Thursday, September 08, 2016

The State of the Senate

Katie McGinty (D-PA), one of the main reasons the Democrats
will likely have the Senate majority in January
It has been almost two months since we did our last "State of the Senate" article, and I initially thought a lot hadn't changed, but then I looked at the article and it turns out we've had a few moves that helped both sides since then, so I figured it was time to investigate.

The reality is that this is now crunch time for the battle for the Senate, and we're seeing that right now with campaign committees on both sides of the aisle buying up air time (and in some cases cancelling ad buys), as well as a plethora of new polling.  Democrats are hoping that Hillary Clinton's clear lead in most swing state polls also manages to bring them along for the ride, while Republicans are praying that Donald Trump's unpopularity isn't reflective of unpopularity for the entire GOP.  Whichever one ends up being right is hard to say at this point, though we'll probably find out in the next month-very few Senate elections break much later than Columbus Day, so the next month in terms of campaigning and getting out their message will be crucial.  With that caveat, let's begin the list.

Honorable Mention: I'm including three states here on the honorable mention list because it's hard to tell exactly what's going on in these races.  Missouri, Georgia, and Iowa all have races that the Republicans should be winning easily, and in some cases they are-select polls have shown the Republicans in relatively sturdy positions, but the candidates aren't outrunning Trump by as much as other candidates (like Rob Portman) are around the country, and all of these states are in-play on a presidential level, albeit at different levels (Iowa is far more likely to go for Hillary Clinton than Missouri, for example).  I suspect that one of these could break into at least being competitive and getting national money, but the question is which.  Missouri has arguably the best candidate for the Democrats in Jason Koster, but is also the least likely of the three to break for Clinton.  Patty Judge in Iowa has made her race against Chuck Grassley competitive, but not enough to make me think that she'll actually win, just that she'll do respectably; still, she's in the state that Clinton is most likely to emerge victorious, and while I think there will be more split-ticket voting this year, I think the amount of it is being widely overestimated (I'm still not convinced that faced with the prospect of voting for Clinton or Trump, a lot of less political Republicans won't just stay home, depressing down-ballot turnout).  And Georgia is a strange bird with a candidate most national Democrats couldn't even name a couple of weeks ago, but Jim Barksdale has kept pretty close to Clinton's numbers in a tight race-if she wins, it's not that farfetched to guess he does, though Barksdale has to worry about hitting 50% or heading into a runoff election he's near certain to lose (a worry the Clinton camp doesn't have to contend with).  All-in-all, I still say it's worth watching these races, but I can't make a clean argument that these are actually going to flip; the GOP should be cautious, but confident.

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

I nearly bumped Ohio, which was in our Top 5 a few months ago, into the honorable mentions this week, which is likely the biggest reason that I decided it was time for another "State of the Senate" article, but man has Ted Strickland royally screwed up this race.  Rob Portman, the best campaigner of the incumbent Republicans running in Obama states, has done an outstanding job of getting support from unlikely places (like labor unions), and lambasting Strickland for his unpopular tenure as governor (it doesn't help Strickland to have been in charge during 2008 and followed by the wildly popular John Kasich).  Strickland may be the best example of the Democrats inappropriately clearing the field for a candidate-they probably would have been better off with a young upstart like PG Sittenfeld than Strickland, but hindsight is 20/20 on that count.  Strickland's anemic fundraising, his shoddy poll numbers, and the lack of interest from the DSCC and Super PAC's in this race has moved what was once a tossup into decidedly favorable territory for the Republicans.  It's Ohio, a state Clinton is currently projected to win, so I am not totally writing off Strickland (Elizabeth Warren and Heidi Heitkamp were losing in polling by numbers similar to Strickland in 2012 and still managed to win), but anyone betting on the former governor is either deluded or a member of his immediate family. (Previous Ranking: 5)

9. Arizona

Another state where it's make-or-break time is Arizona.  Here is a rosier picture for the Democrats, because assistance is on its way.  Hillary Clinton has started to fully invest in the Grand Canyon State, and that should help enormously downballot with Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who has seen a slip in the polls against longtime Sen. John McCain, who also successfully made it through his primary with nary a scratch on him.  Kirkpatrick's best (and only) chance in this race was Hillary Clinton winning the state and McCain's ridiculously labored endorsements of Donald Trump would allow Kirkpatrick to swing in on her coattails.  Kirkpatrick has that opportunity, but she has almost no room for error, and McCain seems to be attracting enough Clinton/McCain supporters to be able to win, albeit by a tight margin.  Kirkpatrick still has some room to play, of course: she has strong support amongst Native Americans that should help turnout in this crucial portion of the state, and the more Latino voters that Hillary Clinton registers the more likely Kirkpatrick is to get assistance down-ballot.  But I'm no longer as bullish about this race as I was earlier in the year. (Previous Ranking: 6)

