Midterm Series: Will independents determine US midterm elections?

Midterm Series: Will independents determine US midterm elections?

The US 2014 will hold midterm congressional elections on November 4. Although the House of Representatives is essentially conceded to the Republican Party, the Senate is fiercely contested, and will likely end with a razor-thin margin for whichever party holds the gavel. This is the first Insight in a GRI series on the US midterm elections.

The 100-member Senate has 33 seats up for election this term. Roughly 23 of them are seen by both sides as more or less decided for one party or the other, leaving 10 remaining competitive seats. With the 23 suspected votes and the 67 already in office, this will give the Democrats (and 2 independents caucusing with the Democrats) 44 seats, and the Republican Party 46. The 10 up for grabs are as follows:

  • Alaska: Senator Mark Begich (D) against Dan Sullivan (R)
  • Arkansas: Senator Mark Pryor (D) against Congressman Tom Cotton (R)
  • Colorado: Senator Mark Udall (D) against Congressman Cory Gardner (R)
  • Georgia: David Perdue (R) against Michelle Nunn (D)
  • Iowa: Representative Bruce Braley (D) against Joni Ernst (R)
  • Kansas: Senator Pat Roberts (R) against Greg Orman (Independent)
  • Louisiana: Senator Mary Landrieu (D) against Representative Bill Cassidy (R)
  • Michigan: Congressman Gary Peters (D) against Terry Lynn (R)
  • North Carolina: Senator Kay Hagan (D) against Thom Tillis (R)
  • New Hampshire: Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D) against former Senator Scott Brown (R)

All of these races have seen very tight competition, and any could easily be held by one party or the other following election day. New Hampshire, Michigan, and Colorado have trended towards the Democrats, and Arkansas and Georgia have trended towards Republicans, while the rest have more or less flipped back and forth in polls. However, neither party is confident enough to declare victory yet, and it is possible that even after November 4 neither party will be able to do so.

The three races that merit particular attention – Georgia, Kansas, and Louisiana – could all drag out the election cycle and ultimately determine controls of the Senate weeks after the November 4 election. Both Louisiana and Georgia mandate a majority of the voters must select a candidate in order for the candidate to win the election, otherwise a runoff is triggered. It appears likely that at least one and possibly both seats will fail to gain an outright majority for a candidate on the November 4 election, which will lead to another election.

Louisiana’s runoff election is set for December 6 between the two largest vote-getters (which in this case would be Senator Landrieu and Cassidy). Georgia’s runoff is slightly more interesting, as it would occur 2 days after the inauguration of the next Congress, on January 6.

Should this be the case, it may not be certain which party will control the chamber until after the Senate has already been seated. This is quite possibly due to the most unique state in this cycle: Kansas. The Kansas Senate seat was seen as a lock after Republican Senator Roberts overcame a grueling primary challenge from physician Milton Wolf due to the state’s deeply conservative voting record (they have not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, the longest unbroken streak of any state in modern history).

However, the race immediately drew the attention of the nation (and dismay of the Republican Party) when on September 3 Democratic challenger Chad Taylor withdrew from the race.  As a result, this placed Senator Roberts against Independent Greg Orman. Support for Orman has proved to be considerably high, and several polls have put him ahead of the relatively unpopular Roberts. Kansas would not break its streak of not voting for a Democrat, but this may not be enough to save Roberts.

So where does this put Orman? In the Senate, where caucusing with a party determines one’s seat in committees and other positions of power, even an independent would have to choose to align with either the Democratic or Republican Party (the 2 current independents, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Rufus King of Maine, both caucus with the Democrats).

Orman himself has been coy about who he would caucus with, initially indicating that he would caucus with whichever party held the majority in the Senate (which may be uncertain on November 5, given Louisiana and Georgia). Now Orman says he will caucus with whichever party is “best for Kansas,” an equally opaque answer to his possible ideological alignment.

Because of these races, and the flipping of polls in a half dozen other states, even a month before the election control of the Senate appears up for grabs. Nate Silver’s (of FiveThirtyEight.com) recent prediction that Republicans had a 59% chance of gaining the Senate is remarkably slim, though other respected pollsters and analysts (including Professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball) have indicated a possible tilt in favor of Republicans.

Overall, the Democrats have proven remarkably apt at winning Senate races, with only one Democratic incumbent losing a bid for reelection in the past 3 Senate race cycles (Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas). However, the dynamics of the election favor the Republican Party: most of the close elections are in traditionally Republican/lean Republican states (4 of the 9 are in the South), many of which are occupied by Democratic Senators that were able to succeed in part by riding President Obama’s 2008 election coattails.

Additionally, the incumbent president’s party tends to lose seats in a midterm election, and Republican challengers to Democratic Senate seats are of fairly high quality (which has been problematic in past elections, when seemingly winnable races in Nevada, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, and Alaska were lost due to poor Republican candidate performances).

The 2014 election may represent the Republican Party’s best chance to win the Senate, and unify both houses under the Republicans for the first time since 2005. However, the Democratic Party has shown itself to be particularly resilient in maintaining its hold of the U.S. Senate, and the unique situations in Georgia, Louisiana, and Kansas may delay the answer to this increasingly tricky question until January anyway.

Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Brian Daigle

Brian is an energy and Latin America researcher at a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He is a London School of Economics (LSE) graduate in political science and political economy, where he focused on trade and transatlantic relations. Brian received his dual BA in political science and history at the University of California-San Diego.