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Four Days to Go and a Million and One Questions

Four days from Election Day, this exceptionally turbulent cycle is drifting to a close with a lot of uncertainty about specific races, but a growing consensus about the most likely overall outcome.  Republicans are probably going to take control of the House, but not by as large a margin as Democrats currently hold, and Democrats are probably going to hang onto control of the Senate by the skin of their teeth.  Republicans will definitely make notable gains in governorships, offset by some Democratic takeovers.

The size of the current Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress will make the “net gain” totals for the GOP look especially large, but the actual two-party vote in House contests will be close; Republicans continue to benefit from an advantage built into the last round of redistricting.  The Senate results will be somewhat distorted by the favorable landscape for Democrats this year, with a disproportionate number of Republican seats up for re-election and a large number of Republican vacancies.  It’s hard to remember this, but throughout much of 2009, Democrats thought they had a decent chance to actually gain Senate seats in 2010.

Looking at the House more specifically, the most prominent rating services are roughly congruent.  The Cook Political Report shows exactly 100 competitive races (tossups and “leans”), with 92 of them in districts currently held by Democrats, which shows how heavily the landscape is tilting this year.  In addition, Cook rates seven Democratic seats (all of them open) as “likely R,” or noncompetitive.

Of the 100 competitive races, Cook rates 27 as Lean D, 23 as Lean R, and 50 as tossups.  This would suggest absolutely minimum gains of about 30 seats for the GOP, with 50 more likely, and 70-80 not outside the realm of realistic possibility.

Similarly, Stu Rothenberg has 107 seats—98 Democratic and 9 Republican—“in play;” his more complicated rating system has 18 rated “Democrat favored,” 12 “Lean Democrat,” 6 “Tossup Tilt Democrat,” 18 “Pure Tossup,” 24 “Tossup Tilt Republican,” 10 “Lean Republican,” and 19 “Republican Favored.”  This would suggest Republican gains in the neighborhood of 50-60 seats.

Nate Silver’s projections for FiveThirtyEight are done in terms of probabilities, and he currently predicts a Republican net gain of 53 seats.   For purposes of comparison, Republicans gained 54 net seats in 1994.

Because Silver’s system is so precise, his projections offer a good context for looking at the composition of the most likely Democratic incumbent losers.   Of the 46 incumbent Democrats that Nate shows having a better-than-even chance of losing, 21 are members of the Blue Dog Coalition (another five open Democratic seats likely to flip are currently represented by retiring Blue Dogs, so the Coalition will definitely take a hit).

Moving on to the Senate, depending on the source, there are somewhere between seven and 11 races considered highly competitive at this point.  IL, WA, CO, WV and NV are considered the true tossups; all are currently Democratic seats.  Alaska has suddenly joined the unpredictable races, with a turbulent three-way contest involving Republican Joe Miller (who’s been dropping in the polls lately), incumbent write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski, and Democrat Scott McAdams.   Some analysts consider PA a tossup, thanks to polls showing Joe Sestak gaining on Pat Toomey.  And some polls show Russ Feingold making a late surge against Ron Johnson in WI, though others show Johnson comfortably ahead.  Republicans haven’t given up on California candidate Carly Fiorina, though Barbara Boxer seems to have solidified a narrow lead.  There’s even some speculation that a late shift in votes from Democrat Kendrick Meek to independent Charlie Crist could put Florida back in play.

Barring some upset (e.g., California), Republicans would have to sweep the tossup states and avoid any nasty surprises (e.g., Alaska, WI, PA) to pick up the ten seats needed to gain control of the Senate.  The more likely outcome is between seven and nine pickups; the higher number would almost certainly spur talk about the possibility of luring Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman to join the GOP Caucus and put Republicans over the top.

Among governorships, the big trend is towards reversion of red and blue states towards their natural majority party, mainly thanks to retirements; WY, KS, OK and TN are certain to replace Democratic governors with Republicans, while CT, CA, HI and MN are moving in the opposite direction.  Republicans are also benefitting from a trend against the party of unpopular incumbents in more competitive states, notably MI, PA and WI (though the latter two races remain competitive).   A pro-Democratic countertrend in two southern states, GA and SC, looks likely to fall short, though GA is close enough that an upset (or more likely, a forced runoff) is possible.

The real barnburners are in FL, where Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott appear to be in a dead heat; OH, where incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland is making a late move against Republican John Kasich; RI, where independent former-Senator Lincoln Chafee is now favored in a three-way race;  OR, where former Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley are virtually tied in most polls; ME, another unstable three-way race where Republican Paul LePage appears to have an advantage; VT, where Democrat Peter Shumlin and Republican Brian Dubie are deadlocked; IL, where incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn has recently closed the margin held by Republican Bill Brady.   Some would add WI, where some polls have Democrat Tom Barrett gaining late on Republican Scott Walker; and most improbably, Colorado, where a couple of polls have shown third-party immigrant-basher Tom Tancredo moving up rapidly against Democrat John Hickenlooper thanks to a collapse in support for GOP nominee Dan Maes.

Overall, Nate Silver projects Republicans picking up twelve governorships and Democrats picking up seven.

The big imponderable for Tuesday is, of course, turnout, and political junkies will be looking closely at the final generic ballot polls that will come out over the weekend and Monday for clues of late trends.  In a variety of big states (notably Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon), heavy-to-near-universal early voting is a factor.  And for those hoping for an early election night, it’s worth remembering that the state most likely to determine control of the Senate, Washington, allows votes postmarked by election day to count, which sometimes means close races are not resolved for weeks.  And if the Alaska Senate race is close and matters, get ready for extended confusion and perhaps litigation over write-in votes.

photo credit: oceandesetoiles