Republicans started out this election cycle with one mantra: The new GOP-controlled Senate is working. But in a presidential cycle and in states where Democrats have performed well in recent years, the party’s most vulnerable incumbents are preparing for the potential of a political liability at the top of the ticket.
Senate control will be decided in the presidential battlegrounds, where first-term Sens. Pat Toomey, Kelly Ayotte, Ron Johnson, and Rob Portman are now doing everything they can to prove they fit their state’s purple-to-blue electorates. That includes bucking the GOP at any available turn, a strategy that only gets tougher as White House hopefuls barnstorm through their states in the coming weeks.
This is our list of the most competitive Senate races, ranked in order of most likely to flip party control. With so much attention on the presidential primaries, there has been little movement since our last rankings in December.
Democrats need to flip four seats if the party retains the White House (five with a Republican president), but if any one of those GOP incumbents hold the line, the Democrats’ map gets that much tougher. While President Obama won the first eight states on this list in the last two presidential contests, it’s still unknown what kind of coattails there will be this time for his party’s challengers.
A few states that didn’t make the top 10 but are worth watching include North Carolina, where Democrats were unable to land a top-tier challenger to Republican Sen. Richard Burr; Indiana, where two Republican congressmen are vying for the nomination; and Kentucky, where Democrats recruited Lexington Mayor Jim Gray to take on Sen. Rand Paul, whose focus for the last year has been on the Republican presidential nomination.
1. Illinois—Mark Kirk (R)
Kirk remains the most endangered Republican, and that is hurting his ability to fundraise. He came in well short of his likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, for a second time last quarter, and few allies have shown a willingness to spend big on his behalf.
2. Wisconsin—Ron Johnson (R)
Johnson also faced a fundraising deficit in the fourth quarter, as former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold hauled in an impressive $2.7 million and boasts near-universal name ID. Unlike Kirk’s allies, Johnson’s allies aren’t staying on the sidelines, as a pro-Johnson super PAC combats Marquette University polls showing Johnson trailing and a local group airs ads dragging Feingold into the fray over problems at a local VA.
3. New Hampshire—Kelly Ayotte (R)
The onslaught of GOP presidential candidates traveling across the state for Tuesday’s primary has made Ayotte’s outreach to New Hampshire’s critical independent voters more challenging, even as she’s stayed neutral. After a summer and fall that focused entirely on Gov. Maggie Hassan’s state budget crisis, Democrats have been more than happy to sit back and let Ayotte navigate this minefield of her own.
4. Florida—Open (R)
This is the tale of two primaries. For Democrats, Rep. Alan Grayson’s campaign hasn’t resurrected itself since a massive staff departure last year, leaving Rep. Patrick Murphy, backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, with the space to stockpile cash for the general. The Republican side could see the addition of moderate self-funder Carlos Beruff, as Rep. Ron DeSantis’s fourth-quarter report proved that while he may not have the profile the GOP had hoped to run here, his cash advantage might deter outside help for Rep. David Jolly.
5. Ohio—Rob Portman (R)
Portman is going to have the best campaign that money can buy, and he so far seems to be running a near flawless race. None of that may matter if the presidential winds turn against him in this battleground state. Try as they might, it will be tough for Republicans to redefine former Gov. Ted Strickland, who lost reelection narrowly in 2010. Even as Strickland takes heat from fellow Democrats in his primary, this race still looks more promising for the minority party than states with less-defined candidates.
6. Nevada—Open (D)
We’re still gauging this race on the premise that former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto turns out to be a decent candidate. If so, the state’s growing Latino population plus Harry Reid’s infrastructure and fundraising assistance will help keep this seat in Democratic hands. If she’s not, Republicans couldn’t have drawn up a better candidate. Rep. Joe Heck’s medical and military resume play well with this cycle’s national security focus, and he represents a congressional district Obama won twice.
7. Pennsylvania—Pat Toomey (R)
Democrats have a divisive primary, and their chosen candidate, Katie McGinty, underwhelmed on fundraising. It’s unclear whether any Democratic allies are interested in helping boost her over former Rep. Joe Sestak, and whether she can topple him without assistance is equally foggy. At the same time, Toomey seems to have done a better job than some of his fellow first-term senators in creating a brand in a state moving away from Republicans.
8. Colorado—Michael Bennet (D)
Bennet is in better shape than a month ago, but not enough to kick him into the third-tier races below him on this list. Republicans finally found a contender they like in combat veteran Jon Keyser, but they also picked up a dozen other candidates along the way. Not all of them will make it onto the June primary ballot, but navigating the primary won’t be easy for Keyser. The race features multiple self-funders, as well as the Far Right favorite, state Sen. Tim Neville.
9. Missouri—Roy Blunt (R)
Democrats have succeeded in fielding legitimate candidates for third-tier races, in the off chance the presidential race puts some undercards into play. That strategy also forces Republicans to allocate some resources in places they’d rather not, as they’ve done against Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander. Blunt isn’t in any real trouble yet, but several allies are helping out anyway.
10. Arizona—John McCain (R)
McCain’s biggest vulnerability seems to have shifted from his late-summer primary to his general-election challenger, Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick. With his biggest potential intraparty threats now officially off the table, McCain can avoid pivoting between protecting his left and right flanks, and just focus on winning his second reelection since losing the 2008 presidential election.