9:10 AM PT: SC-01: By popular demand, PPP polled the special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, and the numbers they got back are quite something. Republicans still have to contend with a runoff on Tuesday, an unsurprisingly, ex-Gov. Mark Sanford, who finished first on primary night, is in the lead with 53 percent, while attorney Curtis Bostic is at 40. It won't be especially easy for Bostic to make up that gap, particularly since he'd have to convince some Sanford voters to change their minds, but Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch has to seriously hope he's unable to.
That's because Sanford's deep unpopularity with the electorate as a whole makes the race in this dark red district very competitive. Comparing his general election head-to-heads with Bostic's is instructive:
Sanford (R): 45
Colbert Busch (D): 43
Bostic (R): 43
Bostic's favorability rating is quite poor, at 30-42, but Sanford's is downright abysmal, 34-58. His notorious history makes him more than just polarizing: He drives 15 percent of GOP voters directly into the hands of Colbert Busch, who sports favorables of 45-31. Against Bostic, by contrast, she only takes 10 percent of Republicans. But even Bostic's toplines are pretty soft for a seat like this, which went for Mitt Romney 58-40 in last November's presidential election.
Still, there are far more undecideds in the Colbert Busch-Bostic matchup, and since they lean heavily Republican, they're very likely to come home to Bostic in the end. Sanford, by contrast, would have a harder time winning over a sufficient number of voters who haven't yet made up their minds simply because there are fewer of them. It's definitely still very much in reach for him, though, just given the demographics of the district, which is why a Colbert Busch win would be such an upset, even against some as disliked as Sanford.
The real tell about the competitiveness of this race will come if and when we see any serious outside spending here, particularly from the major party committees (the DCCC and the NRCC). It's not always a sure indicator that a race is close, though: Last cycle, Democrats spent heavily to protect a blue seat in an Oregon special election, while the GOP did the same in Nevada. Both contests wound up being quite lopsided, so sometimes third-party money comes in simply as a matter of insurance.
There are also always the caveats about polling special elections, which can be extremely unpredictable, and special election runoffs, which can be even moreso. But PPP has a good track record in recent years surveying oddball races, and their respondents say they supported Romney over Obama 56-40 last year, which is quite close to the actual figures. That doesn't mean PPP is necessarily right—the electorate could certainly wind up being either redder or bluer than usual—but it does mean they're in the plausibility ballpark.
But no matter what, it once again looks like the GOP is at risk of making what should be a safely Republican seat far more competitive than it ought to be by tapping a weird and unpopular candidate as their nominee. If Bostic's smart, he'll use these numbers to make an electability argument ahead of the runoff. But those kinds of appeals seldom seem to work with conservatives, and if Sanford can hang on, we could be in for a very interesting showdown on May 7.
10:32 AM PT: AK-Sen: Here's another red state Democrat who isn't afraid of how marriage equality will play on the campaign trail: Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who just put out a statement confirming his belief that "same sex couples should be able to marry." This isn't really news, though. Begich had previously told the Human Right Campaign that he supports same sex marriage, something BuzzFeed seemed to miss when they started running a whip count on Democrats running for re-election in GOP-tiling states. But it's good to see that this matter is now firmly off the table, and in libertarian-ish Alaska, I'd be surprised if any Republicans even tried to make an issue of it.
11:16 AM PT: GA-Sen: GOP Rep. Phil Gingrey's sort of done the no-head-chicken dance when it comes to a possible Senate run: Last month, he reportedly began telling people he'd make a bid, but then publicly denied it—even though one consultant said Gingrey made an announcement on a conference call with a dozen people. So bear that in mind as you read this new report (based on an unnamed source) which says that Gingrey finally plans to launch his campaign on Wednesday. Given his history, I think I prefer to wait until we actually hear it from the horse's mouth.
11:42 AM PT (David Jarman): Maps: If you remember my animated map from a few weeks ago of the changing face of Kentucky's county-level presidential votes over the decades -- assembled via the amazing Open Heat Map -- you may have thought "Seems like you could make an animated map of the whole country that same way!" You sure can; the only real impediment is wrangling the more than 60,000 data points you need to make it work! But here's what it looks like at a national-level, over the years 1988-2012:
The coloration is based on each county's relative distance from the national average that particular year (something you probably know as "PVI"), rather than the Democratic candidate's percentage; that's done in large part to smooth out the effects of the Perot and Nader candidacies. It does have a bit of a distorting effect on Mike Dukakis's loss in 1988, as he still wound up losing many of those grey-to-light-blue counties, even as he was overperforming his national average, simply because his national average stunk so much. (It's also worth considering that '88 was something of a Democratic high-water mark in much of the rural Midwest, thanks to the farm crisis.)
Even allowing for that, though, the map clearly shows the increasing polarization of the country's rural and urban areas as the decades wore on. If you weren't paying close attention, you'd only notice the huge red explosions starting in the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains and slowly sweeping across the Plains and the South, and assume this map illustrated the utter destruction of the Democratic Party ... but, of course, those are mostly low-population counties, and even more important are the increasingly-intense areas of blue along the coasts and the Great Lakes.
The map is interactive, so you can pause on particular years, zoom in on particular states, and if you mouse over particular counties, you can see that county's PVI that particular year. There's one other way to approach this question, though, which doesn't look as much like a U.S.-shaped lava lamp but is a little easier to focus on: a stationary map showing the trend in the changed PVI from 1988 to 2012. It conveys the same idea, though: heavily concentrated red in the southern Plains and along the Appalachian Arc, heavily concentrated blue along the coasts, especially in the northeast, Florida, and California.
