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2014 Montana Senate Race

The big election news today comes out of Big Sky country.  Interim Senator John Walsh has decided to withdraw from the 2014 Montana Senate election.  Walsh, who was appointed to the Senate after Max Baucus left the seat to become U.S. Ambassador to China back in February, cited the distraction of a plagiarism scandal as the reason for his decision.
Sen. John Walsh said Thursday he is pulling out of the Senate race because his campaign was distracted by the controversy over allegations that he plagiarized a U.S. Army War College research paper.

Walsh, a Democrat, said he decided to drop out of the race.  He had canceled campaign events this week as he and his family discussed what he would do.

His exit has the potential to turn a cakewalk into a toss-up.  Republican Steve Daines has led Walsh in the polls all along.  Election Projection's current projection give Daines a Strong GOP Gain, putting him ahead by 13.7%.

That projection is now very much in limbo.  No doubt all eyes will look to see what former Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer.  My hunch is that since he didn't enter the race when Baucus stepped down, he probably won't jump in now.  However, if he did decide to run, this race would immediately become a toss-up.  If he doesn't, Democrats could still make a competitive bid to keep this seat by coaxing sitting Governor Steve Bullock to announce.

Until the dust settles, the projection will stay where it is here at EP.  But, I for one, will be waiting with great anticipation to see who steps up to face Daines.

Update:  Schweitzer was quick to decline the chance to run.  From his Twitter account:

I respectfully decline to seek the Senate nomination.  Many thanks to John Walsh & I'll support whoever the next nominee turns out to be.
posted by Scott Elliott at 5:45pm 08/07/14 :: link
This article was published at on Friday, July 18, 2014. NOTE: Some of the numbers have changes since I originally wrote it.

Four months from now, we'll be looking back on Election 2014 evaluating the votes and how they were cast. Will Republicans succeed in their quest to gain the majority in the Senate, or will Democrats weather the six-year itch and retain control? With primary season taking a month-long break, it seems a good time to pause and look back on how the election season has progressed so far. There have been plenty of intriguing storylines surrounding the 36 Senate races on tap this year. Here are four that have caught my attention.

Tea Party influence in Senate races comes up short
A popular theme all year has been the numerous failures of the Tea Party movement. Media outlets have been quick to herald the disappointments as an indication of Tea Party decline. Some conservatives, however, like to point to certain situations where this is simply not true. They say that narrative is just wishful thinking by a liberal media hoping to temper the Tea Party's effect and hasten, if possible, its demise.

They point to Eric Cantor's primary defeat to unknown Tea Party challenger Dave Brat last month as evidence of the earth-shaking punch the Tea Party still packs. To be sure, Cantor's loss rocked the electoral landscape � and the GOP leadership � but as PJ Media's David Steinberg pointed out, the shocking result came about through a perfect storm of many circumstances, only one of which was Brat�s Tea Party backing.

While House primary elections have produced Tea Party successes, and, fundamentally, the Tea Party continues to change "the dynamic of Republican politics," the fact that several Senate primaries have been disappointing to Tea Party enthusiasts is undeniable. And the list is not short: Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, even John Cornyn in Texas. All won the GOP nomination in races where the Tea Party had high hopes going into the 2014 election season. In North and South Carolina, efforts to nominate a Tea Party candidate couldn't even force a runoff against the establishment favorite.

Terri Land's fast start fizzles in Michigan
Democrats have dominated Senate elections in Michigan since current Senator Debbie Stabenow unseated Republican Spencer Abraham in 2000. Between 2002 and 2012, she and senior Michigan Senator Carl Levin never won reelection by less than 15 points. So when Public Policy Polling released a poll back in December giving Republican Terri Land a two-point lead in the race to replace Levin, Republicans cheered the prospect of a competitive race in a state void of GOP Senate election success so far this century.

Polling early this year did nothing to quench Republican excitement. Six of the first eight polls of 2014 put Land ahead of the Democratic nominee, Congressman Gary Peters. Until April, this race clearly leaned in the GOP's direction and represented an unexpected pickup opportunity that threatened to make Democrats' task of holding the Senate in a difficult year that much more challenging.

