Key Senate States: How Do Toss-Up States Look on Election Day?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After months of waiting, debating, postulating and hanging our heads over some of the more ridiculous campaign ads, election day is finally here. And while Republicans have retained the edge in most forecasts for taking the Senate majority, it’s still anyone’s game and many of the key races are considered toss-ups.

Let’s take a look at which races are considered vital, and where their chances sit. It’s worth noting that historically it’s nearly always been the case that polls are somewhat skewed; after all, public opinion measures aren’t perfect, and even true attempts at objectivity sometimes show unconscious bias. But in the end, combined with analysis and a few other signs such as presidential approval and ad spending (often included in most odds calculations), they can give a good idea of what to expect. We’ll know for certain soon enough, but with state’s like Louisiana and Georgia likely to have runoff elections, we may not know for certain who wins the majority for a few days.

Various groups give anywhere from nine to 13 states that are still reasonably questionable, most notably Kansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Alaska, Georgia, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. Most states should be familiar by now for anyone who’s been watching elections, as the toss-ups have remained somewhat consistent. Michigan swung to the Democrats early in October when efforts were withdrawn, and a few others have become more clear cut, but the major question marks are still hooked and dotted.Kansas

The race in Kansas is still very tight, and currently FiveThirtyEight places independent candidate Greg Orman slightly in the lead with a 53% chance of winning and a 47% chance for incumbent Republican candidate Sen. Pat Roberts. Real Clear Politics shows the most recent polls from Real Clear Politics (RCP), Public Policy Polling (PPP), and Fox all giving Orman a hair’s worth of a lead, making it appear as one of the closest races. Should Orman take the seat, he labels himself as an independent who will shake things up on Capitol Hill, but Roberts insists he’ll be a clear vote for the Democrats.

North Carolina

Incumbent Senator Kay Hagan (D) has a slight lead over Republican challenger Thom Tillis, with Sean Haugh out of the race in any way that matters, according to the most recent average from RCP in October, and PPP’s November 1 poll, which put Hagan over Tillis by 2 percentage points. The Washington Post also reports the League of Conservation Voters put forth $4.2 million for Hagan within the last week, just a drop in the bucket of $26 million that went toward negative ads against Tillis this season.


Iowa, always a major election state, looks to be a close one based on RCP’s average, which puts state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) at 48%, and Rep. Bruce Braley (D) at 45.7%. And PPP gives Ernst a 48% chance compared to Braley’s 45%. Quinnipiac puts the two at a perfect tie as of October 28 through November 2. Ernst, given a good chance to take the Senate seat by FiveThirtyEight with a 40 percentage point lead in odds, took a bit of a bump from Iowa’s biggest paper, the Des Moines Register, when she chose to cancel an interview out of concern based on the paper’s past coverage of her.

Is Ernst that sensitive to the kinds of criticisms that invariably will come in such a high profile U.S. Senate race? Is she afraid of the scrutiny?” wrote Rekha Basu of the Des Moines Register in a Facebook post, “Sure, it’s stressful, but all the other candidates for Congress are doing it to get their messages out.” Colorado

Though Rep. Cory Gardner (R) appears to be ahead in most polls, according to RCP, his lead isn’t particularly overwhelming and Democrats insist the mail voting system just installed will be to their benefit. FiveThirtyEight goes with the polls on this one, giving Gardner the advantage to win in its analysis, though only by a very tight margin.


Elections in Alaska are particularly vital, but look to be close. Legalizing marijuana will be an important aspect of the vote, while online ballots have some concerned that hackers could interfere. Regarding the Senate, Sen. Mark Begich (D) may be inching ahead of Dan Sullivan in the early vote, if you believe Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile, who tweeted “Alaska, we need you! Begich leads in #AKSEN early vote which is actually higher than 2012! GOP usually leads in vote by mail. #vote2014″ on Monday.

On the other hand, FiveThirtyEight has taken polling firms’ estimates, weighted and considered them, and places the Democrat’s chances at only 26%, compared to the 74% chance given to Republicans. Even so, it puts the race as a close one. However, as the Washington Post points out, absentee ballots will likely make for a delay in outcome reporting.


Georgia is one of the states we’ll likely have to watch and wait for results post-runoff, but at present, David Perdue (R) is looking slightly better off in the polls than his opponent, Michelle Nunn (D), even with outsourcing questions catching some media attention this last week. RCP puts his average 3 percentage points ahead of Nunn, and FiveThirtyEight gives him a 75% chance of taking the Senate seat for the GOP.New Hampshire

RCP’s average of polls for incumbent Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and former Sen. Scott Brown puts the two at  tie, with Shaheen the favorite for a win based on FiveThirtyEight. And given there hasn’t been any big changes since the two debates, it’s likely she may scrape by with a victory if nothing major happens.


Like Georgia, runoff elections have been looking more and more likely in Louisiana, and wouldn’t be held until December 6. While Sen. Mary Landrieu doesn’t have good odds, she’s done well in past runoff elections. Currently, RCP gives Bill Cassidy’s (R) polling average at 48.8% compared to Landrieu’s 44%, and FiveThirtyEight only gives her a 19% chance of retaining her position.


Republican candidate Tom Cotton is looking more and more likely to take the seat from incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor, regardless of who you ask. RCP shows Cotton with an average poll of 48.2%, and Pryor with 41.2%. FiveThirtyEight gives Pryor a mere 4% chance of taking the seat, and the general consensus from analysts seems to be fairly grim for Pryor; it would be a surprise to nearly everyone if he wins. Kentucky

Similar to Arkansas, it looks fairly unlikely that Republican candidate Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate, will lose this one. Alison Grimes (D) isn’t doing terribly well in the polls, basically down across the board by a significant amount, and FiveThirtyEight gives here a negligible 2% chance of winning in its analysis.

South Dakota

It’s a three-way competition between Democratic candidate Rick Weiland, independent Larry Pressler, and Mike Rounds for the GOP. Current Pressler is trailing behind both party affiliated candidates, and but is successful enough to be siphoning off much needed votes from Weiland. Perhaps for this reason FiveThirtyEight gives Weiland less than 1% chance to take the Senate seat, and given that he’s trailing Rounds by 12.2% according to the RCP average, this race looks to be going red.

West Virginia and Montana

Like South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana are looking very likely to head to the right, and it would take some pretty impressive maneuvering — possibly a miracle — for Democratic candidates Natalie Tennant (D-W.V.) and Amanda Curtis (D-Mont.) to win their races.

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