The Crystal Ball has a number of rating changes in Senate, House and gubernatorial races to announce, but perhaps our most notable rating is one we haven’t changed.
With all that said, we’re keeping this race as “likely Republican.” We favor McConnell to win both his primary on May 20, 2014, and his sixth term in the fall general election. Why?A couple of recent Democratic polls show Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) narrowly edging out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in their likely matchup in November 2014. Additionally, McConnell has drawn a potentially credible primary challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. Grimes and Bevin both reportedly impressed at Fancy Farm, the annual Bluegrass State political confab held last weekend.
Not necessarily. McConnell is, if anything, an aggressive campaigner, and he has a massive war chest: His most recent fundraising report showed him with $9.6 million cash on hand. Additionally, in a world of SuperPACs, McConnell effectively will have an almost unlimited amount of money behind him, whether directly through his own spending or indirectly through third parties. So if McConnell has essentially bottomless coffers, then why not attack Bevin early and often? Wouldn’t it be political malpractice not to? In politics, a candidate sometimes is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If McConnell were sitting on his heels, he could project “confidence” to observers, but he might allow the Bevin insurgency to grow in strength. If McConnell acts -- as he has -- he shows that he’s “worried” about Bevin, but given his resources, he can put in some early work to keep his challenger at arm’s length. The latter is a better s trategy than the former, especially because Bevin is already on the airhimself.
McConnell supported ex-Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson in his losing effort against now-Sen. Rand Paul during the 2010 Republican Senate primary. However, McConnell and Paul are now allies, and a Paulite, Jesse Benton, is running McConnell’s campaign. Presumably, Paul’s support would be a big help to a McConnell challenger, but Kentucky’s two senators are on the same page, at least at the moment. We’ll see if some of the big conservative groups -- the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund -- decide to intervene on Bevin’s behalf. But for the time being, it’s hard to see McConnell losing a primary.
In the general election, the Democratic polls -- one by Public Policy Polling, the other by sharp pollster and strategist Mark Mellman -- show Grimes at about 45% of the vote, with McConnell a point or two behind. That the race is close is not a surprise. McConnell’s approval numbers in Kentucky are poor, and of his five Senate victories, only one -- 2002 -- was a real blowout. McConnell beat Bruce Lunsford (D) in his last election (2008) 53%-47%. So getting to 45% of the vote isn’t Grimes’ challenge; rather; it’s fin ding those last five percentage points.
The trouble with the Democratic polls is that neither of them provides information about the composition of the race’s undecided voters. Given Kentucky’s Republican tilt at the federal level, it’s probably safe to assume that the undecideds are ideologically more conservative than liberal. Are these voters -- who live in a state where Mitt Romney just won more than 60% of the vote -- really going to break for a Democratic challenger when their choice could help Barack Obama’s Democrats hold onto the Senate? It’s possible, but it’s not very likely.
Our “likely Republican” rating does not suggest that the race won’t be close -- it might well be, as many of McConnell’s races have been. Rather, it suggests that we still think McConnell is a clear favorite towin, even if it’s only by a percentage point or two. Despite the troublesome recent news for the minority leader, he is still in decent shape in our eyes.
There are a number of other ratings we are revising, though. They are described below.
Chart 1: Gubernatorial rating changes
AR-GOV: The outstanding fundraising by former Rep. Mike Ross (D), combined with the exit of ex-Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) from the Democratic primary, has shown that the former congressman is a strong contender to succeed term-limited Gov. Mike Beebe (D). On the Republican side, ex-Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) remains the likely Republican nominee, but it’s worth noting that he has lost three statewide campaigns (1986 for U.S. Senate, 1990 for state attorney general and 2006 for governor). This race is now a TOSS-UP.
However, Arkansas has become so strongly Republican in the age of Obama that we have a hard time believing that both the governor's race and the toss-up Senate race will go Democratic. We have a much easier time seeing a split, or even that both will go to the GOP. But at this early point, it’s fair to call both races toss-ups.
ME-GOV: With the entry of Rep. Mike Michaud (D) into the race, Democrats have a strong nominee with proven appeal to challenge Gov. Paul LePage (R), who won the 2010 three-way election with less than 40% of the vote. LePage is very controversial and his poll numbers are poor. Complicating matters is independent Eliot Cutler, who came within a couple points of winning the governorship last time around.
