Who Will Control Congress? U.Va.’s Crystal Ball Says …

Founded and led by political analyst and professor Larry J. Sabato, the University of Virginia Center for PoliticsCrystal Ball election commentary and predictions are among the most quoted, most watched and most accurate in the nation. Roughly half a million unique readers per year check out the Crystal Ball website and/or receive the Crystal Ball email newsletter. (To subscribe, visit the Crystal Ball website.)

After garnering plaudits as the most accurate predictor of the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, in 2010 the Crystal Ball once again led the field, as the first to forecast a solid Republican takeover of the House. In 2012, the Crystal Ball election model was out front by July projecting a close popular vote with an Obama victory, and eventually forecast Obama’s substantial margin in the Electoral College. In 2013, the Crystal Ball won a “Beast Best” award from The Daily Beast as one of the top political sites on the web.

With such a national leader here on Grounds, UVA Today asked the Crystal Ball team – Sabato and Center for Politics analysts Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley – for a few key insights about the upcoming midterm elections.

UVA Today: We’re now less than a month from Election Day. What should we expect to see in the coming weeks?
What’s at stake?

Crystal Ball: This election is a classic “sixth-year itch” drama, with a president facing his final two years with relatively low popularity and a plateful of problems. This is not uncommon: The president’s party often struggles in midterm elections.

In the eyes of history, the election will be defined in large part by the outcome for control of the U.S. Senate. Currently, Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in Congress’ upper chamber (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats), meaning that Republicans have to make a net gain of at least six seats to capture the Senate. The geography of the map this cycle is highly favorable to Republicans, in part because the Senate is cyclical: The last time this Senate map was contested was 2008, when President Obama and the Democrats won a smashing victory, thus overextending themselves in a less-favorable cycle six years later. On November’s ballot there are seven seats currently held by Democrats in states that Mitt Romney won in the 2012 presidential race, giving Republicans a very obvious list of targets in their drive to win control of the Senate for the first time since early 2007.

In addition to the 36 Senate seats being filled around the country, all 435 U.S. House seats, 36 state governorships and thousands of state legislative and local posts are up for grabs. As usual, there are also dozens of ballot initiatives and referenda in many states – though not in Virginia. There is a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Virginia, regarding veterans’ taxation.

UVA Today: What do you think the results will be?

Crystal Ball: In the U.S. House, Republicans already hold a sizable majority and may well add six to nine seats, and maybe a low double-digit gain. The GOP hopes to match or exceed its largest post-World War II share of House seats: 246 Republicans won in 1946. Currently, the GOP is at 234 (counting a vacancy in Eric Cantor’s old seat that should go Republican), so the party would be very pleased with an addition of about a dozen seats. Democrats privately concede they expect some losses, though they believe they can minimize the damage and set themselves up to challenge for the House majority in 2016, when turnout will be better for Democratic-leaning demographic groups and when the national environment might be better overall for their party.

In the Senate, we currently project a five- to eight-seat net gain for Republicans. At the bottom of that range, a five-seat gain would leave the Senate in a 50-50 even split, allowing Democrats to maintain a majority thanks to Vice President Joe Biden’s tie-breaking vote. At the high end of that range, Republicans would hold a 53-47 majority and put themselves in a better position to hold onto a majority in 2016, when they may well lose some seats in Democratic states the GOP won in the 2010 midterm wave.

Our overall Senate calculus is complicated by the unusual races in Kansas and South Dakota, where there is a chance (particularly in Kansas) that an independent will win the seat. In neither state do we know with which party the independent might caucus if he were to win. It’s quite possible that these two strongly Republican states will end up sending the GOP nominees to the Senate, since the tug of party affiliation often grows stronger as Election Day approaches.

Also complicating matters is the likely possibility of a runoff in Louisiana, where incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is trying to hold on in a state that is becoming more Republican. In the Bayou State, there is not a primary: Rather, all the candidates run together on Election Day, and if no one gets over 50 percent, the race will be decided between the top-two finishers on Saturday, Dec. 6. It’s also possible that Georgia, a Republican open seat, will go to a runoff in early January. Those electoral overtimes might prevent us from knowing on Election Night who will control the Senate in the next Congress.

UVA Today: What are the most interesting developments in this election cycle that aren’t getting much coverage?

Crystal Ball: One can argue that the governorships are the most important offices on the ballot. Members of Congress don’t seem to get a great deal done these days; legislators talk while governors act. More than a third of the races – 14 of 36, according to our Crystal Ball ratings – are highly competitive races where one party is slightly favored or where there’s really not a clear favorite at all. That includes 11 seats currently held by incumbents: If more than six of them lose, which is possible but perhaps not probable, that’d be the biggest number of incumbent losses in more than four decades.

In one of those races, Alaska, incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell (R) seemed to be headed for reelection by default: an independent former Republican, Bill Walker, and a Democratic candidate, Byron Mallott, appeared destined to simply split the anti-Parnell votes. But things changed when Walker and Mallott formed a unity ticket led by the independent.

Something similar is happening in the aforementioned Kansas Senate race, where independent Greg Orman is challenging embattled Sen. Pat Roberts (R) and has an improved chance to win because the Democratic candidate recently left the race (an independent has an outside chance to win in South Dakota as well). Independents typically are an afterthought in American politics, but if any of these campaigns are successful, it might lead to more races where the challenging party opts not to field candidates, instead tacitly or overtly backing independents. That’s a perhaps overlooked and interesting wrinkle we’re seeing in American politics this year that we may see more of in the years to come.

UVA Today: If Republicans take control of the Senate, how will that impact what gets done in Washington over the next two years?

Crystal Ball: On the one hand, we imagine that gridlock in the nation’s capital can’t get much worse than it is now. But a Senate controlled by the GOP would augment the Republican House’s opposition to President Obama’s agenda. Conservative legislation currently stopped in the Democratic Senate would be likely to pass – but would then be vetoed by the president. Republicans will not have the votes in either house to override a veto. The GOP could make it very difficult for Obama to get anyone confirmed for executive and judicial branch vacancies, and it’s not hard to imagine a historic showdown over a Supreme Court vacancy if a seat opens in the next two years.

So we are headed for the traditional “lame duck” period of a presidency. In the last two years, President Obama will have to rely on executive orders, the bully pulpit and the foreign policy sphere to make an impact. Once again, we’ll crank up the political machines quickly for a two-year campaign in both parties to choose Obama’s successor.  

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley are, respectively, the director, communications director and media relations coordinator of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Together, they are the editors of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a free, weekly, nonpartisan campaigns and elections newsletter produced by the Center for Politics. To subscribe, visit the Crystal Ball website.

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