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Election 2014: Control of the Senate is less certain than ever

As November approaches, control of the Senate is growing increasingly unpredictable as Republican gains are offset by new vulnerabilities in unexpected places.
Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Georgia, greets supporters at a campaign event in Waycross, Ga., Aug. 13, 2014. (Photo by Stephen Morton/The New York Times/Redux)
Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Georgia, greets supporters at a campaign event in Waycross, Ga., Aug. 13, 2014.

As November approaches, control of the Senate is growing increasingly unpredictable as Republican gains in key states are offset by new vulnerabilities in unexpected places.

The good news for Republicans is that they’re increasingly well positioned to win the races they identified as most crucial to securing a Senate majority at the start of the cycle. 

In the four states Mitt Romney won where Democratic incumbents are on the ballot, Republican challengers are leading recent polls in three: Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The exception is North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan has opened up a small lead over challenger Thom Tillis.

At the start of the cycle, Republicans might have assumed that would be enough to win a majority. They need six seats to take over the Senate and went into 2014 heavily favored to win seats in South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia opened up by Democratic retirements. 

In fact, things are going even better than they expected. In Iowa, Republican Joni Ernst has rode spectacular fundraising numbers and a weak campaign from Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley into a polling lead of her own. In Colorado, a state where Democrats have dominated statewide elections for a decade, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall trails Republican Congressman Cory Gardner in several polls, who earned a surprise endorsement on Friday from the Denver Post. Obama won both of these states twice and the Democrats began the cycle as favorites in both cases. 

Yet despite these gains, election forecast models mostly give Republicans the same chance of a takeover as they have since the general election began. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight put the GOP’s odds of winning a majority at about 58% as of Friday, not much better than a coin flip and almost exactly the same place their model found things two months ago.

The odds may have stayed the same, but there's been a lot of movement on the map to keep them there. Democrats have made corresponding gains elsewhere and new states have come into play almost out of nowhere. 

The biggest development is Kansas, where center-left independent Greg Orman has emerged as a serious threat to unseat Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, a candidate observers assumed was safe just months ago. A shock loss there would give Democrats a critical buffer that might offset an otherwise devastating Republican win in Iowa or Colorado.

Now South Dakota looks potentially vulnerable for Republicans as well. Recent polls have shown GOP candidate Mike Rounds, who is bogged down by a scandal over immigration visas, running surprisingly close against populist Democrat Rick Weiland and an independent and former Republican lawmaker, Larry Pressler. Like Orman, Pressler seems more likely to caucus with Democrats based on his current positions, though neither has said which party they’d team up with if elected. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recently announced it would invest $1 million in the race and the National Republican Senatorial Committee is responding with $1 million of its own.

In addition, Democratic candidates in two red states, Kentucky and Georgia, have stubbornly refused to fade despite polls last month that suggested the GOP candidate might finally be putting the races away.

In Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes led Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell by 2 points in a SurveyUSA poll last week while a Fox News poll gave McConnell a 4-point lead. Her campaign suffered a speed bump this week, however, when Grimes awkwardly refused to tell an editorial board whether she voted for President Obama. The contortions she went through to avoid delivering a sound bite that might help McConnell set off a day of punishing local coverage.

In Georgia, Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn continues to look competitive against Republican David Perdue, who’s facing his own string of difficult press over an old court deposition in which he discussed his work on outsourcing in brutally candid fashion and appeared to focus his own finances over a bankruptcy at the company he ran that costs thousands of workers their jobs. Perdue leads polls for now, but Nunn is well within striking distance.

Democrats have also strengthened their hand in some races. Michigan looks like it’s falling off the map as Democratic Gary Peters is leading Republican Terri Lynn Land by close to double digits in several recent polls. Despite the occasional poll showing the race tied, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire holds a solid lead over Republican Scott Brown in the most recent round of surveys. Democrats also still hold commanding leads in Oregon and Minnesota, two states Republicans hoped might come into play in a wave election.

The result of all this is an incredible amount of uncertainty as to where the election is heading. It doesn’t look like a Republican wave in which a national tide boosts candidates around the country – some races have moved in the GOP’s direction in recent weeks, others the opposite way. On the other hand, almost all the top tier races are currently either tossups or not much better for either side. That means even a small change in the national environment in either party’s direction could dramatically alter the final results. A lucky break in one or two states or another tumble in Obama’s approval rating and Republicans could easily come away with a big night. Another bad turn in a red state like South Dakota and Democrats might escape with their majority, just as they did against similarly difficult maps in 2010 and 2012.