The Senate Seats Most Likely to Flip: Hotline’s Race Rankings

The top nine pickup opportunities still belong to Republicans, more than enough for them to win back control of the Senate.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) speaks during a press conference to urge Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, on Capitol Hill April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC. The act would ensure equal payment for equal work for both women and men. 
National Journal
Scott Bland Andrea Drusch and Alex Roarty
June 25, 2014, 6:30 p.m.

The cam­paign for con­trol of the Sen­ate has changed, some­what, since The Hot­line last ranked the 2014 Sen­ate races in Feb­ru­ary. The top nine pickup op­por­tun­it­ies still be­long to Re­pub­lic­ans, more than enough for them to win back con­trol of the Sen­ate. But some of the most threatened Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents have sta­bil­ized since winter, when things looked par­tic­u­larly dire for their party, and they could yet man­age enough red-state vic­tor­ies to keep the Sen­ate in Demo­crat­ic hands. In­cum­bents like Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or still have very dif­fi­cult cam­paigns ahead, but they aren’t done yet.

Mean­while, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is still locked in a tight race with his Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger in Ken­tucky; Scott Brown is in — but hav­ing some dif­fi­culty — in New Hamp­shire; and Re­pub­lic­ans suc­cess­fully avoided a nom­in­ee prob­lem in North Car­o­lina, Geor­gia, and Mis­sis­sippi. There are few­er ques­tions and wild cards about these races than there were four months ago.

At some places in the list, the dif­fer­ences between the states are in­fin­ites­im­al; at oth­er points, there are wide gaps. We think about the Sen­ate land­scape in tiers: Demo­crats are highly likely to lose the top three races; the next four are toss-ups; the six after that are highly com­pet­it­ive cam­paigns where we think the in­cum­bents still hold the up­per hand; and the races at the bot­tom are against-the-odds up­set pos­sib­il­it­ies.

Demo­crats cur­rently con­trol 55 Sen­ate seats, mean­ing Re­pub­lic­ans have to net six to take con­trol of the cham­ber in 2015. Without fur­ther ado, here is our list of the top Sen­ate races of 2014, ranked in or­der of most to least likely to flip:

1) South Dakota (Open D, Sen. Tim John­son re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous rank: 1)

With two former Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning as in­de­pend­ents and likely to split votes on the Right, South Dakota could have been a bet­ter op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats. But Rick Wei­l­and isn’t the first-tier can­did­ate the party was hop­ing for, and it doesn’t look like he’ll be able to make the race to re­place John­son com­pet­it­ive. Former Gov. Mike Rounds has the surest path of any Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger in the coun­try.

2) West Vir­gin­ia (Open D, Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 2)

Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant was al­ways play­ing from be­hind against the top GOP re­cruit, Rep. Shel­ley Moore Capito, and the pres­id­ent’s new EPA reg­u­la­tions aren’t do­ing her any fa­vors in a coal state. Ten­nant has so far kept on par with Capito’s fun­drais­ing, but she has a lot of ground to make up run­ning against a pop­u­lar in­cum­bent in a state that really doesn’t like Pres­id­ent Obama.

3) Montana (D, Sen. John Walsh) (Pre­vi­ous: 3)

Steve Daines isn’t Denny Re­hberg, John Walsh isn’t Jon Test­er, and 2014 is look­ing a whole lot tough­er for Demo­crats than 2012. That, in a nut­shell, ex­plains why Demo­crats aren’t too op­tim­ist­ic about Montana des­pite the party’s strong track re­cord of suc­cess there. Walsh’s ap­point­ment to the Sen­ate in Janu­ary gives him the be­ne­fit of in­cum­bency — sort of — but an in­tern­al re­port from the U.S. Army that the then-ad­jut­ant gen­er­al mis­used re­sources has put him on the de­fens­ive over his mil­it­ary back­ground, which should be a ma­jor strength of his cam­paign. Just five months in­to his term, Walsh is clearly the midterm elec­tions’ most en­dangered in­cum­bent.

4) Louisi­ana (D, Sen. Mary Landrieu) (Pre­vi­ous: 6)

Demo­crats’ struggles at the end of last year, fueled by Obama­care’s woes and ex­acer­bated by big-spend­ing con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups, hit Landrieu hard, but she has built her­self back up in the past few months with em­phas­is on how im­port­ant her en­ergy com­mit­tee chair­man­ship is for Louisi­ana and a clev­er ad cam­paign fea­tur­ing her fam­ous fath­er. Like all of the red states Demo­crats are try­ing to pro­tect, Landrieu wants to make the race as much about loc­al is­sues as pos­sible, for­cing Louisi­ana en­ergy in­terests to choose between a Demo­crat­ic friend or their favored party. If Landrieu can’t win out­right with a ma­jor­ity in Novem­ber and the race goes to a Decem­ber run­off with con­trol of the Sen­ate on the line, stay­ing loc­al could get dif­fi­cult.