But the arrival of spring ushered in Peters' striking resurgence. All seven polls released since mid-April give him leads ranging from 3 to 9 points. As a result, Election Projection projects Peters will triumph with a 5.6% margin of victory. That doesn�t mean he�s a lock to follow outgoing Senator Levin and keep this seat in Democratic hands � Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, is a legitimate contender. But what looked early on like a very promising Republican surprise has taken on the characteristics of a hard-fought Democratic hold.

Cory Gardner brings a serious challenge in Colorado
As the election season began to take shape late last year, highly competitive Democratic Senate seats abounded. Mark Udall's seat in Colorado wasn't on the list. Cook Political labeled the race "Likely D" along with such races as Hawaii and Massachusetts. Initially, Republicans were looking at a weak field of potential challengers. While the incumbent's job approval suggested potential vulnerability, Republicans did not appear to have a candidate to exploit that possibility.

That all changed on March 1st when Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner announced he would mount a run. Gardner quickly surged to a commanding lead among Republican contenders, and when the primary field subsequently got out of the way, he enjoyed the further benefit of avoiding a prolonged nomination battle.

Since Gardner's entrance into the race, polls have revealed an ever-tightening contest. In fact, taken together, the two latest polls, both conducted in June, give Gardner a fractional advantage. Election Projection has Colorado colored red on the latest Senate map as a result. And in response to Gardner's candidacy, political handicappers have made similar adjustments as illustrated by Charlie Cook's rating. Colorado is now classified as a "Toss-up."

Udall remains a formidable incumbent who likely still holds a slight upper hand, but this race has a completely different feel to it since Gardner jumped in.

Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia � steady as she goes
In contrast to the shuffling that has marked Senate races in Michigan and Colorado over the first half of 2014, the Senate races in three other states have maintained the same outlook all along. Senate Republicans' task of capturing the majority requires them to gain a net 6 seats in November. Most likely, that job is effectively half-accomplished already. Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia, barring drastic unforeseen developments, will be won by Republicans this year.

In Montana, the retirement of long-time Democratic Senator Max Baucus gave Republicans a golden opportunity to pick up his seat. When Baucus resigned earlier this year to become U.S. ambassador to China, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock appointed his lt. governor, John Walsh, to serve the remainder of Baucus� term. Walsh is running for election in his own right, but Republican Steve Daines, Montana�s at-large congressman, has enjoyed double-digit leads in every poll since November last year.

Like Baucus in Montana, Tim Johnson's retirement opened the door for Republicans in South Dakota. And when former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, a Democrat, decided not to challenge for the seat and former Governor Mike Rounds, a Republican, did, the race was all but over. Rounds was an overwhelming favorite the minute he announced, and with polls giving him consistent double-digit leads over Democrat Rick Weiland, he remains the overwhelming favorite.

Finally there's West Virginia, where a dramatic rightward lurch over the last generation and the retirement of a West Virginia institution, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, combine to give Republicans another almost certain takeover. Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore-Capito, the best person for the task, announced way back in November 2012. Less than two months later, Rockefeller announced his retirement. From that point, Capito was the odds-on favorite, and recent polls confirm nothing has changed. Election Projection currently rates this race a Strong GOP Gain for Capito against her Democratic opponent, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

With Republicans poised to hold onto the majority in the House and among the nation's statehouses, the biggest question of the 2014 election is who will control the Senate come January 2015. Based on what these storylines tell us, the answer is still very much up in the air.

posted by Scott Elliott at 12:50pm 07/21/14 :: link
Today we are exactly 120 days from Election Day, 2014.  With Independence Day behind us, the buildup toward November 4 should be steady from here on in.  I hope everyone had a meaningful and safe July 4 holiday celebrating what is still the greatest country on earth, our United States of America.

As we kick off this post-holiday summer stretch, I thought it would be a good time to assess the status of the electoral landscape.  Despite the likelihood of strong Republican gains in the Senate, the political waters remain relatively calm.  Democrats still hold a slight advantage in generic Congressional polling, making a wave election in the House of Representatives highly unlikely at this point.  Even in the Senate, where Republicans hope to pick up enough seats to take the majority, Election Projection's summary of the 2014 Senate elections currently has them falling just short.

