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The Senate Spin Cycle

With a week to go until Election Day, the political universe is in full horse-race obsession mode. Who’s up, who’s down? Does fundraising matter? Who’s going to turn out on Nov. 6? What popular narrative that’s snaking its way through Twitter is the right one? WHO’S GONNA WIN???

FiveThirtyEight relies on forecast models to give a sense of where a race stands, and we base those forecasts on polls and what we call fundamentals — historic factors that help us predict the way voters will act. But even with the model, elections can be difficult to get your arms around. The Classic version of our model currently gives Democrats a 1 in 6 chance of winning the Senate1, but events in the last couple of weeks of the campaign and a lack of polling in some places leave our model with a couple of blind spots.

This lack of certainty in the last few days of campaigns means that partisans work overtime to slick the highest sheen of gloss onto races. They want the Twitter and media narratives to go their way — they want their party’s spin to work magic. With that dynamic in mind, I thought I’d ask a couple partisans to give us their best spin on the Senate map. Republican Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell and who now runs his own political consulting firm, and Democrat Lauren Passalacqua, the communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, obliged.

What follows are their takes on a few key Senate races as the campaigns come down to the wire. Their remarks have been edited and condensed for clarity, and I’ve offered some fact checks and clarifications in the footnotes where appropriate.

Indiana

FiveThirtyEight projection: 2 in 3 chance the Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly, beats Mike Braun to win re-election

Holmes (R):

Obviously after what happened in 2016 with Evan Bayh, it’s more of a red state than it used to be, but it’s still very competitive. I think Joe Donnelly has run, up to this point, one of the better Democratic Senate campaigns, but I think he’s got his work cut out for him. I think it’s just a tight race. Who knows. In 2016, it broke very late and decisively toward Republicans.

Passalacqua (D):

There’s early voting already in Indiana. They’re already turning people out in the places we need them to be turning out in great numbers — Indianapolis, Marion County. We’re also seeing enthusiasm on college campuses. But what you’re seeing, too, is Joe Donnelly running just as a middle-of-the-road Hoosier — “I’m going to Washington to get stuff done. All that bickering back and forth, that’s not what I’m a part of, that’s not what Indiana wants to be a part of, so I’m just going to work with whoever I can to do the job that Hoosiers expect.”

Missouri

FiveThirtyEight projection: 4 in 7 chance the Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, beats state Attorney General Josh Hawley to win re-election

Holmes (R):

Claire McCaskill spent the better part of 2018 with the good fortune of an in-state governor scandal that she tried to muddy the water with and tie her opponent to. But once that was in the rearview mirror, there was an awful lot that went with it. In about June, Josh Hawley sort of hit his stride in engaging with McCaskill and started playing a lot of offense. I think that race now is in a very strong position. It’s one of the two that has broken [towards Republicans] most obviously since Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.

Passalacqua (D):

This is another place where we’ve seen the public polling neck and neck, which is what we expected, especially in a state that does trend more conservative. Certainly we’ve seen the attorney general back on his heels a bit with the kind of advertising he’s had to rely on, which fights back on this idea that he won’t protect pre-existing conditions, but obviously that ad is undermined by the lawsuit he’s on [challenging the Affordable Care Act].2 So what we see is a debate unfolding on the issues where Claire does have the upper hand.

North Dakota

FiveThirtyEight projection: 2 in 3 chance the Republican, U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, beats the incumbent, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

Holmes (R):

I’ve said since the middle of August I thought North Dakota was done with Heidi Heitkamp. It has become a much more conservative state in recent years, and, interestingly, Trump’s economic message resonates perfectly with the kind of historical prairie populism we’ve seen in places like North Dakota. And she finds herself down double digits pretty durably now, going on a couple months.3 Of the races where Republicans are playing offense, I would say it’s the only one where it’s totally off the board.

Passalacqua (D):

I do think it’s closer than people expect. It was always going to be one of the toughest states for Democrats. That’s historically a state that’s hard to poll. I think everyone remembers that famous photo of her with the newspaper that declared her opponent the winner.4 She has an advantage in spending on advertising5 and we know Republican groups like the Senate Leadership Fund continue to spend there, so that still, in our mind, is a place where we’re monitoring it and Heidi is closing it out.