5) North Car­o­lina (D, Sen. Kay Hagan) (Pre­vi­ous: 5)

After be­ing an early tar­get of his­tor­ic spend­ing from Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, Sen. Kay Hagan fi­nally has some groups (EMILY’s List, Planned Par­ent­hood) com­ing to her de­fense. Voters in North Car­o­lina don’t like na­tion­al Demo­crats, es­pe­cially Pres­id­ent Obama, right now — but they are also sour on state Re­pub­lic­ans. Hagan’s op­pon­ent, state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, has been pulled away from the race to fin­ish out a con­ten­tious le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, which promp­ted protests out­side the cap­it­ol and even in his per­son­al of­fice. Tillis is also tied to un­pop­u­lar cuts to edu­ca­tion fund­ing and a con­tro­ver­sial state budget. Still, Hagan hasn’t seen a no­tice­able bump in avail­able polling since the ad­vert­ising evened out.

(Na­tion­al Journ­al Present­a­tion Cen­ter)6) Arkan­sas (D, Sen. Mark Pry­or) (Pre­vi­ous: 4)

Re­pub­lic­ans once dreamed of put­ting away Pry­or by sum­mer. In­stead, the two-term sen­at­or has shed his la­bel as “the na­tion’s most en­dangered in­cum­bent” thanks to a strong early cam­paign rooted in his de­fense of So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care. If any­thing, more ques­tions have been raised about Tom Cot­ton’s aptitude as a can­did­ate — his stiff­ness as a re­tail politi­cian and hard-Right vot­ing re­cord have caused him a few head­aches. But with all of that said, Demo­crats shouldn’t get too car­ried away. This is still a deeply red state, Cot­ton is still a cred­ible can­did­ate, and well-fun­ded groups like Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity and the Club for Growth will still pump mil­lions more in­to the race. Arkan­sas re­mains a good pickup op­por­tun­ity for the GOP, just like Louisi­ana and North Car­o­lina; in these rank­ings, the trio are close to in­ter­change­able.

7) Alaska (D, Sen. Mark Be­gich) (Pre­vi­ous: 7)

In some states, like Arkan­sas, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans are see­ing dif­fer­ent things in their polling right now. Most people we talked to agreed about Alaska: Be­gich has had a good year so far, with his cam­paign giv­ing a com­pel­ling ac­count about how he’s been fight­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, and the sen­at­or has sep­ar­ated him­self a bit from pre­sumptive Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger Dan Sul­li­van in private polling. Every­one al­ways says “Alaska is dif­fer­ent,” and the situ­ation is cer­tainly look­ing dif­fer­ent than it is for the oth­er red-state Demo­crats. One thing Alaska has in com­mon with every­where else: the de­luge of out­side money. The party com­mit­tees and two su­per PACs have re­served over $15 mil­lion in TV time for the fall, quin­tup­ling the total out­side spend­ing in Be­gich’s last race.

8) Iowa (Open D, Sen. Tom Har­kin re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 12)

State Sen. Joni Ernst’s im­press­ive primary per­form­ance has made her one of the biggest wild cards this cycle. She faces a cap­able, though gaffe-troubled, Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate in Rep. Bruce Bra­ley, but Ernst’s abil­ity to pull to­geth­er dif­fer­ent fac­tions of the Re­pub­lic­an Party has so far been im­press­ive, and she raised more than $1 mil­lion in the six weeks lead­ing up to her primary. Re­cent polls go back and forth on Ernst and Bra­ley, but it’s prob­ably too early to tell wheth­er she’s really ready for prime time.

9) Col­or­ado (D, Sen. Mark Ud­all) (Pre­vi­ous: 11)

Can Mark Ud­all make Col­or­ado voters think Cory Gard­ner is just an­oth­er Ken Buck? He’s already try­ing, re­leas­ing a blis­ter­ing TV ad this month de­pict­ing the Re­pub­lic­an con­gress­man as an an­ti­abor­tion ex­trem­ist. Wheth­er he’s suc­cess­ful re­mains to be seen: Gard­ner has fought back ag­gress­ively, re­noun­cing some of his past sup­port for per­son­hood le­gis­la­tion and writ­ing a sly op-ed in the Den­ver Post call­ing for the birth-con­trol pill to be avail­able without a pre­scrip­tion. It’s early, but the fierce fight­ing in June speaks to the race’s com­pet­it­ive­ness. One sleep­er is­sue to watch: A pro­posed ban on frack­ing in Col­or­ado would leave the en­vir­on­ment­al­ist-friendly Ud­all in a tight spot, forced to choose between his vo­cal lib­er­al base and the state’s ma­jor­ity of mod­er­ate voters.

