There are few things more exciting than watching the returns roll in for a close election, and particularly so when the election is in a red state. I got to thinking a few days ago how the county map for a competitive red state election would probably look a lot different today than it would have even 10 years ago, and from there my inspiration for this diary was born. In the paragraphs below the fold I will give my thoughts on what I think a winning map would look like for a Democratic Senate candidate in each of the red states with 2014 Senate races, followed by one red state that doesn't have a Senate race next year but where I have some thoughts I feel worth are sharing on the topic anyway. Obviously there are variables including the hometowns of certain candidates that produce unusually large vote hauls for them, but I'm looking at it from as neutral of perspective as possible. Here goes.....
Alabama--I doubt even the most optimistic Democrat believes an as-yet unidentified Democratic candidate has the mojo to take out Republican Jeff Sessions next year, but again this is all hypothetical based on a perfect storm of events that could render the race competitive. It's been 11 years since the last close statewide race in Alabama, when Bob Riley narrowly beat Don Siegelman in the gubernatorial race, but there has been plenty of realignment in Alabama (almost all for the worse for Democrats) since 2002, and the strength Siegelman depended upon in rural and mostly white northern Alabama seems out of reach now. It's possible that a Democrat could still win Madison County (Huntsville) but I'm not sure anything else north of Birmingham is winnable for Democrats anymore. With that in mind, I think a winning Democratic candidacy in Alabama today would be more reliant on college towns like Tuscaloosa and Auburn, stronger margins out of Birmingham and Montgomery than were possible a decade ago when they were more white, and Mobile County, which seems more winnable today than it was when Bob Riley won it in 2002. Alabama is one of the two or three toughest states to imagine a Democratic victory at any level so I'm not optimistic on seeing my hope of a close Senate race (or any close race) anytime soon to test out my theory, but I think any winning Alabama map in the years ahead would resemble Obama's winning 2008 map in Indiana, scoring huge wins in the cities and in college towns while still falling short in rural areas that hung on for Democrats during the Clinton years.
Alaska--Here's the state that I know the least about the political geography, which is unfortunate since Mark Begich is poised to be in an actual close Senate race rather than just a hypothetical close race as so many of my other states in. As I understand it, a winning map for a Democrat in Alaska is the inverse of a winning map in most of the country, where the vast rural countryside is blue while the specks of red in the south-central part of the state are enough to keep a race competitive. To win, from what I've gathered from my limited exposure to Alaska election district maps, is that Democrats need much of Anchorage as well as coastal cities like Sitka and Juneau, along with all of the Eskimo territory to win, while Republicans are pretty much assured of Fairbanks, Wasilla, and the suburban and exurban area around Anchorage. Anybody can feel free to correct me on this, but I suspect if Begich either wins re-election or falls just short the district map will be 80% blue.
Arkansas--I am positively salivating at the prospect of a close Senate race in Arkansas next year since it's been 12 years since the last close race there (at least for a major office), and that was the 2000 Presidential race where Gore still came up five points short with his coalition of rural counties in eastern and southern Arkansas. Unfortunately for Mark Pryor, if his race is a squeaker, I think he'll need to put together a new coalition as much of Gore's coalition has trended away from Democrats to the point that I'm not sure it would hold for him. Gore won 85+% white counties in northeastern Arkansas such as Craighead (Jonesboro) and Greene (Paragould) that have gone 2-1 Republican in recent races. There are enough blacks in rural southern Arkansas to keep the numbers from going quite so lopsidedly Republican, but it's hard to imagine in a close race where Pryor hangs onto rural Gore counties like Lafayette, Bradley, and Nevada, especially since Cotton represents those areas in the House now. So where does Pryor reclaim these likely lost voters and still pick up more? He has a few obvious options. I think Pulaski County (Little Rock) is capable of producing a wider Democratic margin now than in 2000, along with reduced Republican margins in the Little Rock suburbs where Cotton wouldn't have a built-in connection with the voters. I think two tipping point counties for Pryor are likely to be Garland County (Hot Springs) and Washington County (Fayetteville, Springfield). It underscores Democrats' sinking fortunes in Arkansas that these GOP-leaning counties have become must-wins for them, but the trendline has been much less hostile in those counties during the Obama years than elsewhere in Arkansas. Pryor has his work cut out for him, but win or lose I hope he's at least able to keep it close for the sake of my desire to see a competitive Arkansas Senate election.
