The Worst Republican Senate Candidates of 2010, Part 1

This is the first part of two posts analyzing patterns in the 2010 Senate midterm elections. The second part can be found here.

The 2010 congressional midterm elections constituted, by and large, a victory for the Republican Party. In the Senate Republicans gained six seats. While this was somewhat below expectations, it was much better than Republican hopes just after 2008 – when many expected the party to actually lose seats.

The Senate results provide some interesting fodder for analysis. The table below indicates which Republicans Senate candidates did the worst in 2008. It does so by taking the Republican margin of victory or defeat in a given state and subtracting this by the Cook PVI of the state (the Cook PVI is how a state would be expected to vote in a presidential election in the event of an exact tie nationwide). Given that Republicans won the nationwide vote this year, the average Republican candidate would be expected to do better than the state’s PVI. A bad Republican candidate would actually do worse than the state’s PVI.

Let’s take a look at this table below the flip.

State Republican Margin Cook PVI Republican Overperformance
South Dakota 100.00% 8.9% 91.10%
North Dakota 53.91% 10.4% 43.51%
Kansas 43.72% 11.5% 32.22%
Iowa 31.05% -1.0% 32.05%
Idaho 46.25% 17.4% 28.85%
Oklahoma 44.50% 16.9% 27.60%
Florida 28.69% 1.8% 26.89%
South Carolina 33.83% 7.8% 26.03%
New Hampshire 23.22% -1.6% 24.82%
Arizona 24.14% 6.1% 18.04%
Alabama 30.47% 13.2% 17.27%
Ohio 17.44% 0.7% 16.74%
Georgia 19.31% 6.8% 12.51%
Arkansas 20.96% 8.8% 12.16%
Missouri 13.60% 3.1% 10.50%
Illinois 1.60% -7.7% 9.30%
Louisiana 18.88% 9.7% 9.18%
Utah 28.79% 20.2% 8.59%
Indiana 14.58% 6.2% 8.38%
North Carolina 11.77% 4.3% 7.47%
Wisconsin 4.84% -2.4% 7.24%
Pennsylvania 2.02% -2.0% 4.02%
Kentucky 11.47% 10.4% 1.07%
Washington -4.73% -5.0% 0.27%
Alaska 11.94% 13.4% -1.46%
Colorado -1.63% 0.2% -1.83%
California -10.01% -7.4% -2.61%
Nevada -5.74% -1.3% -4.44%
Connecticut -11.94% -7.1% -4.84%
Delaware -16.58% -7.0% -9.58%
Oregon -17.98% -4.0% -13.98%
New York (S) -27.84% -10.2% -17.64%
Maryland -26.44% -8.5% -17.94%
West Virginia -10.07% 7.9% -17.97%
Vermont -33.41% -13.4% -20.01%
New York -34.10% -10.2% -23.90%
Hawaii -53.24% -12.5% -40.74%
Total/Average 5.54% 2.3% 8.08%

(Note: The data in Alaska and Florida refer to the official candidates nominated by the parties, not the independent candidates – Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Charlie Crist – who ran in the respective states).

This table reveals some fascinating trends. There is a very clear pattern: the worst Republican candidates ran in the bluest states – and the bluer the state, the more the Republican underperformed. This does not just mean that these Republicans lost, but that they lost by more than the average Republican was supposed to in the state. Republican candidates did worse than the state’s PVI in thirteen states; nine of these states had a Democratic PVI.

There seems to be a PVI tipping point at which Republicans start underperforming: when a state is more than 5% Democratic than the nation (PVI D+5). Only one Republican in the nine states that fit this category overperformed the state PVI (Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois ).

Something is puzzling about this pattern. It is true that states like Connecticut or Maryland will probably vote Democratic even in Republican victories. The Cook PVI predicts that Democrats will win by X% in the event of a national tie in the popular vote. One would thus have expected Republican candidates to do better than this in 2010, given that 2010 was the strongest Republican performance in a generation.

Yet this did not happen. In a lot of blue states Democrats actually did better than the Cook PVI would project them to do – that is, said blue states behaved like the Democrats had actually won the popular vote, which they certainly did not in 2010. The bluer the state, the stronger this pattern.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be. The first thing that comes to mind is the money and recruiting game. The Republican Party, reasonably enough, does not expect its candidates to win in places like New York and Maryland . So it puts less effort into Republican candidates in those states. They get less money – and therefore less advertising, less ground game, and so on. Nobody had any idea who the Republican candidate in Vermont was, for instance. That probably contributes to Republican underperformance in deep-blue states.

The second factor might be a flaw in the model the table uses. Democratic and Republican strongholds, for whatever reason, behave differently from “uniform swing” models. In almost all the counties President Barack Obama won, for instance, he improved upon President Bill Clinton 1992 and 1996 performance – despite the fact that Mr. Clinton won by similar margins in the popular vote. This holds true from San Francisco to rural Mississippi . In the 2010 Massachusetts special Senate election, the most Democratic areas of Massachusetts swung least towards Republican Senator Scott Brown. The fact that the worst Republican candidates ran in the bluest states fits the pattern.

