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In Senate Races, Politics Are Local Again

We will soon be unveiling our forecast model for United States Senate races. But as a point of comparison and because there have been a number of important primaries for the Senate in recent weeks, I first wanted to give you my view of the contests.

The battle for control of the Senate looks like a tossup, just as it did in May. In fact, if I were given just one guess at the composition of the new Senate, I would go with this: 50 Republicans, 49 Democrats and one independent, the former governor of Maine, Angus King.

Mr. King is much more likely to caucus with the Democrats than the Republicans, which could mean an even split. In that case, control of the Senate would come down to who wins the presidency, with the vice president — either Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Paul D. Ryan — casting the tie-breaking vote.

The chart below provides my summary of the 33 Senate races. The ratings are subjective, but I am looking at the same factors that our algorithm eventually will. The most important predictive factor is the polls. In the chart, I have listed a simple average of the last three nonpartisan polls conducted in each state. However, I also give some emphasis to the overall partisan lean of a state, the relative qualifications of the candidates, and the amount of money raised in the races so far, which also have some predictive power.

There is no sign yet of a wave breaking toward either party, but some individual races look a little different than they did a couple of months ago. It just so happens that the changes benefiting each party seem to about cancel one another out. There are some cases where the climate now looks improved for the Republican candidate:

  • In Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill got the opponent she supposedly wanted in Representative Todd Akin, who is a little more conservative than is optimal for the Kansas City and St. Louis suburbs. But Mr. Akin has led her in several consecutive polls, sometimes outside the margin of error, and his qualifications are fine, with his having been elected to the House six times. Ms. McCaskill has a big war chest, and this will be a nasty and negative race, but Mr. Akin’s polling lead has been consistent enough that I now view the race as tilting toward him.
  • In Florida, Senator Bill Nelson’s fundamentals do not look awful. His approval rating exceeds his disapproval rating in most recent polls, and he has raised considerably more money than his Republican opponent, Representative Connie Mack, who easily won the Republican primary on Tuesday. Nevertheless, the race has been polled abundantly, and those polls have gotten tighter and tighter, to the point that the polling averages now show almost an exact tie. I now consider this race a tossup, perhaps tilting ever so slightly toward Mr. Nelson.
  • My rating in Nevada crept slightly toward Senator Dean Heller, the appointed Republican incumbent, in the last update — and now I have it moving toward him further, such that I call it a “lean Republican” race. Mr. Heller’s polling lead over Representative Shelley Berkley has been small, but it has been consistent — and he is battle tested, having survived numerous Democratic efforts to unseat him when he was in the House, whereas Mrs. Berkley has been battling ethics charges. In her favor, Mrs. Berkley has raised more money than Mr. Heller, and Nevada has become increasingly Democratic. It is also a relatively low-turnout, politically apathetic state — so she could benefit from the spillover from the presidential race, where President Obama has maintained a lead in state polling.
  • In Nebraska, former Gov. Bob Kerrey’s effort to return to national politics is looking increasingly quixotic. The day after our last update in May, Rasmussen Reports came out with a poll showing him 18 points behind his opponent, State Senator Deb Fischer. And even a Democratic-leaning group had him trailing by 12 points in one of its polls in June. And yet, ex-governors have a pretty good track record in trying to win Senate seats, whereas Ms. Fisher is a mediocre candidate and her fund-raising has been sluggish. The race clearly favors Ms. Fisher — Mr. Kerrey’s stint as president of The New School in New York may not go over so well in Omaha — but I think we need to see some fresher polling here.
  • Honorable mention for the Republicans goes to Wisconsin. I did not actually change the race rating here — I have Republicans with a 55 percent of winning, as I did in May. But they fended off a downgrade by picking Tommy G. Thompson, the former governor, as their candidate in the primary on Tuesday. The most recent polls put Mr. Thompson and his Democratic opponent, Representative Tammy Baldwin, in a virtual tie, and Mr. Thompson’s fund-raising has not been impressive. Nevertheless, he is a well-qualified candidate who should still have some residual appeal to Wisconsin’s independent voters, whereas Ms. Baldwin is quite liberal and is seeking to become the first openly gay United States senator. The recent polls may reflect Mr. Thompson having endured a tough primary campaign whereas Ms. Baldwin did not. I am curious what the algorithm will have to say about this one — for my money, it may be the most interesting race of the cycle, Scott P. Brown and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts included. But for now, I see the race as just slightly tilting toward Mr. Thompson.
  • There have also been a number of races where Democrats have had encouraging signs.

