The increasing nationalization of U.S. Senate elections indicates Democrats will face a significant challenge to retain control of the Senate, according to an analysis of recent electoral trends.
Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University and senior columnist for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that the Democrats "will find it difficult to offset these losses by picking up seats currently held by Republicans."
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Abramowitz’ analysis shows that when seats in the Senate shift from one party to the other they do so in one direction only, and that this trend has intensified in recent years.
In the most recent elections, it has been all one-sided shifts. In 2006 and 2008, all 14 party-seat switches were Republican controlled seats switching to Democratic control; in 2010, all 6 party-seat switches went from Democratic to Republican; in 2012, three of the four party-seat switches went from Republican to Democratic control.
This was not always the case, Abramowitz points out. In 1976, there were 14 party-seat switches. Seven switched from Democratic to Republican control, and seven switched from Republican to Democratic control.
The direction of the party-seat shift in 2014 is almost certain to go in the Republican’s direction. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball predicts that the Republicans will gain 4-8 seats, and Abramowitz’ own prediction says that Republicans have a 50-50 shot to gain more than 6 seats.
The question of whether the Democrats can manage to weather the storm and maintain control of the Senate could rest on their ability to offset their loss by taking back seats in states such as Kentucky and Georgia.
The recent partisan consistency in seat-switching makes this a long shot.
"While the average number of seats switching party control in recent elections has been close to the average of the last 50 years, the partisan consistency of those seat switches has been considerably greater than in the past," explains Abramowitz. "Between 2000 and 2012, almost 90 percent of seat switches in Senate elections were in a consistent partisan direction."
Abramowitz shows that voting decisions in Senate elections have become "increasingly influenced by opinions of the incumbent president’s performance."
"This relationship set a new record in 2012," writes Abramowitz. "Ninety percent of voters who approved of President Obama’s job performance voted for a Democratic Senate candidate while 82 percent of voters who disapproved of the president’s performance voted for a Republican Senate candidate."
This spells trouble for the Democrats’ chances in Kentucky and Georgia, where presidential approval sits at 34 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Democrats may be overly enthusiastic about polling data that shows remarkably close races between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes as well as Democrat Michelle Nunn and whoever her Republican opponent turns out to be in Georgia.
"Kentucky hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992, and Barack Obama lost the state by 16 points in 2008 and 23 points in 2012," says Abramowitz. "The last Democratic presidential candidate to carry [Georgia] was Bill Clinton in 1992. Obama lost Georgia by five points in 2008 and eight points in 2012."
In Kentucky, Grimes is well aware that the more she can distance herself from Obama, the better. She recently stated that "no matter who the president is … I won’t answer to them."