Dan Balz (c) 2014, The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — Republicans are on the cusp of taking control of the Senate, but with two days to go there remain enough close races to give the underdog Democrats hope that they can maintain power by the slimmest of margins, according to strategists, politicians and a Washington Post analysis of the contested campaigns.
In a campaign year marked by unending negativity and voter disgust toward Washington, strategists in both camps agree that Republicans are almost certain to pick up five of the six seats they need to regain control. They have many opportunities to grab an additional seat and, if things break decisively in their direction, could easily claim the majority. Democrats’ hopes of holding on largely depend on whether they can take one or two seats currently in Republican hands.
Nevertheless, there is a good chance the final result won’t be known on Election Night. Runoff elections are expected in Louisiana and possibly in Georgia, which would mean that those races would not be resolved for weeks. If the race in Alaska is tight, it could take days to count all of the ballots from remote villages. And if independent Greg Orman wins in Kansas, it remains to be seen whether he would caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans.
Gubernatorial races are, if anything, more dramatic and less predictable than those for the Senate. Rarely have as many gubernatorial races been as close in the final days as they are this year, with several Republican and Democratic incumbents in danger of losing. The House campaigns, however, hold little suspense, with Republicans expected to gain between eight and 15 seats.
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Washington Post reporters deployed in a dozen states through Election Day described voters as weary and often disgusted with the tone of many campaigns and the money spent on the negative ads that have been running for months — but still engaged in the final outcome.
“I hate to turn on the TV,” said Don Batt, 62, attending a GOP event in Iowa. “It’s burning me out.” In Louisiana, the scene of some nasty politics over the years, 91-year-old Leah Chase, who holds court in the kitchen of Dooky Chase’s in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, said, “I’ve never seen it this way before, this negative, darling. This has gone past the limit.”
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Republican voters expressed deep dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama, which appeared to be the party’s most important motivating factor. “Eighteen trillion dollars in debt is enough,” said Chad Bettes, 40, who lives in the Kansas City suburbs. “And Obama and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid just keep putting our country further in debt.”
Democrats sought to make a distinction between their assessments of Obama and their views on their state’s senators. “I’m disappointed in the president, to tell the truth, said Tom Moriarty, 78, of Claremont, New Hampshire. “But I like Jeanne. She’s done a lot for the state,” he said of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat.
Across the most contested states, Democrats and Republicans spent the weekend attempting to rally their supporters and deploying thousands of volunteer canvassers to make sure the loyalists cast ballots and to persuade the few undecided voters left after months of television ads, debates, direct-mail appeals and face-to-face prodding.
Obama, the focal point for Republican criticism, was on the campaign trail but avoiding states with the most contested Senate races. Instead, he spent Saturday in Michigan, scene of a competitive race for governor and a Senate contest that appears to be firmly in Democratic hands. First lady Michelle Obama, who has been more welcome than her husband in many states, was in Illinois on Saturday.
Other Democratic surrogates swept through the competitive Senate states in droves. Former President Bill Clinton spent Friday in Georgia, surrounded by an earlier generation of civil rights leaders, and was making appearances Saturday in Iowa.
Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is also looking ahead to a prospective 2016 presidential campaign, campaigned in Kentucky and Louisiana on Saturday and is scheduled for appearances in New Hampshire on Sunday.
On Friday, a busload of Republican luminaries descended on Kansas, the unexpected scene of close races for governor and Senate. The group included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association; former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour; and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was scheduled for a rally this weekend in Alaska, where there are tight races for Senate and governor as well. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee and one of the party’s most requested surrogates this fall, plans to attend a rally there Monday.
From the beginning of this election cycle, conditions have favored Republicans. Democrats are defending more seats, and many of the contested races are in states Obama lost. The president’s approval rating, which has sunk to the low 40s, has not helped.
Republicans also avoided the main problem that plagued them in 2010 and 2012, which was nominating first-time candidates who turned out to be poorly prepared for general elections. Not a single tea party challenger defeated a Republican incumbent in Senate primaries this year.
