Here are the 12 most competitive Senate races in the country

Here are the 12 most competitive Senate races in the country

By Chris Cillizza,, aaron blake and sean sullivan September 14 at 11:37 AM

Now is the time in an election cycle where the tectonic political plates undergirding key Senate races begin to shift in real and meaningful ways. Millions are spent. Debates happen. People start paying attention.

And so, before we ranked the 12 most competitive races in the fight for the Senate majority this fall, we chatted — via e-mail — with a half dozen strategists in both parties to get their sense of which races are moving where. With a few exceptions, their impressions jibed — private polling rarely lies — and suggested that Republicans should feel good but not great about their chances of picking up the six seats they need to retake Senate control in November.

In pursuit of clarity, we’ve broken down their thoughts into three categories:

1) Races that Democrats feel good about/Republicans don’t.

2) Races that Republicans feel good about/Democrats don’t .

3) Races about which opinion is mixed.

Obviously this is not a comprehensive guide to where the races will end up, but it reflects the thinking of several well-connected operatives who are seeing lots and lots of good polling. (Note: These categories don’t include three open Democratic seats — West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana — that everyone agrees will flip to Republicans.)

Races that Democrats feel good about/Republicans don’t:

■ Colorado

■ Michigan

Races that Republicans feel good about/Democrats don’t:

■ Alaska

■ Arkansas

■ Kentucky

■ Louisiana

Races about which opinion is mixed:

■ Georgia

■ Iowa

■ Kansas

■ New Hampshire

■ North Carolina

Below are the races ranked on the likelihood that the seat will change hands.

11. (tie). Kansas (Republican-controlled): The most shocking entry on our list all year, this one’s a little complicated. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) clearly has problems. Democrat Chet Taylor dropped out of the race, which could help independent Greg Orman consolidate the anti-Roberts vote. But Taylor apparently didn’t do what he needed to in order to get his name off the ballot (litigation is ongoing), so this might be a three-way race anyway.

11. (tie) Kentucky (R): A look at the polling of late in the race between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) suggests that the incumbent has opened up a mid-single-digit lead. That jibes with what strategists are seeing in unreleased data. McConnell’s team always insisted that once he united Republicans behind his candidacy, the numbers would shift toward him.

10. Colorado (Democratic-controlled): Rep. Cory Gardner (R) is a talented politician. Unfortunately for him, some of the votes and positions — particularly on personhood — during his time in the House are being effectively used by Democrats as a cudgel against him in the battle for the votes of suburban Denver women, whom he badly needs to beat Sen. Mark Udall (D).

9. Georgia (R): National Republican Senatorial Committee Vice Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sounded very confident about Republican David Perdue’s chances against Democrat Michelle Nunn at a Thursday breakfast with reporters. Recent polls have shown Perdue leading, on average.

8. Iowa (D): It seems as if Rep. Bruce Braley (D) has done just about everything he can to lose a race in which he was the favorite from the outset. Republican State Sen. Joni Ernst’s problem is twofold: She is being heavily outspent on TV, and the idea that she is too conservative for the state is starting to take hold.

7. North Carolina (D): President Obama’s recent visit to the state forced Sen. Kay Hagan (D) to walk a tightrope. She greeted him on the tarmac but distanced herself from him on veterans’ issues. Hagan will continue to have to strike a careful balance as her campaign against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) rolls on.

6. Alaska (D): Democratic Sen. Mark Begich’s decision to air a TV ad holding former attorney general Dan Sullivan (R) partly responsible for releasing a man from prison who later allegedly killed an elderly couple and sexually assaulted their grandchild backfired, taking a race that was solidifying in his favor and making it less favorable.

5. Arkansas (D): Republican Rep. Tom Cotton’s campaign hasn’t been the smoothest, but it’s looks as if it is going to be good enough. He has led in 10 of the last 11 public polls and enjoyed his biggest lead — points — in a high-quality NBC News/Marist College poll released last week.

4. Louisiana (D): Everyone agrees that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will finish far ahead of Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) and Rob Maness (R) in the Nov. 4 jungle primary. The problem for Landrieu is that no one thinks she will break the 50 percent mark, meaning that she will have to face off against the second-highest vote-getter — almost certainly Cassidy — in a Dec. 6 runoff. The runoff electorate — particularly if control of the Senate is at stake — isn’t going to be a friendly one for Landrieu.

3. West Virginia (D): Of the three open Democratic seats on our list where Mitt Romney won in 2012, West Virginia appears to be Democrats’ best chance of pulling off an upset. But that’s not saying much because the other two are virtual locks to flip Republican. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polling in this race shows Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) leading Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) by 19 points.