Georgia--In what has become one of the more politically complicated red states, there are a couple of viable paths to victory for a Democrat. The first and easiest is the Presidential turnout model, particularly when Obama's on the ballot, which seems to considerably improve Democratic margins. It now seems possible for a Democrat to win Georgia with a mostly Atlanta-based coalition as more formerly Republican counties like Rockdale, Douglas, Newton, and Henry are trending their way due to increasing African-American populations. Siphon off a modest percentage of Republican-leaning white voters in softening GOP suburbs in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties while holding onto the Democratic baseline in rural Georgia and you're there. Unfortunately for Michelle Nunn, she's running for a Georgia Senate race in a midterm turnout model, and the last three midterms have been pretty bad for Democrats in Georgia. Even in the Democratic year of 2006, Democrats Jim Marshall and John Barrow had the narrowest victories in the nation among Congressional Democratic incumbents. So if we assume that 2014 is closer to the traditional midterm turnout model than a Presidential turnout model, how does Nunn win? She has a potentially unique advantage with the midterm turnout model due to her name, as she'll need a disproportionate number of rural white legacy voters that held on for Bill Clinton in the 90s. I'm not sure the Nunn name will be an advantage among the younger Republicans in the Atlanta suburbs. The place to watch in my opinion will be John Barrow's Congressional district. The fact that Barrow held onto a lot of voters in this pedigree in southeast Georgia gives Nunn a fighting chance, and I would say that in a midterm, a winning map for Nunn is likely to include counties like Jenkins, Screven, Telfair, Wheeler, and Bacon, along with a whole bunch more counties in eastern and southern Georgia that are two-thirds white. A tall order to be sure.
Idaho--Since I haven't heard anything about Walt Minnick making a potential run against Jim Risch next year, it's hard to imagine any other Democrat in Idaho who could make this race competitive. Furthermore, whatever base of strength Democrats used to have in northern Idaho, presumably based on a unionized mining economy, has washed away in the last generation. The kinds of huge margins in Nez Perce and Shoshone Counties that have in the past elevated a rare Democrat to elected office in Idaho are not likely as doable today. So where does a Democrat find a path to victory in Idaho today? The first partial answer is Ada County (Boise) which is still Republican but less Republican than it was a generation ago. A huge Democratic victory there is the starting point. But what would the tipping point county be for an Idaho victory? It's hard for me to see Kootenai County (Coeur d'Alene) going Democrat in anything but a landslide, but Bannock County (Pocatello) seems more viable. Clearly this is all a hypothetical, but since there is recent historical precedent for an Idaho Senator to have a tawdry sex scandal, it's a worthwhile thought experiment to evaluate what's possible in the best-case scenario.
Kansas--Pat Roberts is like 76 years old so it's not out of the question that he would retire. Kansas is a brutal state for a Democrat but a path to victory was hinted upon by the very woman who might be the Democrats' best chance at a Kansas seat, and that woman is Nancy Boyda. Boyda's 2006 coalition of rural counties in east Kansas closely sketches out what would be similar to a winning coalition statewide in Kansas. It's interesting the extent even Kansas has changed politically over the last generation as Ellis County (Hays) in western Kansas was a blue county in the Dukakis and Clinton years (not sure why....union workers???) while Johnson County (suburban Kansas City) was rock solid for Republicans. Today Johnson County is a more pale shade of red and has far more voters while Ellis County blends right in with its right-wing neighbors in the rest of western Kansas. With that in mind, I don't think anything in Tim Huelskamp country would be likely to go blue in a close race in Kansas, although the near-majority Hispanic numbers out of Ford, Finney, and Seward Counties in Dust Bowl country make them places that have seemed poised to tip forever now and at some point still may. Reduced GOP margins in that area combined with Democratic wins in Johnson County along with a decisive win in Shawnee County (Topeka), Riley County (Manhattan), Lyon County (Emporia), and the counties Nancy Boyda won in 2006 seems like it could put the state in play. Obviously, that's a lot of things that have to go right even in a dream race of Phil Kline vs. Nancy Boyda.
