Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The State of the Senate

There's always a point at about September-October of the year before an election cycle where you start to realize-the stakes are pretty much set for the Senate.  The House tends to have a lot of last minute additions; look at someone like Stephanie Murphy, who started her campaign in late June of last year and went on to beat a 24-year Republican incumbent in Florida.  Senate campaigns, though, by virtue of most states being comprised of multiple congressional districts, take time to run and usually by the autumn the year before the election, you have your candidates.  Yes, there are cases where this isn't true (Cory Gardner and Heidi Heitkamp both won competitive elections within a year of announcing), but by-and-large most candidates will have announced either by now or by Columbus Day.  As a result, if you're the NRSC or DSCC and don't have a challenger yet in one of these seats, you better get on it quickly.

I've gone with a dozen seats on our list below rather than ten, because I genuinely think we could see a dozen competitive races, depending on the winds of 2018.  No one knows at this point what will happen by the end of the week (the threat of Nuclear War, Nazi rallies in Virginia, and a president who continually finds new ways to embarrass the country on Twitter all show predictions about the political environment continue to be impossible).  That said, there's a couple of things to keep in mind with these races.  One, it is unlikely that Trump will be particularly popular come next year.  Those who don't like him today are going to be hard to win over in the future, and there's still a bit of vulnerability in his numbers as the economy right now is solid-if that falls through, Trump would feel it particularly heavily.  It's also worth noting that all but one of the below seats are in states that Donald Trump won last year-though he won four of them by less than 2-points (making "counting on them to go red" a bit of a stretch if POTUS isn't well-liked), it's doubtful that even by next November Trump will be underwater in North Dakota or West Virginia.  That juxtaposition will make campaigns for both sides particularly tough-push off Trump too much at your peril (just ask Jeff Flake, who may be the most vulnerable senator next cycle to a primary), but hug him too closely you risk linking yourself to a man who is unpredictable and not very loyal.  Republican challengers, in particular, are going to have to toe the line as it's doubtful they'll be able to run far to the right and not get hammered for it by the likes of Stabenow, McCaskill, and Tester when they return to the center.  With that said, I'll assume a pretty bad environment for Trump, but not a great one for Democrats, and here's the rankings:

Honorable Mention: I doubt that Tim Kaine gets a serious challenger, but the closeness of the Virginia gubernatorial election does remind us that Clinton barely won the state last year, and it wasn't so long ago that this was ruby red.  If Reps. Barbara Comstock or Dave Brat were to enter (perhaps forgoing a tough House race), watch out.  If the national environment gets super bad, Rep. Beto O'Rourke may have made a brilliant tactical move in Texas (keep in mind Joe Donnelly succeeded in a similar way in 2012), but it's hard to picture an incumbent senator losing in Texas, and Ted Cruz is seeking a second term with few challengers in sight.  The Alabama Senate primaries are tonight, and we could end up with controversial Judge Roy Moore as the GOP nominee, but the Democrats need to resist the urge to nominate a guy with a famous name (Robert Kennedy, Jr., not to be confused with the late president's nephew as he's actually a random marketing executive), and then US Attorney Doug Jones needs a bit of luck against Moore.  Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't include the possibility that John McCain could end up vacating his seat due to his diagnosis of brain cancer.  An open seat in Arizona would be a major battle and certainly warrant inclusion on the list, though considering Jeff Flake's approval ratings in the Grand Canyon State, I wouldn't say it would be an easier get for the Democrats than his seat.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)
12. Wisconsin

It's weird to think of Wisconsin in #12 behind, say, PA or MI, but that's because so far first-term Sen. Tammy Baldwin has avoided getting a major challenger.  People like Rep. Sean Duffy and Gov. Scott Walker have declined runs at the seat, and the Republicans have struggled to get a candidate in a race that Baldwin would probably have a leg-up on to begin with; after all, this is hardly a ruby-red state even if Trump won it, and she proved in 2012 she can take on giants (defeating long-time Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson in a race she was initially assumed to lose).  The GOP is probably hoping that State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald will make the plunge, and he's their best remaining candidate, but he has yet to announce-could be tough for them if he doesn't, particularly with so many other juicy targets.  Keep in mind that sometimes races just get away from you even if they initially felt competitive (Bill Nelson in 2006 comes to mind, as does Claire McCaskill in 2012). (Previous Ranking: 9)

