Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The State of the Senate

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN)
While this late in the game, it's relatively frequent that we see a change in terms of the competitiveness of a Senate seat (usually by now we're starting to see which seats might be "competitive" versus competitive in the United States Senate as fumbles from candidates occasionally prove lethal to their campaigns), but it's extremely unlikely we see a change in the level of competitiveness based on the entry of a specific candidate into the race.  A few weeks ago when Marco Rubio reentered the Florida Senate race, making himself the nominal frontrunner for reelection, I was confident that was it in terms of late surprises, but yesterday I was stunned when former U.S. Senator Evan Bayh decided to jump into the open race in Indiana for his former seat.

The entrances of Bayh and Rubio both shook up the math of this cycle, so I wanted to put out another "State of the Senate," but it's also worth noting that polling has started to rain into some of these races so it isn't just a case of "congressional nostalgia" that I'm putting this out.  A series of polls have shown, much like Hillary Clinton in swing states (but not nationally), a bevy of close races for various seats.  Much has been written about how Hillary Clinton has been doing worse on state-by-state polls than national polls (due in a large part to the fact that she seems to have picked up a number of traditionally red state voters while states accustomed to being swing states have only given her a small nod).  That could play into, of course, the chances of the Democrats running for the Senate; if Clinton can break away in swing states, almost all of which host Republicans running for reelection, that would be an enormous coup for the Democrats as it likely would carry places such as New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania along with it.  If Clinton stays at largely a 1-2 point lead on Trump, though, it's easy to see incumbent senators in those states holding onto their seats.  Still, it's hard not to like the Democrats chances this year in terms of Senate contests if only because Clinton probably won't be able to maintain a 6-8 point lead nationally and not start to see those benefits in traditional swing states.  Anyway, let's get started (the Number One seat on the list is the one most likely to go to the other party):

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Honorable Mention: Two races still repeat mentioning at this point in the cycle (usually by now honorable mentions can be discarded because it's rare that we have ten actually competitive seats, though 2014 proved that it's possible).  Missouri continues to impress with Secretary of State Jason Kander running one of those down-ballot campaigns that's genuinely been flawless.  That doesn't always help when you're in a red state and a Democrat (just ask Michelle Nunn), but it does mean that the Democrats are poised to pounce if Hillary Clinton continues to put red states into play in the national electorate (recent polling in states like Utah and Arizona suggest that Clinton could be making a move in leans red states).  If Kander can outrun Clinton at all (a tall order, but several people like Kay Hagan have proven it's possible), this becomes a real race, but I'm still not convinced Kander isn't just a strong candidate in an unwinnable race.  Additionally, Sen. Chuck Grassley may be an Iowa institution, but polling out of the Hawkeye State has shown that he is vulnerable in part due to Donald Trump, but perhaps more so due to the blatant politics of his decision to not hold hearings on Merrick Garland (it's hard to imagine him being on our radar if he'd just confirmed).  Lt. Gov. Patty Judge is not a great candidate, but she's got the right message and it's worth noting that Iowa could very easily go to Hillary Clinton in November.  That doesn't normally translate to down-ballot trouble for Grassley, but the last time he was on the ballot with a Democrat taking the White House was 1992, and Bill Clinton was winning with only 43.2% of the vote that year thanks to Ross Perot being in the race.  Since then, ticket-splitting has gone out of vogue and it's likely that Clinton could hit 50% here-normally I'd say that wouldn't be an issue for Grassley, but considering how vulnerable he is I wouldn't automatically assume he would have the ticket-split cushion he normally can muster.

10. North Carolina (9)

With Indiana's entry onto this list, a lot of rearranging has started to take place, even in some cases like the Tar Heel State where it's not clear there's been any movement.  At this point, the race between Republican Sen. Richard Burr and State Rep. Deborah Ross appears pretty stagnant.  Polling is sparing (I'm truly looking forward to post-Convention when polls will begin to matter again and also when Senate polls will become far more plentiful), but have generally showed Burr with a 3-5 point lead over Ross, indicative of an incumbent Republican in a slight red state.  What should be helping Ross is that Burr isn't particularly well-defined despite having held statewide office for twelve years and that Hillary Clinton is going to push enormously hard to win this state (witness her campaigning in Charlotte for her critical endorsement from President Obama), and is even up in statewide polling against Trump.  There's also a gubernatorial race in the state that the Democrats are contesting heartily.  If Clinton and Democratic nominee Roy Cooper both were to win statewide, it's hard to know how much of a ticket-split Richard Burr would be able to overcome to not be swept along for the ride, but I suspect in this deeply partisan era he wouldn't have much margin-of-error.  Still, Clinton has struggled in swing state polling even as she has maintained a clear lead nationally, so this is one of those let-the-pot-simmer sort of states. (Previous Ranking: 9)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
9. Florida

