Guest post: United States Mid-Terms – Congress

October 26, 2010 § 5 Comments

It is a great pleasure to introduce another guest article. This time the other half of Britain Votes – Tom Harris – has been analysing the US mid terms for us. His analysis of the gubernatorial races will follow later in the week. Here’s Tom:

On 2nd November Americans will head to the polls for their mid-term elections. There’s nothing quite like the pomp of a US election and, for all the faults in the system, they aren’t half entertaining. When you consider there are twelve states with electorates bigger than that for the Greater London Authority, and that Californian economy the 8th largest in the world, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. If anything the Mid-Term Elections are more enthralling than a Presidential year, as the scores of interesting Congressional and Gubernatorial elections get drowned out by the race for the White House.

The Democrats look set to ‘lose’ the mid-terms, largely because Barrack Obama’s Presidency isn’t going as well as it could be. This is party due to the unrealistic expectations placed on it, and party because President Obama has been sticking to his bi-partisan commitment. Compromises have resulted in severely watered down legislation which the Republicans have voted against anyway. For instance, the healthcare bill didn’t go nearly far enough to excite liberal Democrats, yet the Republicans have marketed the fairly minor changes as Soviet-style socialism. The result is a significant ‘enthusiasm gap’ between the two parties’ supporters. Republicans seem set to head the polls in opposition to President Obama’s agenda but Democrats aren’t so keen to support it. This will make a big difference with the traditionally low mid-term turnout.

Undoubtedly, this year’s main electoral story is the rise of the Tea Party, which has breathed new life into the Republican Party whilst simultaneously scuppering their chances in a number of races. The conservative movement has sprung up in opposition to Obama Administration, and has been causing upsets in a few Republican primaries. In some respects the Democrats could do with a few Tea Party success stories next week to help them in 2012. The better the Tea Party do the more likely the Republicans will move further to the right in the next few years, which will help President Obama’s re-election bid.

The United States Congress is a bi-cameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Senate (upper house). The House is elected in full every two years where as Senators serve six year terms with a third up for election every two years. Currently the Democrats hold both houses; the House by 256-179 and the Senate 57-41 (with the two Independents caucusing with them). Invariably the party holding the presidency loses seats in both the House and the Senate in Mid-Term elections but large majorities the Democrats hold in both houses should have been enough to keep control of Congress. However, Obama’s unpopularity is such that the Democrats will almost certainly lose control of the House, and the Senate is in the balance. I’ll briefly run through the House before looking at the key races in the Senate.

The magic number in the House is 218, leaving the Republicans needing to gain 41 seats. This is a historically high number of seats to change hands, but the American electorate has become a lot more volatile and ‘wave’ elections have become more common. The Democrats gained a net 21 seats in 2008 and 31 in 2006 whilst the Republicans managed an impressive 54 seats in 1994, the mid-term following Bill Clinton’s first Presidential election. The Republicans will probably lose a few seats because of specific local reasons, but the large amount of marginal districts this year leave them plenty of targets to gain the 45 seats they’ll need to take control of the House.

Generic ballot polling of Congressional voting intention have been giving the Republicans consistent leads in the high single digits throughout October, and early voting figures have not given the Democrats much to smile about. There is a consensus developing among key political correspondents that the Republicans will manage a majority in the House, and the real question now is how big. This post is big enough without running through every competitive house race, but for those of you who are looking for further reading I would recommend Larry Sabato’s summaries of key the districts.

In the UK we’re subjected to Universal National Swing as the way of turning voting intention into seat distribution. In the US their projections are far more sophisticated, with my personal favourite being Nate Silver’s at fivethirtyeight.com. Silver’s model incorporates data such as party identification and incumbency to compliment the latest opinion polling, and then calculates the probability of victory for both parties in each district. These probabilities are then run through 100,000 simulations to give an average seat distribution. In simple terms, if you take four seats the model has given a 75% of a Republican gain, then the top-line seat distribution will allocate three gains. On the current polling Silver is forecasting a net gain of 50 seats for the Republicans, which would leave the House 230-205.