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA)
11. Pennsylvania

Though it's not official yet, it does appear that the Republicans may have scored their biggest surprise recruiting victory of the cycle, as Rep. Lou Barletta seems likely to challenge two-term Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D) in the Keystone State.  Casey wasn't really on my radar, to be honest.  Of the four states Trump won by less than 2-points in 2016 that host Democratic senators, Casey was the one I was least concerned about, both because he remains popular in his state and because it didn't appear likely that a serious challenger would go after his seat.  Barletta is very much in the mode of Trump, taking particularly hard-right stances on immigration, and Trump's appeal among blue-collar workers in manufacturing and mining industries makes Casey a bit more vulnerable than in the past.  Still, the burden of proof remains on Barletta, who has lost close races before (see 2008 House race, where he just missed against Paul Kanjorski). (Previous Ranking: N/A)

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
10. Michigan

The big question in Michigan right now is whether or not Kid Rock is actually going to take a run against Debbie Stabenow.  While the musician has an avalanche of easy attacks against him (a Google search could give you a cornucopia of material that would sink most campaigns), Trump proved in 2016 that he can win Michigan with similarly-large tabloid-ready material in his background.  It's worth noting, of course, that Stabenow is hardly Clinton, even if the career politician vs. celebrity lines are easy to draw.  After all, she's won statewide in the Great Lakes State three times already (something Clinton hadn't done), and knows the state much better than Kid Rock in terms of what levers to pull.  Plus, she'll be prepared for him in a way that Clinton simply wasn't (losing Michigan wasn't on her radar-it's on Stabenow's).  If he's out, this falls on the list as while the Republicans have decent candidates (Supreme Court Justice Bob Young is running, Rep. Fred Upton and State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville are rumored), none of them seem particularly strong against Stabenow in the way that Kid Rock would be. (Previous Ranking: N/A)

State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R-OH)
9. Ohio

Sen. Sherrod Brown should be vulnerable.  This is a state that, after going for President Obama twice, made a hard-right swing to Donald Trump, giving the Republicans their biggest presidential victory margin in the Buckeye State since 1988.  However, I do wonder if the Republicans might have bet on the wrong horse here.  A rematch between Brown and State Treasurer Josh Mandel shouldn't be discounted-Mandel can raise huge sums of money and candidates don't matter nearly as much if there's a rightward swing in a state (see Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu's big losses in 2014 for examples), but Mandel lost pretty handily in 2012 and it's rare that challengers win in rematches.  Brown is rumored to be interested in a presidential race in 2020, and could be formidable if he wins here-the GOP may be wishing they'd gone with someone like Jim Renacci or Mary Taylor in a few years if Brown takes this by high single-digits and then pushes straight on into 2020 on the back of a victory in a quintessential swing state.

Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL)
8. Florida

In my opinion, the #1 question remaining in the 2018 Senate elections is whether Gov. Bill Scott, a multi-millionaire who has won the Sunshine State twice now against very formidable Democratic candidates, will try to take on Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida institution in his own right.  Were Scott to run, he would be able to self-fund even in a state as expensive as Florida, and Nelson would have his tightest race since 2000.  But there's also the possibility that he skips out on the race, perhaps shifting his gears back to the private sector or a spot in the Trump administration-Nelson would be a tougher challenger than Alex Sink or Charlie Crist, and Scott might be ready to call it quits after eight years in the statehouse.  If he skips, this race goes down the list; while I'm sure a number of Florida Republicans would take a look at the list (perhaps some of the men who were running for Rubio's seat before he returned?), Bill Nelson has won this state multiple times before even against sitting members of Congress and Trump won this state by less than 2-points. (Previous Ranking: 7)

