Hotline’s latest Senate rankings are a reminder that candidates still matter, even in a year when most down-ballot races are expected to hew closely to the presidential contest.
A handful of contested primaries (and one major recruitment feat) provided a much clearer picture of the players since we last ranked these races in February, when Donald Trump was just beginning his ascent to the Republican presidential nomination. With the exception of Florida, which holds its primary in late August, the field of candidates is largely set for November, and their respective financial standings will become known by next week’s second-quarter filing deadline.
The overall landscape remains intact from earlier this year. First-term Republican senators in the presidential battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin still hold the keys to the battle for the chamber. But Democrats’ quest to flip four seats (if the party retains the White House, or five with a Republican president) got more challenging when Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida reversed course to run for reelection.
Among the other biggest changes to the map: Hillary Clinton’s decision to include North Carolina in her early TV reservations could pull a second-tier pickup opportunity on line for Democrats. Meanwhile, a turbulent primary in Colorado left Republicans without a credible candidate to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet, and with just a single pickup opportunity along with plenty of defensive responsibilities.
A few states that didn’t make the top 10 but are worth watching include Indiana, where Democratic former Rep. Baron Hill faces Republican Rep. Todd Young, who unseated him in 2010; Kentucky, where Lexington Mayor Jim Gray is challenging Sen. Rand Paul; and Iowa, where Democrats hope Supreme Court politics could help them land a hit on formidable Sen. Chuck Grassley.
This is our list of the most competitive Senate races, ranked in order of most likely to flip party control.
1. Illinois—Mark Kirk (R) (Previous ranking: 1)
It looked as if Kirk might catch a lucky break as his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, was dealt a court date just weeks before the election, but Illinois settled the whistle-blower lawsuit against her. Meanwhile, Kirk’s race has been largely overlooked by Republican-aligned outside groups making fall TV reservations. That doesn’t help, as the odds are already stacked against him; even Kirk’s campaign released an internal poll in late March that showed him trailing Duckworth. He recently became the first GOP incumbent to publicly disavow Trump in a TV ad, piling on to a list of ways the incumbent has sought to distance himself from the party.
2. Wisconsin—Ron Johnson (R) (2)
Wisconsin is still solidly the second-best pickup opportunity for Democrats, but there is a growing gap between Johnson and Kirk. The former plastics CEO has drawn praise from Republicans for running an aggressive campaign against Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold, and his current status is encouraging enough for his GOP allies to include the state in their fall TV reservations. The National Republican Senatorial Committee bought $2 million in airtime, and the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund named it one of a small handful of races it will spend in. Still, Democrats have a candidate with built-in name ID, fundraising chops, senatorial experience, and supporters across the party spectrum.
3. New Hampshire—Kelly Ayotte (R) (3)
Anything seems possible in a state that voted for both Trump and Bernie Sanders in the February presidential primaries. But it also voted Democratic by 6 and 9 points in the last two presidential elections, so Ayotte is likely to need a significant number of voters supporting both her and Hillary Clinton. That’s not going to be easy against Gov. Maggie Hassan, a top Democratic recruit. Ayotte has highlighted her independence by supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, fighting the state’s opioids crisis, and more recently voting for Democratic-supported gun-control legislation. If Republicans could pick any incumbent to run a race this challenging, it would be Ayotte. But even she may not be able to withstand the drag of the top of the ticket.
4. Pennsylvania—Pat Toomey (R) (7)
Other than the Democratic primary in April, this contest hasn’t seen any dramatic changes over the last five months. It has jumped three spots from our last ranking, but this is not as big a leap as it seems given the similar competitiveness of the races ranked 4 through 7. National Democrats spent $5 million to get their chosen candidate, 2014 gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty, through a messy nominating fight. Doing so froze out former Rep. Joe Sestak, who operatives feared was too unpredictable for a critical race. Toomey defends a bluer state than does Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio, but the race could become more of a battleground in the presidential this year. Plus, Toomey has a formidable war chest and has done more than some of his colleagues to brand himself as independent from his party.
5. Ohio—Rob Portman (R) (5)
Portman sits on slightly safer ground than his colleagues Toomey and Ayotte, thanks to an incredible fundraising year and a proactive reelection campaign. In a state where fall air time will be at a premium, he has already reserved a remarkable $14 million in TV time between June and Election Day, locked in at the best possible rate. Democrats always knew former Gov. Ted Strickland would be outspent, but his fundraising has fallen short of other challengers. Thanks to Strickland’s near-universal name ID and the state’s natural swinginess, polls show this race close despite millions of dollars worth of attacks on Strickland. But a deluge of ads is still to come over the next four months.
6. Nevada—Open (D) (6)
In the race for the seat held the last 30 years by retiring Sen. Harry Reid, both parties secured recruits they feel offer a strong shot at appealing to the state’s growing Latino population. Democratic former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Rep. Joe Heck have raised significant funds for a race that is certain to see heavy play from Clinton and Trump. This could complicate Heck’s work to build inroads with Hispanic voters, if Trump alienates this important demographic. In 2012, in the state’s last Senate race in a presidential year, Republican Dean Heller, who at the time was an appointed senator, topped Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley by 1 point.
7. Florida—Marco Rubio (R) (4)
What had been the lone open GOP seat in Democrats’ path to the majority will now likely require the party’s nominee to knock off an incumbent with a national fundraising network and the full force of his party behind him. Lingering questions about how much the NRSC and other outside groups would spend for any of the cluster of unknown Republicans vying to replace Rubio vanished in late June when the senator opted to seek reelection. All but one of the contenders dropped out at the filing deadline, but developer Carlos Beruff promises to be a thorn in Rubio’s side through the Aug. 30 primary. Rubio’s reemergence coincided with a blistering earned-media hit on Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, who, assuming he is nominated over fellow Rep. Alan Grayson, remains a viable threat to hand Rubio his second loss in his home state this year.
8. North Carolina—Richard Burr (R) (Unranked)
This race didn’t even make our top 10 list last time, largely because former state Rep. Deborah Ross was not considered a first- or even second-tier recruit. Since then, Ross has impressed party leaders with a strong campaign, outraising Burr in the first quarter. That gives Democrats some hope that she could repeat the success of another little-known state senator from 2008, Kay Hagan. Clinton and her allies have made the state a top priority in her presidential road map—campaigning there alongside President Obama for the first time Tuesday in Charlotte—forcing both parties to take the down-ballot contests more seriously.
9. Missouri—Roy Blunt (R) (9)
Blunt’s seat has always been a majority-expanding—not majority-making—opportunity, but Democrats are excited about their recruit in Secretary of State Jason Kander. Even though odds of flipping this seat are still long, Democrats continue to hope a strong candidate can, at a minimum, force Republicans to spend valuable resources defending a should-be safe incumbent. That strategy came to some fruition last week, when the Republican-aligned Senate Leadership Fund announced it had reserved $2.5 million in fall TV time to help the first-term incumbent.
10. Arizona—John McCain (R) (10)
McCain’s biggest intra-party rivals have so far failed to create a serious threat in the Aug. 30 primary. That’s good news for an incumbent who wins general elections by winning over more Democrats than he loses Republicans. It remains to be seen whether he can pull that off again with a credible Democrat on the ballot—Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who boasts a track record of winning a competitive district even in challenging election cycles—and a Republican presidential nominee who appears toxic with Hispanic voters. McCain has acknowledged the danger Trump poses to his reelection, but he has yet to distance himself much from Trump, as he’ll need Trump’s supporters, too.