The scale of the predicted gains is more a reflection of how well the Democrats performed in the previous two elections, rather than how badly they are doing now. They have won many seats in what was considered Republican territory, and now the political momentum has switched these districts are almost certain to switch back. The US is no different to Britain in the sense that when the tide changes, the party with momentum usually out performs the national change in vote. Because there are so many states in play this election most commentators are running with the caveat that the unpredictability in their forecasts could see the Democrats hold the House. But the Republicans will almost certainly win more of the seats regarded as ‘tossups’ than they’ll lose, and so I’d say it’s more likely they’ll manage an bigger majority than predicted.

Analysing the Senate is different matter altogether. Unlike the Congressional Districts, all of the key states have been extensively polled, independently of the national surveys. Plus, as there are only a few, a quick look at each important race is possible. There are 37 seats up for grabs in this election cycle and although the vast majority of them are not competitive, enough are to make Republican takeover possible. In the event the Senate is split 50-50 the Vice President of the United States has the presiding vote, and as this is currently the Democrat Joe Biden the GOP need to gain 10 seats to control the upper house. With a week to go 11 seats currently held by the Democrats have a genuine chance of switching.

I’ll get the easy ones out of the way first. The chances of the Republicans winning Arkansas, Indiana and North Dakota from the Democrats are as much of a sure thing as you get in politics. Polling in those three seats have consistently shown the Republicans with double digit leads, so that takes Republicans up to 44. The order of difficultly for the other eight states isn’t necessarily agreed on by political commentators, but the basic facts are the Republicans need 7 of them to take control of the Senate. Therefore, it’s worth looking briefly at each race to show what the Republicans are up against.

Wisconsin is a strange race as three-term Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has been given up for dead, despite leading in the polls as recently as July. Feingold is an independently minded Senator, but this hasn’t prevented him getting dragged down by Obama’s falling popularity. Although some point out Feingold has always won by fairly small margins (53-46, 51-48 & 55-44), he has trailed his Republican challenger, businessman Ron Johnson, in every poll since the primary election in early September. Johnson has never run for public office before, and is financing his own campaign, but seems to be doing pretty well against his experienced opponent. Only the most optimistic Democrats will be expecting a hold here.

An odd situation has developed in Pennsylvania this cycle. Sen Arlen Specter (D-PA) was elected as a Republican in 1980, but with less than 20 months left of this fifth term he decided it would politically advantageous to switch parties. He was probably right as the moderate Republican almost lost to a primary challenge from the right in 2004. Ironically, Specter was then challenged from the left by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) contesting the Democratic nomination; and lost. As a result the Pennsylvanians now face a stark choice when they elect their new Senator. The Republican candidate Pat Toomey had the support of George W. Bush when he almost beat Specter to the GOP nomination in 2004. And Sestak successfully convinced the primary voters that Specter wasn’t liberal enough, despite the fact he voted with Democrats on every bill following his defection. Toomey has led throughout the campaign, but Sestak has made an impressive comeback. The Republicans are still favourites here but it could end up very close.

Colorado should really be in the already sewn up list for the Republicans. The winner in 2004, Ken Salazar (D), was appointed as Obama’s Secretary of State for Interior in 2009 leaving the Democrats to defend a seat without an elected incumbent. At the time Obama’s approval ratings were in the high 60s and the President had carried the state by 54-45 just a few months earlier. By this summer Obama’s unpopularity meant it seemed all the GOP needed to do was pick a sensible candidate against the appointed incumbent Michael Bennett (D-CO), who has never been elected to public office, and the seat would be theirs. Fortunately for the Democrats, the Tea Party got involved and their man, Ken Buck, defeated the establishment candidate for the nomination. Buck’s controversial views have kept the Democrats in this, but he has consistently hold small leads since winning the primary in early August. It’s likely to be very close.

Back in the day there was gentleman’s agreement to not contest the other party’s leader’s seat. In this era of hyper-partisanship that convention is long gone, and this has left Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) fighting for his political life in Nevada. The Republicans have been blamed all the countries woes on the Democrat leaders in Washington, and Reid has suffered as a result. He appeared to get a break when the Republicans choose Tea Partier Sharon Angle as their challenger over the establishment candidate. In a situation similar to Colorado, the Republicans would probably have this in the bag if they’d gone with the moderate, but Angle is still leading in the polls. Some Democrats are privately hoping for an Angle win as they believe Reid’s commitment to compromise has cost the party dear. At the moment they look like they’ll get their wish.

