As we close out 2013, here’s a look at the senators at risk of losing their primaries. It’s worth noting that it’s a relatively rare event for senators to fall in a primary — in 2012, only former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., lost to a primary challenger, and the previous cycle just Sens. Robert Bennet, R-Utah, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, did — though Murkowski came back and won reelection as a write-in candidate. So, keeping in mind that we predicted in our final Hotline Spotlight of the year that no Senate incumbent will lose a primary next year, here are the candidates who should be most wary as we head into 2014.
1. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., appears to be the most in danger of failing to earn renomination. His challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, has lined up a number of outside groups — Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project, Club for Growth — behind him. For the 76-year-old Cochran’s part, he seemed geared up for the challenge when he announced he’d run again. But, to this point, Cochran hasn’t been raising money aggressively (he ended the third quarter with just over $800,000 in the bank), and he hasn’t had a competitive race in 30 years.
2. The only Democrat on our list, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii faces a primary challenge from Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who had also hoped to be appointed to the seat at the end of last year when the late Sen. Daniel Inouye died. An October robo-poll showed the race neck and neck, as did a poll this summer — and a poll from EMILY’s List (which is backing Hanabusa) over the summer showed the congresswoman up. But Schatz also pulled ahead in fundraising during the third quarter, bringing in $678,000 to Hanabusa’s $441,000. Expect a hard-fought race.
3. Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is giving Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., the first competitive race of his career. And she outraised the senator in the third quarter, bringing in more than $1 million to Enzi’s nearly $850,000. But Enzi’s haul was much more than the $100,000 he took in during the previous quarter, indicating he’s geared up in light of the aggressive challenge. A poll released this month by a super PAC that has been running ads against Cheney showed the incumbent up by a whopping 52 points, so Cheney will need to make up a lot of ground. Distractions like the public fight with her sister Mary Cheney over gay marriage do not help.
4. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has a number of primary challengers, none of whom is likely to beat him outright. But under South Carolina’s system, if no candidate garners 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two vote-getters go to a runoff. And if Graham’s challengers manage to keep him under 50 percent, conservative support could gel behind his opponent in the one-on-one runoff. Graham was boosted this week by TV ads from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the conservative stalwart who finished a close second in the state’s 2008 presidential primary. Meanwhile, state Sen. Lee Bright, the front-running Graham challenger, has filed a bill that wouldn’t allow people to vote in a primary “unless the person has registered as being a member of that party.”
5. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is very unpopular in Kentucky. And unlike the other senators on our list, he has to position himself on two fronts: a primary challenge from businessman Matt Bevin, and a real general-election challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell has a huge war chest built up — he finished the third quarter with nearly $10 million in the bank — as well as a vaunted political organization, and shouldn’t be underestimated. While Bevin has the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund and some ability to self-fund, it’s far from clear that he has what it takes to oust the minority leader.
Several other GOP senators are also facing primary opponents. In Kansas, physician (and distant cousin of President Obama) Milton Wolf is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts; in Tennessee, state Rep. Joe Carr is running against Lamar Alexander; and in Texas, Rep. Steve Stockman is opposing Sen. John Cornyn. At this point, it doesn’t look as though any of these challenges will gain the traction necessary to become serious threats, although Wolf has the support of some key conservative groups that haven’t yet lined up behind Carr or Stockman.