The 2014 Election Handicapping: How We Did

Governing rated three types of contests during the 2014 campaign cycle: gubernatorial races, state attorney general races, and control of the state legislatures.
by | November 7, 2014

Every politician who stands for election must face the voters’ accountability. The same goes for political handicappers. So now, it’s time to face the music.

Governing offered ratings periodically during the 2014 campaign cycle, for three types of contests: gubernatorial races, state attorney general races, and control of the state legislatures.

Ratings were based on interviews with political observers and a review of recent polling data (plus a dollop of experience -- this author has been been rating the legislatures since the 2002 cycle, gubernatorial races since the 2006 cycle and attorney general since the 2008 cycle).

Each race and chamber was rated as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic or safe Democratic. For gubernatorial and AG races, there was an additional step: Within each rating category, the states were rank-ordered  so they could be viewed as a continuum between the seats most likely to go Republican (at the top) and the states most likely to go Democratic (at the bottom).

The idea was to be able to draw a line somewhere in the tossup category and find all the states above that line won by a Republican and all the seats below that line won by a Democrat.

Governing achieved this result in 2012 and was off by just one contest in 2010. So how’d it go this year?

Well, let’s just say the environment, at least for the governors, was a bit more unpredictable than usual.

In the week before Election Day, 12 races were clustered in the tossup category -- an unusually large number -- and the polls suggested that all were essentially within the margin of error. So in the final ratings roundup there would be a much higher risk of a jumble this year between Republican-won and Democratic-won seats in the tossup category.

As it turned out, almost all of the tossup races went to the Republicans this year -- the pre-election polls, apparently, had a bias towards Democrats in 2014. Still, the magazine got four races on the wrong side of the mythical dividing line.

Two Democratic governors won despite being closer to the GOP side of the tossup category -- Colorado’s John Hickenlooper and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy. Their contests were so close that they were among the last races called on Election Night.

Governing placed Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland too far toward the Democratic side. In perhaps the most stunning upset of the night , Hogan won the governorship in the deep blue state of Maryland. At least this one was in the lean Democratic category, meaning it was a competitive contest.

The fourth out-of-place seat was Alaska’s gubernatorial contest. The race isn’t officially called yet, but Bill Walker, an Independent with a Democratic running mate, leads incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell. It was in the tossup category, but it was nestled in the rankings between several other seats that ended up staying Republican.

Here’s the summary of competitive gubernatorial races and how they ended up. “Misplaced” states are in italics.

GOVERNORS

Lean Republican

Arkansas: Republican won

Arizona: Republican won 

Tossup

Michigan: Republican won

Georgia: Republican won

Alaska: Independent leading

Massachusetts: Republican won

Kansas: Republican won

Wisconsin: Republican won

Connecticut: Democrat won

Colorado: Democrat won

Illinois: Republican won

Florida: Republican won

Maine: Republican won

Rhode Island: Democrat won

Lean Democratic

New Hampshire: Democrat won

Maryland: Republican won 

Hawaii: Democrat won

Oregon: Democrat won

The track record was better on state AG races -- perfect, actually. All the lean Republican and tossup seats went Republican, and all the lean Democratic seats went Democratic. Here’s the list:

ATTORNEYS GENERAL

Lean Republican

Colorado: Republican won

Florida: Republican won

Georgia: Republican won

Michigan: Republican won

Tossup

Arkansas: Republican won

Arizona: Republican won

Wisconsin: Republican won

Nevada: Republican won

Lean Democratic

New Mexico: Democrat won

Rhode Island: Democrat won

Finally, here's a look at the calls for the state legislatures.

Because of the complexity of rating 98 chambers, they aren't rank-ordered within each rating category. So the key factor is whether any chambers that ultimately flipped had not been pegged as competitive before the election. (“Competitive” races are either lean Republican, lean Democratic or tossup.)

As of this writing, the GOP has flipped nine Democratic-held chambers outright and consolidated control in two other chambers that previously had split-partisan leadership. One additional chamber may end up switching to the GOP once all ballots are counted.

Ultimately, Governing had only categorized one chamber that ultimately flipped outside the “competitive” zone -- West Virginia’s Senate. It was rated likely Democratic; for what it’s worth, the West Virginia Senate ended up tied on election night and tipped to GOP control only due to a legislator’s post-election party switch.

Here’s the full list of chambers that shifted during the election, along with the final pre-election rating:

LEGISLATURES 

Outright flips to Republican control

Colorado Senate: tossup

Maine Senate: lean Democratic

Minnesota House: tossup

Nevada Assembly: tossup

Nevada Senate: tossup

New Hampshire House: lean Republican

New Mexico House: tossup

West Virginia House: tossup

West Virginia Senate: likely Democratic

Republican consolidation of power in chamber with mixed party control

New York Senate: tossup

Washington state Senate: lean Republican

Potential flip

Colorado House: lean Democratic

So, of these 12 chambers that went Republican, there was only two pegged as leaning in the Democrats’ direction prior to the election -- the West Virginia Senate and the Colorado House (which still may not flip).

All in all, then, it was a good -- if not entirely unblemished -- cycle of handicapping.

Now we get to do it all over again for the next two years. See you later in the cycle.