One of the biggest movers on this list, the Republicans got the exact candidate they wanted when Sen. Marco Rubio changed his mind and decided to run for reelection despite stating repeatedly on the campaign trail that he wouldn't.  That alone helped the Republicans, and was going to move this down a bit, but Rubio is vulnerable in a way that you wouldn't expect from an incumbent.  After all, he has repeatedly disparaged his work in the Senate, is clearly only doing this to better position himself in 2020 (he's as far as admitted that publicly), and missed dozens of important votes to run unsuccessfully for POTUS in a campaign he couldn't even translate into a win in his home state.  All that is to say that Rubio isn't in the position he was six years ago, and against a strong Democrat I'd call this race as even, but the Democrats have serious problems with their potential nominees.  On the one hand you have the DSCC favorite Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has had clear problems with lies in his biography (admittedly I think these are weak-sauce lies so far, but biographical lies have a weird potency on the campaign trail in a way that few other scandals of this nature have), and on the other hand is Rep. Alan Grayson, essentially a Democratic version of Donald Trump who would be electoral anathema to moderates who could swing this election.  Murphy, if he can make the biographical issues ancient history (it worked for Richard Blumenthal in 2010), can definitely compete here, especially if Hillary Clinton is winning the state, but it'd be foolish not to assume that Rubio has the upper-hand. (Previous Ranking: 4)

8. Nevada

Races in Nevada are always hard to postulate, principally because outside of Alaska it's arguably the hardest state to poll.  Whether this is because of the large Spanish-speaking population (not all polling companies poll bilingually), or because of the deep rural/urban divide in the state it's hard to tell, but traditionally Nevada polls are the least reliable, and usually under-poll Democrats.  Recent polls show Rep. Joe Heck and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto as being roughly tied, and considering both the Reid Machine in the state and the fact that President Obama clobbered in Nevada in the past two cycles, my mind starts to believe that the Democrats would have to be considered slight favorites.  However, it's worth noting that Clinton has struggled in swing state polls even as she has done well nationally (swing state polls are traditionally unreliable this early in the cycle, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't notice that Trump seems to be doing much better in them than the popular vote, a sign of a potential repeat of the 2000 elections).  Additionally, coattails aren't automatic in Nevada; despite President Obama winning the state handily in 2012, Rep. Shelley Berkley wasn't able to translate his success into a Senate victory for herself, costing the Democrats a crucial seat.  These two factors, plus the fact that I think Heck has so far been the better candidate of the two (not always the most important factor, but one that should remain a factor), means that this stays on the list as probably the only seat the Republicans could theoretically pick up in the Senate (Previous Ranking: 7)

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

Moving down a bit on our list is Pennsylvania, and not just because of the Evan Bayh-shuffle.  Sen. Pat Toomey may have benefited slightly with the focus on gun control at a national level, perhaps the only Republican to be in that position, since he's staked a relatively moderate path on the issue and can point to that on the campaign trail in comparison to Chief of Staff Katie McGinty, who like Patrick Murphy up-top has had issues on the campaign trail with indulgences in her biography (and even more so than Murphy, I find these to be rather ridiculously overhyped indulgences, but like I said this is an issue that people tend to gravitate toward).  So far McGinty ran a strong primary, but was dramatically assisted by national groups and Democratic leaders, and hasn't quite gotten a foothold on Pat Toomey.  Still, more than any other state this one feels like a place where coattails will matter.  After all, if Donald Trump is going to win he'll almost certainly have to do it through Pennsylvania, and as a result I feel like we might see more straight-ticket voting here than is even usual in other states.  If Hillary Clinton can stake out a pretty strong position here (let's go with 5%+ win), it seems next to impossible for Toomey to be able to overcome the obstacles.  Otherwise, Toomey could still have a chance unless McGinty can up her game a bit (Previous Ranking: 5)

6. Arizona

Staying right in the center is the race I'm convinced that analysts are underestimating, and I am backed up by the scant polling that is being done on the race.  Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) has led Sen. John McCain in several polls in June, and McCain more than any other person on this list has been hurt by Donald Trump's candidacy, considering that Trump roundly disparaged McCain's record in the Vietnam War and McCain still endorsed the man.  Kirkpatrick can successfully claim that McCain has lost his way in Washington, and is framing this as a change election for Arizona.  It also helps her exponentially to have Hillary Clinton doing so well in the state, frequently leading in state-by-state polls (one of the biggest bright spots on Clinton's map, where otherwise she hasn't been able to pull into a distinctive lead in a swing state save perhaps Wisconsin).  McCain is a titan of politics, will not struggle for money, and knows Arizona better than any other pol, so counting him out at this juncture would be foolish, but he still has a conservative challenger to beat in the primary and that will mean he can't pivot to the middle the way he has in the past to try and shore up independents quite as early, giving Kirkpatrick a lot of time to link him to Trump.  Kirkpatrick was mocked months ago for jumping into a race that was thought to be unwinnable-she may end up being the shrewdest politician of the cycle if she becomes the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in the Grand Canyon State since 1988, an increasingly plausible scenario. (Previous Ranking: 6)

Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH)
5. Ohio

Another big jumper on this list, one that I just can't get a handle on in terms of direction.  All things being equal, Sen. Rob Portman should be able to win this seat.  He's the better candidate, has more money, and Republicans do have a slight advantage in Ohio, especially on a statewide level.  But former Gov. Ted Strickland has done a remarkable job of keeping this race darn near even, even if his last race statewide was a loss.  With Strickland holding the line, a lot of this state may come down to whomever wins it at a presidential level.  In some ways Hillary Clinton's fundraising advantage could become a major coup for Strickland, as people vote from the top of the ballot down, and if she can convince enough Democratic voters to her side (particularly young black voters in places like Cleveland and Cincinnati) that will help Strickland enormously to overcome Sen. Rob Portman's cash advantage.  Unless Portman can break away in the next couple of weeks, my money would be on whomever wins the Buckeye State's electoral votes will also take its Senate seat, which is enormously good news for Strickland (Previous Ranking: 8)

4. Indiana (N/A)

It's hard to put into words how crucial to Sen. Chuck Schumer's math to become Majority Leader it was that Sen. Evan Bayh reversed course and jumped into the Indiana Senate race.  Look at it this way-presuming that Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election (which, even with her under-polling in swing states she still has the advantage in the electoral college so it's safe to assume this right now), the Democrats need four Senate seats to win back the majority.  Without Indiana in the race, that critical fourth seat would be Ohio, a seat the Democrats have a 50/50 shot at and have the lesser candidate.  Now, though, the Democrats have at that critical seat juncture a popular former governor and senator with an insurmountable cash advantage (I griped for years about Bayh not giving that $10 million over to the Democrats who needed it in 2012 and 2014-if he wins this seat back I'll apologize profusely) who enjoys a 60% approval rating.  Bayh is not invulnerable-he is still a Democrat in a red state in a presidential year (Trump is still likely to win the state, albeit more narrowly than Mitt Romney), and his work as a lobbyist instead of becoming a professor like he stated he would will surely come back to haunt him in Republican commercials (and he'll need to coax over progressives that are leery of him), but the Republicans went from decidedly likely to win a seat to now the underdogs, something that almost never happens this late in a cycle, certainly not with a new candidate.  It's very possible that Bayh's decision could win Democrats the Senate. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)
3. New Hampshire

Polling here still shows a close race, but I'm feeling more and more bullish about the chances of Gov. Maggie Hassan to win the seat currently held by Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.  Why, you may ask, is Ayotte doing worse than say a Toomey or a Portman?  The answer is threefold.  One, Hassan is a better candidate than either McGinty or Strickland-she's the sitting governor, a popular one at that, who is perhaps a bit cautious but is also a candidate deeply unlikely to make any unforced errors on the campaign trail, something I can't say for the Great Lakes Democrats.  Secondly, New Hampshire is a state that is notorious for swinging with the national wind in the past decade-Democrats clobbered in 2006 and 2008, winning major congressional pickups while in 2010 and 2014 they fell as Republicans dominated nationally.  In 2016, the advantage appears to be on the Democrats' side as Hillary Clinton has held a relatively consistent lead in New Hampshire and certainly is at the advantage nationally.  Straight-ticket voting will help in that regard.  But perhaps most importantly, Kelly Ayotte has struggled more than most with the Trump endorsement question-frequently going with the weaker argument that she'll vote for him but not endorse.  That's hurt her with independents and could depress New Hampshire conservatives who launched Trump onto the national stage a few months ago.  Ayotte is running the lesser campaign, and considering polling and the Clinton advantage, that makes her very vulnerable to becoming a one-term senator (Previous Ranking: 3)

2. Wisconsin

Polling has moved around a little bit, but the ending has remained the same-Ron Johnson has not been ahead in a single poll since Russ Feingold entered the race to reclaim his old Senate seat.  Wisconsin is also not showing the same level of competitiveness on a national level (Clinton appears to be doing better in the state than she is in other swing state polls), giving Johnson even less hope that perhaps Donald Trump will help him out.  This appears to be entering lost cause territory-unless Feingold stumbles with a major gaffe, it appears he'll join Evan Bayh as a senator who will return to the chamber come January. (Previous Ranking: 2)

1. Illinois

The NRSC doesn't seem interested in helping first-term Republican Senator Mark Kirk in the only true-blue state on this list, and Donald Trump is actively campaigning against him on the campaign trail.  Combine that with the Republican's occasional foot-in-mouth disease, and you have a senator who won't make it past his first term.  Get used to saying Senator Tammy Duckworth, as it's going to become a reality come January. (Previous Ranking: 1)

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