2014 elections: Might Democrats keep control of Senate after all?

A funny thing happened on the way to 'majority leader Mitch McConnell.' In the past few days, a number of the major election forecasting models have lurched back toward the Democrats.

Charlie Neibergall/AP/FILE
Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst speaking in Des Moines, in June.

Are Democrats going to maintain control of the Senate after all?

If so, that would be a surprise. Election fundamentals point to a GOP takeover. Mid-term elections generally swing towards the party that doesn’t hold the White House, for one thing. President Obama’s job approval ratings are so bad that they’re a stone around the chances of many Democratic candidates, for another. Enthusiasm and momentum seem more pronounced on the Republican side.

But a funny thing happened on the way to “majority leader Mitch McConnell.” In the past few days, a number of the major election forecasting models have lurched back toward the Democrats.

The New York Times Upshot model now judges the race for the Senate to be pretty much a toss-up, for instance, with a 51 percent chance Republicans will win a majority, and a 49 percent chance for Democrats.

“The probability is essentially the same as a coin flip,” according to the Upshot.

The data journalism site 538 gives the GOP a slightly better 55 to 45 percent edge. That’s still pretty close – and it’s down from a 64 to 36 percent Republican lead on Sept. 1.

Then there’s the Washington Post Election Lab at its Monkey Cage political science vertical. Today it gives Democrats the 51 percent in a 51-to-49 split.

All this has given some disaffected Democrats a little wind beneath their metaphorical wings.

“A week ago, I was thinking Dems were toast for Senate; now I think GOP could find a way to blow it,” tweeted Talking Points Memo editor and publisher Josh Marshall earlier today.

Well, missteps aren’t really what have caused Republican chances of winning the Senate to decline from 65+ percent plus to a toss-up. What’s happened is partly due to a change in the models themselves: As the election nears, they begin to place more emphasis on poll results in individual races, as opposed to underlying political fundamentals.

And there are some individual races in purple states in which Democrats are doing well – perhaps better than expected.

Take Colorado. Back in late August, incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) had a 64 percent chance of winning reelection, according to the Post’s Election Lab model. Today, he’s got a 94 percent chance of another term, writes Chris Cillizza.

In Iowa, the Post model gave Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst, who is running for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a 72 percent chance of winning. Today that’s slid to a 59 percent chance.

Post ratings in Kansas, as well as Louisiana and North Carolina, also have moved in the Democrats’ favor.

At 538, founder Nate Silver points to Colorado and North Carolina as key purple states where Democratic chances have improved. Money could be a factor as well, Silver writes. Democrats have more cash than the GOP in key states.

“Whatever the reason, the GOP’s path to a Senate majority is less robust than before,” Silver writes.

It’s certainly possible that the models are exaggerating Democratic chances to keep Harry Reid in his current majority leader job. The generic congressional ballot right now favors the Republicans, and that’s usually a key indicator. Obama’s polls aren’t recovering. Surveys show Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting, meaning mid-term turnout might be more tilted toward the GOP than normal. The economy is just bumping along. The world seems in crisis from Ukraine to Iraq to West Africa.

In fact, some veteran political prognosticators are predicting not just a GOP win, but a GOP wave. Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report writes that Democrats have plenty of reasons to dread this November.

And Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report predicts that Republicans will gain at least seven seats.

“But I wouldn’t be shocked by a larger gain,” he wrote last week.

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