Wednesday, September 18, 2013

North Carolina Looking Less And Less Like A 2014 GOP Pick-Up Opportunity, Courtesy Of Gov. McCrory

Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) is starting to look like one lucky Freshman, in part thanks to the increasingly unpopular Repulican Governor, Pat McCrory. Photo on right courtesy of Donkeyhotey.

Congressional Republicans really, really need North Carolina's Senate seat to fall in their column next November if their dream of capturing BOTH houses of Congress for the 1st time during the Obama Presidency are going to be realized.

Fortunately for them, Barack Obama, after a brief reelection honeymoon, is again unpopular (thanks to a persistently weak economic recovery, and more recently, a foreign policy blunder that would make even Jimmy Carter blush).

This fact, coupled with the structural advantages the party out of power typically enjoys in midterm elections, has the GOP seeing visions of 2010 on the horizon.

But 'not so fast' says one of 2012's most accurate pollsters, the notably partisan and recently embattled Public Policy Polling . . . or at least, not if the Republicans path to 51 Senate seats runs through North Carolina.

The current breakdown of the 113th Congress is 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, meaning the GOP would need to pick up at least 5 seats to obtain a majority. According to an array of political forecasting reports, the Republican's are all but assured a three-seat pick-up (the retiring Democrats in South Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana). The remaining pick-ups are expected to come from 2 of the following red-state Democrats up for reelection in 2014: Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, or Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

And according to last week's numbers from PPP, Sen. Hagan (NC) looks like the LEAST vulnerable. She leads all 7 of her most likely Republican contenders by double-digit margins ranging from 12-17 points.

As the excuse for poor poll numbers, the GOP camps will rightfully note their candidate's near-anonymity with voters. But Senator Hagan isn't that terribly well-known herself, especially for a five year Senator.

What's more? The potential GOP nominees are polling the weakest they have to date in head-to-heads against Hagan, and PPP's been following this race every month since December 2012.

As you can see in the chart above, the NC Republican Senate candidates have struggled all year against Senator Hagan. In the seventy-eight hypotheticals tested by PPP since December, the best any GOP challenger has managed against the Democratic incumbent is a TIE . . . ONE TIME . . . OUT OF 78 (and that was Secretary of Labor Cherie Berry, who announced she wasn't running in May).

As rough as the campaign season has been thus far for the NC GOP, the month of September has been particularly brutal. Hagan currently leads her seven likely opponents by an average of 50-36%.

That's quite the deterioration in Republican's standing since December of last year, when they trailed the incumbent by an average of just 47-40%, or since May and June of this year, when Hagan led by an average of 6 points.

Yes, after nearly a year of jockeying for the chance to make the Junior North Carolina Senator a one-termer, Republicans appear to be in worse shape than when they started. But why?

As the chart below notes, there's nothing too eye-brow-raising about PPP's demographic findings as compared to past NC electorates (at least not in the cross tabs they release publicly). See the table below:

Another obvious possibility for why the NC Republican Senate hopefuls seem weaker now than last year stems from the fact that most of the GOP bench's strongest players passed on the race, such as Sue Myrick, Dan Forest, Patrick McHenry, Cherie Berry, and Virginia Foxx.

But look no further than the far right column of the first chart six paragraphs above to find the most likely cause of the Republicans recent struggles - Governor Pat McCrory's job approval rating.

McCrory's fall in NC is almost as impressive as his predecessor's, former Governor Beverly Perdue (D). He won  by 12 points in 2012, at the same time as Barack Obama ceded NC to Mitt Romney by just 2 points. But thanks to unpopular new restrictions on unemployment benefits, a controversial  abortion bill, and a conservative super-majority in the state legislature that likes to drag their more moderate governor rightward, McCrory's honeymoon was short-lived. And as his political fortunes changed in the Tar Heel state, so too did those of the crop of GOP Senate hopefuls. In fact, McCrory's current 35/53% job approval rating pretty closely mirrors the GOP senate hopefuls average against Hagan, and has for several months.

So how do the likes of Charlotte preacher Mark Harris, or State House Speaker Thom Tillis, or Tea Party activist Greg Brannon, succeed as members of the same party as an increasingly unpopular governor?

Well, for starters, they need the opportunity to get out there and define themselves, which the June GOP primary will allow them to do. But in the meantime, there may be a little something more for Republicans to cling to for hope in this Senate race, and it can be found in PPP's crosstabs.

For example, the cross tabs indicate that while both Hagan and the Republicans have room for improvement among their respective racial/ethnic bases and partisan bases, the Republicans potential for growth is larger.

See the charts below of every Democratic nominee for President, Governor, or Senate's performance among black voters in NC since the mid-90s, as compared to every Republican nominee for President, Governor, or Senate's performance among white voters:

Red meant to denote that candidate lost the particular contest overall.

As would typically be expected of a race still 14 months away, there are a fair amount of undecided voters in PPP's head-to-head numbers. So it's not surprising Hagan or her challengers are doing far worse with black and white voters, respectively, than you would expect to see on actual election day. Though if you look closely at the table above, it's the GOP with the potential for greater gain.

Consider the fact that the Junior Senator from NC currently musters an impressive 74-81% of the African American vote in match-ups with the four already announced GOP Senate candidates. Those figures are close, though still not quite as high as the average level of support among blacks for Democratic candidates for Senate, Governor, or President in NC over the last 20 yrs (90%).

Republicans, on the other hand, are averaging just 42-44% of white voters in NC, an even further cry from the norm than Hagan's share of the black vote, as the table below explains.

The above table is intended to illustrate the results of the PPP survey had Hagan's and the Republican's percentages among black and white voters been identical to historical averages (in the case of Hagan, that means winning 90% of blacks while only ceding 8% to the GOP, whereas for the Republican candidates this means winning 63% of white voters while only ceding 35% to Hagan), all other PPP findings remaining the same. And as you can see, Hagan's average 50-36% lead over the GOP vanishes, becoming a 48-48% tie. 

Lets have a little more fun with the historical performances of Democrats and Republicans with black and white voters.

Suppose Senator Hagan and the rest of Senate Democrats have a great night on election day 2014, ala 2006. At least as far as NC goes, that would mean Hagan wins about 96% of black voters (the amount Barack Obama won in NC against Mitt Romney in 2012), and about 43% of white voters (the amount won by former popular two-term Democratic Governor Mike Easley in 2004):

Maintaining the same proportions of the electorate found by PPP, Hagan would lead her GOP challengers 55-42% (the largest victory by any Democrat in this state since Gov. Easley defeated Patrick Ballantine in 2004).

And suppose 2014 is more like 2010 than 2006, and it's the Republicans popping the champagne on election night next year? In such a scenario, the Republican candidate would win 73% of white voters, the same amount as George W. Bush in 2004, and 13% of black voters (the same amount as Pat McCrory in 2012):

In the event the above scenario plays out, the Republicans would notch their largest victory in North Carolina in any Presidential, Gubernatorial, or Senatorial race since George H.W. Bush in 1988, leading 56-42%.

A similar occurrence can be detected when looking at the PPP crosstabs on party identification. In comparison with historical averages, Democrats and Republicans are both performing weaker with their partisan bases, though Republicans are to an even greater extent than Democrats.

Now obviously, precedent is sometimes made to be broken. But not always. And this post is intended to provide a glance at what the 2014 Senate race in NC could look like, worst case scenario, best case scenario, and most likely scenario for the GOP, with history as our guide.

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