But countering those factors were other realities, starting with negative perceptions of the Republican Party and congressional Republicans. Additionally, to win control of the Senate, Republicans must defeat a series of incumbents, never the easiest task.
“Nobody on our side of the aisle is comfortable,” said a Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “Everybody’s optimistic, but I don’t think anybody’s comfortable.” Another GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the same reason, said: “I feel pretty good. I feel skeptical about feeling good.”
As Election Day approaches, the math is daunting for the Democrats. Republicans are favored to gain Senate seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, where no Democratic incumbent is running, and Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, has fought hard but appears to be at significant risk.
In Louisiana, Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is expected to lead the first round of voting Tuesday, with the Republican vote split between two candidates. But she will be an underdog against the likely Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, in a runoff.
That would give the GOP a net gain of five seats. Then there are five other Democratic-held seats that are more competitive. In four of the races, incumbent Democrats are trying to hold off GOP challenges: Mark Begich in Alaska; Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mark Udall in Colorado and Shaheen in New Hampshire.
Of those four, Shaheen, in a campaign against former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, is seen as the most likely victor.
In Alaska, Begich’s hopes of defeating Republican candidate Dan Sullivan now appear to depend on an elaborate get-out-the-vote operation that could be the most costly, on a per-capita basis, of any Senate campaign in history.
In North Carolina, Hagan held a narrow lead for months in her race against state House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, but has seen the margin slip as Election Day has neared. Still, Democrats were cautiously optimistic Saturday that she could win.
The races in Iowa and Colorado are among the most unpredictable of all, with late Democratic polls showing both contests tied.
In Colorado, Udall has run into a skilled challenger in Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, and his success will depend on how well he can mobilize unmarried women and Hispanics. But a Democrat reported Saturday afternoon that Udall faces serious motivational problems in getting his voters out. Democratic turnout is higher than in 2010, but Republicans are turning out in even higher numbers.
In Iowa, there is no incumbent running and the open-seat contest between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican candidate Joni Ernst has been as hard-fought as any in the country. Democrats have counted on a history of superior get-out-the-vote operations in Iowa, but Republicans have closed the gap.
If those were the only races in play this weekend, Republicans would be highly confident about winning at least one or more to claim the majority. But Republican-held seats in Georgia and Kansas are at risk of going to the Democrats.
In Georgia, Michelle Nunn, a Democrat and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is pitted against businessman David Perdue, a Republican. Nunn and the Democrats have scored effectively with attacks on Perdue for outsourcing American jobs, and Perdue has struggled to change the subject.
Because of a Libertarian candidate on the ballot, neither Nunn nor Perdue may win the necessary 50 percent of the vote Tuesday, forcing a runoff that would be held Jan. 6, after the new Congress has convened.
In Kansas, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts has run a weak campaign, hobbled by questions about his residency and whether he has been sufficiently attentive to his state. His Democratic opponent bowed out, leaving Roberts in a head-to-head contest against Greg Orman, an independent.
Adding a further twist, Orman has declined to say whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans, but the GOP has attacked him as an Obama supporter in the hope of persuading Republicans to stick with Roberts.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is now the favorite to hold off a strong challenge from Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. Victory would put him in position to become Senate majority leader if his party is successful overall Tuesday.
The Cook Political Report lists 14 states with gubernatorial races rated as tossups. Ten of those tossups involve sitting governors — seven Republicans and three Democrats. In addition, the Cook Report lists one GOP-held state, Pennsylvania, as likely to fall to the Democrats.
The Rothenberg Political Report lists 11 tossups (although tilting several in one direction or another) and puts Pennsylvania in the Democrats’ column.
Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball report at the University of Virginia, put it this way in a posting Thursday: “Can we be brutally frank? The governors’ races are really tough to call this year.”
There is no clear pattern in these races, as voters in red, blue and purple states appear unhappy with the results their governors have produced.