It would be symbolic of the last two years if the Democrats lose Barack Obama’s old Senate seat, but you couldn’t make up some of the happenings in Illinois since Obama packed his bags and headed for the White House. There were allegations that Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-IL) sold the seat and as a result his choice, Sen. Roland Burris (D-IL), was almost not seated. Burris thought about running, but he was far too tainted and quickly gave up on the idea. The Democrats choose State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias as their candidate, and he ticks a few boxes; young, ambitious, previously elected to public office. His main problem is that he used to be a banker and they’re not that popular at the moment! To make matters worse his bank had, allegedly, been making loans to some unsavoury characters. Luckily for Giannoulias, Illinois is fairly blue state and the Republicans didn’t exactly capitalise on the situation. They selected Mark Kirk, who lies quite a lot; especially when talking about his military record. So with a choice between a dodgy banker and perpetual liar it’s hard to say which way the Illinois voters will go. The Republicans are favourites almost entirely because of the national picture. Opinion polls have shown the race to be consistently close, with Kirk marginally ahead, but it really could go either way.

West Virginia is being dubbed as the ‘canary in the mine’, which isn’t just because there are loads of mines in the state! Like in Britain, Voting Intention polling is viewed with a little caution in some quarters and those looking for other measures to back up the top-line figures often look to the Approval Rating of the incumbent. The Democrats’ candidate isn’t the current senator, but he is the current Governor. Following Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-WV) death Gov. Joe Manchin (D-WV) could have appointed someone to serve the until the end of the term in 2012. But as his approval rating was in the seventies he decided to call a special election and run for the Senate himself. Unfortunately, as popular as Manchin is in West Virginia President Obama is almost equally unpopular. As a result his opponent, John Raese (R), is tied with Manchin, despite having never run for public office before and not actually living in the state (his wife can’t even vote for him!). Of the races I’ve discussed so far, this is one the Democrats are most likely to win. But the fact it is close is very worrying for the Democrats.

IF the Republicans win all the above races, and at the moment it looks like they’ll lose one or two, they will still only have 50 seats. They will need to find one other, and the two best chances are in Washington and California. The Republicans looked like they would cause an upset in Washington State as the incumbent Patty Murray (D-WA) slipped behind the Republican challenger Dino Rossi at the end of September. Murray appears to have recovered though and has enjoyed a lead in all the polls released in the last fortnight. The Republicans have a marginally better chance of taking California, but in the past month the incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has held a small but consistent lead. The Republican candidate Carly Fiorina hasn’t been helped by the situation in the Gubernatorial race, where a scandal has scuppered Meg Whitman’s (R) chances of defeating Jerry Brown (D). With just a week to go it looks likely that the Democrats will hold both of these states, albeit by small margins, and therefore ensure the hold the Senate.

Elsewhere a couple of Independent candidates are making a fair stab a winning a seat, although they are both essentially Republicans. In Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) lost the Republican nomination to a Tea Partier, despite being one of the most conservative members of the Senate. Murkowski wasn’t going to give up that easily and she immediately began a write-in campaign. In some states losing candidates can go on to seek another party’s nomination after losing a primary, but this is not allowed in Alaska. Instead Murkowski has to teach Alaskans how to tick a box and spell her name. Currently she’s behind the Republican Joe Miller by a few points, but given the fact his name is actually on the ballot and hers isn’t will probably cost her.

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) was in a similar situation to Murkowski. As a moderate Republican Crist did deserve to be challenged from the right, but his key problem was that if he lost the primary he would be unable to run as an Independent. Before the primary season began there was talk of Crist following Arlen Specter’s lead and switching to the Democrats, although a similar fate may well have been the result. He decided to stick with the Republicans but by April his challenger Marco Rubio was clearly ahead of Crist and so the Governor pulled out and began his Independent campaign. The race soon settled down with Rubio leading Crist and the Democrat Kendrick Meek a distant third. There was then speculation that if Crist would caucus with the Democrats they would get Meek to pull out and endorse him. Rubio is a divisive figure, and about 55% of Floridians have a negative opinion of him. Fortunately for him they are split between Crist and Meek, and with just a week to go any kind of deal looks unlikely. Rubio is set to win with just over 40% of the vote.