Florida

FiveThirtyEight projection: 5 in 7 chance the Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, beats Gov. Rick Scott to win re-election

Holmes (R):

This race is a little bit of a black box to election observers, because of the hurricane and because it’s such a large and diverse state that you have a little bit of everything in terms of political-environment factors. The governor’s race has an interesting component, we’ll have to see. Democrats will tell you they’re hopeful that demographics that were inaccessible to Bill Nelson become accessible because of gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum [Gillum is black]. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Particularly in southwest Florida, there could be a whole bunch of retirees who are just getting down there who may react to the idea of governance that’s more liberal than they’re comfortable with.

Passalacqua (D):

Florida folks were very bullish on Gov. Scott because he brings a blank check and it’s an expensive state. It’s one of those places where you’ve seen the Scott playbook before: Spend a ton of money, get elected. When you dig a little further, there are a couple problems for Scott. His previous races were in 2010 and 2014, which were really good Republican years for Florida, yet he barely won by a single point both times and he underperformed the Republican ballot. I think the thing that works to Nelson’s advantage is that he’s a workhorse. He is someone who will keep his head down.

Arizona

FiveThirtyEight projection: 5 in 8 chance the Democrat, U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, beats U.S. Rep. Martha McSally to win

Holmes (R):

Sinema has taken on an awful lot of water in the last couple of weeks. She was very successful at using a Republican primary to rebrand herself as a moderate. And I think it has taken more effort than maybe Republicans would have thought to dislodge that. She has one of the worst oppo files in the Democratic recruiting class, and I think there were an awful lot of folks who thought that it would speak for itself. [Sinema’s past has been in the news — some reports have cast doubt on her stories of childhood hardship and some have questioned remarks she made as an anti-war activist during President George W. Bush’s administration.] Now, maybe it will, but it’s still a very tight race. Republicans, to a person, feel like we have a superior candidate with better credentials and a better fit ideologically for the state.

Passalacqua (D):

This is also an exciting race because this is the first election cycle where you’re seeing a lot of resources pulled into the state. Democrats closed the registration advantage that Republicans had. I read the reporting like everyone else, and what she said is what her parents said: She grew up in tough circumstances and they have helped shape who she is and how she approaches her work.

Tennessee

FiveThirtyEight projection: 3 in 4 chance the Republican, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, beats former Gov. Phil Bredesen to win

Holmes (R):

The electorate just isn’t the same as it used to be — it’s not in an elder-statesman mood. It’s in a change, drain-the-swamp, fight, represent-us type mood, and it’s just tough for guys like Bredesen who are in the middle of an electorate where there is no middle.

Passalacqua (D):

This is very much a pure toss-up, it’s incredibly competitive. Gov. Bredesen has run a race that’s solely focused on Tennessee. “Forget the noise, let’s talk about Tennessee.” In every one of his ads, in the events he holds, he’s applying for the job, and that’s really refreshing at a time when you’re overwhelmed by the punditry on television.

Texas

FiveThirtyEight projection: 4 in 5 chance the Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz, beats U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke to win re-election

Holmes (R):

I think Beto is a hell of a political celebrity, and if you’re running an underdog race in 2018, he’s laid out a perfect blueprint for how to get attention, how to raise money, how to become a national superstar. But I don’t think he’s given us a blueprint to win a red state. We’re living in an age of political celebrity, and there’s no question he’s become that, but in terms of putting votes in a box, he’s got positions that are far, far outside the mainstream of Texas.

Passalacqua (D):

I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s run up as many miles on a car driving around a state the size of Texas as he has. This comes back to something that we’ve seen is so important in all these states: Who’s showing up, and who’s listening? I think something has been a little shortchanged about Beto: He is putting in the work. I think this is going to be a high-turnout election, and I think that’s good. When more people vote, that’s good.

CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2018, 10:00 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated FiveThirtyEight’s forecast in the North Dakota race. Kevin Cramer is favored, not Heidi Heitkamp.

Footnotes

  1. All odds were curren through 4 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2018.

  2. As attorney general, Hawley signed his state on to a lawsuit that seeks to strike down the ACA.

  3. The last two polls in the state were released in October and show Heitkamp down double digits, but September polls only showed her down by single digits.

  4. The newspaper headline actually just said that her opponent had a 10-point lead.

  5. As of Oct. 17, Heitkamp had raised $21,623,000 in individual contributions; Cramer had raised $3,452,000.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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