Republican incumbents in some or a great deal of trouble this weekend include: Sean Parnell of Alaska, Rick Scott of Florida, Nathan Deal of Georgia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Paul LePage of Maine, Rick Snyder of Michigan, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Democratic incumbents in competitive races include Dan Malloy of Connecticut and Pat Quinn of Illinois. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was in more trouble earlier this fall, but Democrats say he appears the most likely of the three to win, and Republicans don’t disagree.
Democrats also have tough races for open seats in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Maryland and Rhode Island. Of those races, Arkansas is the most likely to fall to the Republicans, followed by Massachusetts. In Hawaii, Democrats dumped incumbent Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the primary, but Republicans will have to fight hard to claim that seat.
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On Friday afternoon, Andrea Morrise of Fayetteville, Arkansas, was taking photos of her 8-year-old daughter, who was dressed up for Halloween as Miss Arkansas, complete with sash. Her daughter has seen so many political ads that she can recite them from memory. Into the cul-de-sac where the family lives came Senate candidate Tom Cotton, a Republican, meeting and greeting. “I can’t get away from him,” Morrise said, laughing.
Not everyone is laughing about the campaign or the ads that have been running in states such as Arkansas at unprecedented levels. In Louisiana, almost 64,000 ads have been aired, at a cost of $24.1 million to the campaigns and outside groups. That is enough to fill three weeks of air time, according to the Center for Public Integrity. During one week in September, not a single positive ad was aired in the Louisiana Senate race.
“It bothers me how much bashing there has been,” said Gerald Simmons, eating a “Dawn of the Dead” burger at Zombie Burger in Ames, Iowa. “There already is a state of negativity. People talking smack on TV is not helping.”
But these sentiments are not universal. In Kentucky, where the McConnell-Grimes race has featured nonstop attacks for months, some voters say it goes with the territory.
“I think you have to send your message if you’re going to win, and we need Mitch to send that message right now because Grimes is a fierce competitor,” said Rodney Saner, 54, of Lexington. He added, “This is an important time for our nation, and you have to share the message if you want to make change.”
At Republican rallies, the president was the main target. “I’m just so tired of the Obama agenda,” said Bre Keaton, 34, a Kansas voter. “I want the Republicans back. . . . We’ve got to take it back.”
Ron Goodbub, 66, of Duluth, Georgia, said Republican enthusiasm is “through the roof” largely because of anti-Obama sentiment. “I don’t care who you are, if you’re a Democrat, all people see is Barack Obama,” he said.
But Goodbub said he hopes that, if they take control of the Senate, Republicans have a bolder agenda than they have offered voters this fall. “If all they’re talking about is repealing the medical-device tax — really?” he said. “That’s what we’ve been knocking on doors for? That’s why we’re putting out campaign signs at 10 o’clock at night?”
Lynn Moore, a 39-year-old respiratory therapist who lives in New Orleans, offered her view of the stakes. Speaking of Landrieu, Moore said: “She has to win. We need Democratic representation with all the issues. The Democrats represent our voices, our vision. We don’t need another detrimental Republican.”
Democratic voters stood up for the president and, despite the odds, predicted success. “The Democrats are going to turn out like they usually don’t in midterms,” predicted Tim Gardner, 58, a retired nurse from Richmond, Kentucky, who attended a Saturday rally for Grimes.
But the final days continued to test the endurance of voters waiting for the election to end. On Friday in Colorado, Udall exclaimed to an audience in Buena Vista, “I’m having so much fun I want this to continue forever.”
A voice boomed out from the crowd: “Really?”
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Washington Post staff writers Sebastian Payne in Alaska, Hunter Schwarz in Arkansas, Ed O’Keefe in Georgia, Paul Kane in Kentucky, Ben Terris in Iowa, Karen Heller in Louisiana, Elahe Izadi in Kansas, Jose DelReal in New Hampshire and Katie Zezima in Colorado contributed to this report.