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Is It Real, or Is It a Political Head Fake?

Although Republicans still appear to have the edge in winning the Senate majority, this fight could still go either way.

 In the early 1970s there was a classic television commercial for Memorex, a company just entering the consumer market for high-quality audio cassettes. In the commercial, jazz great Ella Fitzgerald would hit a high note, shattering a wine glass. Then, they would play her back on tape, shattering the glass again. The tagline on the ad was, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" Sometimes in politics, we see or sense something happening and wonder if it is real, if it is a new trend, or if it is just a noisy event or aberration. It seems that during most national elections, at some point between Labor Day and Election Day, there is a political head fake that takes place, something that briefly makes you wonder or starts to convince you that there has been a change in direction. Usually though, things just revert to where they were before.

Over the last couple of weeks, we've seen this happen again. Most independent analysts and astute observers were giving Republicans the edge in the fight for the Senate majority in the November elections, but then a few polls and the weirdness taking place in Kansas began to suggest that maybe the momentum had shifted away from the GOP. Now things seem to have reverted back almost to where they were a month ago. The fact is that politics is rarely entirely consistent; events and polls from week to week can bounce things around a bit even though the general direction does not change. My guess is that Republicans remain the favorite to get the six-seat net gain they need for a majority in the Senate. I'd still give them a 60 percent chance to do so, but admittedly, there will be a half-dozen or so races that will be within a point or two, maybe three points, and events that have yet to occur could still potentially change the outcomes. This fight could still go either way.

There are as many ways to look at the Senate math as there are observers. Here's my take. The three Democratic-held seats that have seemed the most in jeopardy since the beginning of the campaign remain very problematic for the party. There is no evidence that the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia are going to do anything but fall into the GOP column. The next three most vulnerable seats for Democrats involve incumbents in states that Mitt Romney carried by 14 points or more:  Mark Begich in Alaska, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas. If—and it's a big if—any of the three survive reelection, Begich appears to be the most likely to do so. But, again, it is far from certain.

If Republicans capture Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia and beat Begich, Landrieu, and Pryor, they win the Senate—unless they lose one of their own vulnerable seats. If either Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky are defeated, or if Republicans lose their open seat in Georgia, then winning the majority becomes a little more difficult. While all three of these races are very close, McConnell looks a good bit more likely than not to hold off his challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. In Georgia, David Perdue is looking better against Democrat Michelle Nunn. It is Kansas, though, that is becoming the GOP's migraine.

If Republicans lose one of their own, like say, Kansas, it means that they must win a purple-state race, unseating either Sens. Mark Udall in Colorado or Kay Hagan in North Carolina, or picking up an open seat in Iowa or Michigan, which is a bit more blue than purple. So, if Republicans can hold the line in red states, with no losses, they win the Senate. But, if they lose one, they have to win the political equivalent of a road game.

The Kansas situation is definitely weird. Independent candidate Greg Orman is running neck and neck with Roberts. Meanwhile, despite a state Supreme Court decision, the fight continues over whether there will be a Democratic name on the ballot. Republicans say there has to be one, pointing to a state law regarding vacancies on the ballot. Democrats say they aren't required to replace their nominee (though one is trying to get onto the ballot, obviously without the help of the party apparatus). Privately, one Republican election-law expert wondered whether realistically a party could be forced to name a candidate. Even then, it isn't necessarily certain whether a Democrat on the ballot helps or hurts Orman's chances. The more conventional thought is that a Democrat on the ballot divides the anti-Roberts or non-Republican vote. The countervailing view is that the presence of a Democrat on the ballot helps Orman appear to be really an independent, even though most believe he would sit with Democrats if elected because he seems to walk and talk like a duck (Democrat). However, if independents and disgruntled Republicans see him as something other than a Democrat, they may feel more comfortable voting for him. The backstory in all of this is the increasingly bitter civil war within the GOP between, on one side, Gov. Sam Brownback, the hardcore conservatives, and Tea Party Republicans, and the less ideological Republican old guard on the other. Add to the mix the widely held view that Roberts has taken this election for granted for far too long. National Republicans have recently worked to retool his campaign. The question is whether they did it in time.

The political environment is so bad, the playing field is so tilted in favor of Republicans, and the midterm election electorate has started to favor Republicans so much so that there are simply many more routes for Republicans to get to 51 seats than there are for Democrats to keep 50. Winning every purple state and picking off a state in enemy red territory obviously can happen, but it usually doesn't with the other dynamics we see in play.

This article appears in the September 23, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)