Roundup of Southern US Senate contests

Roundup of Southern US Senate contests

By Hastings Wyman –

Today the US Senate has 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. With more Democratic seats up for election this year than Republicans, the early betting was for GOP gains that would strengthen that party’s majority in the Senate. However, with the political climate in many states trending against President Trump’s party, the outlook for the partisan divide in the Senate in January is highly uncertain.

In the South, President Trump, his Administration and his policies remain popular, especially with Republican voters, who generally prevail in most Southern states.

SPR’s quick summary of the six US Senate races on the ballot on Nov. 6 shows Florida a toss-up. Mississippi’s two races look good for the GOP, Solid Republican (US Sen. Roger Wicker’s re-election) and Likely Republican (US Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s seat). Tennessee is somewhere between toss-up and Leans Republican. Texas is Likely Republican. And Virginia is Solid Democratic.

Florida

One of the highest profile Senate races in the South, and the nation, this year is in Florida, where US Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is receiving a well-honed challenge from Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Former US Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), , a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of American politics, especially in the South.

In the Florida race, says Davis, “It doesn’t matter what the national trend is. Scott has his own brand.” As for Nelson, “Aside from being an astronaut, what on earth has he done?” Pun intended?

In the money chase, according to the FEC’s 2nd Quarter campaign finance reports, Nelson has raised $16,340,000 and has $13,699,000 cash-on-hand. Scott has raised $22,539,000, with $4,515,000 on hand. Both are likely to be well-funded; indeed, Scott has deep pockets and has shown a willingness to put his own money into his campaigns.

“Scott is outspending Nelson on television and his campaign organization is more active,” says Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. “Nelson is fighting an uphill battle in terms of money and organization.”

Nevertheless, despite Scott’s early start, Nelson is a fixture of Florida politics and the polls show a tight race. According to Real Clear Politics (RCP), Scott’s average of recent surveys is 45.2%

to Nelson’s 44.4%. The most recent poll, by Florida Atlantic University, showed Scott with 44%, Nelson 40%.

Coker notes that a recent poll of Hispanic voters in the Miami area showed Scott running well among Latino voters, even non-Cuban Hispanics, bearing out the view that Scott’s response to last year’s hurricane helped him with Puerto Ricans in Florida.

However, a big question remains: Will there be a backlash against Republicans in the Sunshine State, where voters rate his performance as 46% approve to 52% disapprove?

Mississippi

There are two US Senate races in the Magnolia State this year. The first is the re-election bid of US Sen. Roger Wicker (R). Seeking his third term, Wicker is a prohibitive favorite over state House Minority Leader David Baria (D). The latest FEC figures show Wicker has $3,138,000 on hand to Baria’s $73,000.

The other contest is a three-way open primary between two Republicans and one Democrat on November 6; if no candidate receives a majority, a runoff will be held between the top two. The two Republicans are Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed to the vacancy left by the resignation of Thad Cochran (R), and Chris McDaniel, a hard-right state senator who lost a very close race against Cochran in 2014. The one Democrat is Mike Espy, a former congressman and former US Secretary of Agriculture.

“The smart money is on an Espy/Hyde-Smith runoff,” says a longtime observer of Mississippi politics. “McDaniel has been a non-starter. He was defined in 2014. He will not have $10 million like he did in 2014.”

In the money chase, Hyde-Smith raised $1,654,000 by June 30, with $1,390,000 cash-on-hand. McDaniel was far behind, with $327,000 raised and $158,000 on hand. Democrat Espy raised $408,000, with $281,000 on hand.

A Mason-Dixon poll taken in April showed that Hyde-Smith would defeat Espy in a runoff by 46% to 34%. But Espy would lead McDaniel 42% to 40%.

Tennessee

Marsha Blackburn (R), a 16-year veteran of Congress with a feisty style of staunch conservatism, will be facing former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who left office in January 2011 with a reputation as a can-do centrist Democrat.

Both candidates have substantial strengths. Blackburn has raised

$7,911,000, with $7,361,000 on hand. Bredesen has raised somewhat more – $8,240,000 – but has much less on hand, $3,651,000. A wealthy former healthcare executive, Bredesen has already loaned his campaign $3.4 million and money should not be a problem for his campaign.

Bredesen has been spending heavily on advertising, beginning in March, which probably accounts for his lead in the polls. His RCP average is 44.5%, Blackburn’s is 40%.