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)
7. Arizona

Sen. Jeff Flake has had a rough couple of months.  While he's been relatively supportive of President Trump's agenda, he's continued to attack his mannerisms and public statements, and has become the President's #1 target for a primary challenge as a result.  It's not entirely clear that Trump will endorse Flake, something largely unheard of for a president to do against an incumbent senator, and former State Sen. Kelli Ward is trying to take advantage of the situation by going full throttle against Flake.  Admittedly, Ward is general election poison but that occasionally is a pill primaries swallow (see also Christine O'Donnell in 2010).  Flake's political troubles (he's not popular with Democrats either, so crossover votes could be tough to get), got worse recently when it appeared likely that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema will take the plunge and challenge him.  Sinema has long been rumored to be interested in making the jump to higher office, but has turned down such opportunities in the past.  Were she to run, she'd be very formidable and likely get the field largely to herself (Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who was rumored to be running for the seat himself, likely will run for Sinema's open House seat if she goes in on the Senate).  With likely support from Emily's List in a state Trump only won by 3.5 points, Sinema shouldn't be counted out even if it's been decades since a Democrat's won a Senate seat here. (Previous Ranking: 9)

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
6. Montana

For the most part, the Republicans have gotten quality candidates in pretty much every race even though for a while recruitment seemed like a bit of a challenge.  Montana, however, has been something of a letdown.  First Donald Trump poached their best candidate, then-Rep. Ryan Zinke, when he was appointed as Secretary of the Interior.  Then Attorney General Tim Fox declined the race, and Rep. Greg Gianforte became damaged goods (he might get primaried in 2018 for his own reelection).  While the Republicans will probably go with State Auditor Matt Rosendale, he's nowhere near as good as the other challengers to Sen. Jon Tester would have been, and as as a result I'm moving Montana down a couple of notches on this list.  Tester is one of five Democrats that are running in states that Trump has won by double-digits, but he's very good at campaigning and relating back to his constituents, and has dispatched strong Republicans in past cycles (a sitting senator and sitting representative)-a little-known State Auditor is going to have to hope for a lot of Trump help nationally to dispatch him, and Trump hasn't really proven that he can have coattails when he's not on the ballot yet. (Previous Ranking: 4)

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R-WV)
5. West Virginia

I can never quite tell if primary challenges are good things or bad things.  For every example where it clearly got you the worst candidate possible (R-Nevada 2010, R-Delaware 2010), there's a case where it was a godsend (D-Montana 2006, R-Iowa 2014), giving the party a superstar.  West Virginia could host one of those important primaries this cycle, with Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey both fighting it out to take on the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, Joe Manchin.  Manchin is hardly the Bernie Sanders' wing of the party's favorite person, but he's still very popular in West Virginia, and though Gov. Jim Justice recently switched parties, there's no indication that Manchin will do the same (plus, it's highly possible that Justice will still endorse his longtime friend even if he's switched parties).  Manchin is in a tough spot, but considering the ruby red appeal of the state, he doesn't give off a Mark Pryor vibe just yet-particularly if Trump is nationally in the doldrums in 2018, it's possible Manchin wins by the same fine but unremarkable margins he's done before. (Previous Ranking: 6)

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)
4. North Dakota

The first question here is whether or not Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is running for reelection.  She's certainly fundraising like she is (she has over $3 million in the bank), but Democrats should have high anxiety until she makes it official, as no one can win this race for the left but her.  If she does run, she surely will be in a tough spot in a state that Trump won by a huge margin, but that's not a guarantee.  The Republicans in the state don't really have a great candidate on-deck (Rep. Kevin Cramer continually puts his foot in his mouth, and no one else who is looking at the race has won statewide like Heitkamp, who's won four out of five times).  Yes, a random state legislator could wander in and take the seat ala Thom Tillis in 2014, but Tillis had the added advantage of a strong national environment favoring his party.  Eliminate that, and he probably would have lost as Hagan was running a stellar campaign, something Heitkamp did in 2012.  It's also worth noting that not long ago ND regularly sent Democrats to Congress while electing Republicans to the White House.  Could Heitkamp be part of that legacy?  Honestly, I could see her losing by ten points if the state aligns to what it's "supposed to be" given the end of ticketsplitting, or North Dakota's popular tradition of voting for likable populists continues and she wins by ten points in the opposite direction.  But first, this seat needs to officially nail down its candidates (Previous Ranking: 2)

Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN)
3. Indiana

While there's no race out yet that I think any incumbent has "lost," exactly, I do feel that the Top 3 races are true tossups, where I could actually see the incumbent being more vulnerable in a few months than the challenger, particularly the top race where I'd actually predict the opposite party to hold the seat at this point.  Indiana is on the cusp there as Sen. Joe Donnelly, let's be honest, is a senator by a bit of a fluke.  After Richard Mourdock clobbered longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary that year, he looked likely to win the seat until he had his own Todd Akin moment, giving Donnelly who had run a respectable but probably-losing campaign at that point, the ability to win.  Donnelly presumably won't luck into such a situation again, but might gain from a messy primary between Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, as well as State Rep. Mike Braun who is independently-wealthy and could be a wild card in the race (and there's still rumblings of former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard jumping in).  A messy primary is what helped Donnelly out six years ago, and he'll have a better chance against an actual person than a generic Republican, but I do wonder if Donnelly might be one of those accidental senators ala Scott Brown and Mark Kirk in recent years who can't make it to Round 2. (Previous Ranking: 2)

Attorney General Josh Hawley (R-MO)
2. Missouri

Sen. Claire McCaskill is both A) my favorite member of the US Senate and B) famously good at campaigning.  You'd have to be to have defeated both an incumbent governor and senator in previous campaigns, and to somehow pull off a miracle in 2012 when you'd be written off as politically dead, all-the-while eventually delivering a double-digit margin of victory against a sitting congressman.  It's doubtful that McCaskill will be so lucky this time, but it's worth noting that she's already had a bit of fortune in that Reps. Ann Wagner and Vicky Hartzler have both jumped out of the race for the Senate, meaning that McCaskill will probably end up against Attorney General Josh Hawley, a relative newcomer to statewide politics.  I say fortunate for McCaskill not because Hawley has a legislative record (McCaskill would have been able to link Wagner or Hartzler more easily to unpopular bills in Missouri like President Trump's healthcare bill), but because Hawley campaigned specifically against candidates who keep jumping up the ladder of politics, something he certainly did by not even finishing his first term before running for the Senate.  This will be a tough race, as McCaskill is loathed as much as she's beloved, but she's a very apt politician whom it would be foolish to count out, and Hawley is green-behind-the-ears when it comes to races of this nature.  Could be interesting... (Previous Ranking: 2)

Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV)
1. Nevada

No politician in the country suffered more during the Republican healthcare process more than Sen. Dean Heller.  Heller stuck his neck out multiple times for President Trump and Mitch McConnell, going on record with the Skinny Repeal as a Yes vote all-the-while then ending up on the losing side of an unpopular bill when John McCain came in at the last second and voted against it.  Heller therefore gained the ire of Democrats, who will be integral if he wants to win in a state that Hillary Clinton won (the only one on this list), and Republicans, who found him to be too milquetoast in support of President Trump, and who now have a challenger to Heller in Danny Tarkanian (a bit of a joke in Nevada political circles as he's lost five general elections in the past 13 years, though it's worth noting he's won most of his primary bids), which could mean he has to run right to even make it to the general.  The Democrats could have a problem on their hands if Rep. Dina Titus jumps into the Democratic Primary, since Rep. Jacky Rosen is already running and has had the establishment rally around her; Titus has risked Harry Reid's wrath before (Reid is backing Rosen, and despite being out of politics is still a major force in Silver State politics), and would be a welcome distraction for Dean Heller, but it's worth noting two things.  First, Titus stood down in 2016 when Catherine Cortez Masto ran, avoiding a primary and staying in the House, and two, either of these women could beat Heller in a general election so it may not matter in terms of partisan balance which emerges victorious.  There are ways Heller could win, but he's certainly running out of them. (Previous Ranking: 5)

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