Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The State of the Senate

With all of Congress abuzz right now between the Comey and Gorsuch hearings, I figured it was about time that we start getting back into electoral politics a little bit here with our first "State of the Senate" of the 2018 cycle.  Until we know more candidates I won't be doing these as often as I was last year (since we don't have enough information), but as congressional campaigns are getting longer and longer, I suspect that in the next 3-4 months we'll have a list of at least some of the potential candidates for these seats.

It's worth noting before we begin that there are a few things we don't know about 2018.  For starters, we have no idea how popular President Trump will be (or at this rate, if he'll be president).  Yes, you can point to record low approval ratings, but those can change on a dime (just ask either George Bush), and I'm not counting chickens there.  Additionally, it's not entirely clear whether 2016 was an aberration, with states that traditionally went blue responding specifically to Trump's campaign, or whether Democrats should be more concerned about defending incumbents in usually reliable states like Pennsylvania and Michigan.  For now I'm going to be under the assumption that both Sens. Casey and Stabenow are safe as they've won multiple terms already and have a foothold in the states.  Finally, we don't know who will retire.  With more and more turnover in the Senate in the past four cycles, I wonder if we're now going to see less retirements, or more "forced retirements" by the voters instead of politicians voluntarily giving up their seats.  People like Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch, Robert Menendez, or (in particular) Bill Nelson retiring could shake up their respective races, but right now no one (not even Hatch) is budging on this front.

What we do know is that the Democrats are in a rough position, having to defend 25 seats (out of 34 so far up for reelection), and five of those seats are in ruby-red states that went for McCain/Romney as well as for Trump.  They need three seats to win back the majority, and in reality that's unlikely, but even holding their current footing would put them in much better standings for 2020 and 2022, when the map is much less hostile.  After all-winning the House is checkers, the Senate is chess.

Without further adieu, here is the list (Number 1 being most likely to flip seats...note that this is a change in the partisan makeup and not a list of senators most likely to lose, in which case Orrin Hatch and perhaps Bob Menendez would both be on the list thanks to primaries):

10. Arizona

There were a bevy of seats (Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan) that I toyed with putting in the tenth position, but I decided to go with Arizona for a couple of reasons.  For starters, the party out of power almost always loses seats in a midterm (though usually they have more to work with), and aside from Nevada, this appears to be the only other viable option for the DSCC.  It's worth noting that freshman Sen. Jeff Flake could be getting attacked from both sides this year, as his robust criticism of Donald Trump has left him unusually susceptible to a primary challenge, and Arizona has no shortage of hard-line Republicans that might see an opportunity here, particularly if Trump decides to be less welcoming to incumbents than previous Republicans (this seems like his personality).  On the left, the Democrats have a shortage of candidates, but Rep. Krysten Sinema, or perhaps even '16 candidate Ann Kirkpatrick could put on a show here if they run-Democrats always struggle in getting candidates to make a go at statewide office in the Grand Canyon State, but the 3.55% margin of victory Donald Trump squeaked out here in 2016 proves that this is a state that should be watched for-keep in mind that before Barack Obama made history by winning Virginia in 2008, Jim Webb won a surprise upset Senate race there two years prior.  Could Arizona repeat that?

9. Wisconsin

Depending on who you talk to either Wisconsin or Michigan was the surprise flip state in 2016-for me it was perhaps Wisconsin, who just four years earlier had dispensed longtime Gov. Tommy Thompson in an upset and handily rejected homeboy favorite Paul Ryan.  This year, Sen. Tammy Baldwin will have to work pretty hard to overcome the obstacles (you can bet that this is a seat Trump will try heartily for, and the Republicans smell blood-in-the-water for a candidate that's well to the left of the electorate).  That being said, you can't beat someone with no one, and so far no major Republican wants to take on Baldwin, including one-time favorite for the nomination Rep. Sean Duffy.  With Scott Walker also likely out (it seems like he'll run for reelection), it's left for second-tier challengers State Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald or Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch to step up to the bat.  Second tier candidates can, of course, win (just ask Joni Ernst), but Baldwin will have history (midterm's help the party out of power) and the grassroots (who will jump pretty high for a major progressive voice, one who has Emily's List's backing) on her side.

