2014 Senate rankings: Map favors GOP
By: James Hohmann
July 6, 2014 05:24 PM EDT
With four months until Election Day, Republicans are as close to winning the Senate as they’ve been since losing it in 2006.
Six months ago, the GOP path to the majority was narrower: Republicans essentially had to sweep seven races in states Barack Obama lost in 2012 but where Democrats currently hold seats. Unlikely, in other words.
Now Republicans have more options. They’ve landed top recruits to take on first-term senators in New Hampshire and Colorado, nominated credible female candidates in open-seat contests in Michigan and Iowa, protected all of their incumbents from tea party challenges and thwarted more conservative candidates that could have hurt the GOP’s chances in states like North Carolina and Georgia.
With the general election field all but set, Republicans are looking to turn the midterms into a national referendum on Obama. Democrats want the focus to be squarely on the candidates, and they’re spending the typically quiet summer months trying to define Republican hopefuls as unlikeable and extreme.
Obama’s approval rating continues to hover around his all-time lows, especially in the GOP-leaning states that will decide control of the upper chamber. Obamacare is not as toxic now as during the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout, but it undeniably remains a drag on Democrats. The jury is still out on the economy: The Commerce Department announced a 2.9 percent decline in first-quarter gross domestic product late last month, but then the Labor Department reported last week that the unemployment rate in June had dropped to 6.1 percent.
Republicans are expected to pick up seats in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana, where longtime Democratic incumbents are retiring or have already resigned. From there, they need to net three more seats to take control of the chamber. Fifty-five senators currently caucus with Democrats, 45 with Republicans.
With that in mind, here are the 10 truly competitive races, ranked in order of likelihood of a party change.
Democrats feel more hopeful than they did a few months ago about Sen. Mary Landrieu’s reelection prospects. She became chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which helps in the oil-rich state. And she ran effective biographical spots that showcased her still-popular father Moon, who has special appeal to crucial African-American voters after helping integrate New Orleans as mayor in the 1970s.
But Republicans are confident that Landrieu’s “clout” argument won’t get her to 50 percent in November, especially when Obama continues to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and pushes Environmental Protection Agency regulations. That would almost certainly mean an early-December runoff, likely with GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, a relatively bland medical doctor.
Landrieu is a notoriously relentless politician. That’s helped her survive even as the state has become redder. But she has an exceedingly difficult job this fall: to drive up black voter turnout and simultaneously appeal to independents and conservative Democrats who disapprove of Obama.
It turns out Mark Pryor is not Blanche Lincoln. In 2010, there was never much doubt that Lincoln — one of only three Democratic Senate incumbents to lose reelection in the past decade — would get wiped out. Republicans saw Pryor as a dead man walking when Rep. Tom Cotton got into the race and cleared the field. But the conventional wisdom has shifted; big Democratic TV buys drove up Cotton’s negatives, and the race is very much in play. After some public polls showed Pryor ahead, a handful of Republican internal surveys have shown Cotton in the lead.
Pryor, who didn’t even draw a Republican opponent in 2008, is a skilled retail campaigner with an independent image. But Arkansas has grown more conservative, and Pryor has voted for every signature Obama initiative, including Obamacare. Despite Cotton’s controversial votes, whether against the farm bill or the Violence Against Women Act, he is a slight favorite at this point.
3. North Carolina
Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan does not have an established family “brand” like Landrieu and Pryor, which makes it easier to run against her as a generic Obama Democrat. But the president is more popular in North Carolina — he lost the state in 2012 by only 2 percentage points — than in Louisiana or Arkansas.
After conservative outside groups spent tens of millions bombarding Hagan, women’s groups are now rallying to her defense. But, because she was elected in 2008, all her major accomplishments are the accomplishments of an unpopular administration. Republicans plan to run a campaign against Hagan similar to the one she ran against Elizabeth Dole in 2008: tying her to the president and calling her an ineffective legislator.
State House Speaker Thom Tillis won the nomination without a runoff. He is now overseeing a special session of the state Legislature, which brings some political headaches, along with stories about GOP infighting. Hagan’s path to victory requires destroying Tillis’ image in a way that drives women and African-Americans to the polls.
Even though Mitt Romney won the state by 14 points, freshman Sen. Mark Begich looks better positioned than any other Democratic incumbent running in a state carried by the GOP ticket in 2012.
The former mayor of Anchorage has run a flawless campaign thus far, and operatives on both sides agree this race will remain tight until the end. Begich’s ads have highlighted his fights with the Obama administration on behalf of the state. And he has benefited from a well-funded super PAC that has battered GOP challenger Dan Sullivan with millions in attack ads.
This may not be enough. Sullivan, a Marine and former natural resources commissioner, is heavily favored to win a three-way August primary over Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Joe Miller, who defeated Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 primary and lost in the general. Both Treadwell and Miller teamed up on Sullivan in a recent debate, but Club for Growth and American Crossroads are unified behind the front-runner.
