Monday, October 12, 2015

The State of the Senate

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), one of the DSCC's
best recruits
Since it's October and that usually means (for me, anyway) an itch to discuss elections, I figured we would do a countdown of some of the 2016 (and even a few 2015) races, seeing where everything is at, and since May was the last time we checked in on the State of the Senate, that was the contest begging the most for an update.  Below I'll rank the seats most likely to change hands in the 2016 elections, with Number One being most likely.  Let's discuss, shall we?

Honorable Mentions: I'll point out right now that the Democrats have kind of gone above-and-beyond in recruitment this cycle.  While I doubt that Jason Kander (Missouri), Baron Hill (Indiana), Conner Eldridge (Arkansas), and (if he gets in, as expected) Adam Edelen (Kentucky) have a chance under normal circumstances, there's always the possibility that with a Donald Trump winning the nomination or a theoretical Todd Akin-style moment that the Democrats will be ready to take advantage with elected or experienced candidates.  None of these seats should be predicted to go to the Democrats, or even lean toward the Democrats, but we saw in 2010 in Delaware and in 2006 in Virginia that having a quality candidate on-hand can pay-off in case the other party makes a grave mistake.

10. North Carolina

In a year where the Democrats have done an impossibly good job of running-the-table on candidate recruitments and getting almost exactly who they wanted in every major race, North Carolina stands apart.  Former Sen. Kay Hagan was clearly the preferred choice of the Democrats to take on two-term Sen. Richard Burr, but Hagan did something it seems no one else did for the DSCC this year: she said no.  As a result, the Democrats have been scrounging trying to find a candidate, and most of the other A-listers like State Treasurer Janet Cowell and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx both shot down the opportunity to run, forcing the Democrats to look into people like Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey and State Rep. Deborah Ross.  It's worth noting two things in this race, though, before you totally write off the Democrats.  One, Kay Hagan was also a B-list candidate eight years ago and the top choice of almost no one when she got into the race and sank Republican titan Elizabeth Dole.  Secondly, the Democrats will definitely be spending heavily here considering the close races in the Tar Heel State in 2008 and 2012 for the White House (15 electoral votes in a swing state are going to have both sides salivating), and the Democrats also have a marquee governor's race.  That being said, this is clearly a case where Richard Burr has to be happy and the Democrats will start out way behind and need some big breaks to translate (Previous Ranking: 9)

9. Colorado

Colorado, on the other hand, is the opposite of North Carolina as it is clearly the seat that Republicans can't seem to catch a break in, which is positioning Sen. Michael Bennet nicely in his bid for a second full term.  A year after Cory Gardner defeated an incumbent Democrat, Republicans have persistently turned down a chance to run against Bennet, most recently District Attorney George Brauchler.  After exhausting all of the best options, it appears likely that the Republicans will end up with a crowded primary of B-list candidates.  Bennet is, like Burr, not a particularly noteworthy senator and is definitely beatable under the right circumstances, but he has dispatched a Republican in a tough year before (he won in 2010, let's remember, as an appointed senator no less), but you can't win without a candidate, and despite the fact that Colorado is similar to North Carolina in terms of White House competitiveness, Bennet has to be smiling along with Burr in the halls of the Senate about his reelection prospects (Previous Ranking: 7)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
8. Arizona

With the falls of Colorado and North Carolina, I'm moving a race that has started to look more-and-more interesting up the chart in the Grand Canyon State.  While the DCCC is still reeling from losing out on a prime candidate for reelection, the DSCC has to be looking at the candidacy of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick with a lot of happiness.  In recent days Kirkpatrick received the endorsement of the DSCC (more a testament to the fact that Kyrsten Sinema was clearly running for reelection and Kirkpatrick was an obviously solid second choice), and more tellingly she received an endorsement of sorts from Republican Rep. David Schweikert, who publicly stated that he doubted McCain could beat Kirkpatrick next year.  While Schweikert insists that he isn't planning a primary challenge against the former Republican nominee for the presidency, it does seem as if he is echoing a continuous chorus of Republicans who think that McCain isn't conservative enough to deserve the nomination.  Though she's hardly at Schweikert's level were he to run, State Sen. Kelli Ward is in the race and could theoretically pose a challenge to McCain in the same way that Richard Mourdock did to Richard Lugar in 2012 (and lest we forget that Joe Donnelly, another House member whom a lot of people thought was foolish for not running for reelection, ended up gaining big time in that situation).  All of this is to say that while McCain is still clearly in the lead, there's a lot of "'what ifs' here (not least of which is at the age of 80, McCain may not have the stamina for a truly grueling race which has hurt candidates before, such as William Roth in 2000).  This is positioning itself as my dark horse race for 2016. (Previous Ranking: 10)

7. Pennysylvania

Sen. Pat Toomey's chances at winning a second term in office rest less with his own doing (he's done a good job balancing between being moderate enough to be palpable in a general election and conservative enough to avoid a primary), and more so on the Democratic Party.  The Democrats other recruiting failure, if they have one, is in the Keystone State where they pretty much wanted anyone other than former Rep. Joe Sestak to be the nominee.  Democrats did get a solid challenger to Sestak in Chief of Staff Katie McGinty (she was CoS for Gov. Tom Wolf), and if it were up to the DSCC she'd be the nominee straight-away, but Sestak has much more name recognition and starts out with a lot more cash-on-hand.  The question will be for McGinty, who may have some connections within the party but doesn't have a natural base as she's never won an election before, is whether or not she can defeat Sestak.  Either way, both start as underdogs against Toomey, but the second half of this Democratic equation is the White House race in 2016.  The last time a Democrat won the electoral votes and a Republican won a Senate seat in the state was 2004, and that was with longtime senator Arlen Specter, not a first-termer who has to deal with the political reality that less voters split their tickets now.  If Hillary Clinton is doing well in the state (as she very well could considering past precedent for both Democrats and her ability with blue-collar voters), McGinty or Sestak could be carried over the finish line.  If she's struggling in the state, it's difficult to see Toomey losing. (Previous Ranking: 8)

