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Why Most States’ Senate Race is Dead Even

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1-vote-flickr-Theresa Thompson
Photo credit: Theresa Thompson / Flickr

Every two years, state residents head to the polls to vote for the Senator who will hold one of two positions in their state for the next six years. Candidates set out woo voters, often spending millions of dollars on their campaigns, just like presidential candidates do.

Despite the fervor that typically occurs in the months before voting, most Senate races are much closer than the candidates would have you believe. Right now, Colorado, Louisiana and Nebraska are among the states with dead even races. Here’s why.

Senate Elections

The 1st Congress created a senator system that staggers voting to ensure that both Senate positions are not up for vote simultaneously, and the two-party system in the United States is so strong that senatorial races frequently pit candidates from either party against one another.

If the sitting Senator is a member of the Republican party, supporters will typically vote for another Republican Senator while opponents will try to seek balance by voting a Democratic Senator into power. So few candidates run as Independent that it doesn’t upset the two-party system.

Senate Campaigning

Each candidate attempts to discredit the competition through ads and build up their own reputation through public appearances. A common example of this criticism is for Democrats to go after Republicans for not providing assistance to people in need and support measures such as the Affordable Care Act and GM’s 2008 government bailout.

Nebraska runner Ben Sasse has used media that are sympathetic to his dated and hard policies about healthcare reform, immigration and national security in addition to his criticism of President Obama to pull ahead in the polls and become a real contender in this year’s Senate race. However, that’s not always the case when it comes to campaigning, which can leave candidates too close to count.

Races often remain neck-and-neck, and election predictions cannot be accurately made before the race. When elections are this close, even exit polling fails to indicate a clear winner. This may be due to the fact that candidates often focus on areas where they are already likely to win the vote.

Most Senators typically do well in their home cities and counties. Consider Arizona Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who ran against Jeff Flake in 2012, for example. Carmona spent much of his time in Tucson, his home base, and the result was an over-performance that Flake couldn’t break through. However, this left Flake with a stronger hold in areas where Carmona hadn’t campaigned as diligently.

This also applies to gender, age and class gaps. Candidates who cannot connect with the voters who do not typically vote for them are leaving too much to chance no matter what seat they’re hoping to fill. For example, presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost out on young and women voters to President Obama during the last race.

Arizona’s Jeff Flake made that very same mistake during 2012’s Senate race while his opponent, Carmona, supported women’s rights and funding for abortion. Carmona had also campaigned for support in Prescott, which tends to be more conservative. The result was been favorable polls, but Carmona still narrowly lost to Flake.

Localized Issues

Not all campaigning mirrors the federal government. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat in Louisiana, has focused on issues such as the shrinking coastline and the effect of offshore oil drilling. Last summer, a levee board in New Orleans filed a lawsuit against hundreds of oil companies, and Landrieu carefully tiptoed around the situation to avoid angering oil companies that provide big bucks for campaigns.

In Colorado, many voters are closely watching what candidates have to say about gun control. Conservative Ben Sasse appeals to gun owners who don’t want to give up their Second Amendment rights while his opponent, former State Treasurer Shane Osborn, has remained tight-lipped on the issue. This could backfire come November.

Senator Candidacy Isn’t Just About the Future

One thing that senatorial candidates may forget is that voters aren’t just looking forward. Voters may have biases because of what has happened in the past. For example, people who are happy with how the country is running since President Obama took office may vote for a Democrat in the upcoming election.

Liberal candidate and sitting Senator Tom Udall has a track record of supporting healthcare measures such as socialized healthcare and providing healthcare for more of the state’s children, and this will resonate with Liberals who also support the ACA. Conservatives who oppose “big government” will, of course, vote against Udall this November.

Most voters don’t cross party lines when it comes to elections like the one we’ll see later this year, so it’s up to Senate candidates to encourage people who do not particularly vote to care about the issues. President Obama was successful at this during his first campaign, and Senators who can follow suit might be able to break ahead of their opponents.

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