12:05 PM PT: MA-Sen: Hrm. A new MassINC poll for WBUR has Rep. Ed Markey leading fellow Rep. Stephen Lynch in the Democratic primary for the upcoming Senate special election, but the numbers are odd. Markey's up only 35-24, which represents a drop for both candidates compared to MassINC's survey from a month ago. Back then, the firm had Markey ahead 38-31, and there's really no way to explain how both candidates could have slid backwards. (Notably, WBUR doesn't even try to.) The undecided percentage is also a lot higher than we've seen in other polls, so take this data with a few grains of salt.
MassINC does, however, offer the first window on the GOP primary, where former US Attorney Michael Sullivan leads the pack with 28 percent, while state Rep. Dan Winslow is at 10 and businessman Gabriel Gomez at 8. Amusingly, Sullivan is also the preferred choice of Bay State Democrats, given his unapologetically conservative views on issues like abortion (he's against it, natch), but again, there are tons of undecideds.
Sullivan, though, fares the best in hypothetical general election matchups, though he hardly does well. He holds Markey to a 44-27 lead and Lynch to a 49-21 edge. That spread between the two Democrats is also found when they're paired against Winslow (Markey 44-22, Lynch 52-15) and Gomez (44-25 vs. 55-17). I wouldn't be surprised if Lynch tried to make some sort of electability argument based on these numbers, but again, I'm a bit skeptical of this poll.
12:12 PM PT: NJ-Gov: Quinnipiac may want to reconsider its plans to poll the New Jersey gubernatorial race every month, because it's the same thing every time. I'm not saying don't poll it at all, but it probably wouldn't hurt to take a break, especially since the campaign still hasn't heated up yet.
1:13 PM PT: SD-Sen: As expected, Tim Johnson has decided to retire rather than seek a fourth term in the Senate next year. Johnson faced an indisputably tough race ahead. While South Dakota once regularly elected Democrats to federal office, Johnson was the last one left standing, and his long record as a member of the blue team had inevitably worn on his reputation back home. On top of that, he drew the strongest possible opponent immediately after last November's election in the form of ex-Gov. Mike Rounds, who remains pretty popular. And though Johnson's mental acuity has never been in doubt, a 2006 stroke affected his mobility and speech, requiring the use of a wheelchair at times.
When Democratic incumbents retire in red states, that often portends difficulty in terms of holding the seat. But this case may be an exception. A recent PPP poll found Johnson losing to Rounds by 11 points, but if ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin ran in his stead, she'd still trail, but by a much small 4-point margin. I suspect the difference boils down to tenure: Johnson has been in Congress since 1986 (starting in the House), while Herseth Sandlin served a little over six years before losing in 2010. Sometimes you're better off running without a lengthy history of votes and public statements attached to your name.
It's no sure thing that Herseth Sandlin will run, though, and if she opts not to, all eyes will turn to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, who is Tim Johnson's son. While Johnson is largely unknown and thus fared poorly in PPP's poll, he may actually have more upside than Herseth Sandlin: As a prosecutor, he has no unpopular votes to defend and can present the sort of law-and-order image that often works well for Democrats running on difficult red terrain.
And it's not necessarily smooth sailing for Rounds, either. Many conservatives view him as a "moderate," a dreaded label in a GOP primary. They'd likely prefer Rep. Kristi Noem, the woman who unseated Herseth Sandlin. Noem is being cagey, with her campaign saying she "hasn't ruled anything in or out," but if she were to run, PPP's survey showed the nomination would be a tossup between her and Rounds. And in various general election matchups, Noem makes the race noticeably more competitive.
But make no mistake about it: Regardless of whom either side puts forward, this is going to be a very difficult hold for Democrats, who face a very difficult Senate landscape overall. The one bit of optimism I might offer is that Dems managed to keep an open Senate seat in North Dakota blue last year, thanks to Heidi Heitkamp's brilliant campaign and the weakness of her opponent. We'd be very lucky indeed to replicate that success, though, but we'll be following all further developments here very closely, as always.
1:31 PM PT: And add MT-Sen's Jon Tester to the rolls of marriage equality supporters as well. Like Claire McCaskill, who got on board a day earlier, Tester was of course just re-elected to a second term, so it'll be quite a while before he faces voters again. But it probably won't matter by 2018: Nate Silver predicts that a majority of Montanans will also back same-sex marriage some time before 2016, while Missourians should follow suit not long after.
2:27 PM PT: P.S. A pretty good get for Bostic, whose greatest source of strength is among evangelicals: Former Sen. and one-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum has endorsed him and will campaign with him on Wednesday. But SC-01 isn't really Christian conservative turf. In fact, it was the only district Mitt Romney won in the state in last year's Republican presidential primary, even as Newt Gingrich beat him overall by a 40-28 margin. Santorum only took 17 percent statewide, so I doubt he did especially well here, either.
2:45 PM PT: PA-Gov: State Rep. Scott Conklin, who served as the Democrats' last lieutenant governor candidate, says he is giving "very serious" consideration to a gubernatorial bid. Conklin narrowly won the LG primary in 2010 but went down to a 9 point defeat in the general election with Dan Onorato at the top of the ticket. (The lt. gov. and gov. nominating contests are held separately in Pennsylvania.)