Kentucky--Here's a state that has produced a pretty good selection of close statewide races even in the last 10 years, but even the best example of a close race in Kentucky (Dan Mongiardo vs. Jim Bunning) produced an obsolete county map that has been dramatically realigned even since 2004. Mongiardo's coalition was exactly the kind of coalition that traditionally gets Democrats a victory in Kentucky, winning by double digits in Louisville and Lexington while dominating in east Kentucky coal counties and winning most of the conservative Democratic rural counties in west Kentucky. Today, both east and west Kentucky have shifted fiercely towards Republicans and have seemingly taken away nearly all hope for Democrats in statewide races, yet polls show that Alison Lundergan Grimes remains competitive with Mitch McConnell. Perhaps the east Kentucky coal counties are taking out their frustration on an incumbent of McConnell's pedigree out of frustration of their plight and it's not exclusively Obama bearing the brunt of their ire, and that could account for Grimes holding up better than one may expect there. It's really hard to say. But the one missing link in Mongiardo's 2004 coalition was the Cincinnati suburbs, where Bunning cleaned up, most likely due to his long-standing connection to the area having served there in the House before graduating to the Senate. I think Grimes has to hold McConnell down to single digits in Kenton and Campbell Counties, and to less than 20 points in Boone County, to have a chance. Beyond that, some of the counties in bluegrass country south and west of Lexington seem to be another place where Grimes could outperform Mongiardo and make up for almost certainly reduced margins in western and eastern Kentucky. I'm pretty shocked that Grimes thus far seems competitive here and still question whether that will hold, but everything is in place to further weaken McConnell leading up to the general election, so anything is possible.
Louisiana--Mary Landrieu has shown us three times how a Democrat can win in a modern red state, but her state has gotten a fair amount redder in the 18 years since her first run and if she narrowly wins for the fourth time, she'll likely do so with a different coalition than she enjoyed in 1996 or even 2008. This is particularly true since the only part of Louisiana trending Democratic in recent years has been the Baton Rouge area, and that's the home base of her challenger Bill Cassidy. In the past, Landrieu got plenty of support from bayou country in southwest Louisiana, and as recently as 2008 won Cameron Parish in the state's southwestern corner, a county that went 87% Romney last year. This example underscores why I think it'll be difficult for Landrieu to hold that area, and at the very least I expect her margins will be down in the rural parishes encircling Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana due to Obama-era realignment. But Landrieu has a decent chance of recovering those lost votes in suburban New Orleans parishes that she won in 2008 but which are not traditionally hospitable to Democrats. St. Bernard Parish and especially Jefferson Parish are places that seem more likely to drag Landrieu past the finish line in 2014 than do Calcasieu and De Soto Parishes.
Mississippi--For a number of reasons, it's easier for me to imagine a Democrat winning a Senate seat in Mississippi than Alabama. Obviously nobody's beating Thad Cochran, but he remains a strong prospect for retirement this cycle, and as Indiana taught us last year anything's possible in an open seat. Democrats have a solid list of potential contenders for a Mississippi Senate seat, including Jim Hood, Travis Childers, and Mike Moore. And a Republican primary could produce a crazy teabagger or someone like Childers' opponent Greg Davis who is not a good cultural fit for the state, leaving an opening for the right kind of Democrat to win. As we saw in the 2012 Presidential election, the GOP floor in Mississippi is very gradually lowering even when a black liberal is running. But how do Democrats get that extra 6% of voters needed to win a statewide race in Mississippi? Back in 1999, Ronnie Musgrove did it by dominating northern Mississippi, and I could see Travis Childers doing the same thing if he was facing a lousy challenger. If said lousy challenger was a fire-breathing Paul Broun type, the Democrat may be best-positioned to win by peeling off some business conservative votes in places like De Soto County (southern Memphis suburbs) and Harrison County (Biloxi, Gulfport). Difficult to see either of those counties going blue, but Harrison County in particular could go pink and, if combined with the student vote in Starkville and Oxford going blue, make the state competitive. Conversely, if the Republican is a country club type, the bubbas in northern Mississippi that got Musgrove and Childers elected could be the deciding vote. While it remains a real longshot, we've seen the path to victory in Mississippi before and I definitely think more viable paths exist here than many other red states on this list.