2. South Dakota (D): National Democrats have written off their nominee, Rick Weiland, from the outset. But there was a really interesting poll last week. The survey, from the automated-polling firm SurveyUSA, showed former governor Mike Rounds (R) leading Weiland 39 percent to 28 percent, with former GOP senator Larry Pressler (I) at 25 percent. In a race without Pressler, though, Weiland would be within the margin of error against the once-popular former governor.

1. Montana (D): Little-known state Rep. Amanda Curtis (D) is the replacement nominee for Sen. John Walsh (D), who dropped out over a plagiarism scandal. She’s no match for Rep. Steve Daines (R), who is firmly in control of this race.

Patent office to hire outside consultant to review telework program

Federal Eye

Patent office to hire outside consultant to review telework program

By Lisa Rein September 13 at 8:00 AM

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Commerce Department officials told congressional investigators Friday they have launched an internal review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s telework program following allegations of fraudulent practices.

The officials also said they are seeking an outside consulting firm to advise them on how managers can improve their monitoring of thousands of relatively autonomous employees who review patent applications, according to a congressional aide familiar with the briefing on Capitol Hill.

Among the issues the outside consultant will be asked to address is whether, in their zeal to increase the productivity of examiners in recent years to shrink a backlog of applications, patent office leaders were too quick to give employees bonuses for work they didn’t complete. Continue reading

GOP Senate’s first 100 days

GOP Senate’s first 100 days

By Alexander Bolton – 09/12/14 06:00 AM EDT

Republicans are putting together an agenda for the first 100 days of 2015 in case they win control of the Senate.

Authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, approving “fast-track” trade authority, wiping out proposed environmental regulations and repealing the medical device tax top their list.

“Those would all be positive things. You could come up with a list of very positive things and all of us are thinking about those,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is poised to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee under a GOP takeover.

Other Republicans echoed Corker.

“Those are four things that could happen that I believe would be great for the economy and enable us to move forward on a bipartisan basis,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said during a Thursday breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

GOP senators insist they are not “measuring the drapes” after six years in the minority.

Still, they’re preparing for what could be a brief, intense window of activity before 2016 presidential politics begin to dominate the landscape.

“We will have to be prepared if we are in a position to govern,” Corker said. “You got to think about those things you’d like to produce.”

To move their objectives, Senate Republicans must win in November and then work with a Democratic minority. Even in a best-case scenario, the party will be well short of a 60-plus majority able to block Democratic filibusters. But Republicans believe many of their priorities could be embraced by Democrats.

Legislation endorsing the Keystone pipeline included Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) among its co-sponsors.

And a bill to repeal the medical device tax has six Democratic cosponsors, including Sens. Al Franken (Minn.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Kay Hagan (N.C.) and Donnelly.

“We should be able to do that in the first 30 days,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said of the measure.

On regulatory reform, they note that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) halted action on the energy and water development appropriations bill earlier this year because he feared centrist Democrats were inclined to support an amendment curbing regulations on coal.

Centrist Democrat Joe Manchin (W.Va.) introduced legislation at the beginning of the year requiring that new greenhouse gas standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency be realistically achievable by coal-fired power plants.

Portman has introduced legislation that would require independent agencies to publish the assessed costs and benefits of proposed new rules deemed to be economically significant. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner (D-W.Va.) has co-sponsored the measure.

Trade is another possible area of bipartisanship — with the president.

President Obama called for bipartisan trade promotion authority in his State of the Union address in January, though Reid, who has a close relationship with organized labor, put the kibosh on the request by declaring his opposition to “fast-track.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the Republican leadership, said Obama might back both Keystone and fast-track legislation approved by a GOP Senate.

“Both of them if they were on his desk would be hard things for the president not to agree on,” he said.

Republicans say they want to pass a budget in the first half of next year that would include special procedural instructions known as reconciliation to smooth the way for broader tax reform and entitlement reform.

Under reconciliation, the majority party can pass legislation through the Senate with only a simple-majority vote instead of the 60 votes usually required. Democrats used it in 2010 to pass changes to the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is poised to become chairman of the Budget Committee if the Senate flips, said the majority party “has an obligation to lay out a financial plan for America.”

Portman, who served as director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President George W. Bush, said special procedural rules in the budget could “provide for something on the revenue side, which could lead to tax reform [and] something on the spending side, which could lead to some of the necessary changes to our incredibly important but unsustainable entitlement reform.”

Sessions said he hopes Democrats who pursued a grand bargain on tax and entitlement reform in 2011 could be persuaded to sit down at the negotiating table next year.

“We’re going to be working toward it,” he said of entitlement reform. “There’s no doubt about it that serious legislative reform of things like Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs, food stamps, would need some bipartisan support.”

Senate Republicans want to dispel the image painted by Democrats over the past four years that they are obstructionists bent on grinding government to a halt.

They want to show they can get legislation passed after years of frustrating gridlock.