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

The only potential pickup in the cycle for the Republicans, Nevada is a conundrum for me.  After all, the Republicans have clearly nominated the better candidate (Rep. Joe Heck has run a stronger campaign than AG Catherine Cortez Masto, I must proclaim in a spirit of nonpartisanship) and the polls for both the Senate seat and the presidential election have shown this neck-and-neck, with the lead exchanging on occasion, and Heck even leads in the RCP average (barely).  If this were any other state I'd have this in the Top 5.  But I can't quite swing the fact that Nevada is notoriously hard to poll, and in most cases the Democrats underperform in polling.  At the end of the day, this is a state that, thanks to a large number of Latino voters, as well as Mormon voters that may go to Clinton or Gary Johnson, I don't see Trump winning.  And while Heck is running the better campaign, he's not an incumbent-there's very little reason to believe there will be any tangible number of Clinton/Heck voters.  Those who point to Shelley Berkley in 2012 have a point, but Heller was the incumbent, and Cortez Masto is a better candidate than Berkley, who had considerable baggage in the state.  If the polls don't start breaking in the next couple of weeks, I'll reconsider, but the dynamics at this point narrowly favorite Cortez Masto.  I think this is the race that Democrats, if they wanted to put away a seat before the home stretch to potentially take advantage of a late break somewhere like Iowa or Ohio, should really focus on in the next four weeks to turn Cortez Masto into someone like Katie McGinty (close, but definitely leading).  However, my gut says they are in the lead by a slim margin anyway (Previous Ranking: 8)

7. North Carolina

I debated flipping 6/7 on this list, as I think both are in roughly the same boat.  You have an incumbent Republican, someone who is a known quantity but isn't exactly loved by the populace, running against a flawed Democrat in a race that Hillary Clinton is gaining ground on at the national level and could be winning, though the contest remains close.  What makes me put the Tarheel Race in seventh is both because national investment isn't at the level I'd expect from a true tossup and because I still think Clinton is more likely to retain Florida than flip North Carolina.  However, Sen. Richard Burr has to know that he could soon be sharing the same fate as his former colleague Kay Hagan.  Both were not expected to have particularly tough races, but a young upstart from the state legislature swooped in and managed to find the sweet spot of now very purple North Carolina.  Unlike Hagan, though, Burr is more to blame for his current predicament than she was.  Hagan was saddled with a national environment that was destroying her chances, and while Burr has to deal with both Donald Trump and unpopular Gov. Pat McCrory (who looks more and more likely to lose his reelection with each passing poll), he has been largely absent from the campaign trail and the airwaves, while Ross has made a full court press, turning this into a real race.  I'd like to see either Ross leading a couple more polls or the DSCC/Senate Majority PAC make a major ad buy here before I start proclaiming this a true tossup (side note: while I loved his recruiting success, I'm hating the caution that Jon Tester is displaying in terms of ad buys for the Senate-let's run up the score, not just shoot for 51!), but she's definitely in a position to be the surprise of the cycle (Previous Ranking: 10)

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

Florida is a conundrum.  When Marco Rubio initially came into the race I wasn't sure if his poor presidential run and his lackluster interest in the Senate would hurt him, but he's managed to maintain a slight lead over Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has made a number of blunders on the campaign trail (every single time I read about one, I wonder why the hell we didn't try to get Gwen Graham into this race instead-we'd probably be winning by now).  However, Florida is still a state with a lot of potential for the Democrats, particularly if they do well with Latino voters, and Murphy is down but only by a couple of points in most polls.  If any sort of national momentum builds behind Clinton (and after last night's NBC News forum, it's hard to imagine that Trump wins the debates, and his best hope is that the media is so obsessed with a horse race that they proclaim he and Clinton both losers, so this is not out of the question), Murphy would probably benefit the most from her coattails as it's difficult to see too many Clinton/Rubio voters considering his high profile.  I think Rubio is ever-so-slightly ahead, but I see this as the Democrats' best shot to flip a race in which they are currently behind. (Previous Ranking: 9)

