Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is at risk.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is at risk. State Department file photo

Three Key Questions Will Determine What Direction Election Winds Are Blowing

If there is a wave, it is the open Senate seats in Colorado and Iowa, as well as the seats held by Sens. Kay Hagan and Jeanne Shaheen, that will sound the alarm.

The political environment usually is "set" in midterm elections around midsummer. At that point, it's generally easy to see which direction the partisan winds are blowing, and one usually has an idea as to whether those winds are light, moderate, or heavy. By this time in the cycle, now a week from the election, you can have a much better idea of the velocity of those winds, though it's still admittedly impossible to know precisely how many seats will fall to those winds. This degree of uncertainty is what keeps elections—even in fairly predictable years—interesting, along with, of course, the occasional unexpected outcome.

Here are the three key questions of this cycle:

1. Can Democrats save one or even two of the six Senate seats in states that Romney won by 14 points or more? These include the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia—all three highly unlikely seats for Dems to win—as well as incumbents Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), and Mary Landrieu (Louisiana). Important to note: The outcome in Louisiana will probably be settled on Dec. 6, rather than Election Night, as no candidate is likely to get the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.

All three of the previously listed incumbents are facing substantial headwinds.  And of these six seats, if Democrats go 0-for-6, that's obviously very bad for them, but not necessarily fatal. If the party can salvage one seat, that's an in-the-middle situation. In the unlikely event that they save two seats from GOP control, that's a very troubling outcome for the GOP, but again not necessarily fatal to their chances.

2. Can Republicans hold on to Georgia, Kansas, and Kentucky? Republicans must defend an open seat in Georgia, as well as the contests in Kansas with Sen. Pat Roberts and Kentucky with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. While McConnell's race is still fairly close—he had a polling scare a couple of weeks ago—it seems relatively stable in his favor now, and it would be something of a surprise for McConnell to lose at this point. He's run a pitch-perfect race.

The seats in Georgia and Kansas are different stories entirely; both are extremely close and could very easily go either way. If Republicans hold both of these, as well as Kentucky, that would be a terrific outcome for them on Election Night. If they lose one seat, it would be an inconclusive development. And if Republicans lose two or more, that would be very bad for them. The most likely outcome is Democrats picking off one of these three seats.

3. Of the four Democratic-held seats up this year that could each easily tilt this situation in favor of either party, how will the chips fall? In New Hampshire and North Carolina, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kay Hagan both have held mid-single-digit leads throughout their races that appear to have eroded in the last week or so. These are two very close races. Each are probably a little more likely to hang on to their seats than not, but we're really splitting hairs here.

Then you have the open seat in Iowa, as well as the race against Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado. Both of these races have been extremely close for some time now, and could still easily go either way. However, just as you might put a pinkie on the scale for Shaheen and Hagan, I'd put that same pinkie on the scale for state Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Cory Gardner, the GOP nominees in Iowa and Colorado, respectively.

Having written a political newsletter for more than 30 years now, while I believe I have developed pretty good intuition for determining which way most races will fall, with that intuition comes a certain degree of humility that may be missing in some of today's purely mathematical models, as well as among those partisan operatives desperately looking for every positive sign while ignoring or downplaying more negative developments. There have been plenty of relatively close races that have tipped in the opposite direction of what seemed most likely to happen. With this in mind, projecting high-percentage chances of outcomes on races that are fundamentally pretty close is awfully problematic. It's not that much fun to walk down the halls of the Russell Senate or Cannon House Office Buildings and have a member of Congress come over and exclaim, "And you said I was going to lose …."

The races between one, two, or even three points, those that are teetering on the edge going into the final days before an election, tend to fall one way or the other. A group of "toss up" races rarely splits down the middle. Whether it is a tiny gust of a last-minute wind or a brief lull in the prevailing winds of the political environment, either way the dominoes tend to fall more one way than the other.

If there is a wave, don't look at either the Romney +14 states, or the three Republican-held seats for evidence. It is the open seat in Iowa, the race in Colorado, and the Hagan and Shaheen seats that will sound the alarm. If Republicans win three, or sweep all four, that's a wave. However, counting normally Republican voters in Republican-tilting states voting Republican in a Republican-tilting year is not something that constitutes a wave. A wave is really when one side wins the lion's share of the purple swing states or pulls off a bunch of upsets. That is a wave. For now, it still looks like at least a 60 percent chance of the Senate going Republican, with a GOP gain of seven seats somewhat more likely than just a gain of five.

This article appears in the October 28, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.