On the polling front this weekend, Republicans have a few reasons to celebrate. Last week, the building blocks of the narrowest Republican Senate majority were clearly coming together. This week, polls indicate that Republicans have a number of avenues to pursue in their quest to win back the majority.
In Louisiana, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) has significantly narrowed the gap with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), but that race looks set to head to a runoff. A CNN/ORC survey released on Sunday shows Cassidy and Landrieu statistically tied with 40 to 43 percent support respectively.
That poll also revealed that retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness maintains the support of the state’s most conservative voters. The independent candidate draws the support of 9 percent of likely voters in that survey. With former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin scheduled to parachute in to back him, Maness’s support is only likely to grow.
In November, it is unlikely that any candidate will net a majority of the vote, sending that race into a runoff in December. But Cassidy leads Landrieu in a two-way runoff in the latest CNN/ORC survey with 50 to 47 percent. This is the second poll to show Cassidy with the backing of a majority of Louisiana’s voters in a hypothetical runoff election. Given the fact that he two-term Sen. Landrieu is a thoroughly known quantity and is still trailing her challenger, it seems Louisiana voters are disinclined to give Landrieu a third term in the upper chamber.
If Republicans unseat Democratic incumbents in Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and Montana, and win the races for open seats in South Dakota and West Virginia – all of which not only seems possible but a likely outcome given the polling – the GOP will win a narrow Senate majority.
But polls released this weekend suggest that Republicans are competitive in a variety of battlegrounds where they may be able to expand their majority.
A CNN/ORC poll from North Carolina revealed that this race continues to frustrate Republicans. In that survey, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) still draws more support than North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis. With 46 to 43 percent support, Hagan may win reelection in spite of this midterm cycle’s headwinds which are confounding Democrats across the country. But this race is not in the bag for Democrats just yet.
Among likely voters in CNN/ORC’s latest survey, only 46 percent have a favorable opinion of Hagan while 47 percent do not. She has already managed to secure the support of the 46 percent, but where do the other votes that she needs to retain this seat come from? Tillis, meanwhile, is viewed favorably by 47 percent of the likely electorate in North Carolina while 40 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican nominee. Tillis has more room to grow than does Hagan.
But Tillis has another problem, one which CNN has been blaring in headlines since this poll was released: Libertarian Senate candidate Sean Haugh. In that survey, 7 percent of likely voters said they would back Haugh, a condition which could make him the “spoiler” of this race. More worrying for Republicans is the fact that Haugh draws more votes among self-identified Democrats (4 percent) than Republicans (3 percent), suggesting that Haugh’s support would not collapse even if a few GOP voters “come home” in November.
It would, however, be surprising to see a major third party candidate draw 7 percent in November. In statewide races with an incumbent on the ballot, respondents are often more inclined to tell pollsters that they support a third party candidate than they are to vote for them. A famous recent example of this phenomenon took place in New Jersey in 2009 where independent gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett routinely polled in the double digits before the election. Real Clear Politics showed Daggett had an average of 10.4 percent support across the many polls of that race. At the ballot box, however, he received just 5.8 percent of the vote.
The majority of Daggett’s support went to Chris Christie for one simple reason: As a general rule, voters who are keen to back a third party candidate dislike the challenger but they despise the incumbent. When the curtain closes, they reluctantly pull the lever for the candidate that has the realistic chance of unseating the unpopular incumbent.
But while this poll of North Carolina might worry Republicans, another poll released over the weekend had GOP supporters dancing in the streets. In the Hawkeye State, the respected Des Moines Register poll released on Saturday night revealed that the race for U.S. Senate in Iowa may be breaking for the Republican candidate.
In that survey, state Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) leads Rep. Bruce Braley (R-IA) with 44 to 38 percent support. “Ernst trails Braley among likely female voters by 13 percentage points,” read a Des Moines Register analysis of the new survey. “But Braley faces an even bigger gap than Ernst: He loses with men by 25 points.”
The well-known and respected Des Moines Register pollster J. Ann Selzer observed that Braley squandered a number of early advantages, and the image of the candidate as gaffe-prone and insulting toward the state’s rural community has stuck. That poll found that Braley is not even winning the district he represents in Congress despite being reelected there in 2012 with 55 to 40 percent of the vote.
Heading into October, it is clear Republicans will have to fight for every vote. There is plenty of campaign left in 2014; Republicans could still slip up or Democrats might surge if, for example, President Barack Obama’s job approval rating spikes in the next month. It seems increasingly likely, however, that the GOP will not only retake the Senate in November but do so with a sizable majority.