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Ellison’s Election Tip Sheet

Ellison election tipsheet
• April 11, 2014 3:40 pm

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SENATE: ARKANSAS

If you ask me what are the biggest "toss ups" in the midterms today, I would unflinchingly say North Carolina, Louisiana, and Alaska. I would throw in Arkansas as my number four, but reiterate that it’s leaning red.

Arkansas is one of the races that leans red, but sometimes just barely. It looks like this was one of those weeks.

The Weekly Standard reports:

A new poll from Talk Business found Mark Pryor, the sitting Democratic senator from Arkansas, with a three-point lead over Republican challenger Tom Cotton. The survey of more than 1,000 likely voters found 45.5 percent said they would vote for Pryor, while 42.5 percent said they would vote for Cotton. […]

The poll is the first since October to show Pryor ahead. The Real Clear Politics poll average shows Cotton with a slight lead of 1.5 percentage points.

This poll should not be seen as a game changer, but it is the first one in over five months to show Pryor with any kind of lead. This has always been a close race, but Cotton has stayed ahead, and when the polls change like this, even though it’s small, it’s a reminder that this race is not quite ready to be counted as safely going red.

Arkansas’ governor is a Democrat (though many would say he is a more conservative Democrat) and he is one of the most popular governors in the country. Yet, Mitt Romney won 61 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012. John McCain received 58 percent of the vote in 2008, and George W. Bush also won it in 2004.

Arkansas is considered a conservative state, and polls show that it’s become more conservative over the last years couple years.

The last Arkansas Democrat to fall in an election like this was Sen. Blanche Lincoln. She held the seat for over a decade until losing to Republican John Boozman in 2010. She had to first face a primary challenger, but she still lost and she didn’t just lose, she lost by a large margin.

The way for a Democrat to win in the increasingly red Arkansas is by painting himself as an independent—not an integral part of the national Democratic Party.

Lincoln tried but did not succeed. Pryor has to do that to win.

The major problem he runs into is Obamacare. Pryor initially distanced himself from both the president and aspects of his signature legislation by calling for changes and a delay of the individual mandate, but last Friday he doubled down on his support for the Affordable Care Act—a law that is on the whole unpopular, and tends to be less popular in conservative states, like Arkansas. It’s going to be difficult to paint himself as an independent when he supported the passage of Obamacare and now maintains that he would have passed largely the same bill.

This poll may have been a glimmer that Pryor has somewhat of a chance, but reiterating his support for the contentious health care law and calling "80 percent of it right" could quickly erase it.

HOUSE: WEST VIRGINIA

In West Virginia, Democrats have another old seat to worry about. Election analysts at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics have changed their rating for Rep. Nick Rahall’s race to "leans Republican."

Here’s part of the explanation for the change from Kyle Kondik, the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball:

There are only three House Democrats who reside in districts where Mitt Romney performed at least 10 percentage points better than his national average (in other words, where Romney got 57 percent of the vote or more, 10 points higher than his national 47 percent performance) … The third is Rep. Nick Rahall (WV-3, 65 percent Romney), who recently was rumored to be considering retirement but apparently decided against it. […]

Rahall’s district performed 18 points better for Romney than the Republican presidential nominee ran nationally in 2012. By comparison, the next most Republican seat a Democratic incumbent is defending is Rep. John Barrow’s GA-12, where Romney did eight points better than his national average. The most Democratic district that Republicans are defending is the open CA-31, which gave 57 percent of its votes to Obama, or six points more than the president’s national performance (51 percent). The Republican incumbent running in the district where Obama did the best is Rep. David Valadao (CA-21), where Obama ran four points better (55 percent) than he did nationally. In other words, Rahall could have the biggest drag from national forces of any House incumbent in either party in the country. Yes, Democrats still have a major party registration advantage in West Virginia, but how voters cast ballots matters a lot more than what they call themselves — or may have called themselves years ago when they first registered. […]

In the here and now, we now see Rahall as a slight underdog in his reelection bid, and we’re moving the rating in his race to LEANS REPUBLICAN. Perhaps a Democratic counterattack will boost his numbers, but Rahall is uniquely positioned amongst Democratic House incumbents to be harmed by President Obama, and our new rating reflects that.

