South Dakota Senate race back to a Republican lead

The little boomlet of excitement among Democrats surrounding the “surge” of independent candidate Larry Pressler in South Dakota – based largely on one outlier poll – appears to have subsided, as USA Today reports GOP candidate Mike Rounds is back to a 9-point lead:

National Republicans appear to be salvaging the South Dakota Senate race following concerns that their candidate was on the verge of losing a sure thing in the GOP’s push for a majority.

Republican candidate Mike Rounds, the state’s former governor, had been fading in polls released earlier in October. Rounds is one of four candidates in the contest, which features Democrat Rick Weiland and two independents: former Republican senator Larry Pressler and Gordon Howie, a former state lawmaker.

But the arrival of help from South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a fellow Republican, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee appears to have stabilized the Rounds campaign. An Argus Leader Media/KELO-TV poll released Monday shows 42% of respondents support Rounds over Weiland’s 33%. Pressler had 13% and Howie 2%.

Rounds, you may recall, is the candidate who took the media’s perennial advice and abstained from negative campaigning.  “That poor chump actually took our advice?” was the subliminal attitude among pundits who marveled at his late-game slide.  Democrats were suddenly all about Pressler, an independent spoiler who might just be able to cost the Republicans a seat they should have won.  Their own candidate became an afterthought… and now he’s 20 points ahead of Pressler, although still 9 behind Rounds.  Whoops!

It looks like a bit of good old reliable negative campaigning put Rounds back on top, as USA Today reports national Republicans running ads that “tied Pressler and Weiland to President Obama, who is unpopular in South Dakota.”  They mean even more unpopular than he is in most other states.

Smaller states with less intense polling, and a dearth of major media markets, can yield results that take pundits and analysts by surprise.  Sporadic polling in the early stages of election gives way to more frequent samples, with more accurate “likely voter” screens, in the closing days of an election.  In South Dakota, for example, there are also fresh polls from NBC and CBS News… both of which give Rounds an even bigger lead of 14 and 13 points, respectively.

The big Senate race that’s supposed to feature an independent spoiler blowing out a Republican is Kansas, where the Democrats managed to work with friendly courts and get their own candidate sand-blasted off the ballot.  That was supposed to make incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts a dead man walking, but independent Greg Orman’s lead has pretty much evaporated, leaving the race neck and neck – a 0.6 percent edge for Orman in the RealClearPolitics polling average.  Perhaps worrisome for Democrats is that only the more unreliable pollsters gave Orman a solid lead in the last round of surveys, and one of those surveys is now two weeks out of date.  The most recent poll in the current series, from CBS News / New York Times, has Roberts up by 4 points.

The Democrats’ best hopes for Senate wins that seemed improbable at the beginning of this cycle are Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Kay Hagan in South Carolina – the latter still in a dead heat with Republican Thom Tillis despite ongoing revelations of the Hagan family profiting handsomely from the Obama stimulus, and Hagan’s decision to duck out on her last debate with Tillis, creating the spectacular image of the Republican debating an empty chair.

Georgia’s race is a real dogfight, with the momentum appearing to shift a bit towards Republican David Perdue lately, but it’s still a one- or two-point game.  It looks like they’ll spend the rest of the campaign pummeling each other over outsourcing.

In these waning days of close elections, talk inevitably turns to “momentum,” and whether a candidate gaining in the polls can make up the few points he or she needs for victory by Election Day.  That’s a rather more complex question in these times of absurdly long early voting periods and absentee ballots; many votes are cast long before last-minute rallies begin.   The data point that had analysts buzzing this weekend was a Wall Street Journal / NBC News / Annenberg survey that showed the Republicans had opened an astonishing 11-point lead on the generic “which party should control Congress?” question.  That’s considerably larger than the 7-point lead held by the GOP during the 2010 wave elections, and over double the lead they enjoyed just a week ago.

With that kind of wind in their sails, Republicans in tight races should have a good chance of pulling ahead.  Not only are there a few independent and undecided voters up for grabs, the thinking goes, but the enthusiasm gap could leave a fair number of dispirited Democrats sitting home on Election Day.  This explains the frantic Democrat efforts to goose their voting base with some utterly despicable race-baiting appeals, such as a flyer from the Georgia Democratic Party using imagery from the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri to suggest that only voting Democrat can prevent black children from being randomly gunned down in the street by racist white cops…


… and a flier of more enigmatic origins tucked under the windshield wipers of North Carolina churchgoers, with the message “if Kay Hagan doesn’t win, Obama’s impeachment will begin” beneath an old photograph of a lynching.  

I wouldn’t advise Republicans taking that 11-point generic lead to the bank – Generic Republican and Generic Democrat are never on the ballot.  An eye-popping surge that appeared in a single week could also disappear in a single week; it’s most likely an expression of voter preferences based on current events (i.e. the Ebola mess) and it could cool down a bit as the news cycle spins rapidly forward.  Also, races like Georgia and North Carolina that have been defying the national trend might go right on defying it, no matter how great the Republican preference among national voters grows, and control of the Senate requires winning more seats, not winning fewer seats by wider margins.  There are encouraging signs two weeks out, but not enough of them to relieve Republican anxieties in these close races… especially the ones that were never supposed to be this close.

Update: Another Senate race suddenly of keen interest is New Hampshire, where new polling indicates Republican Scott Brown has opened a very slight lead over incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, 48.3 to 46.8.  In other words, it’s a tie, but Brown seems to have the momentum.  It probably isn’t helping Shaheen’s cause that she got booed by the audience for rudely interrupting Brown at their last debate, and he won applause for calling her on it.