10) Ken­tucky (R, Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell) (Pre­vi­ous: 10)

Demo­crats have long grouped Ken­tucky and Geor­gia to­geth­er, un­able to de­term­ine which of­fers the best op­por­tun­ity for a Demo­crat­ic pickup in 2014. But the fail­ure of either Paul Broun or Phil Gin­grey to at least make a run­off in Geor­gia, coupled with con­tin­ued strong poll num­bers for Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, means the Bluegrass State has ever so slightly sep­ar­ated it­self from its Peach State com­pat­ri­ot. The news hasn’t been all good for Grimes, however: It’s hard to ima­gine Obama’s EPA reg­u­la­tions hurt­ing any can­did­ate more than her, and Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s cam­paign kept the is­sue alive in Ken­tucky — at least in the me­dia — for weeks.

11) Geor­gia (Open R, Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 8)

Re­pub­lic­ans have avoided the pos­sib­il­ity of an ex­trem­ist nom­in­ee, but Demo­crat Michelle Nunn’s strengths still have her party think­ing happy thoughts. Re­pub­lic­ans Dav­id Per­due and Jack King­ston are still fight­ing for their nom­in­a­tion, while Nunn stock­piles cash and pre­pares to run an anti-Wash­ing­ton fall cam­paign, es­pe­cially if her op­pon­ent is Rep. King­ston. But the demo­graph­ics of the state are still just tricky for Demo­crats right now. Nunn will have to do something ex­traordin­ary to take over a Re­pub­lic­an-held Sen­ate seat.

12) Michigan (Open D, Sen. Carl Lev­in re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 9)

This is one race def­in­itely head­ing in the wrong dir­ec­tion for Re­pub­lic­ans. Pre­sumed GOP nom­in­ee Terri Lynn Land has struggled migh­tily in her scant few pub­lic ap­pear­ances and re­minded every­one why the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment in the Wol­ver­ine State was so hes­it­ant to em­brace her all of last year. Worse, the race’s most re­cent polling shows Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters es­tab­lish­ing a small but sig­ni­fic­ant lead, and one of Land’s first ma­jor ads — in which she chal­lenged Demo­crats to sug­gest that she was wa­ging a war on wo­men — was privately mocked as in­ef­fect­ive by Re­pub­lic­ans. Michigan is by no means out of reach for Re­pub­lic­ans, but with so many oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies for the GOP, it’s in danger of drop­ping off the map come the fall.

13) New Hamp­shire (D, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) (Pre­vi­ous: 15)

Former Sen. Scott Brown’s entry to the race makes things in­ter­est­ing, but so far he has un­der­whelmed. New Hamp­shire voters seem sus­pi­cious of a trans­plant politi­cian from Mas­sachu­setts, and Brown needs to real­ize that Shaheen, a pop­u­lar former gov­ernor, is no Martha Coakley, in the words of one strategist. Most con­cern­ing for Brown should be his un­der­wa­ter ap­prov­al num­bers in a re­cent Suf­folk Uni­versity poll, 46 per­cent un­fa­vor­able to 35 per­cent fa­vor­able.

14) Min­nesota (D, Sen. Al Franken) (Pre­vi­ous: 14)

Wel­come to the new sleep­er race of 2014. In­vest­ment banker Mike Mc­Fad­den, who won the state party en­dorse­ment in May to ef­fect­ively clear the GOP field, has the per­son­al wealth to at least par­tially self-fund a cam­paign — a ne­ces­sity for a con­test oth­er­wise off the radars of most na­tion­al donors. Even as they re­main res­ol­utely con­fid­ent of Al Franken’s chances, Demo­crats are quietly con­ced­ing that this is a race that could end up closer than most people ex­pect. This is, after all, a law­maker who won his first race by few­er than 1,000 votes.

15) Vir­gin­ia (D, Sen. Mark Warner) (Pre­vi­ous: 13)

Re­pub­lic­ans have an ink­ling that Warner isn’t quite “Mark Warner,” the myth­ic all-con­quer­ing Demo­crat of the pre­vi­ous dec­ade, any more after six years in Wash­ing­ton. Former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair Ed Gillespie cer­tainly will have the money to test that hy­po­thes­is, but the avail­able polling doesn’t show Warner in a bad place right now. In any case, if any races this far down the list end up truly in play, it’s bound to hap­pen late in the year.

16) Ore­gon (D, Sen. Jeff Merkley) (Pre­vi­ous: Not Rated)

In the time since we last ranked these races, Ore­gon has gone from solidly blue, to a pos­sible pickup op­por­tun­ity for Re­pub­lic­ans, and back to be­ing a long shot. For a short while, pe­di­at­ric neurosur­geon Mon­ica We­hby looked like just the mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an who could give Sen. Jeff Merkley a run for his money. But just as she clinched the primary, troub­ling har­ass­ment al­leg­a­tions from her past be­came pub­lic, fol­lowed by near si­lence from her cam­paign. We­hby is work­ing with a new staff now, bolstered by some help from na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, but she def­in­itely has long odds, high­light­ing everything that is both good and bad about in­ex­per­i­enced “out­sider” can­did­ates. Merkley will still have to work for it, but We­hby doesn’t look as dan­ger­ous as she once did.

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