Chaos in the Senate race: Why 2014 is getting so hard to predict

With independent candidates making strong showings in South Dakota and Kansas, as well as the possibility of a runoff election in Louisiana or Georgia, control of the Senate may not be decided until well after Nov. 4.

Orlin Wagner/AP
Independent candidate Greg Orman answers a question during a debate with Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in Overland Park, Kan. on Wednesday. Orman is one of two independent candidates, along with Larry Pressler in South Dakota, making strong showings in the 2014 Senate race.

If you like your politics scrambled, 2014 is turning out very much to your taste.

With less than a month left to go before Election Day, the outlook for control of the Senate seems to be getting murkier every day. 

The number of Senate seats in play is growing rather than shrinking. And it now looks possible, maybe even probable, that the overall outcome won’t be known until well after the Nov. 4 ballots are counted.

What’s happened?

The latest news is that South Dakota, with an open Senate seat long thought to be a secure gain for Republicans, is becoming a three-way sprint thanks to a strong independent candidate.

In Kansas, where a Democrat dropped out of the running, another independent has mounted an unexpectedly strong challenge to Sen. Pat Roberts (R), putting a Republican seat unexpectedly in jeopardy.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate.

The picture is complicated, too, by incumbent Democrats who have dug in their heels – making it look like a long shot for Republicans to gain a seat in New Hampshire or North Carolina.

And even Georgia, where Republicans are expecting to win an open seat, recent polls show Democrat Michelle Nunn making the race competitive. 

All this doesn’t mean Republican odds of a Senate takeover are suddenly unfavorable. 

It’s just that their path to potential victory can’t be summed up easily. Will it “all come down to Colorado?” Maybe. But maybe it will all come down to Alaska.

Or Louisiana. And if that’s the case, many pundits don’t expect the outcome to be known when the Nov. 4 votes are counted. That’s because, if no candidate gets 50 percent or more of the vote, the top two vote-getters move on to a run-off ballot Dec. 6 under Louisiana’s unusual system.

Right now, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) are each polling under 50 percent.

A run-off also looks possible in Georgia, which has the same 50 percent threshold. Ms. Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, and Republican David Perdue are each polling below 50 percent. The Georgia run-off would be in January.

Factor in the Kansas and South Dakota news, and the prospect of a delayed outcome gets even stronger. It’s possible that even after the run-offs, control of the Senate could hinge on which party an independent victor (Greg Orman of Kansas or Larry Pressler of South Dakota) chooses to caucus with.

Let’s step back from all this chaos for a moment.

If the election were held today and each race went to the person who currently leads, according to averages of recent polls calculated by the website RealClearPolitics, then Republicans would narrowly gain control of the Senate.

They’d win one more seat than they need, actually. But two of those wins would come in the run-off states of Georgia and Louisiana.

In addition, turnout in the midterm elections this fall is predicted to be lower than in the past two midterm elections, which traditionally draw fewer voters than in presidential election years. A new poll released by Gallup this week shows a lower rate of voter engagement, compared with the 2006 and 2010 mid-terms. 

The path to Republican victory still involves picking up some seats vacated by retiring Democrats (Montana, West Virginia, and perhaps South Dakota, where Republican Mike Rounds leads against Mr. Pressler and Democrat Rick Weiland.

Then Republicans need to knock off some incumbent Democrats in “red” states that were won by Republican Mitt Romney in his 2012 bid for the presidency. In this category, Republicans now have an edge in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and Colorado.

And if Republicans lose Kansas, they have hope of making up that loss in Iowa, where Joni Ernst is polling ahead of Democrat Bruce Braley for the seat vacated as Sen. Tom Harkin (D) retires.

The problem is lots of these races are close. Colorado has razor thin polling margins between incumbent Mark Udall (D) and Rep. Cory Gardner.

And Kentucky, although it’s a likely Republican win, still hasn’t been locked up by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in his race against Alison Lundergan Grimes (D). 

In truth, this never looked like a simple election for Republicans.

Yes, the rural-leaning geography of the Senate seats up for vote favored conservatives. Yes, President Obama’s unpopularity is a burden for many Democrats. And yes, “midterm” years with no presidential election often run against the party that controls the White House.

But to turn their goal into reality, Republicans need to do something that’s always difficult: Not just grab open seats but also oust some incumbent senators.

The next few weeks will be an interesting ride – and an expensive one for the people buying advertisements and mounting voter-turnout drives in all these states.

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