One of the reasons Republicans are so optimistic about taking control of the U.S. Senate is the geography of the 2014 battlegrounds. The GOP needs a net gain of six seats, but with Democratic incumbents retiring in three red states -- Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia -- Republicans believe they're halfway to their goal before ballots are even cast.
To be sure, that optimism is well-grounded. But what if one of the easy pick-up opportunities turned out to be a little less easy than everyone thought?
In South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) is in the midst of a three-way contest -- there are a few of these this year -- against Rick Weiland (D) and Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator who's running as an independent. Nate Silver explained last night that the race is getting tricky.
Rounds remains the favorite. It's not clear that Pressler has enough money to run a substantial number of advertisements in the closing days of the campaign -- or to finance a voter turnout operation. [...]
But the race increases the chance that we'll have a "messy" outcome on Election Day.
For months, Rounds' victory seemed all but certain. In an unfortunate August gaffe, Weiland, the Democratic candidate and former Tom Daschle aide, accidentally referred to Rounds "senator, or, soon-to-be," before catching himself.
But the contest has grown far more interesting since. In September, two statewide polls showed the race tightening, and yesterday, a Survey USA poll found all three candidates separated by just seven points: Rounds with 35% support, Pressler at 32%, and Weiland a competitive third with 28%.
Like Kansas, South Dakota was supposed to be a race that national observers could safely ignore. Like Kansas, the ground has shifted in unexpected ways.
And there's reason to think it may yet shift further.
In the 2012 elections, nearly 4 million Virginians showed up to cast a ballot, and in U.S. House races, Republicans narrowly prevailed, receiving support from about 51% of the state's electorate. Virginia has 11 congressional districts, so it's easy to assume that the commonwealth's delegation would roughly match voters' will, perhaps with six Republican House members to Democrats' five.
Those assumptions, however, would be wrong. GOP House candidates may have earned 51% of the votes statewide, but they ended up with 8 of the 11 House seats (roughly 73%).
This happened, of course, because Virginia Republicans drew the district lines carefully to ensure these results. Yesterday, however, the GOP's map was rejected in a federal court. The Washington Postreported overnight:
A panel of federal judges on Tuesday declared Virginia's congressional maps unconstitutional because they concentrate African American voters into a single district at the expense of their influence elsewhere.
The decision, handed down in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, orders the Virginia General Assembly to draw up new congressional maps by April -- potentially launching a frenzied and highly political battle for survival within Virginia's congressional delegation.
The case can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, an unusual legal quirk of the matter because it was decided by a three-judge panel, but whether that will happen remains unclear. Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), said state lawyers were "reviewing the decision and assessing its impact and how best to move forward."
Note, this will not have any effect on this year's congressional races. State lawmakers are facing an April 2015 deadline, and with the possibility of an appeal, the process remains uncertain.
But the ruling in Virginia is a reminder that gerrymandering has become the subject of new scrutiny. Indeed, we learned earlier this week that the Supreme Court may shake up the process even more.
During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney argued that he, and he alone, could give the economy a terrific boost. Sure, President Obama's policies had successfully ended the Great Recession, but a Romney/Ryan administration would send the economy into overdrive.
In May 2012, the Republican candidate sat down with Mark Halperin, who pressed Romney to get specific about what Americans could expect to see under his presidency.
HALPERIN: Would you like to be more specific about what the unemployment rate would be like at the end of your first year?
ROMNEY: I cannot predict precisely what the rate would be at the end of one year. I can tell you that over a period of four years, by a virtue of the polices that we put in place, we get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, perhaps a little lower.
Yep, Romney said that if he were elected, and given a chance to implement his bold economic vision, freeing the nation of the scourge that is Obama's crushing agenda, the unemployment rate would drop to "6 percent" -- maybe even "a little lower" -- by the end of 2016.
Of course, President Obama defeated Romney with relative ease, leaving Americans with economic policies that helped push the unemployment rate to 5.9% -- in the middle of 2014, more than two full years ahead of Romney's goal.
As my pal Xenos joked, "By Romney's own standards, he should be glad that he lost the presidency. After all, would he really want to subject the American people to another two years of less than impressive job growth?"
Many Republicans in competitive statewide races have found themselves with a substantive problem: they're running out of issues to talk about.
GOP incumbents and challengers hoped to run against the Affordable Care Act, but with the law working extremely well, that's no longer a credible option. They'd like to run on jobs, but the unemployment rate is dropping and Republicans don't have a jobs plan. They probably wouldn't mind running on social issues, but the American mainstream generally disagrees with the GOP on these hot-button issues.
What Republicans are left with, then, is fear -- fear of immigrants, fear of diseases, fear of terrorism, and occasionally, some combination of the three. Consider what Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Arkansas, recently told voters during a tele-town-hall meeting.
"The problem is with Mark Pryor and Barack Obama refusing to enforce our immigration laws, and refusing to secure our border. I'll change that when I'm in the United States Senate. And I would add, it's not just an immigration problem. We now know that it's a security problem. Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they're willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism.
"They could infiltrate our defenseless border and attack us right here in places like Arkansas. This is an urgent problem and it's time we got serious about it, and I'll be serious about it in the United States Senate."
If we're scoring based on creativity, the right-wing congressman's concoction is quite impressive. Cotton wants voters to believe ISIS militants may come to North America, partner with Mexican drug cartels, plot terrorist strikes, and target a land-locked state in the middle of the country with no major population centers.
I'm honestly not sure which is more alarming: the prospect of Cotton actually believing his own nonsense or Cotton's expectation that Americans are foolish enough to believe his ridiculous arguments.
Among tonight’s citations was this 2011 Politico story, which offers the following from Americans for Prosperity about absentee ballot applications they sent out in Wisconsin that year:
“The date on the ballot application was meant solely for the elections held on Aug. 16. Due to a mistake during printing, all applications were sent out with the Aug. 11 date,” said AFP-Wisconsin state Director Matt Seaholm. “Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin did not intend to print the incorrect absentee deadline or confuse voters in any way.” ... Seaholm said AFP-Wisconsin is addressing the mistake by sending out a call “to each and every individual on the mailing list to clarify the date of the elections.”
Rachel Maddow contrasts the progress on the civil rights of gay people seeking the right to marry with the backsliding of voting rights as Republicans move to constrict ease and access to voting. watch
Wisconsin State Senator Jon Erpenbach talks with Rachel Maddow about the confusing mess resulting from a new voter ID law going into effect just before the midterm election and calling into question the validity of absentee ballots already cast. watch
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, talks with Rachel Maddow about the differences between Democrats and Republicans on issues like pay equity and student loans and what's at stake in the 2014 midterm elections. watch
Rachel Maddow reports on a train derailment and subsequent fire in Canada, which follows on the heels of a dramatic train crash in Louisiana as the oil and rail industries try to push back the deadline for new federal safetly requirements. watch
Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, talks with Rachel Maddow about breaking news that the FBI is seeking any help from the public in identifying a terrorist featured in a new ISIS video who is heard speaking with an American or Canadian accent. watch