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Scenes from the Senate squeakers

Cocktail-party fallout in North Carolina, a simple question rocks the Kentucky race, and South Dakota is suddenly interesting.

A few interesting and/or amusing developments from close Senate races:

In North Carolina, incumbent Democrat Senator Kay Hagan blowing off a briefing on ISIS to attend a cocktail party fundraiser looks to be drawing some blood.  Her opponent, Thom Tillis, swiftly modified one of his political advertisements to mention that “Hagan admits she prioritized a cocktail party to benefit her campaign… while ISIS grew, President Obama did nothing.  Senator Hagan did cocktails.”  Politico notes the ad has even been renamed “Cocktails.”

It’s a bit early to tell if this will flip the super-tight race, where Hagan is generally seen to be one to three points ahead, although there’s a recent New York Times / CBS News poll that has Tillis ahead by 2 points.  The Charlotte News & Observer reports that Tillis has internal polling showing that the race is now a tie at 44 percent apiece, with four percent going to Libertarian Sean Haugh and 4 percent undecided.  “That poll showed that if Haugh drops out, Tillis stands to gain, because 60 percent of Haugh’s supporters disapprove of President Barack Obama,” the News & Observer says.

Speaking of the News & Observer, they’ve got some explaining to do, because they and other local media outlets knew about Hagan’s fundraiser scandal for at least two weeks, but kept it quiet until the Washington Free Beacon and conservative bloggers made the story impossible to ignore.  That’s not the first time North Carolina media has carried Hagan’s water, either – or, more to the point, quietly dumped her water in a lake while nobody was looking.  It’s strange how Democrats can actually manage to lose races with this kind of loyal service from the press.

Over in Kentucky, the biggest phony in the 2014 election cycle, Allison Grimes, showed up at the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board seeking their endorsement.  Grimes’ campaign consists entirely of two things: lying furiously about her plans for the coal industry, and claiming she will fight Barack Obama like a wildcat if elected to the Senate.  She hasn’t done well when asked precisely which Obama policies she supposedly opposes, so the editors decided to try an even simpler question, and asked if she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Unfortunately for Allison Grimes, the interview was live-streamed, “meaning that it took no time at all for Republicans to clip the non-answer and put it online,” as the Washington Post has it.  The result is one of the most painful things you will ever see.  It should be a wrap for Grimes’ floundering campaign, but it’s probably going to live on for years to come – the sort of candidate implosion consultants for both parties pass around like a campfire ghost story.

This is both amazing, and devastating to the Grimes campaign, because the Obama factor in Kentucky is huge – not just because of his general unpopularity, but even more specifically because of his War on Coal.  Grimes based her entire campaign on her supposed opposition to Obama’s policies.  She runs campaign ads that begin with her declaring that she disagrees with him.  And she couldn’t even deal with a softball question like this, even when the “right” answer is obvious, as neatly laid out by the Washington Post:

Grimes tries to pivot off of the board’s question (for some reason!) by linking herself to Hillary Clinton. There’s not a lot of good data on Clinton’s approval in Kentucky, but at least the state voted for her husband twice. If you have to be a type of Democrat in Kentucky, be a “Clinton Democrat” as Grimes puts it. Fine.

But there was no reason to do this. Grimes is fairly new on the national scene, but she’s not new enough not to know how to answer this fairly simply. “Yes, I voted for him,” you say, “but I’ve been disappointed by a lot of the things he’s done, particularly on COAL and JOBS and GUNS” or whatever. It’s simple. And then you can say, “but I backed Hillary in the primary” and so on and so on. 2008 was a landmark year, a wave for Democrats, when Obama’s approval was sky-high. Of course she voted for him! Dodging the question looks like she’s trying to hide her position, which is never the face you want to show — particularly when conservatives are accusing her of hiding her positions on other things.

Chuck Todd of NBC News was blunt in his assessment: “And Kentuckians expect her to cast a tough vote on anything?  Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything?  You want her to be a U.S. Senator?  If you can’t find a way to stand behind your party’s president… you can disagree with him, but if you can’t answer that basic question and come across looking that ridiculous… I think she disqualified herself.”

Finally, there’s a great deal of buzz about the supposedly close race in South Dakota, previously seen as a solid win for the Republicans.  As Fox News notes, based on a single new poll that shows the independent candidate in the race surging far past the hapless Democrat and coming within a few points of GOP candidate Mike Rounds, the media is suddenly buzzing about a potential upset – something along the lines of how the Democrats yanked their own guy out of the race in Kansas so “independent” Greg Orman could give Republican incumbent Senator Pat Roberts a run for his money. (Given the financial dynamics of these campaigns, that’s not really a metaphor.)

