, when Democrats with reasonable profiles got crushed in Republican-leaning and swing states. Rep. Brad Ellsworth lost his Senate bid by 18 points in Indiana, Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost re-election by 21 in Arkansas, and Rep. Paul Hodes lost his Senate race by more than 23 in New Hampshire. The much-ballyhooed Robin Carnahan of Missouri lost her Senate bid by almost 14 points, while Wisconsin incumbent Russ Feingold lost by 5 points.

None of them could overcome the national dynamic favoring the GOP.

To be sure, Pryor is much better off now than Lincoln was at this point in 2010, and Republican challengers have not “put away” any Senate races. But any Democratic incumbent sitting in the mid-40s in a very Republican state probably can’t expect to get the benefit of the doubt from voters. And that puts Democratic Senate seats in swing states like Iowa and Colorado at great risk too, especially if the GOP “breeze” that I am expecting actually appears.

With the president looking weaker and the news getting worse, Democratic candidates in difficult and competitive districts are likely to have a truly burdensome albatross around their necks.

That is why, at least right now, I expect 2014 to be a big Senate year for the GOP — even if my current ratings don’t quite show it.