If the midterm elections were held today, the Republican party could expect a three-seat majority in the Senate next year, according to the new poll from the New York Times, CBS News, and YouGov. The poll, which surveyed voters across the 34 states with Senate races via an online panel, finds GOP candidates leading in 8 races for seats currently held by Democrats. The Times gives the Republican party a "60 percent chance" at wresting control of the Senate.
Three races are relatively solid for the Republican candidates—Mike Rounds of South Dakota (27 points ahead), Steve Daines of Montana (16 points) and Shelley Moore Capito (8 points). In Arkansas, Republican congressman Tom Cotton has a 4-point lead over Democratic senator Mark Pryor. In Michigan, Louisiana, Iowa, and North Carolina, the Democratic candidates, including two sitting senators, trail the Republicans by only a point. Meanwhile, the Democrat in Colorado, Mark Udall, leads GOP challenger Colorado by just four points, and Republicans appear to be within striking distance of vulnerable Democrats by trailing by 10 points or fewer in New Jersey, Virginia, and New Hampshire.
In Alaska, leading GOP candidate Dan Sullivan trails Democratic senator Mark Begich by more than 10 points, while another GOP candidate, Mead Treadwell, is within 2 points of Begich. But the Times’s Nate Cohn urges caution with the poll’s Alaska results, noting that poor Internet penetration in the state made it much more difficult to get a representative sample, and a few other polls show a closer Sullivan-Begich race.
What else does the Times/CBS News/YouGov panoramic snapshot reveal about the state of the race four months out? Overall, the Democrats’ firewall appears to be eroding. While South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia have been long gone as far as Democrats were concerned, the objective for the GOP has always been to win at least three of the four reddest states with Democratic incumbents—Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Alaska—in order to win an outright majority. Already Republicans are ahead, by a little, in the requisite three, which tracks with other polls of the races in Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
In addition, the risk that Republicans could lose one of their own seats, possibly in Kentucky or Georgia, appears less likely than it did earlier in the year. Kentucky Republican and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell polls at 50 percent against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’s 46 percent, while newly minted Republican nominee David Perdue of Georgia leads Democrat Michelle Nunn 50 percent to 44 percent. McConnell and Perdue aren’t exactly in landslide territory, but in what’s shaping up to be a Republican year, the relative weakness of Grimes and Nunn may be difficult to overcome.
The poll also highlights some surprises of the election season so far. Nobody (well, almost nobody) expected Republican Jeff Bell to actually compete with New Jersey’s Democratic darling Cory Booker, but the conservative activist and 1978 GOP Senate nominee from the Garden State is just seven points behind with four months to go. Booker undoubtedly remains the favorite, but the fact that Bell is within single digits suggests the race may not be over.
Another surprise has been in Iowa, where Joni Ernst is a better candidate than Iowa Republicans could have hoped for to run for retiring Democrat Tom Harkin’s seat. Bruce Braley, the Democratic nominee, has stumbled lately. Ernst’s one-point lead in July isn’t a guarantee of her victory, but as Fred Barnes recently pointed out, she’s an example of the high quality of candidates Republicans have discovered in 2014 that may be the key for the party’s takeover of the Senate.
There are few positive signs for Democrats, with Mark Udall’s four-point lead over Cory Gardner perhaps chief among them. Gardner remains a strong candidate and Colorado could still be a likely GOP pick-up, with the Republican House member having a strong initial showing in polls. Democratic efforts to paint Gardner as an out-of-step social conservative, particularly on abortion issues, may help explain Udall’s small but significant lead.
Elsewhere, Democrats appear, for now, to be staving off challenges that might have transformed a good or great Republican year into a wave election. Mark Warner in Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire may still be vulnerable—both states have been trending Democratic but have elected plenty of Republicans statewide in recent memory. But the GOP challengers (Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Scott Brown in Massachusetts) have the difficult task of bringing down incumbents polling higher than 50 percent. Similarly, Monica Wehby in Oregon and Mike McFadden in Minnesota haven’t broken out of their status as long shots against incumbent Democrats Jeff Merkley and Al Franken. There’s still time—but not as much as the Republicans’ campaigns might think—to improve conditions for Gillespie, Brown, Wehby, and McFadden, but the prognoses aren’t better with this Times poll.
Republicans certainly don't have things wrapped up. Louisiana’s open primary system means Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy are likely to proceed to a runoff in December if neither receives a clear majority in November. That runoff could end up determining which party controls the Senate, and the electoral dynamics for a post-November runoff—campaign advertisement funds, turnout numbers—will vary depending on the results of other elections around the country. In North Carolina, Kay Hagan has proven remarkably resilient given the national mood toward Democrats, and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis is nowhere near putting the race away. The GOP’s seemingly good position in purple states like Iowa and Michigan are precarious enough that a poorly-timed gaffe or badly conceived campaign tactic could erase the Republican advantage.
But the trends demonstrated across the Times poll are a good sign for the GOP as the campaign season enters its final month of quiet before ramping up again in September.