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.