The Four States That Will Make or Break Democrats’ Senate Hopes

For the party to win back the Senate majority, it will need to turn its fortunes around in crucial battleground states.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA), standing onstage with his wife Susan and daughter Alex, concedes the Pennsylvania Senate race to Republican Pat Toomey November 3, 2010 at the Radnor Hotel in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. With 91 percent of the vote counted, Toomey led Sestak 51 percent to 49 percent.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
July 21, 2015, 4 p.m.

For Demo­crats to win back a Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, the math is simple but the task is not: Win back five of the sev­en GOP-held seats in com­pet­it­ive states — and hold the two seats of their own that Re­pub­lic­ans are con­test­ing. Ab­sent a wave elec­tion, they need to come close to run­ning the table in the key races, and that means find­ing a slate of good can­did­ates who run in a mis­take-free fash­ion.

To be sure, Demo­crats have landed their strongest can­did­ates in sev­er­al cru­cial con­tests. In Ohio, they con­vinced former Gov. Ted Strick­land to chal­lenge Sen. Rob Port­man — a con­test that polls show is already com­pet­it­ive. They per­suaded Rep. Tammy Duck­worth to chal­lenge Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois. They con­vinced former Sen. Russ Fein­gold to go for a re­match bid against em­battled Sen. Ron John­son in Wis­con­sin. And to de­fend Harry Re­id’s must-win seat in Nevada, they landed a top-tier His­pan­ic re­cruit, former state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Cath­er­ine Cortez Masto.

(RE­LATED: House Demo­crats To Counter Re­pub­lic­an Moves On So­cial Se­cur­ity)

For a while, they ap­peared on track, but in the last month, the storm clouds have gathered. Former Sen. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina op­ted not to run again for the Sen­ate, leav­ing Demo­crats empty-handed as they seek a chal­lenger against Sen. Richard Burr in the swing state. New Hamp­shire Gov. Mag­gie Has­san, who looked likely to chal­lenge Sen. Kelly Ayotte, now ap­pears to be hedging her bets in the midst of a tough budget battle with Re­pub­lic­ans. Scan­dal-plagued Rep. Alan Grayson is tak­ing on party fa­vor­ite Rep. Patrick Murphy in Flor­ida, and he’s poised to spend mil­lions dam­aging Murphy’s im­age in the primary. Mean­while, party con­cerns over former Rep. Joe Ses­tak con­tin­ue un­abated in Pennsylvania — with few al­tern­at­ive can­did­ates look­ing to run. Even Strick­land, des­pite lead­ing in sev­er­al polls, dis­ap­poin­ted party of­fi­cials with his un­der­whelm­ing first two quar­ters of fun­drais­ing.

The Illinois and Wis­con­sin races are genu­ine toss-ups, with small ad­vant­ages to the Demo­crat­ic chal­lengers. The Ohio Sen­ate con­test is look­ing highly com­pet­it­ive, but with an early GOP edge. But after those three op­por­tun­it­ies, the pick­ings are now look­ing a lot tough­er for the Demo­crats. Not only do they have to win all three of those toss-up races, but catch breaks in Pennsylvania, Flor­ida, and New Hamp­shire in races that are look­ing less fa­vor­able — all while en­sur­ing that they don’t lose any mo­mentum de­fend­ing battle­ground seats in Nevada and Col­or­ado.

It’s still early, but those as­sess­ing wheth­er Demo­crats can re­take the ma­jor­ity can’t ig­nore the four states where they’ve suffered set­backs. That’s where the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate ma­jor­ity will be made — or where it will fall apart.

(RE­LATED: The Con­ser­vat­ive Lead­er Who Doesn’t Want to Lead)

The best chance for Demo­crats to put an­oth­er seat in play will come in New Hamp­shire, where Has­san is de­cid­ing wheth­er to run for Sen­ate or to pur­sue an­oth­er term as gov­ernor. In a sign of the race’s high stakes, out­side Re­pub­lic­an groups have already spent nearly $800,000 to tar­nish Has­san’s im­age after she ve­toed a GOP-backed budget that would cut taxes and gov­ern­ment spend­ing. With the state’s fisc­al fu­ture hanging in the bal­ance, some Has­san al­lies fear she’d risk be­ing seen as ir­re­spons­ible if she left to run a high-pro­file Sen­ate race in the midst of a budget­ary crisis. Her strong fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers in the state — her main selling point for a Sen­ate cam­paign — could eas­ily drop once she launches her cam­paign. (Just ask the many Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors run­ning for pres­id­ent.)

