The forecasters continue to predict Republicans are marginally favored to take the Senate. But they also agree this battle remains extremely close and that Democrats could still hang on. If they do, it will be partly because of a factor that continues to go under-appreciated: In an election that is supposed to be all about the unpopularity of President Obama and his health law, conservative governance, and conservative overreach, are very much on the ballot this fall, too.

A new batch of NBC/Marist polls released over the weekend showed Democratic Senator Kay Hagan hanging on to a four point lead in North Carolina, while independent Greg Orman now leads incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas by 10 points. The North Carolina finding is in sync with the average, while the Kansas one isn’t, though the Kansas average does show Orman leading.

It would have been awfully bold to predict six months ago that Republicans would be trailing in North Carolina and Kansas. But what’s notable here is that both these states are home to two of the nation’s leading experiments in conservative state-level governance.

In North Carolina, the Senate race has turned to an unexpected degree on the hard right turn of the state legislature under Hagan’s opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis. The NBC poll of North Carolina finds Hagan leading even though her favorability ratings are under water, at 42-48. Tillis’ personal ratings are worse, at 36-47, a net of minus 11. Given that Democrats have relentlessly attacked Tillis over the state legislature’s education cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy — and given that Tillis has not committed any noticeably awful gaffes — it seems reasonable to assume the legislature’s priorities might be a key reason Republicans are trailing.

The case in Kansas is somewhat less clear cut. Kansas governor Sam Brownback has turned his tenure into a “real live experiment” in the proposition that slashing taxes will unleash runaway growth, an experiment conservatives have held aloft as a showcase for the whole country. The result has been a flood of red ink and deep cuts to government and education that have made moderate Republicans in the state recoil in shock.

It’s hard to know just how responsible this is for Orman’s lead. But the NBC poll of Kansas also shows Governor Brownback down slightly against his Democratic challenger. Meanwhile, Orman is leading in spite of the fact that Obama has only a 36 percent approval rating in the state, and in spite of relentless GOP efforts to link Orman to the President, suggesting this race isn’t All About Obummer, but about something else. The poll also shows there are more self-described moderates in the state (40 percent) than conservatives (31 percent). And Orman’s message is premised on the unpopularity of both parties, the GOP included, which might be easier to do if Brownback’s overreach is alienating independents and moderate Republicans, which appears to be happening.

It’s a mistake to read too much significance into election outcomes. But if Democrats do hold North Carolina and Orman wins and caucuses with Dems — which the forecasters seem to see as a real possibility — it will make it somewhat more likely that Dems hold their majority. If so, it would be quite the outcome if two states that are hosting nationally watched experiments in conservative governance end up playing a key role in making that happen.


* HOW DEMS HOPE TO HANG ON IN ALASKA: Don’t miss Philip Rucker’s outstanding piece on the voter mobilization machinery that Dems are building throughout far flung rural Alaska, which will be key to Senator Mark Begich’s chances even if he is slightly behind GOP challenger Dan Sullivan:

In 2012, Alaska had 82 early voting locations, mostly in urban and suburban areas. But after Alaska Native leaders demanded better access in rural villages, the state is opening 208 early voting locations this month — 161 of them in rural Alaska. This means that the campaigns have a full two weeks to marshal voters to the polls…Sullivan has five field offices…this year, Begich opened 16 offices, many in far-flung communities. Whereas Sullivan and the Republican Party have 14 field staffers on the payroll, Begich and the Democratic Party have 90.

Also, Alaska is notoriously difficult to poll, so this sort of stuff really bears watching here.

* ERNST HOLDS SLIM LEAD IN IOWA: The NBC polling released this weekend also finds Joni Ernst leading Bruce Braley by two points, 46-44. Given that the polling average shows Ernst up by 1.2 points, it seems likely that Ernst’s edge is significantly smaller than that Des Moines Register poll putting her up six that got so much attention.

* DEMS LEAD EARLY VOTING IN IOWA: Political scientist Michael McDonald has a useful overview of the state of early voting in Iowa, which shows Democrats with a lead, though there are important caveats, which hint at what we should be watching for now:

Republicans now have 62,881 total ballot requests, 38,145 more requests than they had at a similar point in 2010, representing a 154 percent increase. Democrats still lead with 103,537 total requests, but this is 32,545 more than the similar point in 2010, representing a 68 percent increase. The DSCC claims that Iowa Republicans are just banking votes from people who voted in 2010 and would have voted in 2014 anyway.

That last notion is key. The DSCC claims 30 percent of Democrats who requested absentee ballots, and 47 percent of independents who did the same, did not vote in 2010. Dem chances turn on whether they are able to get those who didn’t vote in the last midterm out this time.

* DEMS LEAD IN CONTACTING VOTERS: Nate Cohn takes a look at new polling and finds Republicans retain a small edge in the battle for Senate control, but also finds this in the data:

The Democrats have invested millions more than Republicans in building a strong turnout operation, and the effects of that effort are already evident in the YouGov data. More voters have been contacted by Democratic than Republican campaigns in every state but Kansas and Kentucky, where Republican senators fought competitive primaries. Whether the Democratic turnout machine can turn its advantage in voter contacts into additional votes on Election Day might well determine Senate control.

As I’ve reported here, the basic Dem game plan is to try to reach parity (or better) on the air, and then grind out a victory on the margins through brute organizing and voter mobilization.

* CLINTON GOES ALL OUT IN ARKANSAS: Politico reports that Bill Clinton has no less than four rallies planned in Arkansas, to persuade swing voters that Senator Mark Pryor is a centrist who is better for the state than the far-right Tom Cotton, and to mobilize core Dem voters whose turnout will be crucial on the margins. Key to this will be African Americans, who are positioned to play a pivotal and historic role in several southern Senate races — if they turn out.

* DEMS PRESS CLIMATE CHANGE IN MICHIGAN RACE:  The New York Times has an interesting and useful overview of all the spending on ads coming from Democratic groups, which shows Dems pressing a range of issues — from Personhood to women’s health to the environment — across the country, in an election that was supposed to be all about Obamacare. Note this factoid:

In Michigan, for example, 79 percent of issues mentioned in ads by Democratic-leaning outside groups have been about the environment or energy, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project.

As I’ve said before, if Dems can win in Michigan, while making climate change and the Koch brothers liabilities for the Republican candidate, it will be one bright spot.

* A RETURN OF ‘VOODOO ECONOMICS’: Paul Krugman suggests that if Republicans take the Senate, they’ll be in a better position to push the neutral Congressional Budget Office to adopt “dynamic scoring,” i.e., the idea that we should factor in future economic growth in measuring the fiscal impact of tax cuts:

For years people like [Paul] Ryan have posed as champions of fiscal discipline even while advocating huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. They have also called for savage cuts in aid to the poor, but these have never been big enough to offset the revenue loss. So how can they make things add up?…Inevitably, then, they’re feeling the pull of that old black magic — and if they take the Senate, they’ll be able to infuse voodoo into supposedly neutral analysis.

* BREAKING: IOWA CHICKEN CHARGE IS BOGUS: Republicans and Joni Ernst continue to attack Dem candidate Bruce Braley for supposedly threatening to sue a neighbor over chickens wandering into his yard. Glenn Kessler takes a very close look at the situation and concludes that there is no definitive evidence that this threat was made.

Noteworthy: The source for this claim — a lawyer for the local condo board who made an inconclusive claim that Republicans have spun up and fed to the media like chicken feed — is refusing to clarify it.