By Frank J Biga III -
We looked at the Kirk-Duckworth race earlier this summer. Let’s take a look at three additional critical Senate races this week - in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Wisconsin.
Pennsylvania – The Keystone state is now a critical battleground in the Presidential race as well. And it hasn’t gone for a Republican since 1988. Of course, Pennsylvania has been decimated by free trade so it’s now wonder that the party of laissez-faire has not been received well. But , in an off-year election in 2010, Pat Toomey was able to overcome long odds and squeak out a victory against Joe Sestak, who was trying to move up from the House. Toomey was making his second attempt at the office. In a GOP primary in 2006 Toomey gave the old warhorse Arlen Specter the fight of his political career but came up short and became a cause celebre in conservative ranks for almost knocking liberal Republican Specter out. Toomey’s win over Sestak though in 2010 (51-49%) was underwhelming and was barely 80,000 votes in a large state.
Consequently, the Democrats have always looked at Toomey as a vulnerable Republican come 2016 and certainly this race will be a barnburner down to the end. Toomey’s opponent this time is Kathleen McGinty, a former chief of staff to current Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. McGinty also served as an environmental advisor in the Clinton administration. A late June poll on this race had Toomey leading 40-39. But a poll that came out yesterday had McGinty up by 4. So this is still within the margin of error and is very close.
One issue that seemed to have outsized impact is President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. According to a poll, 42% of registered Independent voters in PA are less likely to vote for Toomey because of his opposition to holding a hearing on Garland’s nomination. In a dead heat race this may indeed make a difference. Toomey did meet with Judge Garland as our own Senator Kirk did. But Toomey remains opposed to Garland because he feels Garland will not be a force for reining in executive overreach which has become commonplace in the Obama era.
Toomey lost, as most Republicans do, the heavy population centers of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton and Erie. But he swept the rest of the state and did well in the suburban counties. His biggest problem though is that he won a race in which only 3,980,000 votes were cast. In 2012, when senior Senator Bill Casey won his race, over 5.4 million votes were cast. Casey won 53-48% and his margin was 500,000. So, clearly, in a normal Presidential year, if voting patterns remain static, Toomey is likely to lose.
The question is whether the presence of a Trump at the top of the Republican ticket will help him or hurt him. Only time will tell whether the Blue Wall really will fall this year.
Nevada – Let ‘s turn to a state where the Republicans are not playing defense – the Silver State. This became a pick-up opportunity mainly because five term senior Senator and Minority Leader Harry Reid decided to step down rather than seek re-election. The attractiveness of an open race lured serious Republican opposition. Current and popular Governor Brian Sandoval considered the race but declined. So this opened the door for 3rd District Congressman Joe Heck to come forward. Heck is a doctor as well as a brigadier general in the Army and has won a competitive House district three times. His district includes the suburbs of Las Vegas so he has a solid electoral base to start from. Heck is an attractive candidate as such defeated 2010 Republican nominee Sharron Angle 69-19 in the primary.
But the Democrats play politics well. They have nominated a former Attorney General in Catherine Cortez Masto. So, in addition to being a proven statewide winner she is also a Latina in a state with a high Latino population. However, Heck did pick up the endorsement of the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce just a few days ago. The main reason for this endorsement was the poor economic growth that Nevada is experiencing with the rest of the country.
Two recent polls show Heck up 42-40 and 42-41 so this is a dead heat as well. It is clear that Senator Reid is going to do everything in his power to get out the Democratic vote. The SEIU has a very strong presence in the state and will have its turnout machine kicked in to high gear. Heck faces a very tough race in a Presidential year.
Rasmussen Polling has the Presidential race as Clinton leading Trump 41-40 with 10% going to libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Trump did win the Nevada caucuses rather easily though and his candidacy encouraged higher than expected turnout at the caucuses. In fact though, it was the only caucus state that Trump won while the race was contested.
Harry Reid won in 2010 by about 40,000 votes out of a total votes cast of 722,000. So, it was not as close as many had expected. But the 2012 Senate race was different. Current junior Senator Republican Dean Heller edged out Shelley Berkley by 12,000 votes out about 995,000 votes cast. Curiously, he only won 45.9% of the vote. Berkley received 44.7. A third party candidate received 4.9%. So where did the other 4.5% go? To the “None of the Above” line that’s where. Nevada first allowed this oddity in 1976. Interestingly enough, if None of the Above ever wins, the byzantine procedures of such an event do indeed allow for the office to remain vacant. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Reminds me of the movie Brewster’s Millions.
Bottom line, Nevada is going to be a tough nut to crack for a GOP pickup. The headwinds of the increased voter turnout in a Presidential election year along with the logical and well-played nomination of Ms. Cortez Masto as the Democratic nominee, makes this a difficult task for any Republican. Sharron Angle was probably not the best candidate who could have run in 2010 and this allowed Harry Reid his fifth term. Brian Sandoval would have probably been the best candidate in this race but that was not to be. I would say slight advantage to the Democrats here.
Wisconsin – The 1st Congressional District has certainly been in the news lately because of the primary challenge by Paul Nehlen to Speaker Paul Ryan. Conservative heavyweights from around the country converged on Janesville, WI a few weeks back but to no avail as the Speaker won relatively easily. He was scared enough to campaign, though.
But the Senate race rematch between incumbent one-term Senator Ron Johnson and the man he defeated in 2010, Russ Feingold, is truly the race to watch in the state. Johnson, along with our own Senator Mark Kirk, is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents this cycle. I would say he’s even more at risk than Kirk.
Feingold is a proven statewide vote-getter having won his first Senate race coming out of nowhere to beat Bob Kasten in 1992. He won 52-48 % in a tumultuous year for the GOP as Bill Clinton took the reins of power from George HW Bush.
Another factor helping Feingold is that this is a Presidential year and the turnout models have been favoring Democrats in such elections. 2004 was the only one Presidential election since 2000 in which the Republicans gained seats in the US Senate. The GOP picked up a net four seats that year but the majority of their pickups occurred in Southern states including the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. In fact, if you go back all the way to 1980, the beginning of the Reagan era, the GOP has only gained Senate seats in 3 Presidential elections (1980, 1996 and 2004) whereas they have lost seats in the other 6 Presidential contest years. The polls have consistently shown Johnson behind Feingold by six to seven points so there are the usual headwinds faced by GOP candidates.
A few weeks ago, Johnson was in even more trouble because Freedom Partners Action Fund – a conservative group affiliated with the Koch brothers, pulled $2 Million in ad buys. But recently, the group re-entered the race and bought $1 Million in ad buys. So hopefully this helps improve Johnson’s numbers as we enter the post- Labor Day final Stretch of the campaign. We shall see. But to be honest, because Mark Kirk is facing a less experienced and formidable opponent in his race, I think this WI race is the most likely Senate seat to flip.