Blackburn is aligning herself with Trump, who carried the state in 2016 with 61% to 35% for Hillary Clinton. Trump had an approval rating of 56% last April. Bredesen is stressing local issues, highlighting what he did for the state as governor and, before that, as mayor of Nashville.

The Hill reports that Blackburn is expected to launch a major advertising campaign after Labor Day. The Senate Leadership Fund (R) has booked $4.4 million in airtime, starting Sept. 11. The Blackburn message will try to wrap the national Democratic Party around Bredesen, pointing out that a Democratic Senate would make Elizabeth Warren Senate Finance Committee chair and Bernie Sanders Senate Banking Committee chair.

Blackburn has her problems with establishment GOPers. US Sen. Bob Corker (R), whose retirement is creating the open seat, has endorsed her and contributed the maximum $10,000 to her campaign. But he is said to be privately skeptical about her chances of winning a statewide race, reports The Hill.

“Bredesen is ahead, but you know what the DNA of the state is,” says Davis. “Everybody likes Bredesen, but not Blackburn. But when the Republican campaign ties Bredesen to the national Democrats, the voters will return to the GOP. Republicans should win; Tennessee hasn’t elected a Democrat in a long time.”

Texas

US Sen. Ted Cruz (R) has forged a reputation as a hardline conservative, averse to compromise and unwilling to go along to get along. He was the last competitor left standing before Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016. He is smart and an excellent debater, having argued a number of cases before the US Supreme Court.

Along the way, Cruz has amassed a substantial following of conservative Republicans, but he has also made plenty of enemies.

Cruz’s opponent this year is US Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D), a personable and PR savvy politician who has shown an ability to make friends on the both sides of the aisle. He has also shown a penchant for raising money. In the 2nd Quarter FEC reports, O’Rourke had raised $23,648,000, with $13, 961,000 cash-on-hand. Cruz raised $13,208,000, with $9,299,000 on hand. In addition, the money raised for Democrats in a number of congressional districts favors the Democrats, and should boost Democratic turnout.

But O’Rourke, elected in only one district in the nation’s second largest state, has to spend big to get known, as well as to persuade voters to choose him over a well-known incumbent.

“O’Rourke is running a picture-perfect campaign,” says Davis. Nevertheless, Cruz has a significant lead in the polls, with a 47.8% RCP average to O’Rourke’s 39.4%.

Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Houston-based Quorum Report, says, however, “There is a path for O’Rourke… Only hardcore Republicans are fond of Cruz.” Thus a combination of Democrats and dissatisfied Republicans could put him over. But Kronberg adds, “We still have more Republicans than Democrats in the state.”

“Texas has the most energetic Democratic campaign,” says Davis, “but it probably won’t matter.”

Virginia

Once a mainstay of the mid-century Republican South, Virginia has all but seceded from the old Confederacy and is increasingly viewed as not even a Purple, but a Blue state. It’s governor and both of its US Senators are Democrats, and the Republican effort this year to change that appears doomed to failure.

US Sen. Tim Kaine (D), who helped Hillary Clinton carry the state by five points in 2016, is seeking reelection and so far, everything is going his way. Most importantly, Corey Stewart, the Republican least likely to forge a GOP majority in the state, won the primary for his party’s nomination. Known mainly for his opposition to removing the monuments to Confederate heroes in the state, Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is a strong supporter of President Trump and his policies, not popular stances in this no-longer-conservative state.

In their two debates, Stewart – who had early promised a “vicious” and “ruthless” campaign – endorsed the Trump Administration’s policies on immigration, dealings with Russia and other controversial policies. In response to Stewart’s more contentious remarks, Kaine responded, “Make it nasty, make it personal, make it up.”

Stewart’s weakness as a candidate is clearly evidenced by the money numbers. In the 2nd Quarter FEC reports, Kaine reported raising $12,390,000, with $10,693,000 cash-on-hand. Stewart, by contrast, reported raising $1,092,000, with a mere $143,000 on hand. Even were Stewart’s message more popular, he doesn’t have the resources to get it out to the voters.

The polls also show Kaine’s strength. RCP’s average of recent surveys gives Kaine 49%, Stewart 34.5%.

“Stewart’s problem is Trump’s problem,” says Davis, who knows Virginia politics like the back of his hand. “He will run further back than Trump.”

The big question, says Davis, is “Does Stewart break 40%?”

Stay tuned.