That’s a little wonky and heavy on statistics, but the big takeaway is pretty simple. Rahall has held this seat since 1976 (he originally represented the 4th district, but West Virginia was reapportioned three congressional seats after the 1990 census—in the 80s and 70s they had four). That’s a safe Democratic seat for over thirty-five years—and right now, he’s not well positioned to keep it in November.

Democrats need a net gain of seventeen seats if they are to take control of the House. That’s always seemed highly unlikely, but the last thing they want is for the gap between the number of Democratic and Republican members to widen.

What’s also interesting about Kondik’s analysis is that the conditions for Democrats in the state are not looking good. Kondik writes, "Yes, Democrats still have a major party registration advantage in West Virginia, but how voters cast ballots matters a lot more than what they call themselves—or may have called themselves years ago when they first registered … Over the last seven presidential elections, here is the Democratic presidential performance in West Virginia versus the nation as a whole: +6.6, +5.4, +2.3, -2.8, -5.1, -10.4 and -15.6. The state was trending Republican before Barack Obama came onto the scene."

West Virginia is looking increasingly red (remember Republicans are well positioned to pick up retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat) and that should worry Democrats for 2016—especially if a long-term incumbent like Rahall is unable to keep his seat.

SENATE: KENTUCKY

The expected Democratic candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes is holding her own against Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and his primary challenger Matt Bevin.

Grimes has been described as appealing and holding elaborate rallies, but when it comes to policy someone who’s "vague on the details."

One of her strongest campaign platforms is women’s issues, and that’s part of the reason she’s come under increasingly tough scrutiny for neglecting to return a contribution from John Arnold, a former state legislator who was accused of sexually harassing three women.

This isn’t a new complaint, but it reignited this week after the state’s Legislative Ethics Commission controversially failed to find Arnold guilty.

A local paper called Pure Politics noted:

While Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes expressed disappointment in the Legislative Ethics Commission for not pursuing charges against a disgraced former lawmaker, she remained silent Wednesday on whether she will return the donation from that legislator.

Grimes, in a statement to Pure Politics, said she was "disappointed" that the Legislative Ethics Commission failed to get five votes necessary to find former Democratic Rep. John Arnold guilty of violating the ethics code. Three legislative staffers have accused Arnold of sexual harassment, including an incident witnessed by another lawmaker. Arnold resigned in September — nearly a month after the allegations became public.

Grimes once again condemned workplace harassment but didn’t address in her statement whether her campaign will give back the $250 Arnold contributed to her Senate campaign last year.

Pure Politics also notes that Grimes did not answer questions from reporters at an event on Tuesday.

The committee’s decision was because of one member’s vote against the charges on technicalities, but Arnold has faced these allegations since last year and resigned over them in September. Some have pointed to the decision as evidence of a "war on women" in the state legislature.

Why would Grimes not have immediately returned that donation? It’s not a big one, but it would be symbolic to return it—and in politics symbolic actions are sometimes the most important.

If you’re going to center a large portion of your campaign on being the candidate that’s "for women"—you have to follow it through whenever possible—especially when there’s something that grabs headlines. Numerous women and other witness accused this man of sexual assault. The accusation warrants a return of any contribution, otherwise Grimes appears to be a candidate that is willing to stand up for women when it works for her. That isn’t a great image and it’s a tough one to shake. It’s easy for an image to become muddled from one instance—Grimes is making a risky choice by not returning this money and neglecting to take a stronger stance against Arnold and the committee’s decision. Being "disappointed" isn’t adequate.

Towards the end of this week, her campaign took a rather strong stance against McConnell saying, "Mitch McConnell’s campaign and his allies attempted to use sexual harassment victims’ experiences as a political football before knowing all of the facts." Perhaps that’s a fair point to argue, but she’s now taking a stronger stance against McConnell than the man who seemingly got away with sexual assault. That does not help her case.