Journalists and pundits have lavished considerable attention on the question of who will control the Senate in 2015. But a broader phenomenon has escaped notice: the sheer number of close state-level races, both in the Senate and in statehouses. At risk are many incumbents who were elected in previous wave years: in 2010 for Republican governors and in 2008 for Democratic senators.
State-level elections in 2014 have the largest number of close races in the last 10 years. This chart shows the number of gubernatorial and Senate races that have been won by three percentage points or less in midterm and Presidential-year elections since 2004. For 2014, the bars indicate races where polling margins are as small. There are 11 close gubernatorial races and 7 close Senate races, totaling 18 in all. This is equal to the last two midterm years, 2006 and 2010, combined.
A common theme in these races is the risk to Democratic and Republican incumbents alike. Six of the governors are Republicans were elected in 2010, a very good year for their party. Four of the Senators are incumbents elected in 2008, a very good year for Democrats. In this respect, the political pendulum is swinging back – in both directions at once.
The closest races are listed in the ActBlue (Democrats) page at left, and are also funded by the NRSC (Republicans). For readers on either side of the aisle, the selected races are highly effective targets for directing resources.
Nine of the eleven governors in close races are incumbents. Usually, they would be safe bets for re-election: from 2010 to 2013, the re-election rate of incumbent governors has been 88%. With 28 governors running for reelection this year, we might have expected three or four to be defeated. This year, two are already as good as headed out the door. Not included in this chart is Democrat Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, who was defeated in the primary election. Also not shown is Republican Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, who currently lags by nine percentage points in his race and is nearly certain to lose. So the rate of involuntary retirements is close to the historical record, over a week before Election Day and before even a single general election has been completed.
Since senators began to be elected by popular vote in 1914, their re-election rate has been 89%. Twenty-eight sitting Senators will be on the ballot next week. Potential losers include six close contests that feature an incumbent in the race: Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. Four of these incumbents are Democrats. In addition, two Democratic Senators lag by four points or more, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Because the number of potential Democratic losses is so large, a Republican takeover of the Senate looks more probable than not, though by a slim margin.