5. Pennsylvania

If Ohio was the big loser for the Democrats the past two months, the race that they clearly gained the most in was the Keystone State.  Every year, if there's any sort of national headwind whatsoever (which the Democrats clearly have, albeit less so than 2006 or 2008), there's always one early tossup race that turns into a leans-against-the-incumbent situation, and Pennsylvania appears to be it, much to my surprise.  After all, Katie McGinty hasn't been a particularly good candidate.  She needed a seven-digit ad buy to make it through her primary, her opponent has run a better campaign than her, and she's made some fumbles on the campaign trail that could have been a big hit to her operation.  However, McGinty is turning out to be lucky enough to overcome these obstacles, as she's leading in nearly every poll, in part because Pat Toomey is the GOP incumbent that couldn't get around Trump's negative coattails.  It helps that Clinton made crucial early investments in Pennsylvania (knowing that Trump couldn't win the White House without either this state or Virginia in his column), and is continuing to make a huge full-court press to take the state, which will only help McGinty.  McGinty wasn't the Democrats' first (or even second) choice, and she could be vulnerable in six years if she doesn't work on her retail politicking skills, but a win is a win is a win, and at this point Katie McGinty sure looks like a winner. (Previous Ranking: 7)

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

I'm swapping 3 and 4 this time, partially out of polling and partially because I can't quite get a handle on Indiana, which is either going to be a tight race or a blowout.  New Hampshire, though, is a slight lean to the Democrats so I'll move it down one slot, but make no mistake, Sen. Kelly Ayotte is in trouble.  Gov. Maggie Hassan is arguably the best challenger of the cycle, and has run a pragmatic but flawless campaign.  It was said at the beginning of the year that this was the rare race with two popular candidates running against each other, and while that would normally push a tie to the incumbent, Ayotte has to deal with Donald Trump in 2016, and her tacit support of him has probably cost her in terms of an error she couldn't avoid.  Ayotte still has goodwill in the Granite State, but Hassan has led in almost every poll and Clinton seems to have locked up the state on a presidential level, and if recent years have been any indication, New Hampshire doesn't split tickets anymore (even if they do frequently switch parties).  As a result, I think Clinton should bring Hassan along with her (as well as, provided Frank Guinta wins the primary, Carol Shea-Porter and a House pickup).  (Previous Ranking: 3)

3. Indiana

Like I said above, Indiana is a conundrum.  It's the only race on this list that I'm very confident will go toward Donald Trump, and Rep. Todd Young appears to be a pretty strong challenger.  However, Sen. Evan Bayh has a mountain of cash and goodwill to rely upon, and his late entry into this race could surely spell a majority for the Democrats.  Little polling has come out in the race, but considering everyone expects Bayh to win, that's a bad sign for the Republicans, and even when he's giving a "gloom and doom" speech, Jon Tester singles out the Hoosier State as a probable pickup.  Bayh's shown some serious rustiness on the campaign trail (he should have been better prepared to explain his residency problems, especially after that brought down Dick Lugar four years ago), but he's won statewide five times in the state and knows how to get this done.  My guess is that Bayh wins here, albeit by maybe a 4-6 point margin rather than the double digits some polls would suggest, but the margin doesn't matter at the end of the day, and it'll still be a critical pickup for the Democrats (Previous Ranking: 4)

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

Sen. Ron Johnson has to feel at least some solace that statewide polls show Wisconsin a little bit closer than they were a few weeks ago in Clinton/Trump, particularly considering that he's been much more vocal about his Trump support than some of the other Republicans on the list.  The problem here is that he's in a state where his opponent could outrun Hillary Clinton, making this a very rare case indeed.  Former Sen. Russ Feingold clearly wanted his seat back, as he would have had strong chances at the Senate in 2012 and the governor's mansion in 2014, and he's likely to get it.  He hasn't been behind in a poll in months, and national interest in this race has become nonexistent (even the rosiest of outlooks for the Senate have this as a Democratic pickup).  It's difficult to see many avenues right now for Johnson to become anything other than a footnote come January. (Previous Ranking: 2)

1. Illinois

Considering the intensely blue nature of Illinois, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) needed to run a perfect campaign and hope for a deeply flawed opponent to ever have a chance at a second term.  Neither of those two things took place, however.  Duckworth has been largely error-free on the campaign trail, and Kirk has consistently put his foot-in-his-mouth.  Plus, despite his protestations that he won't vote for him, Donald Trump's presence on the ticket should hurt Kirk if for no other reason than a theoretically depressed Republican turnout.  This was a borrowed-time seat when he won it in 2010 under the most advantageous of circumstances.  He won't have that kind of luck this year-get used to saying Sen. Tammy Duckworth. (Previous Ranking: 1)

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