Montana--Not a great deal to add here since a number of Democrats have showed us what a path to victory in Montana looks like in just the last few election cycles. Too soon to tell how good of a candidate John Walsh will be, but he certainly seems to have the potential to put together the coalition of American Indians, college students, and union workers that put Jon Tester and Steve Bullock over the top. The tricky part is that to whatever extent ranchers used to constitute a fragment of Montana's Democratic coalition, they no longer do as evidenced by the county maps from every competitive Montana election of the last decade, meaning there's no room for error with any of the factions that do still vote Democratic.
Nebraska--I often say that Minnesota has more Republicans than it had 30 years ago but it's harder for a Republican to win there now than then. The inverse is true of Nebraska, where there are more Democratic voters today but fewer Democrats winning elections. The new Democratic voters are mostly in metropolitan Omaha which was still a Republican stronghold only 10 years ago but is now approaching 50-50. Lincoln might be a tick more Democratic than it was back then, but that city has always been a weak link for Republicans by Nebraska standards. The problem for Democrats is that the rest of the state has hardened in its preference for Republicans, and even the Bob Kerrey-type that won them over in the past comes up short now. But it's another open seat next year and it's possible Democrats could get lucky. Scott Kleeb still strikes me a candidate poised to take advantage of a Republican mistake or bad candidate if he was to run again, and he has at least some connection to the rural Republican strongholds in western Nebraska where a Democrat would need to peel off a few votes to win no matter how strong he ran in Omaha and Lincoln. It's hard to even identify a tipping point county in Nebraska given how much things have changed since the last close election there, Ben Nelson's victory over Don Stenberg in the 2000 Senate race. But I think at this point Sarpy County in suburban Omaha would be needed for a Democratic victory. Nelson didn't win in Sarpy in 2000, but he held onto some southeast Nebraska farm counties that would be a lot harder to win now than then.
North Carolina--As quickly as North Carolina is trending blue at the state level, the risk of a smaller turnout from Democratic base voters still makes Kay Hagan's path to victory next year more challenging than it was in 2008. The giant margins in the population centers that carried her and Obama to victory in 2008 are less likely to materialize, or at least not with as many total votes. With that in mind, Hagan is likely to need some of the old Democratic coalition to be re-elected, including Heath Shuler's old base in western North Carolina and Mike McIntyre's base in southeastern North Carolina. Hagan won these areas in 2008 thanks to an assist from Elizabeth Dole's insensitive ad, but it'll be interesting to see if she can win them again. With smaller margins likely out of Wake, Mecklenburg, and Cumberland Counties, I suspect a winning map for Kay Hagan will require counties such as Swain, Yancey, and Madison in the west along with Columbus, Sampson, and Duplin in the southeast to be onboard.
Oklahoma--A Democratic path to victory in Oklahoma in 2014? Let's see if I'm up to the challenge of stitching that together! Given that he's in his late 70s, a James Inhofe retirement is not out of the question, so a hypothetical match-up between Dan Boren and a raging teabagger next year is entirely plausible. A generation ago, Oklahoma was the kind of place where Michael Dukakis was able to win nearly half of the counties but still lose by double digits since all of the cities were Republican strongholds. But the coalition of rural counties in southern and eastern Oklahoma where Democrats dominated has eroded over the past decade. And even the last time it came together successfully in the 2004 Senate race, Democrat Brad Carson still lost by 12 points! Even in a perfect storm, it seems unlikely that Clinton-era margins from rural Oklahoma will return, meaning a winning Democrat will have to do better than they have traditionally in the cities, particularly Oklahoma City and Tulsa, both of which seem to be slightly less Republican than they were 20 years ago. Unfortunately, I'm doubtful even this would be enough for the Democrat to prevail in a two-candidate race. The last Democrat to win an open seat statewide in Oklahoma was Brad Henry in 2002, and his victory was made possible by an independent candidate who got 14% of the vote. I suspect something like that would have to happen for a Democrat to win in Oklahoma today as it's hard to envision a Democrat getting to 50% there under any circumstance.