“One guy is blocking all the legislation — that’s the majority leader. If we get rid of him, then the spigot opens an we start passing legislation again,” said a Republican leadership aide, referring to Reid.

Democrats counter that Republicans are to blame for the stalemate. They say Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) intentionally blocked business with several hundred filibusters to enable GOP candidates to run against a dysfunctional institution.

Feds Can Donate to More Charities, But Will They?

Feds Can Donate to More Charities, But Will They?

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta noted the changes are important as the workforce becomes more mobile.
OPM Director Katherine Archuleta noted the changes are important as the workforce becomes more mobile. 

Federal employees now can donate to thousands more charities as part of the 2014 Combined Federal Campaign. The question is, will they?

This year the Office of Personnel Management has launched the Universal Giving program, which allows feds to donate to more than 24,000 charities nationwide for the annual CFC drive. Before the change, employees could only give to national charities, or those in their specific CFC region. This greatly expands the universe of charities: for instance, federal workers in the Washington area, who could donate to 4,000 groups last year, now have the option of donating to 24,000 organizations in 2014.

“This is important as the American workforce becomes more mobile – [federal employees can donate to] the charities closest to [their] hearts regardless of the region they currently work in,” said OPM Director Katherine Archuleta in a call with reporters on Wednesday. There are 151 CFC regions.

But participation in the CFC has decreased notably over the last four years. Donations dipped 19 percent in 2013 over 2012, marking the fourth consecutive year of declining contributions for the federal government’s annual giving drive. Last year feds gave $209 million, down from $258.3 million in 2012. The 2012 figure was a 5.3 percent reduction from 2011. Click here for a chart that shows annual CFC donations from 2004 to 2013.

The 16-day government shutdown in the middle of last year’s drive didn’t help, though OPM gave employees an extra month to pledge donations. The annual drive runs from Sept. 1 through Dec. 15.

Federal employees traditionally have been very generous with their donations; $7 billion has been raised for charities since CFC’s creation in 1961. But the past few years of pay freezes, anti-federal employee rhetoric and other threats to pay and benefits, soured some workers on giving. An informal poll conducted by Government Executive in 2012 found that feds wanted to continue giving to charitable causes but showed less enthusiasm for doing so through the CFC.

Last spring, OPM announced an overhaul of the CFC, based on recommendations from a commission tasked with figuring out how to improve the program. A 2012 audit of the Washington-area CFC found more than $300,000 in questionable expenses. Some of the money went toward overcharges for food, travel and other campaign expenses, the audit said. As a result of that report, OPM prohibited spending donations on meals, travel or entertainment. In light of the IG’s audit, the commission also recommended that OPM improve its oversight of the CFC program and reduce certain costs associated with it.

Some of the reforms OPM incorporated – which don’t take effect until 2016 — were not popular with lawmakers. Republicans and Democrats took issue with OPM’s proposal to require charities to pay an application fee to participate in CFC. The fees could disproportionately hurt small charities and discourage them from participating in the campaign, the oversight leaders argued, which could in turn drive away would-be donors.

For 2014, in addition to being able to donate to more charities, federal employees who want to give can use a new online feature and search organizations by name, keyword or tax code. Federal employees interesting in participating in the CFC should visit OPM’s website for more information.

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

Feds Were Feeling a Lot Less Generous in 2013

Feds Were Feeling a Lot Less Generous in 2013

Kwiatek7/Shutterstock.com

Donations to the Combined Federal Campaign dipped 19 percent in 2013 over the previous year, marking the fourth consecutive year of declining contributions for the federal government’s annual giving drive.

With 162 of the 163 local CFC administrators reporting their totals, federal employees had committed $209 million to the campaign in 2013, according to a tally by the Workplace Giving Alliance. One group in southwest Montana has not yet submitted its totals, so the alliance estimated that group’s donations at 80 percent of its 2012 total. An OPM spokeswoman said the agency is still verifying the 2013 totals.

Overall, CFC raised $258.3 million in 2012, a 5.3 percent reduction from 2011.

The 16-day government shutdown occurred in the middle of the 15-week solicitation period for 2013, prompting the Office of Personnel Management to give federal employees an extra month to pledge donations.

During the solicitation period, which opened Sept. 1, charities often attend events held at agency offices nationwide to promote their organizations, and CFC officials — both local organizers and agency employee volunteers — educate the federal workforce about the program. During the shutdown, however, many agencies sent home the vast majority of their workforces, making CFC efforts nearly impossible. Even agencies that retained a more significant portion of their workforces canceled CFC events.

The 2013 total is by far the lowest the campaign has raised since at least 2004. In addition to the shutdown, federal employees faced a third consecutive year of frozen pay, tight budgets and furloughs due to sequestration cuts.

Here is a chart of the CFC pledge totals in each year since 2004:

(Top image via Kwiatek7/Shutterstock.com)