Saturday, March 05, 2016

The State of the Senate

While Donald Trump feels a bit like Regina George lately, in terms of you constantly want to bring him up in every conversation if only to see people's reactions, one of the few Trump-adjacent conversations that no one seems to be having surrounds what his down-ballot impact will be.  While the Republicans have spoken about what his impact will be on the race for the White House (most agree it won't be good), if the GOP can't get their party loyal out and they feel like Clinton is inevitably going to win, that will have a major impact down to the races for Congress and the governor's mansions.  It's very likely, in fact, that if Republican turnout is depressed it could have a major impact on whether or not Mitch McConnell's stonewalling of a Supreme Court nominee will have been worth it, as it's likely Obama/McConnell will get a more moderate justice than Clinton/Schumer.  I am not buying quite yet that Trump will be a total train-wreck down-ballot (he still has to win enough delegates, not to mention that a conservative third party candidate would be a big boost to the Senate prospects of the party even if it would eviscerate their chances for the White House).  I'm assuming, though, that Trump is going to have something of a negative stance on the Senate prospects of most candidates, and the below rankings reflect that theology.  Without further adieu, the ten most vulnerable Senate seats to a takeover.

Lt. Governor Patty Judge (D-IA)
Honorable Mention: It's worth noting that the Democrats have a couple of theoretically interesting races if the political environment becomes incredibly in their favor.  It's very likely, for example, that Hillary Clinton will target Georgia in a race against Trump, and while there's no A or even B-list candidate there, a late entry could still emerge since it just happened in Iowa.  If I were an ambitious female lawmaker in the state, I'd take the risk that I could become the next Kay Hagan or Joni Ernst.  Secondly, Indiana is a state that has been pretty friendly in presidential years to Democrats, giving them a shock electoral college victory in 2008 and a surprise Senate win in 2012.  I'm not saying that Rep. Baron Hill has a great leg-up on Reps. Martin Stutzman and Todd Young, but Young's weird ballot-access issues combined with the Hoosier State's sparing but potential swing state status could make this worth noting.  Finally, an actual swing state like Iowa has stayed off-the-radar for the past few months, but with Sen. Chuck Grassley in the news both for the Supreme Court nomination and the impending Trump campaign that could hurt him if Clinton is winning his state by a large margin, Lt. Governor Patty Judge's recent recruitment has given the Democrats a chance against the Senate titan, something thought unthinkable a few months ago.  If poll numbers are close against Grassley, this could be a horrid year for the GOP.  Watch this one.

Secretary of State Jason Kander (D-MO)
10. Missouri/North Carolina

I'm cheating a little here by tying the two states, but it isn't without good reason.  Both states have a swing state status, and both delivered near losses for the Democrats in recent years (2008 for Missouri, 2012 for North Carolina), and I suspect Hillary Clinton will try to rescue the Show-Me State from total Republican domination.  Sen. Roy Blunt is hardly controversial and probably would be fine if he doesn't have any top-ballot weight, but the Democrats have a solid candidate in Secretary of State Jason Kander, and he's been running a pretty decent set of fundraising numbers so far.  In North Carolina, Sen. Richard Burr staved off a challenge from former Sen. Kay Hagan (who I'm guessing is kicking herself now realizing that Trump could have brought her a second term), but State Rep. Deborah Ross looks likely to win the primary and face Burr in the general.  Both of these states should lean to the GOP, but if Clinton is able to translate them on an electoral college level, the recent trend against ticket-splitting could put even longtime politicians like Burr and Blunt in trouble. (Previous Ranking: 10 for NC, N/A for MO)