Senate Review
All year, three states have been looking like certain Republican pickups, and nothing in West Virginia, Montana or South Dakota indicates any change in that assessment.  Republicans should gain all three and raise their seat count in the Senate to 48.  But though opportunities abound for additional takeovers, their prospects of getting to 51 - based on recent polling data - is shaky at best.

Arkansas and Louisiana sport a red shade on EP's Senate projection map, indicating a Republican gain, but neither is a sure thing.  In Arkansas, Republican nominee Tom Cotton is enjoying the benefit of a partisan Magellan poll and a Rasmussen poll to claim a narrow lead over Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor.  A Magellan poll is also the impetus for Bill Cassidy's current lead against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana.

Two other juicy targets for the GOP, Mark Begich in Alaska and Kay Hagan in North Carolina lead their respective Republican opponents. Without a less likely victory in a state like Colorado, Iowa or Michigan, Republicans must win these two to reach that coveted 51-seat mark.  But it might take even more than that given the rumblings of a certain southern belle.

Down in Georgia, it looks like Congressman Jack Kingston should win the runoff for the GOP nomination against David Purdue.  Trouble is, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn is polling ahead of Kingston right now, and this race is looking more and more like one Nunn could win.

House Review
Not much has changed on the House front over the last several weeks.  Come to think of it, that'll probably be the story all year long - even after the votes have been counted.  With the GOP holding the upper hand by a 234-201 tally, Democrats appear likely to withstand the dreaded 6-year itch without substantial losses in the lower chamber.  I've said this before, but it bears repeating.   Legitimate pickup opportunities for either party just aren't that plentiful this year.

The current 2014 House election projections here at EP have the GOP gaining 3 seats - California CD-52, North Carolina CD-7 and Utah CD-4.  Democrats are projected to add four GOP seats to their numbers - California CD-31, Colorado CD-6, Iowa CD-3 and New York CD-11. Taken together, these gains represent a net improvement of one seat for the blue team.  Don't be surprised to see a similar projection here on November 4.

Historically speaking, this should be a very good election for the GOP. However, unless Republicans can do a better job of connecting Democrats to President Obama's dismal job approval and articulating a better alternative, it looks like this year might be a golden opportunity largely squandered.

Governors Review
Statehouse races are traditionally less partisan than Senate or House contests.  It is much more likely in today's polarized political world to see a governor than a senator or representative from the minority party.  EP's 2014 governor election projections serve to illustrate that point.  Of the three projected Republican pickups, two are in deep blue states - Illinois and Hawaii.

On the other hand, Arkansas' increasingly Republican lean is a major factor in that state's projected switch to red team.  Democrats will have a very difficult time holding the governorship without an incumbent running.

Two positives are there for Democrats, however. It looks like Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is on his way out.  Struggling against approval ratings even worse than President Obama, Corbett is a heavy underdog at this point to Democrat Tom Wolf.  And in Maine, Republican incumbent Paul LePage isn't in nearly as bad a shape as Corbett, but he's locked in a very tough battle, nonetheless. Congressman Mike Michaud leads three-way polling over LePage by a small margin with Independent Eliot Cutler pulling a strong 15% of the vote.

As I mentioned above, Republicans at the present time are projected to win the statehouse in Illinois and Hawaii.  However, this is only July and both those states are heavily Democratic.  I know I claimed that gubernatorial races are less partisan, but party ID still matters.  I have my doubts, especially in Hawaii, that the Republican candidate will maintain the lead until voting starts.

I took the week off last week for the most part.   God willing, it will be the last break for me between now and Election Day.  So look for lots of election coverage here at EP for the duration.  Even if this year turns out to be indeed a status-quo election, there is still plenty of excitement to be had.  And, who knows, a lot of time remains for the political winds to muster a howl.

Look for the next update of the numbers this evening.

posted by Scott Elliott at 12:51am 07/07/14 :: link
This article appeared last week on PJMedia

Given all the dissatisfaction with President Obama and his administration and the level of frustration with ObamaCare, one might expect a shellacking is on the horizon for his party in the 2014 elections.  The latest round of job approval numbers shows the president's approval still languishing in the low 40s, while approval for his health care law is even lower.  That's not an environment conducive to a strong electoral performance.  On the contrary, such numbers should portend a calamitous result for Democrats in November.