8. Ohio

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has lucked out in the Buckeye State so far.  While the state has had great issue with electing Democrats statewide in recent years (just ask Ed FitzGerald and Ted Strickland), Brown has lucked into two good cycles for the Democrats and relatively poor opponents.  Now seen by many as a likely candidate for president in 2020, Brown has to hope that luck is with him one more time, but as of now...it just might be.  Brown has missed out on having John Kasich as an opponent, as well as Rep. Jim Renacci, SoS John Husted, and Attorney General Mike DeWine (whom he beat in 2006), the latter three of whom are running for Kasich's open gubernatorial seat rather than taking on the senator.  That means that his opponents will either be State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is the frontrunner for the nomination but couldn't dispatch Brown five years ago and isn't great at retail politicking, or Rep. Pat Tiberi, who won't have the statewide name recognition that Brown enjoys.  Brown is vulnerable in the correct circumstances, and if Ohio continues its rightward shift it might not matter who his opponent is (just ask Mark Pryor), but right now Brown is in relatively decent shape to take a third term.

7. Florida

In 2016, the Democrats badly misjudged the Senate race with a poor candidate in Rep. Patrick Murphy (in hindsight, they should have gone with Gwen Graham, who is likely to be their gubernatorial nominee in 2018).  This year, I had suspected that Sen. Bill Nelson would retire, and this seat moves up considerably if he does, but the bland three-term senator seems to want another go (perhaps to ensure that the space program isn't gutted under President Trump).  It seems likely that Nelson would face outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, who has a fortune at his disposal in expensive Florida, but Scott has never been a particularly popular candidate, and has perhaps lucked out by having good-on-paper, bad-on-the-trail candidates in Alex Sink and Charlie Crist.  Nelson, who has won office statewide five times, will not be as easily dispensed.  Definitely a tight race, but as long as Nelson stays and runs I think he should be well-positioned.  If he gets out, all hell breaks loose.

6. West Virginia

Nowhere on the map were Democrats luckier in terms of recruitment than in West Virginia.  In 2016, Sen. Joe Manchin, literally the only person who could hold this seat for the left, declined a run for the governor's mansion and instead chose to seek a third term in office.  This may come as a shock to some on the left who are constantly deriding Manchin, but in terms of sheer numbers for Chuck Schumer, this is a coup as Manchin remains personally popular, but takes enough positions to the right of his party that he can genuinely claim independence in the Mountain State.  Manchin's likely opponent is Rep. Evan Jenkins, a rising star in the party who probably sees this as is his best (only?) shot at getting a promotion anytime soon.  Jenkins would surely be tough to dispatch, and there may come a time where all of the personal popularity in the world can't help Manchin, but he's insanely well-liked in the state and a hard-fighting campaigner, so I wouldn't let the hard-lined Trump support throw you here-I'd wager that of the five Democrats running in double-digit Trump territory, Manchin's the most likely to return in January 2019 to DC.

5. Nevada

No single Republican in the country right now probably secretly loathes Donald Trump more than Dean Heller (except maybe Jeb Bush, but for entirely different reasons).  Heller is the only Republican senator running in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and as result he is the only person on this entire list who can't count on the Trump coalition to win a victory.  That's a tough pill to swallow, not least of which because Trump isn't making it easy, particularly by bringing Yucca Mountain back onto the table, an issue that will surely be easy for Democrats to attack Heller with in next year's elections.  The question is-is there a Democrat who will take the plunge and actually run against him?  Reps. Jacky Rosen, Dina Titus, and Ruben Kihuen, all in the congressional delegation, might consider a run, and Titus in particular has shown ambitions to run statewide before, but so far no one has made the plunge, perhaps because even in a weakened state, Heller is formidable and has proven he can dispatch a member of the congressional delegation under favorable winds for the Democrats.  Still, expect this to be a seat that Democrats try ferociously to grab, perhaps to shore up one of the top four states listed here that are relatively vulnerable for them.