But one Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive fa­mil­i­ar with Has­san’s think­ing ar­gued the at­tacks have made no dif­fer­ence in her de­cision to run — con­sist­ent with her plan all along. Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pect as much, too; they wouldn’t be wast­ing valu­able money in at­tack ads if they thought she wasn’t in­ter­ested. And if early polls show­ing a very close race between Ayotte and Has­san hold, New Hamp­shire would be­come a cru­cial battle­ground for the ma­jor­ity. Has­san’s de­cision will be an im­port­ant bell­weth­er of her party’s chances to re­take con­trol of the Sen­ate. If she runs, Demo­crats would have four top-line nom­in­ees ready to chal­lenge GOP sen­at­ors. Without Has­san, there will be pres­sure for the party to nom­in­ate or re­cruit stronger can­did­ates in the oth­er battle­ground states.

It’s a little more com­plic­ated in Pennsylvania, where Demo­crats are des­per­ately look­ing to re­cruit an al­tern­at­ive to Ses­tak, whose un­con­ven­tion­al cam­paign ap­proach con­tin­ues to worry party lead­ers. Even though di­vided primar­ies can be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive, Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee of­fi­cials are feting Katie Mc­Ginty, Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff, in a be­lated ef­fort to re­cruit her in­to the race. Mc­Ginty fin­ished a dis­tant fourth place in last year’s Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary, so it’s a sign of Demo­crat­ic ur­gency that they view her as a stronger al­tern­at­ive to Ses­tak. Party of­fi­cials be­lieve that re­cruit­ing a more re­li­able can­did­ate with the abil­ity to raise mil­lions from wo­men’s groups is worth the risk of ini­ti­at­ing a Demo­crat­ic fam­ily feud. If she runs, the out­come of the in­tra­party battle will play a huge role in the party’s chances of de­feat­ing GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

(RE­LATED: Jason Chaf­fetz: Lib­er­als’ Ac­ci­dent­al Ally)

Mean­while, a messy Demo­crat­ic primary is already un­der­way in Flor­ida, where Demo­crat­ic hopes of anoint­ing Murphy as their nom­in­ee have got­ten more chal­len­ging. Grayson, an out­spoken and un­pre­dict­able lib­er­al firebrand, is already un­leash­ing at­tacks against Murphy and the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment. (You can read more about Grayson’s antics here.) With a late primary, the pro­spect of either a weakened nom­in­ee or Grayson as the party’s stand­ard-bear­er con­tin­ues to worry party of­fi­cials. And re­gard­less of the party’s nom­in­ee, Pres­id­ent Obama’s ac­tions en­ga­ging with Cuba and Ir­an will make the statewide polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment a little more dif­fi­cult for Flor­ida Demo­crats in 2016.

Fi­nally, in North Car­o­lina, Demo­crats have struggled to land a chal­lenger against Burr. Hagan de­clined to run, while Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials are work­ing to get Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx to re­con­sider a cam­paign. If neither gets in, the party’s hopes would rest on a roster of less­er-known, un­tested can­did­ates. Burr’s stature as head of the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee and deep war chest ($3.8 mil­lion at the end of June) make him tough to beat, es­pe­cially in a state that Mitt Rom­ney car­ried in 2012. In­deed, much of the state party’s ef­forts next year will be fo­cused on oust­ing vul­ner­able GOP Gov. Pat Mc­Crory over tak­ing on Burr.

Demo­crats need to catch some breaks in these four states to feel good about their chances of win­ning con­trol of the Sen­ate. They’ve been mostly suc­cess­ful in land­ing their favored can­did­ates, but they’ve been forced to deal with cir­cum­stances out­side their con­trol — un­ex­pec­ted primary battles (Flor­ida), can­did­ates they can’t handle (Pennsylvania), and the de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess of one in­di­vidu­al (New Hamp­shire). Party lead­ers have been good at re­cruit­ment, but now they need to get a little lucky.

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