If the commercial breaks between your must-watch shows are clogged with silly attack ads or your street is lined with yard signs, chances are you’re finally realizing an election is coming. Only five days away, we’re in the final stretches of some of the bloodiest (metaphorically speaking) political campaigning in recent memory as Democrats and Republicans face off in that infamous battle royale we call the midterms.
What’s the big deal? Only control over the nation’s Capitol and a few dozen states in the most powerful country on the planet. It may not be a direct fight for the presidency, the biggest prize of all, but the outcome on Nov. 4 will greatly determine which path President Barack Obama takes in his last two years and whether he’ll find himself stuck in a proverbial “ditch” or emboldened to believe he can fly.
It’s not just President Obama’s legacy at stake, either. How it all shakes out next Tuesday will give us a clearer picture of our collective social, political and economic fate heading into the 2016 presidential election cycle and beyond. In the meantime, here’s a crash primer on the three big battles to watch: U.S. House, U.S. Senate and a number of very hot governor’s races.
U.S. House and Senate
On the federal level, all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for re-election, and—in case you missed your high school civics class—they are embroiled in that glorious bid to keep their gigs every two years.
On the Senate side, there are currently 36 out of 100 Senate seats that are either up for re-election or open for grabs.
Big picture, there’s no expectation that House races will be all that competitive this cycle. With Republicans expected to keep their control over the extremely polarized House, there won’t be much to see here on Election Day. The only day-after question will be: How many seats are Democrats left with?
Right now the House is composed of 233 Republicans, 199 Democrats and three seats left vacant by former Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), former Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Those first two seats are viewed as easy locks for Dems, which should increase that party’s share by two (and … few takers on my theory for that last seat).
Even though a few national ballots give House Democrats a slight edge against Republicans, those don’t account for local polls and the GOP’s shrewdly designed redistricting scheme. Democrats would need a total of 19 seats to reach the majority threshold of 218 seats—but the way the map looks, Politico (in conjunction with the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, the “crystal ball” guru) shows only 15 “toss-ups.” RealClearPolitics offers 24 toss-ups—but there are more solid or “likely/lean” Republican seats than those that are “likely/lean” Democrat.
The Senate, however, is where we find the real action. All eyes are on some of the tightest statewide races in recent political history as a number of incumbents find themselves facing diminished re-election prospects—with incumbent Democrats at the most risk. Certain key races could be so tight that we may not know who ends up with control of the Senate until next year. “Recount” could be sampled into many a New Year’s Eve mixtape.
At the moment, Democrats have a 53-seat majority, versus only 45 Republican seats and two independent seats from Maine and Vermont. To reach that sweet spot of 51 seats for the majority, Republicans need to pick up six seats. RealClearPolitics shows 10 toss-ups that could go their way; Politico shows four—and an independent, challenger Greg Orman in Kansas, is giving Republican Sen. Pat Roberts a run for his lobbyist money.
The problem for Democrats is that they have fewer safe seats than Republicans do—and seven out of 10 of those toss-ups in the RealClearPolitics tables are either Democratic incumbents or seats where Democrats are retiring, including one seat vacated by a reportedly stingy Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
A solid five of those 10 toss-ups are in mostly Southern states where black voters potentially hold the key to deciding the election. In Arkansas, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is faced with certain political death from a surging Republican Rep. Tom Cotton. In Georgia, political-family heir Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, could be on the cusp of making the Peach State a little bluer if she’s successful against David Perdue, a Republican. In Kentucky, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just loaned his campaign $2 million because of a spirited challenge from Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan-Grimes. In Louisiana, where it’s certain to end up in a runoff, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s dynastic name may not be enough to fend off Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is just trying to keep it together against Republican Thom Tillis—and Libertarian pizza delivery guy Sean Haugh.
Observers act like black people don’t exist in Colorado, but they do—rather heavily in major cities like Denver and Aurora. So, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Udall might need them, since polls show Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner trouncing him.
You don’t hear as much about them, but beyond those exciting House and Senate races, there are a total of 36 gubernatorial races taking place next Tuesday. About a solid 10 of those are very competitive. (It was nine, but I’m taking the liberty of adding Maryland to that list because Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s ground game is perceived as so weak that he could ruin his chance at becoming the state’s first black governor.)
What also makes this cycle especially unique for governors is that voters seem eager to throw them out of office. Eleven incumbent governors may be jobless by the time returns stream in late Tuesday night.
Nine of those tight gubernatorial races include Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maine and Pennsylvania. African Americans make up more than 10 percent of the population in six of those states.
The upside for Democrats is that there are more Republican governors than Democratic governors facing toss-ups, at least according to RealClearPolitics; there are also more seats leaning Dem. That might be the only ray of sunshine for hard-pressed Democrats looking for hope over the horizon. And Princeton neuroscientist-turned-pollster Sam Wang, who has spent much time bucking doomsday projection trends for Democrats, says so.
So, What Do the Polls Say?
Ultimately, it’s in the data’s hands. There are hundreds of polls. A great one-stop shop to view nearly all of them is RealClearPolitics. But YouGov has some fine governor and Senate polling tracks worth clicking into as much as you do fantasy football on Sunday.
Right now, YouGov’s Senate model gives Republicans a 63 percent chance of snatching Senate control away from Democrats—and Democrats only have a 37 percent chance of keeping it.
FiveThirtyEight’s prediction is about the same at 62.3 percent and 37.7 percent respectively, along with an added 17.9 percent chance that Republicans end up with 52 seats. The New York Times Upshot forecast shows Republicans with a 66 percent chance of capturing the Senate.
Overall, no pollster wants to say this: “I don’t know.” What you will get are safe, middle-of-the-road projections that show very unpredictable Senate and governor’s races—the battle for the House is like a neglected stepchild. Hold on to your hats and hairpieces.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.