We saw that kind of election in 2010 when Republicans captured six Senate seats and won just about everything in sight en route to an historic 63-seat net gain in the House.  Some see a similar result looming in 2014 - especially in the Senate.  However, were the votes cast today, I believe a case can be made that the GOP, while they likely would make gains, would not perform well enough to term this cycle a wave election.  There are factors on both the Senate and House fronts that seem to indicate we�re heading toward a more neutral outcome.

House Elections

Let�s first take a look at the House and the factors that temper my bullishness toward the likelihood of a Republican wave in the lower chamber.

Generic congressional preference polling

There have been four elections since Bill Clinton ascended to the presidency in 1992 that I would consider "wave" elections.  In 1994, Newt Gingrich and friends crafted the "Contract with America" and captured the House majority by gaining 54 seats.  Congressional Republicans nationwide enjoyed a 7.1-point voting advantage over their Democratic counterparts that year.  Twelve years later, Bush fatigue precipitated a wave of a different color and ushered in a run of three consecutive wave elections.

In 2006, Democrats used an 8-point advantage in congressional voting to gain 30 seats and take back control of the House.  A 21-seat gain followed in 2008, aided by President Obama's sizable triumph on the top line and an even larger 10.4% Democratic advantage at the congressional level.  Then came the red tsunami of 2010.  Republicans used a 6.8-point congressional voting spread to score their now famous 63-seat haul.

The average voting advantage for the victorious party over these four wave elections was 8.1% and the average net gain was 42 seats.  By contrast, the average voting advantage over the six non-wave elections during the same period was just 1.7% with an average net gain of just 4.7 seats.  This year, polling data measuring this critical indicator falls solidly in the non-wave range.  In fact, the Democrats are currently fractionally ahead.  So, it�s difficult to envision any sizable Republican gains in the House this year.

Competitive races outlook

Each wave election shares common characteristics for the party riding it - an abundance of pickup opportunities and a dearth of vulnerable seats to defend.  Election Projection wasn't around for the Republican romp in 1994, but I do have data from the latter three wave elections to illustrate this point.  By the time Election Day rolled around in 2006, EP was tracking 55 congressional races.  Fifty-one were held by Republicans.

The same lopsided count benefited Republicans in 2010, only to a much greater degree.  That year, Election Projection tracked 112 congressional races, a staggering number in the age of incumbent-protecting redistricting strategies.  Even more remarkable is that 103 were held by Democrats!  With so many vulnerable Democrats and so few vulnerable Republicans, it's no wonder the GOP ruled the day once the votes were counted.

This year, congressional election waters seem much more placid. Election Projection is currently tracking just 46 competitive House races, and the partisan breakdown is nearly even.  Twenty-one seats are held by Republicans, twenty-five by Democrats.  Balance like that hardly indicates a wave is brewing out there.

One more point before we look at the Senate. In 2008, the blue team's advantage in the competitive House races list was clear, but, at 49-18, it wasn't as pronounced as in 2006 or 2010.  Moreover, despite the largest congressional vote advantage of the last quarter-century, Democrats realized a net gain that fell short of the other three wave elections.  The reason?  They already held 233 seats, so there simply wasn�t as much upside for them.

That same lofty starting point faces the GOP this year.  With 234 seats already in their quiver, Republicans will find it hard to produce substantial gains. And with no advantage in the congressional preference metric, they may find it hard to earn any gains at all.

Senate Elections

Structural advantages in the Senate election line-up should produce large GOP gains in November - with or without a Republican wave.  And early polling data doesn�t fit a wave-election model.

Nearly all the battlefields are in red states

Open Democratic seats in the deep red states of Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia all but ensure GOP gains in the Senate this year.  But the structural advantages for Republicans don't end there.  The four most vulnerable Democratic incumbents also hail from states won by Republican Mitt Romney in 2008.  Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina are all struggling to keep their Senate seats in Republican-leaning states.  Even races which have Republicans concerned, the open seat election in Georgia and Mitch McConnell's re-election bid in Kentucky, are being waged in GOP-friendly territory.

So from a structural standpoint, this year's Senate elections favor Republicans in a big way.  With so many targets situated in Republican states, the GOP conceivably could win the Senate majority without a significant tailwind.  That means a true GOP wave requires a more aggressive target.  Sweeping the races I've mentioned would be but a baseline.  To achieve wave election status, the GOP would need to add victories in blue states like Colorado, Iowa and Michigan.