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)
6. Ohio

This moves down more because other races are moving up, as the race appears to be a nailbiter between two titans of Buckeye State politics.  Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is running for reelection, and despite his endorsement of gay marriage being a major moment for the gay rights movement (it likely contributed to nationwide gay marriage in a way few other announcements could have), he has avoided a primary challenge.  Democrats do have a primary, but it appears that former Gov. Ted Strickland is likely to win it, and he is polling extremely well against Portman, in some cases even running ahead of him.  This is likely to be close, and though they are both well-known entities, it's hard to imagine the presidential race won't come into play here, particularly if one side is doing considerably better than the other, but this race continues to look more competitive than I initially thought it would be (when it appeared that Strickland was a strong recruit, but no match for Portman).  Put it this way-if the Democrats win here, they'll have won the Senate. (Previous Ranking: 5)

5. New Hampshire

The move by Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) to run against first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) says a lot about the Democrats' chances.  For starters, it's unlikely Hassan would have run if she didn't think she'd be entering the national stage in the majority, so she has to feel good about her chances, and two, despite outside spending Ayotte's team wasn't able to deter the woman they were desperately trying to get to decline the race.  Hassan v. Ayotte is interesting not only because it's the fourth highest-ranking seat on this list that could flip (if the Democrats were to hold the White House and win the top five races on this chart, they'd also have the Senate), but also because it's likely that the winner of the electoral votes in the state will also take this seat, considering that New Hampshire has been the swingiest of swing states in the past decade or so and a huge fan of coattails.  This has to be troubling for Ayotte, who despite being nominally up in the polls (usually by 1-3 points), is going against three straight cycles of the Democrats winning the Granite State at a presidential level. (Previous Ranking: 4)

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)
4. Nevada

I am moving this race up a few pegs if only because A) it's looking like the only chance the GOP has of a pickup and I'm guessing they're going to go full throttle and B) the Democratic Party in the state hasn't been particularly impressive in recent years outside of the presidential level, as they lost NV-4 and all of the constitutional offices in 2014 and couldn't defeat Sen. Dean Heller as President Obama was clobbering Mitt Romney in 2012.  As a result, I wouldn't toss out the idea that Rep. Joe Heck (R) can beat former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D), though Sen. Harry Reid, who is a kingpin in the state, is going to do pretty much everything possible to ensure his protegee and his Senate seat of some thirty years will stay in Democratic hands, as he doesn't want his retirement to be the reason the Democrats can't reclaim the majority.  One wonders how a non-Obama Democrat will do here for the electoral college, and whether Nevada's weird streak of predicting the presidential elections (they've gone with the winner of the Oval Office in the last nine presidential elections, a run only rivaled by Ohio) will continue. (Previous Ranking: 6)

3. Florida

Alan Grayson and Marco Rubio.  Those are the two names that will decide the Senate seat here, as both are huge question marks for the Sunshine State.  Grayson is in a battle royale with Rep. Patrick Murphy, and is trying to run to his left, and his campaign tactics have generally been considered well-below the belt in the past.  However, Grayson's nasty personal life and string of incendiary comments make him unelectable in the general election, so if he were to either win the primary or badly bruise Murphy, this could go to the Republicans by default.  Additionally, Marco Rubio's position at the top of the ticket (and to a lesser extent, Jeb Bush's) could also help bring out home state-pride voters to get behind their man for the White House.  Both of these are two big question marks, but if home state pride isn't what it used to be (Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan didn't do much to get their respective states in 2012, John Edwards helped 0% in turning North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004) and Grayson loses, Murphy has to be considered the frontrunner here as he has the bland moderate profile that has worked for Democrats like Bill Nelson and the Republican primary is a mess of candidates who will surely tear each other apart. (Previous Ranking: 3)

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI)
2. Wisconsin

We now move away from the tossup section of the lineups into what appears to be the likely takeovers. Sen. Ron Johnson was a shocking win in 2010, but didn't create the sort of moderate profile one would traditionally expect from a blue-state Republican elected in a wave.  As a result, Feingold is posting double-digit leads on Johnson in matchup polls, and while polls a year out from an election are hardly worth the paper they are printed on, these are not unknown candidates and Democrats have to feel pretty proud of themselves for getting a likely Senate seat back, and having one of their old colleagues back in office six years after he lost in a late-breaking surprise (winning a rematch after initially losing is always a pretty sweet victory). (Previous Ranking: 1)

1. Illinois

Sen. Mark Kirk, unlike Johnson, has in fact done pretty much everything one would expect of a blue-state Republican during his first-term, and it says something that he's still considered mildly competitive here.  However, Illinois is not Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or New Hampshire; this is not a swing state that might go to the Republicans next November, but a solid-blue state, and Kirk isn't at a Susan Collins level where he can win based on personal popularity.  Rep. Tammy Duckworth isn't a perfect candidate by any means, and I think Democrats would have been better off if they'd gone with a Robin Kelly or Lisa Madigan, but she'll get the job done and will be a dynamite fundraiser.  Put that on-top of the fact that this is Hillary Clinton's home state, that she'll be winning it likely by double-digits, and Kirk's propensity to put his foot in his mouth, and you have what is the most certain Democratic pickup of 2016. (Previous Ranking: 2)

And there you have it-a genuine horse race for the majority, with a lot of question marks even if we roughly know the candidates now.  What are your thoughts-which race are you most looking forward to?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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