We profile our last five Senate races: they were the toss-ups as of two weeks ago, but only one of them still sits in that category.
Alaska (Begich-D) — Leans Republican
The Last Frontier is a difficult place to prognosticate about: its 700,000 residents are spread out over an area four times larger than California. Its substantial population of Alaska Natives, in particular, is difficult to survey, and local issues like land and fishing rights take on special importance. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, was narrowly elected in 2008 over longtime Sen. Ted Stevens, who was then entangled in a federal corruption trial. Mr. Begich has emphasized his Alaska roots throughout his campaign—his father was Alaska’s at-large representative until his death in 1971—and distanced himself from national Democrats, preferring to focus on local issues. In that vein, Mr. Begich’s supporters have attacked his Republican opponent, former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, as a pawn of big-money out-of-state donors and never miss an opportunity to mention Mr. Sullivan’s Ohio roots. Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Begich has built an unprecedented grassroots organization, including ads in Yup’ik, an Inuit language, and permanent field offices in remote Native villages. His campaign has claimed to have “knocked on every single door in rural Alaska.” Mr. Sullivan is running a more conventional campaign, tying Mr. Begich to President Obama and expecting Alaska to return to its Republican roots—it last voted Democratic for president in 1964. Recent public polls have given Mr. Sullivan a three to six-point lead, and despite Alaska’s notoriety for unreliable polling, he has a narrow edge. We rate this Leans Republican.
Arkansas (Pryor-D) — Leans Republican
From the end of Reconstruction until 2010, Arkansas sent conservative Democrats to Congress: it never sent a majority-Republican House delegation and only elected a single Republican senator. But like their counterparts throughout the inland south, Arkansas Democrats have found it increasingly difficult to distance themselves from the national party, deeply unpopular at home. The 2010 wave was particularly harsh, sweeping out Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a 21-point landslide and giving Republicans control of the state legislature and congressional delegation. While Sen. Mark Pryor will avoid the humiliating fate of Ms. Lincoln, he is in the fight of his political life against Rep. Tom Cotton. The race has played out along predictable lines, with Mr. Pryor talking up his distance from President Obama and attacking Mr. Cotton as out of touch with everyday Arkansans; Mr. Cotton, for his part, might as well be running against President Obama. But that has been enough to open a small but persistent single-digit lead, and it will take all of the folksiness that Mr. Pryor and his father, ex-Gov. David Pryor, can muster to dig him out of that hole. We rate it Leans Republican.
Iowa (Braley-D) — Toss-Up
Unlike the other four states in this profile, Iowa does not feature a Democratic incumbent running in a state that backed Mitt Romney; rather, the retirement of longtime liberal Sen. Tom Harkin has sparked a competitive race in a state where President Obama won twice by single digits. The Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, was favored but has run a horrendous campaign, leaping quickly from gaffe to gaffe in a state that prizes retail politicking more than most. His opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, has all of the spark that Mr. Braley lacks and has run a spirited campaign, but has been held back by flirtations with fringe ideas like nullification and Agenda 21. Polls have been exceedingly close—only four of the eighteen released since July have given a margin of more than two points—and currently point to a very slight lead for Ms. Ernst. But in our opinion, this is a Toss-up if there ever was one.
Louisiana (Landrieu-D) — Leans Republican
The story in Louisiana is much the same as in Arkansas: a Democratic senator with deep family ties to an increasingly conservative state is being challenged by a Republican congressman set on nationalizing the race. The senator is Mary Landrieu, a three-term incumbent and Chair of the Senate Energy Committee, and the challenger is Rep. Bill Cassidy. Ms. Landrieu has stressed the importance of her committee chairmanship to Louisiana and presented herself as a check on President Obama’s “simply wrong” energy policy, touting vocal support from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a harsh critic of the president on energy and guns. While the state’s energy industry has largely remained supportive of Ms. Landrieu, she is facing significant headwinds from the president’s deep unpopularity in the state. This election is almost certainly heading to overtime due to Louisiana’s “open primary.” Instead of holding party primaries, every candidate runs in the November election and the top two progress to a December runoff if neither reaches 50%. With retired Air Force colonel and Tea Party favorite Rob Maness probably drawing 5-10%, Mr. Cassidy will be hard-pressed to reach a majority and there is no indication that the trailing Ms. Landrieu can pull together a majority in a nine-horse race. Runoff polls currently show Mr. Cassidy about five points ahead, and we give this race a Leans Republican rating. But the results in November could have a strong effect in December—if the Senate hangs in the balance, expect quite a show in Louisiana.
North Carolina (Hagan-D) — Leans Democratic
While Democratic fortunes have soured in Iowa and Colorado, North Carolina has been a pleasant surprise for Team Blue. Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan faces headwinds from President Obama—though not as strong as those in Arkansas and Louisiana—and lacks the distance from national Democrats that Mr. Pryor and Ms. Landrieu have. But she was gifted a troubled opponent in Thom Tillis, the Speaker of the State Assembly at a time when the legislature’s conservative agenda has become a highly divisive issue. With Gov. Pat McCrory not facing reelection until 2016, Mr. Tillis has become the face of state education cuts in pro-Hagan ads, dragging down his personal favorability. The result: Ms. Hagan has edged out a small but consistent lead and Mr. Tillis hasn’t led a poll since August. We currently rate the race Leans Democratic.