Bob

Senate: 11 Days Out; NJ Moves to Toss Up

With November 6 just 11 days away, it seems that the overall Senate playing field won’t change much, although it appears that some of the races in Toss Up are getting even tighter, if that’s possible.

That said, it is getting more difficult to see a path to the majority for Democrats. With Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp heading for defeat in North Dakota, Democrats now need a net gain of three seats to win the majority. One way would be to hold the five Democratic seats in Toss Up, and pick up three of the four Republican-held seats in Toss Up. That’s just not a realistic scenario.

On the other side of the equation, for the first time in months it’s possible to see how Republicans can pick up one or two seats. Since spring, the most likely outcome for the Senate appeared to be the status quo or a tied chamber. It seemed that Democrats were better positioned to hold their most vulnerable seats while Republicans were struggling theirs. That the Tennessee and Texas races even made it to Toss Up says something the tough position Republicans were in over the summer. A status quo election is still possible, but it’s equally likely that Republicans will pick up a seat or two.

Where Things Stand:

Many Democratic strategists acknowledge that the landscape since Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has been much rockier for them. Where once they felt confident that they had effectively disqualified GOP businessman Mike Braun in Indiana and that U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly would win a second term, the race has tightened and the incumbent’s odds may be somewhat less than 50-50.

Florida remains a coin toss, although Democrats see a path to victory for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Both sides agree that this race is within a point or two, but disagree on whether Nelson or GOP Gov. Rick Scott is ahead. The same can be said about Missouri where Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is facing off against Republican state Attorney General Josh Hawley. There has been a paucity of public polling, but both parties say that the race is essentially dead even, but the trend has favored Hawley over the past couple of weeks.

The contest in Montana between Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and state Auditor Matt Rosendale has tightened, but Tester maintains an advantage that is either just within or just outside the margin of error, depending which party’s polls one looks at. One thing that will help Tester is the presence of a Libertarian candidate on ballot, as this candidate will siphon many more votes from Rosendale than from Tester. One thing to watch is whether President Trump makes an unprecedented fourth trip to the state for Rosendale in an effort to push him across the finish line.

There is an addition to the Toss Up column as the race in New Jersey moves there from the Lean Democratic column. The contest isn’t about anything else but Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and his ethics problems. His opponent, pharmaceutical CEO Bob Hugin, has outspent the incumbent, $27.7 million to $11.8 million, according to the pre-election FEC report, and most of Hugin’s money has funded television ads. The Senate Majority PAC, the Democrats’ Senate super PAC, has now invested nearly $6.5 million in the race, including a $3 million advertising buy this week. This investment levels the playing field somewhat, but Hugin still holds a very definitive advantage on television.

The biggest threat to Menendez’s re-election is not so much Hugin than it is the voter who goes to the polls and decides to send Menendez a message, much the way many did in the primary when 38 percent voted for his unknown primary opponent. There is certainly a thumb on the scale for Menendez, who is said to have a lead of between four and six points, in this very blue state, but the race is close enough to warrant a move to Toss Up.

On the Republican side, GOP strategists feel better about where U.S. Sen. Dean Heller is in the polls in his race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen in Nevada, but caution that he needs to be ahead by several points to overcome Democrats’ superior get-out-the-vote efforts. They don’t believe that Heller is quite there yet.

Strategists also feel better about where GOP U.S. Rep. Martha McSally is in her race in Arizona against Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema had the luxury of defining herself while McSally was embroiled in a contentious primary, but McSally’s campaign has spent the last two weeks defining Sinema with her own words. They have released to the media and used in television advertising video of Sinema saying disparaging things about Arizona – she once called it “the meth lab of democracy,” for example – and statements she made, including one in 2003 when she responded to a question by saying that she had no problem with Americans defecting to join the Taliban. Both parties acknowledge that these statements have hurt Sinema and allowed McSally to gain some momentum going into the final days, though the contest remains very close.

Tennessee and Texas seem unlikely candidates for the Toss Up column, as both are solidly red states. Democrats’ chances in Tennessee rest on the shoulders of former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a well-liked moderate, but it seems that the state is reverting to type as GOP U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn picks up steam. The race remains competitive, but the trend line favors Blackburn today.

There is a great difference of opinion even among Republicans where the race in Texas between GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke stands today. Cruz allies contend that the incumbent is ahead of O’Rourke well outside the margin of error; while we are aware of other reliable polling that shows a closer race. Our sense is that this is a close race, but Cruz retains the advantage going into the final stretch.

Image: Bob Menedez | Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez