Thursday, May 05, 2016

The State of the Senate

Lost amidst the sea of conversations about Trump vs. Clinton is the fact that we have other elections on the ballot in 2016, principally a battle to see who controls the United States Senate.  As many of you likely know, the Democrats needs four seats (five if they don't have the White House) in order to take back control of the body, but have 24 opportunities, as this cycle, thanks to the 2010 Midterms, is overwhelmingly stacked against the majority party.  Of particular note, however, is how Trump will impact the 2016 landscape.

It's likely, in fact quite likely, that we may see a slight uptick in the number of split-ticket ballots this November if Trump's approval ratings remain where they are and no conservative alternative emerges in the coming months.  Split-ticket voting, especially at a federal level, has started to become an endangered species as people (whether they want to admit it to themselves or not) are increasingly more partisan and less "voting for the person" as is a popular cliche.  Still, it's hard to imagine especially conservative women who can't stomach Donald Trump being willing to then cast a ballot for a Democratic senate or congressional candidate against a run-of-the-mill Republican.  That being said, if Trump is actually losing by the 8-10 points nationally that some polls suggest, it seems difficult to imagine that swing state or blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire won't feel that burn.  This list has taken a bit of a swing toward the Democrats since the last time I wrote it as a result of Trump's solidified position in the Republican race.  Granted, that could change-Trump has proven teflon throughout the primary, and perhaps the media's love/hate affair with him will continue, he could still (theoretically) lose the convention fight for the nomination, or Clinton could suffer badly through the summer campaign.  However, at this point it would be foolishness to not admit that the Democrats have a serious opportunity to not only take back the Senate, but perhaps even pad their majority as they head into a less-friendly 2018.  With that, here is the list of the ten seats most likely to switch sides (Number One being the most likely):

Honorable Mention: In the spirit of assuming that Republicans don't have as many resources this cycle and that they will be playing almost exclusively defense, I am removing Sen. Michael Bennet and the state of Colorado from this lineup for now. Republicans have struggled to get serious candidates on the ballot, and State Rep. Jon Keyser couldn't even make it through a petition without having to get a court order mandating he be placed on the ballot. This could change if Trump becomes more competitive, but the combination of Bennet being an incumbent who has already won in a tough cycle, the likely increase in Latino voters in November, and the weak bench from Republicans makes me think that Colorado would only be on this list out of habit, and that Bennet is relatively likely to win a third term in office.

Also, I still think it's far-fetched, but the numbers for Sen. Chuck Grassley's reelection in Iowa continue to look soggier, and the DSCC is stepping out for Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who has had boffo fundraising (getting more in four weeks than her primary opponent pulled off in six months), and is likely to get some credit from Emily's List, who is in desperate need of a win after going 1/5 last week.  Grassley is an Iowa institution, but the Democrats have an easy (and popular) line against him with the Merrick Garland confirmations, and if it's Clinton vs. Trump it's not hard to see her clobbering in Iowa-could that trickle down to help Judge?  It couldn't hurt...

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
10. Missouri

Missouri is the sort of race where the DSCC's insistence on getting as many quality candidates as they could muster could well pay off if Hillary Clinton does in fact beat Donald Trump, and flip valuable light red territory like the Show-Me State.  The problems for Secretary of State Jason Kander as he takes on first-term Sen. Roy Blunt (I'm as surprised as you are that he's only in his first term considering how quickly he's risen in the leadership ranks-take note, Chris van Hollen), are how many split-ticket votes he'll be able to pick off.  Missouri voters have in past presidential elections been more open to voting one party and then another (Mitt Romney won the state in 2012, but Claire McCaskill and Jay Nixon both won down-ballot by solid margins), but McCaskill and Nixon were incumbents in those races, something that carries an added bit of weight.  I think, personally, that while Kander is outperforming he's probably going to need Hillary Clinton to win the state in order to actually beat Blunt.  As that looks more and more possible, though, he is someone you shouldn't count out of the contest. (Previous Ranking: 10)

State Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC)
9. North Carolina

The Tarheel State is another contest that the Democrats likely need Hillary Clinton to win in, but as this was the state Mitt Romney won by the closest margin in 2012 (and Barack Obama took the state in 2008), it feels like an easier task for the DSCC than Missouri.  Sen. Richard Burr is a two-term senator who has made very little impression (he's like the Republican version of Bill Nelson), but while he's hardly controversial, he's going to have to share the ballot with two deeply polarizing figures: Donald Trump and Gov. Pat McCrory, who is in a tough battle for reelection in his own right.  Getting people to split your ticket just between the president and the Senate is one thing, but going against your presidential candidate and your governor is quite another.  Burr gains by having a relatively inexperienced opponent in State Rep. Deborah Ross, but Ross has proven to be a quick study, and will surely have a number of supporters like Emily's List in her corner.  Burr starts with an advantage, but should be worried-eight years ago a much more famous politician named Elizabeth Dole was in his exact same position, underestimating a little-known state legislator named Kay Hagan who ended up crushing her on Election Day. (Previous Ranking: 10)

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

It's early in the season, so I'm going to mix it up a little bit with a gut feeling I've had for months.  The movement of Ohio down this list has less to do with the competitive nature of the race (yet another poll this past week showed Sen. Rob Portman and Gov. Ted Strickland tied), and more to do with my intuition starting to kick in in the Number 6 seed on this list.  Make no mistake, though, this is a race to watch. While Sen. Rob Portman is a more prodigious fundraiser (and quite frankly, a more skilled politician), sometimes being the better campaigner or strategist isn't enough (see also Kay Hagan in 2014), and if the national environment is so toxic that Clinton is winning Ohio by, say, 6-8 points, it won't matter how good of a campaign that Portman has run-he's going to lose to Strickland.  This is a race where the national race will have a huge impact, and expect Hillary Clinton, who has long counted Strickland as an ally, to pull out as many stops as she can to get the former governor into the Senate.  How she ends up fairing will go a long way here, in what is truly emerging as an unexpected tossup. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV)
7. Nevada

A lot of people have this race higher on their list, but quite frankly it's hard to say that this seat will switch if you're predicting that nationally the Democrats are going to be doing quite well, as I am currently projecting.  A lot could change between now and November, of course, but Harry Reid's seat looks more and more likely to cement his legacy by being handed off to his protegee Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who would become the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate.  The Republicans have easily their best challenger recruit of the cycle in Rep. Joe Heck, who has long been rumored for the seat (many figured he would run against Reid himself until the Democratic leader surprisingly stepped down), and if the presidential race starts to calm down Heck will have a shot, but it's frequently forgotten that President Obama won the Silver State by robust margins (12-points in 2008 and 7-points in 2012 despite the state's high Mormon population).  It's easy to see Clinton equalling at least his 2012 numbers, and while a Republican can win under those conditions (Dean Heller did), Cortez Masto is a better candidate than the Democrats had in 2012 and the national wind will be more at their backs.  All-in-all, this is a race that could be competitive, and Cortez Masto is untested on a national scale, but I'd rather be the D's than the R's. (Previous Ranking: 6)

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (R-AZ)
6. Arizona

In what is easily my ballsiest move on this list, I'm moving up Sen. John McCain's reelection for a variety of reasons.  For starters, there's perhaps no greater state in the country with more potential for Donald Trump to muck up the chances of the Republicans for the Senate than the Grand Canyon State.  McCain is on-record (repeatedly) stating he will support the Republican nominee for president, but Trump has actually chastised McCain's war record (one of many moments in the campaign where it seemed like the New York businessman had sunk his battleship only to rise unscathed), polls in the state show Clinton walloping Trump in the state despite it going for Republicans the past four presidential elections, and Trump's brand of foreign policy in particular is anathema to McCain (who probably, secretly, prefers his longtime friend Clinton even though he can't possibly say that publicly).  That sets up a situation where McCain could still be vulnerable in a primary, and if he goes back on his Trump support could cost him dearly amongst conservatives who already regard him with suspicion.  All-in-all, McCain is in an awful position and the Democrats have a surprisingly strong candidate in Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is polling evenly with the senator despite lower name recognition and is doing strongly with rural voters (and seems certain to win most of Hillary Clinton's voters).  As a result, I think this has become a much closer tossup than most analysts have assumed, and could be the big surprise in November.  Quite frankly, I think if the election were held today Kirkpatrick would nearly win, and a lot of the state doesn't even know her name yet. (Previous Ranking: 8)

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA)
5. Pennsylvania

Polls will indicate that Katie McGinty is in a position that is much further back than if the Democrats had selected Rep. Joe Sestak (who has polled better than first-term Sen. Pat Toomey), but McGinty has shown, especially with national help, that she can seal the deal from behind and close the gap, and Toomey is going to (like most of the people on this list) have to deal with Donald Trump on his back.  Pennsylvania hasn't gone for a Republican presidential candidate in over twenty years, and while Republicans frequently talk about their long-term prospects, they're going to need an actually popular Republican to make such a thing happen.  The state seems assured a spot for Hillary Clinton, and with that Toomey (who is pretty conservative and is already being tied, hard, to Trump) will only have a hair's breadth of room to try and court Clinton/Toomey supporters.  Clinton clearly wants a Democratic Senate (if only to get a Supreme Court nominee out-the-gate), and McGinty will have strong support not only from her but from organizations like Emily's List-it's hard to see Toomey winning if Clinton is taking this state by more than 4-points, and every indication at this point is that she will. (Previous Ranking: 4)

Rep. David Jolly (R-FL)
4. Florida

I'm moving Florida down one spot on the list for the simple fact that I'm still not certain what's going on in the primaries.  The Republicans have at least a tenuous leader in Rep. David Jolly, who has a rather odd campaign finance reform platform that would be a little more tactful if he wasn't wealthy enough to finance his own campaign (expect Democrats to have some strong attack ads there).  While other Republicans are definitely running, Jolly has moved into the lead.  The Democrats, on the other hand, still have bombastic Rep. Alan Grayson as their preferred candidate if polling is to be believed, despite his poor chances against Jolly in the general election.  The DSCC, emboldened by a major primary victory in Pennsylvania, will surely go all-out for the more moderate Rep. Patrick Murphy, but unlike Pennsylvania this primary is less about style and more about political substance (Grayson is, indeed, more liberal than Murphy), and considering the strength of Bernie Sanders supporters, he could ride that wave in a primary where more left-leaning voters will be at the polls.  If the DSCC can get Patrick Murphy into the general and Hillary Clinton maintains her grasp on the state (two big question marks, though neither is a high mountain to climb), it's hard to see the Democrats not taking the Sunshine State seat currently held by Marco Rubio (adding insult to injury to the once-promising Republican), but they have to make it past those two questions first. (Previous Ranking: 3)

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

With Florida and Pennsylvania shifting slightly, I'm moving New Hampshire up as the Granite State has been the most susceptible in recent years to the whims of the national mood.  In 2006/08 they threw all of the Republicans out of office, and then in 2010 they did the same for the Democrats.  As Hillary Clinton seems poised to do well in the state (always ignore presidential primary results in general elections as it's a completely different ball-game, especially in early-voting states), that should bode well for Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is challenging first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the state.  Granted, both Ayotte and Hassan are relatively popular in the state and thus that makes this a strange race, and yes, Ayotte has a minor but real lead over Hassan at this point, but it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton winning by much without her carrying Hassan along for the ride-New Hampshire has become really adept at straight-ticket voting in recent years, especially around the presidential level, and Ayotte has become a major target of the Merrick Garland movement.  If the senator can maintain her poll numbers once the presidential election comes more into focus, I'll move this down on the list but right now it's hard for me to see Ayotte winning on the same ballot that Hillary Clinton is. (Previous Ranking: 5)

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

Here's where we jump from tossup to likely takeover.  Polling has shown former Sen. Russ Feingold everywhere from a narrow victory to a double-digit lead, but the consistent marker of all of the polls is that Sen. Ron Johnson is down.  While it's only April and the race could shift, Johnson's approval ratings aren't great, Feingold has universal name recognition in the state and has been adept at fundraising in a post-Citizens United world (which was a question mark)-this is clearly now on the Democrats' turf, especially with Wisconsin a consistent Democratic state on the presidential level.  There have been races where the underdog came from behind in the face of such consistent polling (Lisa Murkowski in 2004, Heidi Heitkamp in 2012), but in those cases they were added by a national wind, which is a BIG stretch for Johnson.  It's not often it would be an upset if the incumbent won, but here it seems to be the case. (Previous Ranking: 2)

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

The only true-blue state (no swing or purple about it) that has a Republican incumbent up in 2016, Sen. Mark Kirk can do pretty much everything he tries in Illinois and it will likely be no use.  I suspect that Kirk's personal story (recovering from a stroke to return to the Senate) may sway some independents, but there are enough consistent Democrats in the state that it won't matter, and it's possible that Kirk's leftward swing in recent months may hurt him more than help him as staunch conservatives in the southern portion of the state are less enthused to GOTV for the senator.  Hillary Clinton has home-state advantage, and the Democrats have a solid (if not spectacular) candidate in Tammy Duckworth, and Kirk has been known to indulge in a bit of foot-in-mouth disorder.  This nearly went to the Democrats in 2010, and you can bet your last dollar that Barack Obama, very concerned about legacy, will want his former seat to be in Democratic hands before he leaves the White House.  It would take a miracle (or, more accurately, a major scandal) for the Republicans to win this one, and politics doesn't usually work that way. (Previous Ranking: 1)

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