The Hotline’s Senate Race Rankings: Republicans in Command

A favorable map, public opinion against the president, and a glut of outside spending are boosting GOP fortunes across the country.

National Journal
Julie Sobel and Steven Shepard
Feb. 27, 2014, 3:03 p.m.

The 2014 Sen­ate land­scape con­tin­ues to look chal­len­ging for Demo­crats. Re­pub­lic­ans can take back the cham­ber after eight years of Demo­crat­ic con­trol with a net gain of six seats, and the sev­en seats most likely to flip are held by Demo­crats in states Pres­id­ent Obama lost in 2012.

The most im­port­ant change since we looked at the Sen­ate map three months ago is the glut of out­side spend­ing, par­tic­u­larly against Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents in the ma­jor­ity-mak­ing seats of North Car­o­lina, Louisi­ana, and Alaska. The non­profit, con­ser­vat­ive group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has dumped tens of mil­lions in­to those states, beat­ing up in­cum­bents who now have—at best—50/50 chances of re­tain­ing their seats.

Re­pub­lic­ans are well po­si­tioned to win a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2014. A fa­vor­able map, com­bined with a pos­it­ive na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment driv­en by dis­ap­prov­al of the health care law, have put Demo­crats on the de­fens­ive.

The rank­ings are best con­sidered in tiers. The first two seats are very likely to flip, while in seats 3 and 4 Re­pub­lic­ans are favored to take over. In seats 5 through 7, Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents in red states are deeply vul­ner­able, and if Re­pub­lic­ans win the top four, they need only two of the three seats in this tier to con­trol the Sen­ate.

Seats 8 to 12 are also close to 50/50 races. Col­or­ado de­buts in this tier after the top re­cruit, Rep. Cory Gard­ner, de­cided to run. In seats 13 to 15, the Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent is likely to re­tain con­trol of the seat, al­though the races bear watch­ing—and Re­pub­lic­ans don’t need seats 13 to 15 to wrestle con­trol of the ma­jor­ity.

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

The Mount Rush­more State presents Re­pub­lic­ans with a near guar­an­teed-pickup. Former Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mike Rounds is still very well po­si­tioned to win the crowded GOP primary and the gen­er­al elec­tion. He con­tin­ued to eas­ily lead the can­did­ates in fun­drais­ing last quarter, and none of his tea-party chal­lengers has picked up the kind of mo­mentum ne­ces­sary to pull out a primary up­set. Mean­while, Demo­crats are all but writ­ing off Rick Wei­l­and as a cred­ible Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee.

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

Rep. Shel­ley Moore Capito, a top GOP re­cruit, re­tains the ad­vant­age over Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant. The pop­u­lar, well-known con­gress­wo­man is out­rais­ing her op­pon­ent and lead­ing in polls. Pres­id­ent Obama is deeply un­pop­u­lar in West Vir­gin­ia, which is a high hurdle for Ten­nant to over­come.

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

The race is on to define Walsh, who was sworn in to re­place Demo­crat Max Baucus earli­er this month, after Baucus was con­firmed as am­bas­sad­or to China. Amer­ic­an Cross­roads im­me­di­ately launched a TV ad hit­ting Walsh for a rep­rim­and he re­ceived as an Army gen­er­al, which forced Walsh to re­spond im­me­di­ately with two spots of his own. In­cum­bency should help Walsh raise some money, but it’s still an up­hill race against well-fun­ded GOP Rep. Steve Daines.

4. Arkan­sas (D, Sen. Mark Pry­or) (Pre­vi­ous: 4)

Most polls show GOP Rep. Tom Cot­ton nar­rowly ahead of Pry­or, and Cot­ton slightly out­raised the two-term Demo­crat in the fourth quarter of 2013. Giv­en his cur­rent stand­ing, along with Arkan­sas’s in­creas­ing Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate, Pry­or is an un­der­dog to win reelec­tion.

5. North Car­o­lina (D, Sen. Kay Hagan) (Pre­vi­ous: 7)

Hagan has been the chief tar­get of Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, and it has taken a toll on her poll num­bers. The fa­vor­ite for the GOP nom­in­a­tion here re­mains state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, but he’s not a slam dunk to win the primary. We bumped North Car­o­lina up a couple of spots—vault­ing ahead of oth­er states in which AFP has played a heavy role—be­cause of the in­tense fo­cus on Hagan.

