Mississippi’s in the bag for Republicans

Among the more pervasive biases of political reporters is a preference for tight races over loose races. It’s understandable that reporters want their jobs to be interesting, but it’s an instinct that can distort political coverage just as much as ideological or partisan blinders can. This, from yesterday’s Playbook by Mike Allen of Politico, is an excellent example:

PLAYBOOK PREDICTION: The ’14 map may be in for a huge disruption. Our conversations with top Republicans unearthed this scenario: In today’s primary, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) – the GOP senator who is most endangered this cycle — is forced into a runoff with his tea party challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel. (There’s a 50-percent threshold, and a third candidate in the race.) Cochran doesn’t have the stamina or political agility for the frantic three-week runoff (June 24) that follows, and he LOSES. Then Mississippi – which last voted D in a presidential race in 1976 — is IN PLAY, complicating GOP majority hopes.

McDaniel came out slightly ahead of Cochran last night. With some votes still uncounted, it’s possible that McDaniel may actually squeak over 50% and win the nomination outright, but more likely there will indeed be a runoff, and Cochran may indeed lose. So does that put Mississippi IN PLAY?

No, it does not. Mississippi remains red on our map, and it won’t switch to pink until we see polling data convincingly showing that the Democratic candidate, former Rep. Travis Childers, can make this a real race. Childers is well to the right of his party’s mainstream, but any candidate with a D after his name, no matter how conservative, has a huge disadvantage running in a deep red state when all signs point to a good year for Republicans.

In fact, the one change to our map this week is a race that’s looking less competitive, not more. Since we last discussed Oregon, two polls have shown incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley with a double-digit lead, suggesting that the one poll in April that showed a small lead for Republican challenger Monica Wehby was a statistical fluke. Oregon is now painted solid blue, moving from Leans Democrat to Likely Democrat. We’ll change it back to light blue if the race seems to tighten, but for now it doesn’t look like Merkley is in much danger.

A potentially more interesting race is developing in Iowa, where Joni Ernst cruised to a commanding victory in the Republican primary last night, easily clearing the 35% threshold to secure the GOP nomination without a contested convention. (Some polls suggested that clearing 35% might be a close call. It wasn’t.) With the party united behind her, Ernst is poised for a serious run against Rep. Bruce Braley. Though it still leans in Braley’s direction, this is a race to keep an eye on. One might even say that it could be IN PLAY.