4 Major Midterm Surprises: Are Things Looking Up for Democrats?

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

For much of the midterm election season so far, there has been an overwhelming belief that Democrats are headed for a loss. Of course there’s been back and forth on each side’s chances, but overall the left has had an underlying pessimism. This negativity for Democrats is based on their historically bad record with midterms and the voter engagement they may be lacking this year. However, the closer November draws, the more neck-and-neck the battle for Senate majority has grown, and there’s been more than a few surprises. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss in Virginia’s Republican primary was the first shock of course, but it wasn’t the last.

The Washington Post’s “Election Lab” still gives Republicans a 94% chance of taking the Senate, but others are more optimistic. FiveThirtyEight places Republicans closer to a 57.1% chance of winning, giving Democrats 42.9% chance of retaining their majority in the Senate. What’s particularly telling is if you look at events and polling in key states, some of which have seen recent twists.


Republicans tend to have an advantage in Louisiana, or at least they have for quite a few years now, with slightly more residents identifying as right leaning over left. As of late September though, Gallup shows 45% identifying as leaning Democrats, and 41% saying they lean Republican. This isn’t the surprise though, because even with a slight improvement overall for Democrats, incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is still considered to be in a very risky position given her state’s low Obama approval ratings and the cut-throat efforts of her opponents who are just ahead of her in the polls.

The surprise lies in her decision to cut her campaign manager, Adam Sullivan with only four weeks left till the November election. To replace Sullivan she’s brought back Ryan Berni, who helped her brother during his run for Mayor, and her former chief of staff, Norma Jane Sabiston. “As Sen. Landrieu has done in all of her races, she is bringing on some of her long-time and trusted advisers to assist during the last months of the race to lead us to victory on Nov. 4,” said spokesman Fabien Levy, according to the Washington Times. 

North Carolina

North Carolina is, if anything, even tighter in party identification, with respondents identifying as Democratic or Democrat leaning 42% of the time compared to 41% saying the same for Republican identification, according to Gallup. This is a large slump for Democrats who had a 10 point lead over Republicans in 2008, when Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was elected. This year she’ll have a steeper battle to keep her seat against Republican Thom Tillis.

The recent change to voter ID laws in North Carolina may be the sudden change that pushes Hagan forward once more though. The laws, considered by many to be intentionally limiting for African American and elderly voting demographics — historically left leaning groups — have sparked anger in many in the state, and might actually prove and advantage in motivating voters.

While many in Raleigh thought they could suppress the vote through these new voter laws, they may increase turnout by rallying the vote,” said Rev. Dray Bland, a local religious leader in North Carolina, according to The Washington Post. “The apathy we might have had has turned into action.”


Incumbent candidate Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kans.) was lucky enough to see his Democratic opponent leave the race early. However he’s now facing an increasingly popular independent opponent who could swing either way if elected, Greg Orman. While Kansas was considered a fairly strong Republican win for quite some time because of it’s considerably larger Republican leaning population — 47% Republican to 34% Democrat according to Gallup — in terms of ideology conservatives are almost tied with moderates, at 38% and 36% respectively.

Kansas is not a state that usually comes up in discussions of battleground states — the state last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964,” points out Gallup, but cautioning that “a GOP victory is not a forgone conclusions, and this must be quite a shock to the typically triumphant Kansas Republican Party.” This is particularly emphasized by a FiveThirtyEight’s report that seven of eight available polls put Orman ahead of Roberts.

South Dakota

Finally, South Dakota has surprised many by turning out to be something of an unexpected risk this midterm. The state, usually a conservative certainty, may be up for grabs from either Republican nominee Mike Rounds or Rick Weiland, a Democrat. Incumbent Sen. Larry Pressler has won the office three time as a member of the GOP but is now running as an independent for the first time.

I think this race can be won with 35 or 38 percent of the vote. There is no runoff, and that is all that may be needed,” said Pressler to The Washington Post, which reports that Democrats have poured $1 million worht of advertising and aid into Weiland’s campaign.

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