??I think the dynamics in South Dakota are putting pressure on Republicans,? said Nathan Gonzalez, managing editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.

The latest poll showed front-running former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds leading in South Dakota ?? but not by much.

According to the Survey USA/KOTA/KSFY/Aberdeen American News poll taken between Oct. 1 and Oct. 6, Rounds is only leading independent Larry Pressler 35-32 percent among likely voters. (Pressler is a former GOP senator who has not said how he would caucus if elected.)

Not far behind is Democrat Rick Weiland, with 28 percent.

Gonzalez said he??s not ??completely surprised? over the poll findings, because ??I didn??t think Rounds ever closed the deal in this race.?

But he added: ??I do tend to be surprised when a third-party candidate is getting more than 20 percent.?

Normally you’d hear a lot of cautions about how single polls can be outliers, and you’ve got to be careful about embracing surprising poll news that seems to benefit your cause, but the Democrats are so desperate for good news that they seem determined to make the “Pressler upset” into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  (Pressler himself seems amiably inclined to believe his surge is not as big as that poll indicates, although of course he welcomes the new buzz around his campaign.)  The reason some analysts are skeptical is that the swing from the previous poll is so astounding.  It could be for real, sure – and even if it’s not, it could be a sign of a significant shift – but it’s incredible, in the classic sense of that word:

The survey results are raising eyebrows all over the political spectrum because the poll before it, commissioned by CBS/NYT/YouGov, had the former governor leading Pressler 42-12 percent in late September, with Weiland getting 27 percent. A Survey USA poll taken earlier that month showed Rounds with a comfortable double-digit lead ahead of both Pressler and Weiland, as did every other poll dating back to April.

So what??s happening?

Dick Wadhams, senior strategist for the Rounds campaign, told FoxNews.com the poll is an anomaly, and that ??the race is not nearly as close as that.?

In fact, Rounds is still ahead with double digits, Wadhams insisted.

But the Democrats must sense the dynamics are the shifting, too, as they??re putting new resources into the race. FoxNews.com has confirmed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is devoting $1 million to the race ?? an investment that suggests they believe Pressler will peel just enough votes off Rounds to give their candidate a fighting chance. If either wins, that??s one fewer race Republicans can count on for the six total seats they need to seize control of the Senate.

??The DSCC must have their own data or else they wouldn??t be putting so much money into this,? Gonzalez said.

What’s really interesting about this race is that Rounds is trying to run a “nice guy” strategy, refusing to put out the sort of negative ads that political pundits always wring their hands over.  It worked well, up until Rounds found himself dealing with a spot of bad news, a fusillade of negative ads from both Democrats and the independent candidate slammed into him, and he had no way to return fire – no damage to their armor from his own previous negative ads to exploit.

Rounds, for his part, has been dealing with questions over the so-called ??EB-5 scandal,? which refers to a federal program that allowed immigrants to earn green cards by investing $500,000 in American businesses. Rounds expanded the program, which is now being scrutinized for corruption and abuse, during the tail-end of his 2003-2011 term.

??I think Rounds has not run a spectacular campaign and his fundraising has lagged,? added Gonzalez. ??He??s let Pressler and Weiland define themselves, and I think he??s been averse to running negative or contrast ads,? allowing his ??opponents to be whatever they want to be.?

In Pressler??s case, that??s a sage, moderate, three-term former senator who feels it??s his duty to get back to Washington for the sake of his state. Pressler, 72, has one paid staffer and only $100,000 in the bank, but his message must be resonating somewhere if the recent numbers are to be believed.

??I wouldn??t put too much stock in that,? Pressler told FoxNews.com, referring to the polls, ??but I do feel we have never been so warmly received as we (he and his wife, Harriet) have been as we travel across the state.?

Deep-dive analysts seem to think Rounds remains in a much better position than the new South Dakota storyline portrays.  The upcoming week should be an interesting one for the previously unexciting race.

Written By

John Hayward began his blogging career as a guest writer at Hot Air under the pen name "Doctor Zero," producing a collection of essays entitled Doctor Zero: Year One. He is a great admirer of free-market thinkers such as Arthur Laffer, Milton Friedman, and Thomas Sowell. He writes both political and cultural commentary, including book and movie reviews. An avid fan of horror and fantasy fiction, he has produced an e-book collection of short horror stories entitled Persistent Dread. John is a former staff writer for Human Events. He is a regular guest on the Rusty Humphries radio show, and has appeared on numerous other local and national radio programs, including G. Gordon Liddy, BattleLine, and Dennis Miller.

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