So that’s almost certainly all you want to hear about the Mid-Terms from me for the time being. I’ll be back soon with the key Gubernatorial races, and a look at some important battles for the State Legislatures.

You may be wondering why I haven’t really mentioned Christine O’Donnell at all in this article. This is because, although the media seem besotted with the Republican candidate for Delaware, she has no chance of winning!

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§ 5 Responses to Guest post: United States Mid-Terms – Congress

  • Great stuff Tom. For completion and comparison, here’s my analysis for another blog. As you can see I was a bit more optimistic about Obama’s chances – and wasn’t aware of the 1994 example:

    the midterms will be bad for Obama. But I don’t think they will be that bad. Obama and the Democrats are undoubtedly far less popular than they were – but the Republicans are not necessarily the direct beneficiaries. The Republicans are indulging the political extremes at the moment – they are not reaching out to the centre. Nor are they united: one of the side effects of the tea party’s success in the primaries is a record number of third party bids by incumbents (3 at the last count). A lot of people who voted Democrat last time will not be voting Democrat this time; but many of them will stay at home, and a few will vote other – they are not flocking to the republicans in droves.

    The opinion polls back this up. At this stage before the 2008 elections Gallup were recording the Democrats on 51% and the Republicans on 45%. Currently the Democrats are on 44% and the Republicans on 47%. The Republicans have only actually gained two points, but it seems like more because the Democrats have lost 7. Obviously you cannot lose a fifth of your vote and expect to have a stonking election, but with the Republicans not really picking your vote up, what are the likely effects? –

    The Democrats will lose an awfully large number of seats in the House. This is because they did so well in 2008, they won seats that were traditionally deep Republican – seats they never should have won – and of course they can’t keep them. We’ve had the same thing happen in Britain: you can think of many of the seats the Democrats will lose as the Thanet Souths and Enfield Southgates of the House of Representatives. If the Democrat was a particularly good member they might just hang on (as Labour held Finchley and Golders Green until Rudi Vis retired) but a two year term is not a long time to build up a support base.

    But the Democrats have a large number of seats to lose. The Democrats’ majority in the House is 75: losing 33 seats in one election hasn’t happened since 1980, 16 elections ago – and that was in a highly unusual election (the Democrat majority in 1978 was an almost obscene 119, it had to come down and even a loss of this magnitude didn’t change the balance of power much).

    As for the Senate: the Democrats will certainly lose seats. But the seats they are contesting were last contested in 2004 – at the same time as Bush beat Kerry by what, in the end, turned out to be a substantial 3 million vote margin. These are not seats the Democrats should never have won – these are seats which are solidly Democrat and will take some cracking. Moreover the Republicans need to win 10 seats to rob the Democrats of their majority – and there are only 19 Democrat seats up for election. It’s not impossible that the Republicans will do it (they just need to win Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin and one of California and Washington) but it’s a big ask and they are not on track to do it.

    I’ve heard the election described as for Obama what the May election was for Brown. I think a better analogy is Labour’s 2005 result, where they lost a lot of vote share (6%), but, as they had the seats to lose, the result was minimal.

  • Two further things to add. Firstly my favourite site for an overall view of senate races is: http://www.electoral-vote.com

    Secondly on the Meg Whitman thing, it didn’t help when she tweeted a link to a video which she believed was of a senior police officer endorsing her candidacy. In actual fact here is the video she tweeted:

  • Polls seem to have taken a decisive shift in favour of the republicans in the last week, even Washington looks to be falling, – but they still trail in West Virginia and so will still be one short. In fact they may even be two short as it looks like Lisa Murkowski will win Alaska as a write in candidate!

    There has only ever been one write in winner in US history so far – Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond 1954 win against Democrat Edgar Brown (that was back in the days when Republicans only got single figure votes in the South and often didn’t stand). Looks like it’s about to be 2.

  • […] Here is the second half of our analysis of the US mid-terms, provided once again by Britain Votes‘s Tom Harris. The first half is here. […]

  • […] have already profiled the senate and house races here, the state and gubernatorial races here, and the campaign […]

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