South Carolina--A much more plausible perfect storm scenario for a 2014 Senate race is the Palmetto State, where Lindsey Graham is poised to face a Tea Party primary challenge and could easily be beaten. Cracking enough Republican voters to win in South Carolina is a herculean task, but like Mississippi, only about 6% of the electorate needs to pivot for a Democratic victory. It strikes me that the Democrats' best bet at picking off some Republican voters is probably the coastal economic conservatives in Charleston and Myrtle Beach (even though they didn't come through for Elizabeth Colbert last year), and possibly some of the old John Spratt voters in York County. Even the most rabid Tea Party candidate is unlikely to rattle the socially conservative voters in the Piedmont area who pretty much single-handedly carried Nikki Haley to victory in 2010. A Democratic Senator in South Carolina is a longshot even if Republicans are divided in the aftermath of a primary, but Vincent Sheheen nearly made it work in 2010 and if it almost happened in that political environment it's easily doable in a more neutral political environment if all the stars align.
South Dakota--There's been enough close races in South Dakota in the last 20 years that it's no mystery what the geographical baseline of a close election typically looks like, with most of the counties east of the Missouri River colored blue and most of the counties west of the river colored red. If 2014 ends up being a race between Democrat Rick Weiland and Republican Mike Rounds as it looks like today, I'd be surprised to see a race that was particularly close, but a lot can happen in 13 months. The fast-growing Sioux Falls area is the wild card in most South Dakota elections, as the strength or weakness of a Democratic candidate there goes a long way in determining his or her margin of error in the rest of the state, but by and large the tipping point counties in a close South Dakota election are Davison County (Mitchell) and Codington County (Watertown). If a Democrat wins both of them, they're probably winning statewide. If they're winning neither of them, they're are probably losing.
Tennessee--There are about a half dozen states where I find close elections particularly thrilling, and Tennessee is one of them given the challenging and collapsing coalition required for a Democratic to win. It's hard to imagine any Democrat making Tennessee competitive in 2014, particularly if Lamar Alexander runs for reelection as is widely expected he will. But what would a hypothetical winning Democratic map look like in fast-reddening Tennessee? In the past, it consisted of solid double-digit victories in Memphis and Nashville along with a large number of rural counties in west and middle Tennessee. But over the years, the number of those rural Tennessee counties hospitable to Democrats has been declining, and has now declined to about two. I'm sure in a competitive race, should we ever see one again in the state, a good number of those rural counties would re-emerge in the Democratic coalition in a diminished capacity, but ultimately Democrats will have to look elsewhere to find enough votes to win statewide. The only thing going in the Democrats' favor in Tennessee is that metropolitan Memphis has become a few points more Democratic, but beyond that their best prospects for poaching votes from Republicans is probably Chattanooga. Bob Corker's ties to Chattanooga likely helped hold off Harold Ford, Jr., in their close race back in 2006. Outside of that, Clarksville and Jackson in west Tennessee might be winnable, but overall I think suppressing Republican margins in their strongholds is the best Democrats can do en route to hypothetical victory in Tennessee, which now seems to me like a tougher state than Mississippi given the much more limited African-American base.
Texas--John Cornyn appears to be petrified that he'll get a Tea Party primary challenge, so let's assume for a moment he does and gets taken down by a proud Ted Cruz clone. Then imagine the Democrats run Chet Edwards against Ted Cruz 2.0. It's not the most crazy set of circumstances that could ever materialize and might be a catalyst for a competitive Senate race in Texas. It's fascinating to look back at the county maps from the 80s and 90s in Texas, a time when the majority of the Texas countryside was owned by the Democrats, counties that a generation later are usually 70% or more Republican and very unlikely to go back any time soon. A winning coalition for Democrats in Texas in 2013 is not likely to emerge from the cotton farms or the swamplands as they did in the not-so-distant era of Charlie Stenholm and Jack Brooks. Instead, Democratic votes today are likely to come from the very urban centers which used to be the Republican enclaves in Texas. Dallas County has really undergone a demographic shift that has helped Democrats and Harris County (Houston) seems to be going the same direction. Travis County (Austin) always leaned Democratic but is now much more Democratic than it was before, as are heavily Hispanic El Paso and Laredo. Obviously even maxed-out Democratic margins in these places won't be enough for Democrats to win but the changing demographics in urban centers all over the state suggest potential to pick off places like Nueces County (Corpus Christi), Fort Bend County (Sugar Land), and maybe even Tarrant County (Fort Worth) in a perfect storm. Cobble all these together with some subdued GOP margins in the aforementioned ancestrally Democratic counties and you have the makings of a narrow Democratic win. I don't think it'll happen in next year's Senate race (nor do I think Texas is anywhere close to becoming a swing state as many do) but at some point in the decade ahead I suspect the stars will align and it will.