We’re switching the rating of this race from toss-up to LEANS DEMOCRATIC/INDEPENDENT. The point of our ratings change is to make clear that we believe Mainers are growing weary of the LePage act, and usually the curtain comes down on the show one way or the other in these circumstances. As of today, we suspect that Michaud has the better chance to bump LePage out of prime time, but it is early and we'll continue to watch.
OH-GOV: There have not necessarily been any big new developments in the Ohio gubernatorial race. Gov. John Kasich (R) did significantly outperform likely challenger and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald (D) in fundraising, but former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) had significantly more moneythan Kasich did at this time in the 2010 cycle. That didn’t prevent the challenger, Kasich, from winning.
But Kasich seems to be cruising along with decent approval ratings, and national Democrats appear to have many other, better targets for their third-party spending: Republican governors in Florida, Maine, Michigan and Pennsylvania are all, to us, clearly more vulnerable than Kasich (Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina might be, too). Democrats also have their own incumbents to defend in places. In other words, Ohio’s gubernatorial race might be a bit down the national totem pole this cycle, which would be a relief to Kasich. Combine that with what we sense is a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats for FitzGerald -- a Greater Clevelander who is little-known statewide -- and one has to install Kasich as a sturdier favorite in this race. So we are moving this race to LIKELY REPUBLICAN, from leans Republican. For more information on the race’s dynamics, we recommend these columns from The(Cleveland) Plain Dealer’s Tom Suddes and Brent Larkin. “As underdogs go, FitzGerald's a pretty big one,” Larkin notes. We agree, and that’s why we’re changing this rating.
Chart 2: Senate rating changes
NH-SEN: We keep waiting for a credible candidate to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), but no one has entered yet. State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R), a former congressman, seemed to indicate that he was entering the race earlier this week, but then he backed off. Other potentially good Republican contenders, such as a member of the Sununu family (ex-Sen. John or state Executive Councilor Chris), are taking a pass. Even with the Granite State's increasingly Democratic lean, Shaheen could have had a real race on her hands -- and she still might. But the fact that no one of note has volunteered for the job reinforces the incumbent's already substantial advantages and solid polling numbers. This race is now LIKELY DEMOCRATIC, which lumps it in with Colorado and Minnesota as places where potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents seem to have a clear path to reelection, at least at the moment.
SC-SEN: No, Democrats do not have much of a chance to win the Senate race here -- the general election rating remains SAFE REPUBLICAN. But we wanted to highlight some potential problems for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who has long drawn the ire of conservative activists. The race has gotten some national attention recently with the entry of Nancy Mace (R), the first female graduate of The Citadel, into the primary field. She joins former congressional candidate Richard Cash and state Sen. Lee Bright. Whether any of these candidates emerges as a decent challenger remains to be seen, but we’re calling the primary just “LEANS GRAHAM” for now. Remember that if Graham does not get over 50% of the vote , there will be a runoff held two weeks after the regular primary in June. The calendar does work in favor of the incumbent -- recall how now-Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) benefitedfrom a crowded primary field followed by a quick runoff in his special election victory earlier this year.
If there's a shocker in the GOP Senate primaries, this is currently the top candidate. The unhappiness about Graham in Tea Party ranks is always at a low boil, and Mace's entry could turn up the temperature considerably. Graham can still win another term, but he is going to have to throw himself into the contest wholeheartedly and spend freely -- and perhaps temper his tongue and very public alliance with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for the foreseeable future.
Chart 3: House ratings change
WV-2: Mountain State Republicans are rightly worried about Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R) seat, which runs from the state’s eastern panhandle through Charleston all the way to the Ohio border. Democrats shouldn’t really have a chance at any seat that gave 60% of its votes to Mitt Romney in 2012, but West Virginia retains a split political personality: It has supported Republicans in the last four presidential elections, but its state government is run by Democrats. Capito is in a great position to take the Senate seat of the retiring Jay Rockefeller (D), but Democrats have a strong contender for her House seat: Nick Casey, a former state party chairman who can at least partially self-fund his race. Republicans, meanwhile, don’t really have a top-notch candidate; one of the contenders, Alex Mooney, is also a former state party chairman -- but in Maryland. This race could edge into toss-up territory soon if a strong Republican does not emerge -- for now, we’re calling it LEANS REPUBLICAN, from likely Republican.