  • In Washington State, Senator Maria Cantwell has never been extraordinarily popular and theoretically had some vulnerability — but Republicans have fielded a mediocre candidate in State Senator Michael Baumgartner. Mrs. Cantwell won easily, with 55 percent of the vote, in the blanket primary that the state held this month — competing directly against Mr. Baumgartner and other Republicans. The primary numbers in Washington have had decent predictive power in the past, and with Washington unlikely to get any attention from the presidential campaigns, Mrs. Cantwell looks relatively safe.
  • I’ve been reluctant to put Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia in the “safe Democratic” column since President Obama is so unpopular there. But Mr. Manchin has had an overwhelming lead in the occasional polls of the state, and against the same opponent, John Raese, whom he defeated easily in 2010. Mr. Raese, furthermore, has raised only about $250,000 in individual contributions. In the absence of a vigorous Republican challenge, it looks like Mr. Manchin’s efforts to keep his distance from Mr. Obama will be successful once again.
  • Another state where Republicans turned up the same losing candidate as in 2010 is Connecticut, where Linda E. McMahon, the former executiv
    e of World Wrestling Entertainment, won the Republican primary on Tuesday. Her general election polls have sometimes shown her within single digits against Representative Christopher S. Murphy, who won the Democratic primary on Tuesday, but she closed so poorly in her 2010 race against Richard Blumenthal that it’s hard to give her any benefit of the doubt. The race is not completely safe for Mr. Murphy, but he would need to stumble. Republicans would have been better off with the candidate who badly lost the primary, former Representative Christopher Shays. a moderate.
  • Some forecasters have described the Hawaii Senate race as a tossup, but I just don’t see the justification for that. Republicans certainly have a well-qualified candidate in former Gov. Linda Lingle, but she was not terribly popular by the time she left office, and she has trailed the Democratic candidate, Representative Mazie K. Hirono, by double digits in some of the more reliable polls. Democrats have also tended to over-perform their polls in Hawaii in recent years, and that is especially likely to be the case with the native son, Mr. Obama, on the ballot; he should carry the state by more than 30 points. Mrs. Lingle’s fund-raising has been decent, and she gives the Republicans a shot when they might not have one otherwise, but that doesn’t mean the race is anything close to even money.
  • The story in Ohio is much simpler: Senator Sherrod Brown’s polling has held up relatively well against his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel. Mr. Mandel has brought in a prodigious amount of money, so I still describe the race as “leaning” toward Mr. Brown rather than a “likely” Democratic hold — but some time has started to tick off Mr. Mandel’s clock.
  • The Senate race in New Mexico is on something of the same trajectory. Representative Martin Heinrich, the Democratic nominee, figures to be favored against the Republican, former Representative Heather Wilson, on the basis of the state’s partisan demographics, which have gone from purple to being rather blue. And with Mr. Heinrich holding a lead of about 8 points in recent polls, his advantage is starting to solidify. New Mexico is a cheap state to advertise in, however, and Republicans could potentially blanket it with commercials, so Mr. Heinrich is not out of the woods.
  • One of the most difficult races to characterize is in North Dakota, which initially looked like a likely Republican pick-up after the Democratic incumbent, Senator Kent Conrad,said he would not run again. But national Democrats like their candidate, the former state attorney general, Heidi Heitkamp, and she has held fairly tough in the polls. Nonpartisan surveys have been split between those showing the race in a near tie, and those giving an advantage to the Republican, Representative Rick Berg, while Mrs. Heitkamp and her Democratic allies have periodically released polls showing her ahead. I don’t give a lot of weight to partisan polls, but North Dakota once had a reputation of being much more of a swing state in Congressional races than in contests for the presidency, and a place where candidate quality can matter. I still see the race as favoring Mr. Berg, but it has been downgraded from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”
  • In Maine, Mr. King practically cleared the field of both Democratic and Republican candidates when he declared for the race as an independent in March. Even if one begins with some initial skepticism about the prospects for an independent candidate, Maine has long had an independent streak, and Mr. King has far more stature than his opponents, State Senator Cynthia Dill, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Charles Summers, a Republican. Mr. King is about 30 percent ahead of Mr. Summers in the polls, and has more than 50 percent of the vote. (Nor does there appear to be much chance that Mrs. Dill could act as a spoiler, splitting the left-leaning vote, as she has run a halfhearted race and is polling in the single digits.) Mr. King has yet to declare which party he will caucus with if he wins, but his issue positions are more liberal than conservative, and Republicans have treated him as the de facto Democratic opponent.
  • You see the pattern? Actually, I’m not sure there is one. Middling candidate quality has been a theme for Republicans — but that has been true all cycle long, and the problem would have been worse had they failed to nominate Mr. Thompson in Wisconsin.

    Instead, we seem to see the races behaving in a more localized fashion. As some Democratic incumbents like Mr. Brown are looking a bit safer, others like Mr. Nelson seem more vulnerable.

    Still, if the modal outcome is one in which we are staying up late on Nov. 6 — and possibly even for days or weeks after that, depending on how much drama Mr. King creates — enough races remain highly competitive that each party retains an impressive upside case in the event that it sweeps most of them.

    If Democrats won all of the leaning and tossup races, and Mr. King caucused with them, they would add a net of three Senate seats, bringing the total number under their control to 56. It had once looked highly unlikely that Democrats could actually gain Senate seats. But as the cycle as evolved, they’ve gradually put more Republican-held seats in play — while some of their potentially vulnerable ones, like in Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia, and Connecticut — have become safer as Republicans have field to produce strong opponents in them.

    And yet, most of the seats up this cycle are Democratic-held, since the 2012 cycle is the “echo” of 2006, an extremely favorable Democratic year. If Republicans won all the leaners and tossups — plus Nebraska, which looks like a likely pick-up for them — they would gain a net of eight seats. That would bring them to 55 seats, even assuming that Mr. King did not caucus with them.

    Exactly what are the odds of these outcomes? That’s what a formal statistical model should help us to determine. The Senate contests, with different candidates in each state, are not as likely to move in unison as the different states in the Electoral College in the presidential race. But it is also naive to assume that each race behaves independently. In 2006, 2008 and 2010, one party swept almost all the contests that would have been considered highly competitive at this point in the cycle.

    However, absent some change in the national political environment, we’ll go into Election Day with control of the Senate being highly uncertain. Without a wave to sweep them to victory, the candidates will sink or swim more on their own merits.

    Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.