West Virginia--It would have been hard to envision 10 years ago that a Democratic Senator would be more likely to be re-elected in Alaska than West Virginia, but that's where we are today as anecdotal evidence suggests West Virginia is being permanently realigned over the coal issue into one of the nation's most Republican states. Natalie Tennant is the best Democrat the party will find to fill Jay Rockefeller's seat but this race is decidedly "lean Republican" against a mainstream Republican like Shelly Moore Capito. Hometown ties seem to count for a lot in West Virginia so I'm not sure there will be a baseline for a winning Democratic county map in the years ahead. A Democrat like Earl Ray Tomblin from the heart of coal country can do disproportionately strongly there while his challenger can cancel out his advantage with inversely huge margins from his hometown of Morgantown, but that alignment won't hold for the next race. Tennant's hometown is Fairmont in northern West Virginia so we'll see if that helps here any up in northern WV. The only speculation I can make about future Democratic victories in West Virginia, insofar as there continues to be some, is that they better plan on much smaller margins from the coal counties. The only semi-bright spot for Dems in the state is the eastern panhandle where DC commuters are nominally improving Democratic margins there.
Wyoming--Mike Enzi will get re-elected if he's the Republican nominee, but first he has to survive a primary challenge by Liz Cheney. In the incredibly unlikely event of a Cheney vs. Freudenthal race, Democrats would have an outside chance of winning, but the coal issue hurting Democrats in West Virginia is making life even more difficult for them in Wyoming than it was before. That underscores how flukish Freudenthal's 2002 gubernatorial win was and how unlikely we are to see it again, but if the 2014 Senate race turns out to be the time we do, it's pretty obvious what the Democrat's coalition will be, with victories in all the "cities" like Cheyenne, Casper, and Laramie along with a couple less-horrible non-urban counties like Sweetwater and the lone Democratic county of Teton. Obviously, this one's entirely hypothetical.
And now the one red state that doesn't have a Senate election next year but where the baseline for a Democratic victory nonetheless deserves to be evaluated due to shifting voting habits.....
North Dakota--Competitive races are generally few and far between in North Dakota, but my observations suggest that when there are, Democrats win the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota along with the northern couple tiers of counties all the way from the Minnesota to the Montana border, with Republicans dominating in most of southern North Dakota including Bismarck and Dickinson. But I think those days are over as two cross-currents are changing North Dakota politics. Benefiting Democrats has been the leftward shift of its largest city, Fargo, which used to be nearly as strong for Republicans as the state at large, but has trended pretty considerably towards Democrats in the last decade. But benefiting Republicans has been the oil boom in western North Dakota, which has shifted the northwest quadrant of the state much further to Republicans than ever. Williams County (Williston) used to be something of a tipping point county in a close race in North Dakota. I watched that county closely in last year's Senate race to see how profound the impact of the area's oil boom would be on its politics....and I got the answer I feared that it was extremely profound. Williams County went more than 2-1 for Rick Berg while Mitt Romney won by more than 3-1, decisively exceeding the Republican baseline. Most of its neighboring counties had the same trajectory in both races, making Heidi Heitkamp's narrow victory all the more remarkable. Given that the oil boom zone seems poised to grow faster than the Fargo area in the years ahead, it's likely that North Dakota will get much more Republican....at least for as long as the oil boom lasts. Then it's anybody's guess what will happen.
Normally at this point in an election cycle one has a feel for which direction the political climate is trending. It was pretty clear four years ago the Democrats were cruising for a bruising in the midterms. And then it was pretty clear two years ago that Obama was setting himself up favorably as the reasonable man in the middle poised to defeat radical and out of touch Republicans in the Presidential election. But this year there is an unusually high degree of uncertainty about the political trendlines and I'm not yet ready to venture a guess where things are going. I will say the geography of the Senate races assures a Republican takeover if even the slightest breeze is at their backs, but it's unclear yet what the fallout will be from the current wave of political hot potatoes being tossed around. But as someone who loves close races, especially those with Democratic winners, I'm hoping at least a few of the hypotheticals I've outlined above become a reality.