Also of note in West Virginia is the race in WV-3, which covers the southern part of the state. Rep. Nick Rahall (D) is one of the longest-serving members of the House, but Romney did better in his district than any other currently represented by a Democrat (except for the Utah district of Rep. Jim Matheson). Republicans had struck out on recruiting here until they flipped a Democrat, state Sen. Evan Jenkins (now-R), to run against Rahall. Rick Snuffer (R), who held Rahall to a 54%-46% win last year, is another possibility. That race continues to lean Democratic.
All in all, West Virginia -- which has only three House seats -- has two of the 36 House seats we rate as “leaning” or as “toss-ups.”
So what do these ratings mean, anyway?
We thought readers might be interested in a brief explanation of what our ratings mean, particularly in the context of our Kentucky rating. The ratings do not really have anything to do with how close we expect a race to be; rather, they are all about how confident we are that a candidate will win. As mentioned above, when we rate Kentucky Senate as “likely Republican,” we’re not saying that we expect Sen. McConnell to win by 55% or more, or 60% or more, or really by any number at all. We’re just saying that we have a reasonably high level of confidence that he’ll win, whether it’s by 100 votes or 1 million votes.
A recent race illustrates how this works. In the Massachusetts Senate special election, we consistently rated the race as “likely Democratic.” In the lead-up to the election, we wrote that it was “a competitive race, but not one where the outcome was all that much in doubt in the weeks leading up to the contest.” The same was true of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall in June 2012, which we consistently rated as “likely Republican”.
So, again, a “likely Republican” rating in Kentucky says nothing about how tight the race will be. It only says that we’re reasonably confident about the likely winner at this point. If we thought there was hardly any chance of McConnell losing, we’d call the race “safe Republican.” If the outcome becomes less clear to us, we’ll consider downgrading McConnell’s chances to “leans Republican” or even to “toss-up.” Explanations of our four ratings are provided in Chart 4.
Chart 4: An explanation of Crystal Ball election ratings
Other, perhaps more prudent prognosticators do not call all the races, leaving some contests as toss-ups through the election. However, the Crystal Ball calls every single general election contest: each Senate, House and gubernatorial race, and every state in the Electoral College in presidential years. So we move all of our toss-up races into at least the “leans” category by Election Day. We think you’re entitled to our best guess, and frankly, the close ones are where the fun is in this business.
As the election season comes into better focus, we’ll be adjusting our ratings to reflect how we see the races. Readers can keep track of our ratings changes through a new feature on our website. On ourratings change page -- which is linked from the main Crystal Ball site -- we will keep a running tally of all our changes, updated as they happen, so that readers can see how our thinking evolves during the contests.
By Geoffrey Skelley
While the gubernatorial contest between former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe (D) and state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) remains a toss-up for now, the battle for control of the House of Delegates is decidedly not: Republicans will retain control of the Virginia House.
To regain a majority in the chamber, Democrats must make a net gain of 19 seats in 2013. As the analysis below shows, this is a task that can be described as virtually impossible. As long as the gubernatorial contest at the top of the ticket remains close, the GOP may suffer, at most, a net loss of about five seats in November. However, even if McAuliffe wins the governorship, Republicans won’t lose much more than that, and possibly fewer seats. If Cuccinelli surges to victory, his party will come close to maintaining its current majority and might even net one seat.
Despite Virginia’s recent history as one of the most competitive states at the federal level, the lower chamber of the state’s General Assembly has been anything but competitive in recent times. Since wresting control of the 100-member House of Delegates from Democrats in 1999, Republicans have consolidated their majority, particularly after the latest round of redistricting. Going into November, Republicans hold 66 seats to the Democrats’ 32, with one independent (who caucuses with the GOP and is retiring) and one vacant seat (a safe Republican seat).
Why the lack of competitiveness in Virginia? It stems from a number of factors. Most importantly, the electorate in Virginia’s off-year state elections looks very different from the state’s electorate in presidential elections. In 2008 and 2012, more than 70% of registered Virginia voters turned out to vote for president. But in the competitive 2005 gubernatorial election, turnout was only about 45%, a number that slid to just over 40% in the 2009 race. In off-year elections, those who are more likely to vote have a stronger influence on the results. The off-year electorate is wealthier and older, and therefore tends to be whiter and more conservative. This partly explains how Republicans can control 16 Virginia House districts that President Obama won in 2012. Like the ir national colleagues, Virginia Democrats dread voter drop-off in non-presidential years.