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

Al­though the on­slaught against her isn’t as in­tense as the fire Hagan is tak­ing, Landrieu is be­ing heav­ily tar­geted by out­side groups in red Louisi­ana. Her new po­s­i­tion as chair of the En­ergy Com­mit­tee may give her a boost, but she’ll face a tough cli­mate non­ethe­less. Re­cent polls show her win­ning the all-party gen­er­al elec­tion in Novem­ber be­fore en­ter­ing a dead heat with the GOP front-run­ner, Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, in a Decem­ber run­off.

7. Alaska (D, Sen. Mark Be­gich) (Pre­vi­ous: 5)

We’ve dropped Alaska a few slots from our Novem­ber rank­ings. AFP has gone after Be­gich on health care and en­ergy, but not with the same vig­or as it has at­tacked Hagan and Landrieu. Mean­while, former At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Dan Sul­li­van had a very strong first fun­drais­ing quarter in the race, but he still faces Lt. Gov. Mead Tread­well and con­tro­ver­sial 2010 nom­in­ee Joe Miller in a GOP primary. It’s pos­sible Miller could launch a third-party bid in the gen­er­al elec­tion, tak­ing votes from the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee.

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

In Geor­gia, it’s all about who the GOP nom­in­ee is—and it’s still far from clear who will emerge from the crowded primary to face Demo­crat Michelle Nunn. Demo­crats think GOP Reps. Phil Gin­grey or Paul Broun would be easi­er for Nunn to de­feat than Rep. Jack King­ston, busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due, or former gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Kar­en Han­del. With a May primary (and likely run­off to fol­low), the ad war is just now heat­ing up in the Re­pub­lic­an race.

9. Michigan (Open D, Sen. Carl Lev­in re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 10)

AFP is also play­ing in Michigan, rough­ing up Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters. Peters and Demo­crats are fight­ing back, ask­ing the non­profit to veri­fy claims made in the spot. But it un­der­scores that even in Michigan, which hasn’t voted for a Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or since 1994, the law is a li­ab­il­ity. Re­pub­lic­an Terri Lynn Land con­tin­ues to lay low, but she’s rais­ing plenty of money, in­clud­ing $1.6 mil­lion from her own bank ac­count.

10. Ken­tucky (R, Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell) (Pre­vi­ous: 9)

It’s only at No. 10 on our list, but it’s the mar­quee race of the cycle. Mc­Con­nell and Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes were two of only three Sen­ate can­did­ates to raise more than $2 mil­lion in the fourth quarter of last year, and Mc­Con­nell’s nearly $11 mil­lion war chest is tops across the na­tion. Grimes had Bill Clin­ton in the Bluegrass State earli­er this week, which yiel­ded more strong fun­drais­ing totals and likely fu­ture TV-ad foot­age. A re­cent poll showed the Demo­crat with a slight lead, but Ken­tucky’s par­tis­an lean in fed­er­al races still makes it a tough fi­nal eight months.

11. Col­or­ado (D, Sen. Mark Ud­all) (Pre­vi­ous: 12)

Col­or­ado moved up a spot when GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner jumped in the race this week. Polls show Ud­all is vul­ner­able, and Re­pub­lic­ans lacked a vi­able chal­lenger un­til Gard­ner’s an­nounce­ment. The two-term con­gress­man has some work to do: He had less than $900,000 in the bank at the start of the year, more than the oth­er GOP can­did­ates, but far less than Ud­all’s $4.7 mil­lion. Still, the risk-averse Gard­ner had res­isted the tempta­tion to risk a safe House seat on a Sen­ate run un­til now, and his change of heart is an in­dic­a­tion that he views a vic­tory as more likely than he did last year.