The table presents another startling pattern, which will be discussed in the next post: there are surprisingly few Republicans who did worse than they were supposed to in red states.


Previewing Senate Elections: Illinois

This is the first part of a series of posts analyzing competitive Senate elections in blue states. The second part, which analyzes New York, can be found here.


In November 2010, Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias will face off against Republican Congressman Mark Kirk, in what looks to be a competitive Senate race. A heavily blue state, Democrats have been hurt by a bad national environment coupled with continuing fall-out from the Rod Blagojevich scandals.

Out of the three states being analyzed (the other two being California and New York), Illinois is the state in which Republicans are strongest. Out of the three, it is also the state with the most competitive forthcoming election. This post will analyze the political contours of the state, and the long and difficult path Mr. Kirk must tread for victory.

Previewing Senate Elections: Illinois

With respect to demographics, Illinois is structured very simply. It has three parts: Chicago, its suburban metropolis, and the mostly rural downstate.

To win, Congressman Mark Kirk will need to run a gauntlet of challenges in each of section of the state. He must capitalize on Republican strength downstate, revive it in the suburbs, and hope that Chicago turn-out is depressed. If done properly, this will result in a close-run, Scott-Brown type victory.

More below.

Downstate Illinois

Mr. Kirk’s easiest task should be here.  Much of downstate Illinois has more in common with Kentucky and Missouri than far-north Chicago. Like these two states, the region has been trending Republican: Bill Clinton did far better than Barack Obama here.

There are several complicating factors. Downstate Illinois has several population centers – but these cities tend to vote less Republican (they all voted for Obama, for instance). Moreover, Mr. Kirk hails from the Chicago metropolis and has a reputation as a moderate congressman; he may not play too well with rural conservatives.

Nevertheless, the region constitutes the Republican base, and Mr. Kirk will need every vote he can get. He should be able to win downstate Illinois quite comfortably. He will have to. After all, President George W. Bush won practically every single county here – and he lost Illinois by double-digits.

Chicago’s Suburbs

The true test of Mark Kirk’s candidacy will come in the Chicago suburbs. His task is doable, but not exactly easy.

There is good news and bad news for Republicans. First the good news: unlike other solidly blue states, the Chicago suburbs still vote Republican. Like Orange County, for years their strength kept Republicans competitive in Illinois. Take a look at suburban DuPage County:

Previewing Senate Elections: Illinois

(Note: A negative margin indicates that Democrats lost Cook County, or that Republicans lost DuPage County.)

Even after Democrats started winning suburbs, during President Bill Clinton’s time, Chicago’s suburbs continued voting Republican. In 2004, for instance, George Bush won DuPage county by a little less than 10%.

The bad news for Republicans is that each election, they win the suburbs by a little less. In 2008 President Barack Obama swept DuPage County and the rest of Chicago’s suburbs by double-digits. This victory constituted the culmulation of decades of leftward movement.

The test for Mr. Kirk is the extent to which he can reverse this trend. He will not just have to win the suburbs, but turn the clock back two decades – back to the glory years in which Republicans won around 70% of the vote in DuPage County. (Mr. Kirk will probably not have to do that well, given rising Republican strength downstate.)

Is this doable? Given that Republicans seem to be winning suburbs everywhere this year, it is certainly possible. Mr. Kirk, moreover, has spent a decade representing a Chicago suburb congressional district; this is why Republicans have nominated him.


43.3% of Illinois residents live in Cook County, home to America’s third-largest city. Of these, half call Chicago home; the other half live in an inner ring of suburbs.

If God decided to create the ideal Democratic stronghold, he would get something like Chicago. The city is heavily populated by black and Latino minorities, mixed together with a dollop of white liberals. As a cherry on top, it is also home to President Barack Obama – and Chicagoans are highly aware of this fact.

Whether he loses or wins by a landslide, Mark Kirk will not win Cook County. He will just have to take the blow, cross his fingers, and pray that minority turn-out is low (as it has been, this year). That is not a good strategy, but it is the best Republicans can do when 89% of them are white, and they are competing in a minority-majority city.


So what does Mr. Kirk have to do? Say that he gets 35% of the vote in Cook County – propelled by inner-ring suburban strength and minority apathy – and wins a landslide everywhere else in the state (for instance, a 3:2 margin). This gives him 50.3% of the vote in the 2008 Illinois electorate. If white Republicans downstate turn out, and minorities in Chicago do not, Mr. Kirk may get bumped up to a 2-3% victory.

Previewing Senate Elections: Illinois

As we will see, this task is easier compared to the challenges Republicans face in California and New York. In Illinois they can (barely) get away with a white-only coalition. In California Republicans absolutely must win minorities – a novel challenge. As for New York – it is similar to Illinois, except that New York City is double the size of Chicago. And upstate New York is trending Democratic.