Additionally, while Virginia may be a purple state, its political distribution is not geographically equal. Most Democratic votes are clustered around Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond and Hampton Roads. Much like Democrats in the federal U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Democrats suffer from being inefficiently distributed across the state, especially minority voters who are heavily concentrated in central cities. Correspondingly, most of the races discussed below are found in the state’s Urban Crescent (the three major urban areas concentrated in the eastern part of the state).
As is often the case, redistricting has also played a major role in the House’s lack of competitiveness. The party that controls the redistricting process is always going to help itself, regardless of the party. In Virginia, Republicans were positioned to create an even friendlier House map after the 2010 Census, while their Democratic counterparts in the Virginia Senate drew their own gerrymander (though it failed to preserve the Democratic majority in the 2011 Senate election). Thus, even though the 2009 election was an ugly affair for down-ticket Democrats because of state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ (D) overwhelming loss to now-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), the 2011 election in the House actually turned out to be even worse for the minority party.
Lastly, Republicans’ overwhelming control in the Virginia House is not only a product of voter distribution, voter turnout and redistricting. It’s also a result of Republicans running stronger candidates in many cases. Even with the huge voter drop-off in off-year elections, it would still be hard for Republicans to control some of these districts where Obama won unless the GOP candidates fit their constituencies to a decent degree. Perhaps the best example is Del. Tom Rust (R, HD-86), a moderate who is so entrenched that he didn’t even have an opponent in 2011 despite representing a district where Obama won over 60% in 2012.
Based on conversations with both parties, it seems there are 19 races that can credibly be considered in play this fall, though it’s highly unlikely that even a majority of these seats will switch hands. Of those 19 contests, 15 are Republican-held, while four are controlled by Democrats. This means that even if Democrats somehow managed to sweep all of these races, they’d still be four short of a majority. This count also doesn’t include HD-4, where incumbent Del. Joe Johnson (D) is retiring after more than two decades of service. This ancestrally Democratic district supported Mitt Romney at a 68% clip in 2012; now Democrats have failed to nominate a candidate for their own open seat. Therefore, Republicans have already banked a takeover in November, meaning that Democrats actually need to win 20 seats, not 19, to achieve a majority -- something akin to climbing Mount Everest in a blizzard. Data on the 19 potentially competitive districts is di splayed below in Charts 1 and 2.
Chart 1: Potentially competitive Republican-held districts in 2013
Chart 2: Potentially competitive Democratic-held districts in 2013
Notes: *Indicates incumbent seeking reelection. Any locality not listed with “Co.” is an independent city.
Sources: The Virginia Public Access Project for district geographical voter data; Virginia State Board of Elections for 2011 election results; Daily Kos Elections for presidential vote by House of Delegates district.
Despite the party’s unenviable position in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, national Democrats are taking some notice of these down-ticket races. Howard Dean’s PAC, Democracy for America, has endorsed Democratic candidates in 11 races, presumably with the intention of eventually spending money on their behalf. Of those 11, seven are among the races we view as potentially competitive this cycle, including the three most competitive seats, held by Dels. David Ramadan (R, HD-87), Mike Watson (R, HD-93) and Joseph Yost (R, HD-12).
Of those three, it looks as if Ramadan’s seat will be the most heavily contested House district in the state. Ramadan won by only 51 votes in 2011, making him a natural target for Democrats. As for the other first-tier districts, Watson’s is the most Democratic of the trio, and he narrowly ousted an incumbent in 2011. Unlike most of the competitive seats in 2013, Yost’s district is far from Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads. Situated in and around Blacksburg, VA (home of our host university’s rival, Virginia Tech), HD-12 was long held by Democrats until Yost’s victory in 2011. But Yost is unusual in that he’s a Republican who has won accolades from the traditionally Democratic Virginia Education Association -- he was the organization’s 2013 “Legislative Champion of the Year” -- which may give him some cross-party support.
Considering Republicans are extended pretty far into Democratic territory, most of the other seats that could potentially change hands are also Republican-held. One to keep an eye on is the seat held by Del. Danny Marshall (R, HD-14). Not only does Marshall face a challenge from Danville Vice Mayor Gary Miller (D), he also has to deal with an independent candidate running to his right. Marshall voted for Gov. McDonnell’s transportation plan, a move that inflamed some conservatives in the Southside district. Two other districts that may be very competitive in 2013 are those held by Dels. Richard Anderson (R, HD-51) and David Yancey (R, HD-94).