12. Iowa (Open D, Sen. Tom Har­kin re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 11)

While the GOP es­tab­lish­ment may have breathed a sigh of re­lief when act­iv­ist Bob Vander Plaats de­cided against the race in Feb­ru­ary, the field is still crowded—and cur­rent polls show no can­did­ate reach­ing the 35 per­cent threshold ne­ces­sary to avoid a con­ven­tion. Mean­while, Rep. Bruce Bra­ley, the de facto Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, is stock­pil­ing money while Re­pub­lic­ans struggle to raise big bucks. Still, it’s an­oth­er state where the pres­id­ent’s pop­ular­ity has tanked, and it could be com­pet­it­ive if Re­pub­lic­ans end up with a strong stand­ard­bear­er.

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

We left Vir­gin­ia off our top 15 three months ago, but former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Gillespie’s can­did­acy made the race com­pet­it­ive for the GOP. Warner re­mains pop­u­lar, but Gillespie will try to chip away at that im­age between now and Novem­ber. The Re­pub­lic­an shouldn’t lack for fund­ing, giv­en his con­nec­tions. But Warner and his $7.2-mil­lion war chest are about as well po­si­tioned as a Demo­crat can be in a purple state in this en­vir­on­ment.

14. Min­nesota (D, Sen. Al Franken) (Pre­vi­ous: 13)

Polls show Franken is pop­u­lar in the state—a test­a­ment to how his low-pro­file term in the Sen­ate has turned around his par­tis­an im­age as a can­did­ate and comedi­an. He’s also been a prodi­gious fun­draiser, al­beit one with a high burn rate. Re­pub­lic­an Mike Mc­Fad­den con­tin­ues to stock­pile cash ($1.7 mil­lion) for his can­did­acy, but he still has to nav­ig­ate a crowded GOP primary field.

15. New Hamp­shire (D, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) (Pre­vi­ous: 14)

There’s only one ques­tion in this race: Will Scott Brown run? The former sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts is keep­ing us guess­ing, and re­portedly may con­tin­ue to do so for a few more months (the fil­ing dead­line isn’t un­til June, and he just com­mit­ted to an Iowa trip in April). The bot­tom line is that if Brown—a pro­lif­ic fun­draiser who is already well-known in the state—gets in, New Hamp­shire will have a real race on its hands. If he ul­ti­mately passes on a bid, Shaheen is poised to cruise to reelec­tion.

The 2014 Sen­ate land­scape con­tin­ues to look chal­len­ging for Demo­crats. Re­pub­lic­ans can take back the cham­ber after eight years of Demo­crat­ic con­trol with a net gain of six seats, and the sev­en seats most likely to flip are held by Demo­crats in states Pres­id­ent Obama lost in 2012.

The most im­port­ant change since we looked at the Sen­ate map three months ago is the glut of out­side spend­ing, par­tic­u­larly against Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents in the ma­jor­ity-mak­ing seats of North Car­o­lina, Louisi­ana, and Alaska. The non­profit, con­ser­vat­ive group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has dumped tens of mil­lions in­to those states, beat­ing up in­cum­bents who now have—at best—50/50 chances of re­tain­ing their seats.

Re­pub­lic­ans are well po­si­tioned to win a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2014. A fa­vor­able map, com­bined with a pos­it­ive na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment driv­en by dis­ap­prov­al of the health care law, have put Demo­crats on the de­fens­ive.

The rank­ings are best con­sidered in tiers. The first two seats are very likely to flip, while in seats 3 and 4 Re­pub­lic­ans are favored to take over. In seats 5 through 7, Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents in red states are deeply vul­ner­able, and if Re­pub­lic­ans win the top four, they need only two of the three seats in this tier to con­trol the Sen­ate.

Seats 8 to 12 are also close to 50/50 races. Col­or­ado de­buts in this tier after the top re­cruit, Rep. Cory Gard­ner, de­cided to run. In seats 13 to 15, the Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent is likely to re­tain con­trol of the seat, al­though the races bear watch­ing—and Re­pub­lic­ans don’t need seats 13 to 15 to wrestle con­trol of the ma­jor­ity.

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

The Mount Rush­more State presents Re­pub­lic­ans with a near guar­an­teed-pickup. Former Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Mike Rounds is still very well po­si­tioned to win the crowded GOP primary and the gen­er­al elec­tion. He con­tin­ued to eas­ily lead the can­did­ates in fun­drais­ing last quarter, and none of his tea-party chal­lengers has picked up the kind of mo­mentum ne­ces­sary to pull out a primary up­set. Mean­while, Demo­crats are all but writ­ing off Rick Wei­l­and as a cred­ible Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee.