State Rep. Jon Keyser (R-CO)
9. Colorado

The Centennial State finally has a candidate for the GOP, State Rep. Jon Keyser, to take on two-term incumbent Michael Bennet.  I always think that "he's their third choice" sorts of stories are overrated-people ranging from Joni Ernst to Jeff Merkley have made a wave work for them and became stars in their own right in the US Senate despite no one initially wanting them for the nomination.  That being said, Keyser could suffer if Republicans go with Trump, particularly in a state with a high Latino population that will surely favor Bennet.  It's also worth noting that Keyser has to raise his profile pretty significantly if the environment is neutral, and if it's lean Democrat it seems almost impossible that he could win enough Clinton/Keyser voters to take out an incumbent if the Democrats are doing well. (Previous Ranking: 9)

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

In my mind few states have increased their potential more this cycle than Arizona, where Sen. John McCain is running a pretty lackluster reelection despite having an excellent verve six years ago when running for a term after losing the White House.  While his primary challenge from State Sen. Kelli Ward is going nowhere for the Tea Party banner-carrier, McCain has seen some noise from Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), most notably in a damning campaign commercial where McCain is seen repeatedly, almost drone-like, saying he would support Donald Trump if he were the nominee.  It's hard, quite frankly, to see Kirkpatrick actually winning the Senate seat without Trump at the top-of-the-ticket, but as the odds of that happening are continuing to increase, Kirkpatrick could gain in a significant way with Latino voters in the state, who make up a significant 29% of the voting population.  Her race is still an uphill climb, but I do feel that this is this cycle's sleeper race that could turn in a wave. (Previous Ranking: 8)

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

Democrats in Ohio will soon go to the polls in their primary, and while PG Sittenfeld has raised an enormous amount of money, it does appear likely that incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman will take on Gov. Ted Strickland in a battle that could come down to whether or not Democrats are winning the state nationally.  Polls have consistently shown Strickland with an even or slightly-above Portman chance at a win, which has baffled pundits (myself included) who would have placed Portman as the superior candidate.  That said, this could simply be a case of people not splitting their ticket or Portman, who admittedly has had an unenthusiastic response from evangelicals (he was a critical senator when it comes to the gay marriage movement, coming out in favor of the issue before every other Republican senator), may not be as wildly-beloved in the Buckeye State as he is in the Beltway.  I think this race will be brought into sharper focus in the summer after the primaries and when we'll know who will be at the top of ticket that Portman will be required to defend on the stump. (Previous Ranking: 6)

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)

6. Nevada

The most vulnerable Democratic Senate seat in the country is one of the races where we easily know whom the two candidates will be: Rep. Joe Heck (R) and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D).  What is unclear is how much of a gain Sen. Harry Reid, who has been a Democratic kingpin in the state, can bring as he tries to solidify his legacy by handing his seat off to his protegee Cortez Masto.  The state went pretty heartily for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012, but has a Republican streak still statewide, as Obama couldn't grab coattails for Rep. Shelley Berkley in 2012 and the state has gone strongly for a Republican governor in the past few midterms.  The state has a large Latino population, so this is another state where the Donald Trump question looms large-if he's the nominee, will Hillary Clinton be able to galvanize Latino supporters to the polls in larger-than-expected numbers, which will surely help a woman trying to become the first Latina US Senator. (Previous Ranking: 4)

Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH)
5. New Hampshire

New Hampshire is famously fickle in the past decade, swinging hard to the Democrats in 2006, 2008, and 2012, while ferociously backing the Republicans in 2010.  That being said, the state did give a relatively tepid but real nod to the Democrats in the 2014 wave and while Hillary Clinton didn't win the state this year, she did in 2008 and the state has gone to the Democrats the past three presidential elections.  Why this is important is because the state famously prone to coattails has a major battle brewing between Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) and Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), both of whom are popular and are already in a bit of a slugfest.  Ayotte has led in most polling so far, but not by much, and it seems likely that she won't be able to overcome a particularly strong Democratic push nationally (I can't imagine a Democrat winning the state by more than 5-points without her also falling to Hassan).  Both sides are near certain to spend a mountain of cash here as the winner will be seen as a national figure and potential White House contender in the future.  Ayotte has the upper-hand if the election were held today, but it's not and I think she could be vulnerable if the Republican brand remains in jeopardy. (Previous Ranking: 5)

