Friday, October 18, 2013

2014 Senate Elections, Part II

I’m late with this, but here goes: the second part of the 2014 senate landscape:

Iowa: Senator Tom Harkin is retiring next year, leaving an open race in the state. Democrats have largely coalesced around Representative Bruce Braley, while Republicans have vague “no-name” candidates in the running. This is looking increasingly likely to be a democratic hold.

Electorally, Iowa is a very unique state. It is a very white state, yet it is always more democratic than the rest of the nation. In fact, it was the only state outside of New England where Barack Obama won a majority of the white vote in 2012. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Iowa has a heavily unionized history, similar to neighboring states Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The eastern portion of the state is culturally similar to Minnesota, in that many Iowans vote democratic because of the labor union influence. The first settlers in Iowa also arrived from the Midwest, giving it a closer connection to those states.

Finally, Iowa democrats tend to have a populist streak, as evidenced by Senator Harkin and to a lesser extent Representative Braley. They tend to not talk about social issues that much, but focus on economic issues, such as unions, the social safety net, and higher taxes on the rich. So, despite the fact that Iowa has one of the whitest populations in the nation, it still is comfortably democratic for the moment.

In addition, republicans faced a recruitment fail this year. Their top possibility was Representative Tom Latham, a popular, politically savvy establishment republican. However, early polls showed him losing in the primary to firebrand tea party representative Steve King, and so dropped out. King also declined to run, and so currently there is a 6-way primary amongst mostly no-names.

Iowa republicans dug themselves into a deeper hole by adopting a rule saying that if no candidate gains 35% in a primary, then a convention will automatically be held to determine the nominee. This is risky for the republicans because the Iowa GOP is largely controlled by libertarians in the mold of Ron Paul, who will probably select one of their own as the candidate to face Braley. This would probably be attorney Matt Whitaker, far from the most electable candidate in the primary.

Ultimately, barring a republican wave, it is safe to say that Representative Braley will be the new junior senator from Iowa next year.

Kentucky: This will be a very important race to watch. Current senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

McConnell is a fixture in Kentucky politics much as Harry Reid is a fixture in Nevada politics: he is very much disliked, however he runs a powerful machine and is adept at bringing home pork barrel spending to the state. He is also known as a powerful fundraiser and a ruthless campaigner: most of his opponents have not re-entered politics after losing to McConnell.

However, Grimes is a significantly stronger candidate than most previous McConnell challengers, and appears to be a money magnet (she outraised McConnell in the last fiscal quarter). In addition, she is another red-state democrat with a family name: her father was Jerry Lundergan, former president of the Democratic party and one of the foremost power brokers in the state. Coupled with the fact that McConnell’s favorability ratings have rarely broken the 44% mark in the past few years, and that McConnell himself is facing a wealthy and well-funded tea party challenger for the primary, means this will probably be a close race.

Ultimately, McConnell is slightly favored. He has been much quieter this year than in previous years, and indeed helped craft a negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the government shutdown. He has formed an alliance with Libertarian power-brokers in the state, including senator Rand Paul, who in 2010 upset McConnell’s protege Trey Greyson for the GOP nomination. If the national environment shifts against the Republicans next year, perhaps due to another government shutdown McConnell may very well lose. However, the powers of incumbency are very strong, especially for someone as entrenched as McConnell, so it would be foolish to underestimate his chances.

Louisiana: In my opinion, I think this is going to be the bellweather, the most important senate race next year. The incumbent is democratic senator Mary Landrieu. She is a prominent “blue dog” or conservative democrat, and has made a name for herself by breaking with the party on certain issues, notably oil subsidies. She is also an extremely savvy campaigner, and is one of the few blue dogs who I feel is intelligent. She was elected in 1996, and faced tough reelection campaigns  in 2002 and 2008.

Her most likely opponent is Bill Cassidy, a GOP representative from West Louisiana. It appears that Cassidy however has not consolidated support; he is facing at least two primary challengers.

Louisiana is notable for holding a jungle general election. This is similar to California’s jungle primaries, where all candidates are placed on the same ballot, and the top two candidates advance. In addition, if no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, there is a runoff between the top two finishers.

These two rules will probably have a large effect on which side is victorious. Since multiple republicans will be competing against Landrieu, the chances that one of the less electable candidates pushes past Cassidy to the runoff with Landrieu. However, runoffs tend to have more conservative electorates as solid democratic groups such as African-Americans and young people stay home. Thus, it is quite possible that Landrieu would lose the runoff while winning a plurality in the jungle election.

My gut feeling is that Landrieu will barely survive. She has won three elections already, including a runoff in 2002, and has a famous last name (both her brother and father served in politics). Cassidy is a strong challenger, but he will likely be hobbled by overzealous challenges from the right. Of course, Landrieu’s chances decrease if she is forced into a runoff, but even then she could possibly count on a coalition of New Orleans blacks along with whites from Acadiana to beat a conservative opponent.

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