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

Rep. Shel­ley Moore Capito, a top GOP re­cruit, re­tains the ad­vant­age over Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant. The pop­u­lar, well-known con­gress­wo­man is out­rais­ing her op­pon­ent and lead­ing in polls. Pres­id­ent Obama is deeply un­pop­u­lar in West Vir­gin­ia, which is a high hurdle for Ten­nant to over­come.

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

The race is on to define Walsh, who was sworn in to re­place Demo­crat Max Baucus earli­er this month, after Baucus was con­firmed as am­bas­sad­or to China. Amer­ic­an Cross­roads im­me­di­ately launched a TV ad hit­ting Walsh for a rep­rim­and he re­ceived as an Army gen­er­al, which forced Walsh to re­spond im­me­di­ately with two spots of his own. In­cum­bency should help Walsh raise some money, but it’s still an up­hill race against well-fun­ded GOP Rep. Steve Daines.

4. Arkan­sas (D, Sen. Mark Pry­or) (Pre­vi­ous: 4)

Most polls show GOP Rep. Tom Cot­ton nar­rowly ahead of Pry­or, and Cot­ton slightly out­raised the two-term Demo­crat in the fourth quarter of 2013. Giv­en his cur­rent stand­ing, along with Arkan­sas’s in­creas­ing Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­ate, Pry­or is an un­der­dog to win reelec­tion.

5. North Car­o­lina (D, Sen. Kay Hagan) (Pre­vi­ous: 7)

Hagan has been the chief tar­get of Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, and it has taken a toll on her poll num­bers. The fa­vor­ite for the GOP nom­in­a­tion here re­mains state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, but he’s not a slam dunk to win the primary. We bumped North Car­o­lina up a couple of spots—vault­ing ahead of oth­er states in which AFP has played a heavy role—be­cause of the in­tense fo­cus on Hagan.

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

Al­though the on­slaught against her isn’t as in­tense as the fire Hagan is tak­ing, Landrieu is be­ing heav­ily tar­geted by out­side groups in red Louisi­ana. Her new po­s­i­tion as chair of the En­ergy Com­mit­tee may give her a boost, but she’ll face a tough cli­mate non­ethe­less. Re­cent polls show her win­ning the all-party gen­er­al elec­tion in Novem­ber be­fore en­ter­ing a dead heat with the GOP front-run­ner, Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, in a Decem­ber run­off.

7. Alaska (D, Sen. Mark Be­gich) (Pre­vi­ous: 5)

We’ve dropped Alaska a few slots from our Novem­ber rank­ings. AFP has gone after Be­gich on health care and en­ergy, but not with the same vig­or as it has at­tacked Hagan and Landrieu. Mean­while, former At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Dan Sul­li­van had a very strong first fun­drais­ing quarter in the race, but he still faces Lt. Gov. Mead Tread­well and con­tro­ver­sial 2010 nom­in­ee Joe Miller in a GOP primary. It’s pos­sible Miller could launch a third-party bid in the gen­er­al elec­tion, tak­ing votes from the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee.

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

In Geor­gia, it’s all about who the GOP nom­in­ee is—and it’s still far from clear who will emerge from the crowded primary to face Demo­crat Michelle Nunn. Demo­crats think GOP Reps. Phil Gin­grey or Paul Broun would be easi­er for Nunn to de­feat than Rep. Jack King­ston, busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due, or former gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Kar­en Han­del. With a May primary (and likely run­off to fol­low), the ad war is just now heat­ing up in the Re­pub­lic­an race.

9. Michigan (Open D, Sen. Carl Lev­in re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 10)

AFP is also play­ing in Michigan, rough­ing up Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters. Peters and Demo­crats are fight­ing back, ask­ing the non­profit to veri­fy claims made in the spot. But it un­der­scores that even in Michigan, which hasn’t voted for a Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or since 1994, the law is a li­ab­il­ity. Re­pub­lic­an Terri Lynn Land con­tin­ues to lay low, but she’s rais­ing plenty of money, in­clud­ing $1.6 mil­lion from her own bank ac­count.

