Thursday, October 22, 2020

The State of the Senate, Con't

Sabato's Crystal Ball Senate team, Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, are moving Iowa's Senate race between GOP incumbent Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Teresa Greenfield to Leans D from Toss-up, meaning that the Dems are now favored to take control of the upper chamber

In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is looking increasingly like an underdog against her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield. At the presidential level, Iowa is looking like a true toss-up, and Greenfield seems to be running at least even with — and often better than — Joe Biden in the state.

For political junkies, perhaps one of the most anti-climactic features of the 2016 election was that, across the 34 states that saw contests, the senatorial results lined up perfectly with the presidential picture. That year, no Donald Trump-won states sent a Democrat to the Senate, or vice versa. But Iowans may be in a more split-ticket mood now — or, they may even deliver the Democrats a sweep in the topline races.

As of Monday, Greenfield’s average lead in the RealClearPolitics average was 4.8%, while Biden was up by a more meager 1.2%. Perhaps tellingly, most of that difference comes from Ernst underperforming Trump — her average polling share stands at 42.5%, compared to Trump’s 46.3%. So it makes sense that, despite his sagging national fortunes, Ernst generally is still trying to frame herself as a firm ally of the president.

For Senate Democrats, last quarter’s fundraising numbers were truly historic. For the period spanning from the start of July to the end of September, Democrats in key Senate contests across the country raised a combined $265 million. In Iowa, Greenfield set a state fundraising record — her $29 million quarterly haul was roughly four times what Ernst raised. Candidate fundraising isn’t everything — outside groups are also spending heavily in the state, and Senate candidates in past cycles have lost to lesser-funded opponents — but going into the final stretch of the campaign, Greenfield seems to have the momentum.

In 2014, Ernst had the luxury of running against a gaffe-prone candidate in then-Rep. Bruce Braley (D, IA-1). Though Braley was initially seen as a strong recruit, he fumbled early in the campaign when he was caught on tape speaking derisively about the state’s other senator, Chuck Grassley, at a fundraiser. If Republicans took the Senate majority that year, Grassley was in line to chair the Judiciary Committee — Braley dismissed the veteran senator as a “farmer from Iowa” who didn’t go to law school. Fairly or not, Braley’s campaign never really recovered from that episode, and 2014 ended up being a disastrously bad year for Democrats across the country.

In last week’s debate, Ernst had something of a Braley-esque gaffe herself. Though her down-to-home image plays prominently into her campaign, she didn’t know the break-even price of soybeans, an important cash crop for the state. Greenfield, by contrast, nailed the price of corn when asked. Senate debates across the country have taken on increasingly national tones, but we’d expect Democrats to use Ernst’s debate answer on such a local issue to cast her as out of touch with the state.

The soybeans gaffe seems symptomatic of Ernst’s reelection effort: in 2014, playing up her rural persona and vowing to “make ‘em squeal,” she rode her motorcycle onto the national scene as a political outsider. After a term in the Senate, and running in a totally different environment, Ernst’s campaign seems to have lost some of that 2014 zeal. Though Iowa hasn’t ousted an incumbent senator since 1984, we see Greenfield with the upper hand. The race is moving from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.

Moving Iowa to the Leans Democratic category before North Carolina wasn’t something we’d have expected for much of this year. In April, the Crystal Ball identified a quartet of Senate races that we identified as the Democrats’ “Core Four” states to flip. Back then, it seemed that Democrats’ most feasible path to a bare 50-seat-plus-VP Senate majority ran through Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina — in fact, at the time, we cited Montana as the Democrats’ next best pick-up prospect. We now see Democrats as at least modest favorites in those first three states, while Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) seems to have a slight edge over his challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), in Big Sky Country.
But that's still only a net gain of three seats, and while that would put Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker, the Dems need one more seat, and that mens Cal Cunningham prevailing in NC.

With today’s update, North Carolina is the only Toss-up race left on our senatorial board. Since news broke of his extramarital activities a few weeks ago, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D-NC) continues to lead first-term Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). In some surveys that have been conducted since the scandal broke, Cunningham has, perhaps counterintuitively (or maybe completely expectedly?), expanded his lead in some polls — although both his overall share of the vote and his lead over Tillis in polls are a little smaller than before the scandal broke, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

As we discussed recently, amidst all the dizzying news cycles of the Trump era, Cunningham’s affair may seem outright vanilla, and voters may not end up caring. But Republicans are adamant that the affair has, at minimum, hurt Cunningham’s image. Perhaps the key factor is whether the scandal remains in the headlines and what new developments emerge. Over the weekend, the joint editorial boards of the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer issued an unusual dis-dorsement in the race, noting that they would have endorsed Cunningham, but because of the scandal and how he has handled it, they declined to back either candidate. Given the uncertainty there, plus the state’s purple hue, we’re hesitant to write off Tillis.
Still a toss-up in my old home, and there's always Steve Bullock in Montana. 


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