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Moving Beyond the Seat Count

If you’re the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and you’ve got a few extra dollars to throw around, where do you put them? Into the Louisiana race, where John N. Kennedy is challenging your incumbent Mary Landrieu? Or somewhere like Kentucky, where Bruce Lunsford is trying to knock off Mitch McConnell?

The obvious answer would seem to be: “whichever race is closer”. But I’m not sure if it’s that simple. The reason is that there is a much bigger difference ideologically between McConnell and Lunsford (who is actually fairly progressive and would become a reliable Democratic vote on issues like health care) than there is between Kennedy and Landrieu (who is not a reliable vote on much of anything). So in terms of the actual, long-run mechanics of getting the legislation you want passed, the stakes could easily be twice as high in Kentucky as they are in Louisiana.

The equation would be a little different, of course, if control of the chamber were in doubt. But since it probably isn’t in this cycle, Democrats have to move beyond being obsessed with the seat count and treating all wins as being equal. Some really do count more than others.

The Republicans, by contrast, seem naturally to grasp this. Who are their top three fundraisers so far in the Senate? John Cornyn in Texas is first ($14.7 million), followed by Norm Coleman in Minnesota ($13.1 million) and then McConnell in Kentucky ($12.9 million). Coleman was expected to have a close race; McConnell and Cornyn probably weren’t. But what is the commonality between the three of them? In each case, there is a huge ideological gulf between the incumbent and his opponent. The Republicans aren’t going to hold on to as many seats as they might like in this election, but they’re doing what they can to keep the most important ones.

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