Polling data is good - but not great - for Republican Senate candidates

So are the poll numbers there to foster confidence that such a run might come to pass for Republicans?  Not at this point in the election season.  Election Projection�s current Senate projections do show the GOP regaining the majority, but the massive takeover count one would expect in a wave election with such strong structural advantages just isn�t there.

Pryor leads Tom Cotton in Arkansas.  Begich is ahead in Alaska.  That's two races in red states which Democrats are defending well.  In Michigan, Republican Terri Land's early leads have vanished, and while newly-minted Republican nominee Joni Ernst bests Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley in two post-primary polls in Iowa, her lead seems more like a temporary primary bounce than a true advantage.  Taken together, the polls show a good election is in store for Republicans, but a landslide may not be.

The political barometer, based on news cycles and voter unrest, promises a wave election for Republicans.  But a deeper investigation into the underlying factors of Election 2014 paints a different picture.  The overall outlook is certainly positive for the red team, but it might not deliver the kind of rout intrinsic to a wave election.

posted by Scott Elliott at 2:56pm 06/19/14 :: link
I'm done with my Senate race previews.  And after flipping the North Carolina Senate Election to red due to yet another poll showing incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan falling behind, Election Projection has the GOP projected to gain 6 seats at this early stage in the election cycle.  Of course, that means if these projections hold true, Republicans will claim the majority in the 2014 Senate Elections.

The six projected takeovers are:

Three other states that could swing the GOP's way are:
  • Alaska - Incumbent:  Mark Begich
  • Iowa - Open seat (Tom Harkin)
  • Louisiana - Incumbent:  Mary Landrieu
Scott Brown makes New Hampshire somewhat of a wildcard as well.  Finally, two GOP seats are competitive - Georgia and Kentucky - with the Bluegrass State being much more so.
posted by Scott Elliott at 2:44pm 01/29/14 :: link
Democrat Max Baucus was first elected to the U.S. Senate from the great state of Montana way back in 1978.  After six terms and five re-election battles in which he was often a prime Republican target they could never defeat, he has decided to call it a day at this end of this term.  His decision leaves a wide open door for the GOP to finally win the seat they've long coveted.

But it might not have been so.  Despite the Republican lean of Montana's voters, Democrats have fared well here, and former Governor Brian Schweitzer is a great example.  He recently won two terms as the state's top executive and was thought to be a worthy successor to Baucus in this year's 2014 Montana Senate race.  However, in a move that surprised many, Schweitzer opted out of a run.  With him in the race, Democrats would have had an even money chance at worst of holding this seat.  Without him, they face a significant challenge keeping it in the fold.

Republicans, on the other hand, got exactly the man they hoped for - Congressman Steve Daines.  A Capitol Hill freshman, Daines almost ran for the Senate two years ago against Jon Tester, Montana's other Democratic senator, but decided instead to go after the at-large House seat left open by Denny Rehberg, Tester's eventual Republican opponent.  The decision turned out to be a fortuitous career move as Tester proved a difficult out and his easy victory in the congressional race positioned Daines well for this year's quest to move up to the Senate.

Though not a shoo-in by any means, Daines enjoys the advantage of having won a statewide race here already.  Since Montana only has one House seat, candidates vying for it must conduct a statewide campaign and gain the plurality of statewide voters.  That should help him in the general election once he gets past only minor primary opposition.

On the Democratic side, a competitive primary may be in store.  Two Montana Lt. Governors, one past, one present, are seeking the blue team's nomination.  A Public Policy Polling survey conducted in November gave former Lt. Governor John Bohlinger a 39-31% edge over current Lt. Governor John Walsh.  But regardless of who prevails, the nominee is likely to start off as the underdog against Daines.

Preliminary projection:  Weak GOP Gain

You can track this race throughout the 2014 election season here at Election Projection by visiting the Montana Senate Election page for polls, projections and updates.  Also, check out the 2014 Senate Elections page for a summary of all Senate races on tap in 2014 complete with EP's colorful red and blue Senate map.

posted by Scott Elliott at 10:28pm 01/08/14 :: link
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