Sunday poll dump: GOP surging toward the finish line

For weeks, my esteemed colleague Ed Morrissey has predicted late-breaking wave that would carry a number of Republicans into office, even a few the party gave up on months ago. As the final week of the campaign beings, that wave is breaking and Republican candidates for Senate are surging almost across the board.

On Sunday, NBC News released new data from a variety of races. NBC News/Marist surveyed the electoral landscape in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, South Dakota, and North Carolina and they found, universally, that the political winds are at the Republicans’ backs.

In states there Senate seats that Republicans need to take control of or hold in order to secure a majority – Kansas, South Dakota, and Arkansas – Republicans have reason for relief this morning. NBC/Marist polled Kansas and found Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) trailing his independent-slash-Democratic opponent, Greg Orman, by a statistically negligible 44 to 45 percent. Why is that cause for Republicans to celebrate? In their last poll, taken from September 27 to October 1, Roberts trailed Orman by 10 points – 38 to 48 percent.

While Orman still remains the more likable candidate in this race and he leads among independent voters by a whopping 34 points, NBC/Marist suggest that the Republican Party is doing the job it needs to do: Branding Orman as a Democrat. Robert’s challenger’s unfavorability rating is up 11 points their last survey, nearly mirroring the collapse of his topline numbers. Barack Obama’s job approval rating in Kansas is a mere 35 points.

In South Dakota, a state in which Democrats invested seven figures late in the campaign cycle as polls supposedly showed GOP Gov. Mike Rounds losing steam in a three-way race against the Democrat and a former Republican campaigning as a Democrat. That was money not well spent, according to NBC/Marist. Rounds secures 43 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Democrat Rick Weiland (29 percent) and former GOP Senator-turned-“friend of Obama” Larry Pressler (16 percent).

In Arkansas, the race is far tighter. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) leads Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) by just two points, a statistical tie and tighter than NBC/Marist’s poll in the field in the first week of September which showed Cotton leading Pryor by 5 points. But the Real Clear Politics average of polls puts Cotton up over the incumbent by 5.5 percent, and the trends show both candidates gaining support at a commensurate rate as undecided voters tune into the election. If that trend holds until November, it will be hard for Pryor to catch up to Cotton’s lead. Moreover, Cotton remains favorably viewed by a plurality of Arkansas while Pryor is viewed negatively by a near majority of the state’s electorate (49 percent).

If the GOP wins in these states, and does not lose (either on November 4 or in ensuing runoff races) in states like Kentucky and Georgia, a prospect handicappers would probably not bet heavy against, they will be well positioned to take the Senate. The GOP needs to secure wins in states where they are currently favored — West Virginia, Louisiana, and Alaska — to take the 6 seats they need for a bare majority.

But NBC/Marist polled a few other races, and the GOP has a chance to open up other avenues through which they could take a Senate majority.

In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall’s (D-CO) collapse in the polls continues apace. In NBC/Marist’s poll in the field from September 2 to 4, the Democratic incumbent led Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) by 6 points with 28 to 42 percent. Today, NBC/Marist found a shift toward Gardner of 7 points. The GOP senatorial nominee in the Centennial State now leads his opponent by a point at 46 to 45 percent.

In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst is breaking away. NBC/Maris found Ernst leading Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) by 49 to 46 percent. In September, she led her opponent by just 46 to 44 percent. Again, both candidates are gaining undecided support as marginal voters begin to tune into the election at a commensurate pace, but that is bad news for Braley who needs to make up some lost ground. NBC/Marist found that the gender gap in the Hawkeye State has narrowed to a point that would be difficult for any Democratic candidate to overcome – Ernst leads among men by 12 points but only trails among women by 5 points, down from 11 points in their last poll.

But it was NBC’s last finding that was its most interesting. A wave election can take with it some flotsam that was never thought likely to make it to shore but ends up benefiting from the natural momentum of its environment. That looks to be happening in North Carolina. There, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who has consistently trailed Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) in the polls, the race is now tied at exactly 43 percent. In September, Hagan led Tillis by 4 points, 44 to 40 percent. Moreover, NBC/Marist found that libertarian candidate Sean Haugh, who runs on a platform which advocates for “more weed, less war,” is picking up an unlikely 7 percent of the vote. Voters are almost always more predisposed to tell pollster they back a third-party candidate than they are to actually cast a vote for one.

NBC found that North Carolina voters are not fond of any of the candidates on the ballot this cycle, but Hagan has higher negatives (48 percent) than Tillis (44 percent). Barack Obama, meanwhile, enjoys a 38 percent job approval rating in the Tar Heel State.

Democrats’ hopes for blunting a GOP wave rest in the unlikely prospect that states like Georgia will go blue on the night of November 4, despite the fact that it remains a conservative state and 2014 is clearly a Republican year. The majority party also firmly believes that intangibles like the party’s “ground game,” or the Bannock Street operation which is aimed at generating presidential-year levels of turnout among minorities, will rescue the party from utter defeat. That is possible, and there are other factors, like Colorado’s mailing of a ballot to every voter in the state, which could increase marginal voter participation, that could buoy the state’s sinking Democrats. What NBC/Marist found is that all of these races save the South Dakota Senate contest are within the margins of error and are statistically tied. The race for control of the Senate could not be any closer heading to the final campaign week.

What NBC/Marist also found, however, was a universal shift in momentum toward Republican candidates and away from Democrats and the independents who would caucus with them if elected. A late-breaking wave is cresting. While Democrats expect a few surprises in their favor on election night, Republicans are just as likely to enjoy a surprise victory or two if these conditions continue to develop.