But for Democrats, many of their targets may prove elusive. For many years, Democrats have sought to unseat controversial Del. Bob Marshall (R, HD-13), but even though Marshall occupies a 55% Obama district, his strong political organization and support from the GOP base have routinely allowed him to win comfortably. Marshall could challenge Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) next year, although he’d be a heavy underdog in November if he got the nomination (which will be decided at a convention). Del. Barbara Comstock (R, HD-34) is another incumbent often vilified by the left, but her spectacular fundraising abilities will once again make her difficult to beat in 2013. (Comstock may eventually seek Rep. Frank Wolf’s (R) seat in the U.S. House of Representatives whenever Wolf decides to retire.) The aforementioned Tom Rust, sitting in the most Democratic seat held by a Republican, is also a seemingly vulnerable Republican who may be just out of reach for Democrats. Rust has a bipartisan image, even getting a shout-out from McAuliffe in the most recent gubernatorial debate. Despite winning a contested first race in 2009, Del. Tag Greason (R, HD-32) drew no opposition in 2011, and his 2013 opponent is not seen as top-tier. Veteran Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R, HD-31) has routinely beat back challengers despite being viewed as potentially beatable. Two incumbents in districts with significant minority populations, Dels. Mark Dudenhefer (R, HD-2) and Jackson Miller (R, HD-50), have attracted minority opposition candidates, but those districts are among the most vulnerable to voter drop-off from presidential to off-year elections, which harms Democratic chances.
A couple of Republican-held open seats are also worth mentioning. In Virginia Beach, HD-85 featured a spirited GOP primary that saw the establishment choice lose out on the party’s nomination, a development that may boost the chances of Bill Dale (D). And in what may be an attempt at misdirection, Democrats are also seriously challenging for HD-6, an open seat in southwestern Virginia where Romney won 66% of the vote in 2012. But Democrats claim that their candidate, Jonathan McGrady, may have exactly the profile to make the race interesting. We’ll see.
For the GOP, its list of legitimate targets is slim besides the automatic pick-up in HD-4. But the party of Lincoln will actually have Republicans to back in races against Dels. Eileen Filler-Corn (D, HD-41) and Mark Keam (D, HD-35), which should at least make those contests competitive. In 2011, Filler-Corn faced only a Libertarian candidate, while Keam was unopposed. Republicans will also seek to upset Del. David Bulova (D, HD-37), having recruited a former city council member from the City of Fairfax, Patrice Winter, to run against the incumbent. While unlikely, it’s conceivable that Del. Roslyn Tyler (D, HD-75) might have some trouble in 2013, despite her district’s majority-minority status. Then again, she soundly beat her 2013 opponent last time around.
All in all, there are many trees to look at in 2013, but the forest tells the story of the Virginia House of Delegates: Republicans will rule the roost in the House for the next two years. By how much will depend on a number of factors, particularly how the campaign unfolds at the top of the ticket. Should the gubernatorial race remain tight, Democrats will be positioned to possibly pick up a few seats simply because Republicans are a bit over-extended. This may happen even if Cuccinelli wins the governorship. On the flip-side, if McAuliffe grabs the Governor’s Mansion on Nov. 5, Democrats could conceivably pick up a few seats that presently seem out of reach. So the likeliest range of possible outcomes this November stretches from a net gain of one for Republicans to a net gain of five for Democrats.
Coming this fall: Kennedy Half Century documentary, book
After winning an Emmy award for the documentary Out of Order: Civility in Politics, the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Community Idea Stations have again teamed up to produce The Kennedy Half Century, which will be airing on PBS this fall. The one-hour documentary will look at President Kennedy’s life and assassination, as well as the impact his legacy had on nine successive presidents; those interviewed for the documentary include former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former George W. Bush administration press secretary and CNN commentator Ari Fleischer, director Oliver Stone, CBS News Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer and many others. The documentary is being released in conjunction with Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato’s upcoming book, also calledThe Kennedy Half Century, which is slated to be released by Bloomsbury on Oct. 22 (and is available for pre-order here). To view a trailer for the documentary, just click on the image above.
Get Barack Obama and the New America, the story of the 2012 election!
The University of Virginia Center for Politics' latest post-election book, Barack Obama and the New America: The 2012 Election and the Changing Face of Politics, is now available.
Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato has brought together top journalists and academics from across the political spectrum to examine every facet of the 2012 election, and what its outcome will mean for the nation moving forward. In frank, accessible prose, each author offers insight that goes beyond the headlines, and dives into the underlying forces and shifts that drove the election from its earliest developments to its dramatic conclusion. For more information and to order a copy from Amazon, click here.
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