10. Ken­tucky (R, Sen. Mitch Mc­Con­nell) (Pre­vi­ous: 9)

It’s only at No. 10 on our list, but it’s the mar­quee race of the cycle. Mc­Con­nell and Demo­crat Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes were two of only three Sen­ate can­did­ates to raise more than $2 mil­lion in the fourth quarter of last year, and Mc­Con­nell’s nearly $11 mil­lion war chest is tops across the na­tion. Grimes had Bill Clin­ton in the Bluegrass State earli­er this week, which yiel­ded more strong fun­drais­ing totals and likely fu­ture TV-ad foot­age. A re­cent poll showed the Demo­crat with a slight lead, but Ken­tucky’s par­tis­an lean in fed­er­al races still makes it a tough fi­nal eight months.

11. Col­or­ado (D, Sen. Mark Ud­all) (Pre­vi­ous: 12)

Col­or­ado moved up a spot when GOP Rep. Cory Gard­ner jumped in the race this week. Polls show Ud­all is vul­ner­able, and Re­pub­lic­ans lacked a vi­able chal­lenger un­til Gard­ner’s an­nounce­ment. The two-term con­gress­man has some work to do: He had less than $900,000 in the bank at the start of the year, more than the oth­er GOP can­did­ates, but far less than Ud­all’s $4.7 mil­lion. Still, the risk-averse Gard­ner had res­isted the tempta­tion to risk a safe House seat on a Sen­ate run un­til now, and his change of heart is an in­dic­a­tion that he views a vic­tory as more likely than he did last year.

12. Iowa (Open D, Sen. Tom Har­kin re­tir­ing) (Pre­vi­ous: 11)

While the GOP es­tab­lish­ment may have breathed a sigh of re­lief when act­iv­ist Bob Vander Plaats de­cided against the race in Feb­ru­ary, the field is still crowded—and cur­rent polls show no can­did­ate reach­ing the 35 per­cent threshold ne­ces­sary to avoid a con­ven­tion. Mean­while, Rep. Bruce Bra­ley, the de facto Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee, is stock­pil­ing money while Re­pub­lic­ans struggle to raise big bucks. Still, it’s an­oth­er state where the pres­id­ent’s pop­ular­ity has tanked, and it could be com­pet­it­ive if Re­pub­lic­ans end up with a strong stand­ard­bear­er.

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

We left Vir­gin­ia off our top 15 three months ago, but former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Gillespie’s can­did­acy made the race com­pet­it­ive for the GOP. Warner re­mains pop­u­lar, but Gillespie will try to chip away at that im­age between now and Novem­ber. The Re­pub­lic­an shouldn’t lack for fund­ing, giv­en his con­nec­tions. But Warner and his $7.2-mil­lion war chest are about as well po­si­tioned as a Demo­crat can be in a purple state in this en­vir­on­ment.

14. Min­nesota (D, Sen. Al Franken) (Pre­vi­ous: 13)

Polls show Franken is pop­u­lar in the state—a test­a­ment to how his low-pro­file term in the Sen­ate has turned around his par­tis­an im­age as a can­did­ate and comedi­an. He’s also been a prodi­gious fun­draiser, al­beit one with a high burn rate. Re­pub­lic­an Mike Mc­Fad­den con­tin­ues to stock­pile cash ($1.7 mil­lion) for his can­did­acy, but he still has to nav­ig­ate a crowded GOP primary field.

15. New Hamp­shire (D, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen) (Pre­vi­ous: 14)

There’s only one ques­tion in this race: Will Scott Brown run? The former sen­at­or from Mas­sachu­setts is keep­ing us guess­ing, and re­portedly may con­tin­ue to do so for a few more months (the fil­ing dead­line isn’t un­til June, and he just com­mit­ted to an Iowa trip in April). The bot­tom line is that if Brown—a pro­lif­ic fun­draiser who is already well-known in the state—gets in, New Hamp­shire will have a real race on its hands. If he ul­ti­mately passes on a bid, Shaheen is poised to cruise to reelec­tion.

×