4. Montana

I put Jon Tester in a slightly better position than Joe Donnelly because he's managed to win this seat not once, but twice, both against sitting members of Congress, something he won't have to do this year thanks to Donald Trump's enigmatic choice of Rep. Ryan Zinke to run the Interior Department (it seemed certain that Zinke would make a play for Tester's seat, perhaps even starting out as the favorite).  Next rite of first refusal is Attorney General Tim Fox, but Fox has never been quite as strong of a candidate in Montana as you'd assume from a statewide elected Republican, losing the 2008 AG campaign and barely winning it in 2012.  While he won by a lot last year, that shows some weaknesses that Tester will be able to exploit.  The question here is-is there still enough room for a Democrat to win in Montana, where historically they've done well but slowly as split-ticket voting becomes a dinosaur, they've fallen apart?  Tester is a fighter, but he'll need a bit of luck to land his third term.

3. Indiana

Like I said, Joe Donnelly is in third because he's only on his first term, but I'm putting him almost even with Tester in terms of winning another term in office.  He's lucking out both by having a Republican in the White House (I'd be writing all of the top four here as underdogs if Hillary Clinton were in the White House), and by having avoided some major troubles in the race, with Reps. Susan Brooks and Larry Bucshon taking a pass here (as well as his former nemesis Jackie Walorski).  Republicans should probably still find a member of their large House delegation who wants to make a play here (it worked out for Todd Young last year, after all), but Donnelly doesn't have the baggage that Evan Bayh does, and no one seems to want to take the bait-could it be that they're too risk averse or want to wait and best Donnelly when there's a presidential election?  Either way, Donnelly is vulnerable but you can't beat someone with no one.

2. North Dakota

For a few weeks there it looked like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp would destroy the Democrats' chances at keeping this seat, but thankfully she turned down a shot to head the Agriculture Department, and in the process may have used Donald Trump to her advantage, gaining solid bipartisan credits in a state where she'll need a healthy chunk of Republicans to win a second term.  Here it seems like Heitkamp will have a solid recruit (I suspect Rep. Kevin Cramer to be the first major Republican challenger to make the jump into a Senate race this cycle), and she'll need everything to swing her way similar to 2012 in order to sink this basket, but don't totally discount Heitkamp.  While her stances makes some liberals squirm, she's cultivated a voting record that could work for a Democrat in the Peace Garden State, and I suspect that those Democrats will get over it when they remember what clutching their Bernie bumper stickers in November got them.  Call this a pure tossup, which is it what it is for now.

1. Missouri

In 2012, I would have guaranteed at the beginning of the cycle that Sen. Claire McCaskill, my personal favorite senator, would be losing.  She had won in 2006 largely by the fluke of a wave, her state had gone decidedly red in the years since, and it seemed certain that Mitt Romney would carry along whomever won the primary.  Then came Todd Akin, and McCaskill blew him out of the water after he put his foot in his mouth.  Six years later, McCaskill has a reputation as a hardass, and something of a hipster progressive who is a regular on MSNBC-I personally think she should run for POTUS if she can hold on here as she's arguably the most undersung major name in the party, but that's just me-but first she has to win.  Republicans have a number of candidates in Reps. Ann Wagner and Sam Graves, as well as State Treasurer Eric Schmidt and Attorney General Josh Hawley.  A divided primary was McCaskill's specialty last cycle, and Jason Kander in 2016 proved candidates matter (if Trump had won the state even by 1-2 points less I'd wager that McCaskill would have a Democrat sitting next to her), but this is going to take an enormous amount of skill, luck, and timing for McCaskill.  I'd say she's the underdog again, but if you are rooting for her, know I would have said the same thing in March of 2012, and see where that led.

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