Chief of Staff Katie McGinty (D-PA)
4. Pennsylvania

The biggest jumper on this list still faces a lot of uncertainty.  Republican Pat Toomey's approval ratings in the state are fairly low, and the state which has gone Democratic in the past six presidential contests bodes very well for both Hillary Clinton and an electorate that has shown an unwillingness to split their presidential/congressional ballots in the past decade.  Toomey may still gain from what is clearly a rough primary (the biggest one the DSCC couldn't avoid), with former Rep. Joe Sestak, whom he faced in 2010, leading the field despite the establishment being firmly behind gubernatorial Chief of Staff Katie McGinty.  Even though hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on her behalf, McGinty hasn't been able to catch on with voters and will likely have to turn to television ad buys to increase her margins by the end of April when the state holds its primary.  Either candidate, though, will have a solid game to play against Toomey who has been hurt by the Supreme Court nomination battle and will have to find a way to convince enough Hillary Clinton voters that he'd be a better choice to work with her in the Senate, which feels like a rough sell. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL)
3. Florida

With all of the attention on the Florida presidential primary, it is worth noting that Marco Rubio may cost the Republicans doubly in his home state this cycle, as a loss against Donald Trump (which seems quite probable if polls hold) could be coupled with his Senate seat (which he's not eligible to run for) going to the Democrats as well.  That's because the Republican primary is a disjointed mess, with Rep. David Jolly currently leading a splintered field that includes Rep. Ron DeSantis and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera.  They may be saved, however, by the Democrats who have given controversial Rep. Alan Grayson (who would doom the Democrats in a general election battle) better polling numbers than more moderate Rep. Patrick Murphy, despite President Obama, the DSCC, and the fundraising race all going to Murphy.  Expect both battles to get pretty bitter as we head to the late August primary, as Grayson is personally wealthy and the Republicans will go all-out if they think he's their opponent as it will be an easy victory in a moderate state.  At this rate, the Democrats have a clear choice between a general election win or loss in the primary, and historical precedence has shown that they generally suck-it-up in those situations compared to the Republicans (Democrats don't have a Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin on their conscience), but we'll see if Grayson's margin holds.  I'm guessing based on Murphy v. Jolly, which would probably result in a slim D-pickup, but that's a big if based on the primaries. (Previous Ranking: 3)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI)
2. Wisconsin

The top two races are miles away from the others in terms of potential for the seats flipping, it's worth noting.  Six years after businessman Ron Johnson stunned the political community by besting Sen. Russ Feingold, the former three-term senator most definitely has the upper-hand as literally every poll commissioned has shown Feingold up over Johnson, usually by double-digit margins.  Wisconsin is more competitive on a presidential level than our Number One pick, which is why it stays in the silver spot, but neither of them seem like warm prospects for the GOP to hold, and a late-run toward moderation on Johnson's side probably isn't going to help much.  Feingold did lose in 2010, so he's not impenetrable, but nothing in this race seems to indicate any hope for Johnson, and it's worth noting that Feingold (who turned down an easy return to the Senate in 2012 and a gubernatorial nomination in 2012/2014) wants to beat Johnson badly, clearly, and it's likely a little bit personal for him to end his career on a victory. (Previous Ranking: 2)

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)
1. Illinois

Sen. Mark Kirk seems destined to become a one-term wonder, as the Land of Lincoln is surely going to replace him with Rep. Tammy Duckworth in a few months.  Not only does polling give Duckworth the edge (she's up by double digits in most polls), but her primary challenge from Andrea Zopp seems to be going nowhere, and Hillary Clinton not only has historical precedence in Illinois (Democrats usually win their by wide margins), but also home-state advantage as she was born in Chicago.  Kirk can't seem to catch a break in the state, and while Duckworth isn't a flawless candidate (she lost in 2006 in an election most expected her to take, and someone like Attorney General Lisa Madigan probably would have posed a bigger shutdown), she's going to be next to impossible to beat under these conditions. (Previous Ranking: 1)

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