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Watching for a Senate Wave

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Here's a quick status report on the battle for the Senate and more:

1. Election forecasts up to this week have been pointing to a toss-up, with perhaps at most a slight edge for Republicans to gain the 51 seats they need to form a Senate majority. This week, however, while most stay in that range, the Monkey Cage/Washington Post forecast shifted, basically calling the Senate contest for the Republicans. (I'm more comfortable simply saying the Senate leans Republican.) Whether Republicans claim a majority or not matters, but so does the size of any majority. Democrats probably wouldn’t have been able to change the filibuster last year with only, say, 52 senators instead of the 55 they actually had. Similarly, the potential for a Republican blockade of executive nominations increases with every seat Republicans hold beyond 51.

2. I previously identified five reasons we might not know which party has a Senate majority before going to bed on election night. These include the likelihood of runoff elections in Louisiana and possibly Georgia; a win by independent candidate Greg Orman in Kansas; late (and slow) vote-counting in Alaska; and a wildcard possibility of a recount needed in close contests. This week, another possibility emerged: Former Republican Senator and now-independent candidate Larry Pressler really may have an outside chance of winning the Senate race in South Dakota. Like Orman, Pressler hasn’t said whether he’ll caucus with the Republicans or the Democrats.

3. Orman and Pressler aren't the only third-party or independent candidates stirring the pot this election cycle. Scott Bland in National Journal looked at some others. These candidacies are always interesting, even though, as Philip Bump pointed out in the Washington Post, actual “spoiler” situations are quite rare. Regular readers know I’m no fan of third parties. I suspect Representative Justin Amash has done more to advance libertarian causes as a House Republican than all of the fringe Libertarian Party candidates of the past decade combined. And anyone who thinks the best way to get federal policies protecting the environment is to vote for Green Party candidates instead of Democrats is nuts. It comes down to opportunity costs. The best way to influence a major party is to join that party, and then try to influence it directly. Running a third-party candidate against it rarely yields much.

4. Pundits continue to argue about whether this is a wave election, without sharing a definition of "wave" or why we should even care about it. Here's my two cents: Asking if there's a wave is basically asking whether we should expect additional movement to one party beyond what we already see in polling and on-the-ground reporting. If indeed there’s a Republican "wave," then we would expect to see otherwise safe Democratic seats come unmoored in the storm. In other words, it's not a wave if Democrats lose in Arkansas and Louisiana. It's a wave if safe Democratic leads in New Hampshire, Virginia, Michigan or Minnesota suddenly disappear. As we get closer to Election Day, the question becomes whether all the close elections will break the same way, instead of splitting 50-50. So the utility of the wave concept is that it hints that national forces may overwhelm what normal reporting from the states has told us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net