Miller remains a wild card. He’s not going to win the primary. But he hasn’t ruled out running as a third-party candidate, and in a close race he could siphon enough votes to be a spoiler.
The race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin feels like a true toss-up. State Sen. Joni Ernst rode late momentum to a GOP primary romp. Rep. Bruce Braley, from northeast Iowa, cleared the Democratic field and has had a year to build up an infrastructure and raise money. But Braley has also made unforced errors, including a disparaging comment about Sen. Chuck Grassley’s background as a farmer.
Ernst is poised, has a good bio — she’s from a rural area and is in the Army Reserve — and is running as an outsider. And Republican Terry Branstad, who’s favored to win reelection to a sixth term as governor, could give her a boost. But Ernst also took positions in the primary that could hurt her in the general, from opposing minimum-wage increases to criticizing the Clean Water Act.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall looked safe until Rep. Cory Gardner jumped into the race and cleared the GOP primary field. Several polls have shown the race in this purple state, which Obama and George W. Bush each won twice, within the margin of error. Outside groups on both sides could make this one of the year’s costliest races.
Democrats think Republican women in the Denver suburbs and exurbs will decide the winner. Udall has been running ads highlighting Gardner’s past support for personhood legislation and strong opposition to abortion. Gardner has renounced his support for personhood and last month came out in favor of letting women buy birth control over the counter.
Republicans are hammering Udall, a staunch environmentalist, on energy issues, specifically the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Gardner, 39, elected to the House in 2010, is trying to position himself as a “new generation” leader against the 63-year-old Udall. Another factor: who wins libertarian-minded voters concerned about government surveillance, a big issue in the West. Udall has positioned himself as one of the fiercest Democratic critics of the administration on privacy issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is very vulnerable, with dangerously low approval and high negatives that belie the state’s Republican lean in federal elections. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has shown she can raise a lot of money, but it’s unclear whether she can hold her own against the wily McConnell in debates and on the stump.
Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, benefits from not being in Congress: She didn’t vote for Obamacare and can run as an outsider against a three-decade incumbent. Grimes has distanced herself from the new coal regulations, though she took heat for not broaching the issue during a fundraiser with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last month.
But it’s a tall order for any Democratic challenger to win in the Bluegrass State in this climate.
Democrat Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive and daughter of moderate former Sen. Sam Nunn, has run a very good campaign so far. Georgia isn’t as deep-red as many think, and the younger Nunn doesn’t have to defend a record in Congress.
Her best hope had been for a far-right Republican to emerge from a free-for-all primary, but that didn’t happen. The two most establishment-friendly candidates are facing each other in a July 22 runoff. Though he finished second in the first round of voting, Rep. Jack Kingston is favored to prevail.
Republicans are divided about who would be stronger against Nunn in the general. Privately, Democrats seem to prefer running against Kingston. He’s from the coastal region and does not have a base of support in vote-rich Atlanta, where Nunn is strong. He’s been in D.C. for more than two decades, so she could more easily run as an outsider.
On the other hand, she could attack former Dollar General CEO David Perdue as a Peach State version of Mitt Romney, contrasting his business record against her work for nonprofits.
Bottom line: Nunn needs a Republican stumble to win. But either way, Republicans will need to put a good amount of money into defending the seat, which is currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Republican Terri Lynn Land has self-funded her campaign to the tune of more than $1.5 million through this March, and she has proved to be a good fundraiser who can draw outside money, too. But she’s also had stumbles over the past few months that have left party leaders unimpressed.
There are concerns in some quarters that she’s not yet polished enough for the rigors of a general election campaign. Attack ads have also driven up her negatives.
Democratic Rep. Gary Peters also hasn’t impressed thus far. With Land and Peters tied in the polls, national Democrats in March dispatched a new campaign manager, who has helped right the ship.
Michigan is a blue-leaning state, but Republicans can certainly win there, especially an open seat in an off year. Gov. Rick Snyder, up for reelection, might give Land some coattails.
10. New Hampshire
Scott Brown’s campaign rollout has not lived up to the expectations of national Republicans, who spent the better part of a year practically begging him to take on popular Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The former Republican senator from Massachusetts, who lost to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, was defined early by negative attack ads. He trails by low-double-digit margins in recent polls, and he’s viewed more unfavorably than favorably.
Working in Brown’s favor is the Granite State’s tendency to break late and roll with national waves. He has a top-flight team around him, he’s a first-rate retail politician and Obamacare is unpopular with the independents who will decide the election.
But operatives watching the race closely say Brown needs to be within 5 to 7 percentage points of Shaheen by mid-September or national money won’t come. Shaheen won’t go easy; she is a former governor, and she retains relatively high favorability ratings.
The Watch List
There are three lower-tier races Republicans hope will become competitive if the climate is right, provided their first-time candidates raise enough money to keep pace with well-funded first-term senators: businessman Mike McFadden against Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby against Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie against Virginia Sen. Mark Warner.