Hotline’s Senate Power Rankings

The first rankings of the 2018 cycle come with plenty of unknowns.

Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana are among the 10 Democrats up for reelection in states won by Donald Trump last year.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Kimberly Railey and Kyle Trygstad
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Kimberly Railey and Kyle Trygstad
March 28, 2017, 8 p.m.

The 2018 fight for the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity has only just be­gun, with still not a single re­tire­ment on the books and nearly every battle­ground lack­ing a ma­jor chal­lenger.

What’s clear at the end of the first fun­drais­ing quarter is that Sen­ate Demo­crats face a daunt­ing map—10 Demo­crats are up in states Pres­id­ent Trump won, and just one Re­pub­lic­an is up in a Hil­lary Clin­ton state.

What’s un­known is just how much the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment in a midterm un­der Trump be­ne­fits Demo­crats. That vari­able en­sures fluid­ity in the land­scape and means Hot­line’s first Power Rank­ings of the cycle, which are primar­ily based on the strength of the in­cum­bents and the fun­da­ment­als of the states, merely set the baseline for the re­main­ing 19 months.

The sheer num­ber of Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion (25 out of 34 seats) means these rank­ings pre­dom­in­antly fea­ture the party’s in­cum­bents.

But a factor to watch in the com­ing months as Re­pub­lic­ans aim to ex­pand their ma­jor­ity is how the pres­id­ent’s dan­ger­ously low ap­prov­al rat­ings af­fect can­did­ate re­cruit­ment. That could, for in­stance, knock down a Demo­crat­ic-held seat in a state like Pennsylvania and push Re­pub­lic­an-held Ari­zona firmly in­to the top 10.

It could also help Demo­crats lim­it their losses in a heav­ily tilted cycle.

1. In­di­ana — Sen. Joe Don­nelly (D)

Re­pub­lic­ans may be headed for a con­ten­tious primary between two likely can­did­ates, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Mess­er. No mat­ter the out­come, Don­nelly faces a steep climb in a state Trump won by 19 points. Even Demo­crats con­cede that his 2012 win was fueled in large part by a flawed op­pon­ent, and Re­pub­lic­ans are cer­tain they will field a far stronger nom­in­ee. Also hanging over the race is Demo­crats’ em­bar­rass­ing de­feat in the Sen­ate race last year, but the party in­sists that the mod­er­ate Don­nelly boasts far more blue-col­lar ap­peal than Evan Bayh.

2. Mis­souri — Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill (D)

Mc­Caskill has already de­clared her­self the un­der­dog. Trump im­proved by 10 points on Mitt Rom­ney’s win­ning mar­gin, as Re­pub­lic­ans knocked Demo­crats out of four statewide of­fices. But Demo­crats point to Mis­souri’s in­de­pend­ent streak, after Jason Kander came with­in 3 points of un­seat­ing Sen. Roy Blunt last cycle. Like Don­nelly, Mc­Caskill be­nefited in her last race from a highly con­tro­ver­sial op­pon­ent. This time, Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Ann Wag­n­er and Vicky Hartz­ler are pos­sible Mc­Caskill chal­lengers, in ad­di­tion to newly elec­ted state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Josh Haw­ley.

3. North Dakota — Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D)

Demo­crats held all three fed­er­al seats in the state un­til 2010, and Heitkamp’s de­cision to run for Sen­ate in 2012 ul­ti­mately saved the party from a Re­pub­lic­an sweep. This seat would be in­cred­ibly dif­fi­cult for Demo­crats to hold if Heitkamp de­cides to re­tire, a de­cision that she told the Fargo news­pa­per won’t come un­til this sum­mer. But if she seeks reelec­tion, after run­ning 11 points ahead of Pres­id­ent Obama her first time out, it will make pick­ing up this seat far more dif­fi­cult for Re­pub­lic­ans than Trump’s 36-point vic­tory in the state would in­dic­ate. Rep. Kev­in Cramer has said he has Trump’s sup­port should he de­cide to run.

4. Nevada — Sen. Dean Heller (R)

Heller is Demo­crats’ top tar­get, one cycle after the party car­ried Nevada at the pres­id­en­tial level, held an open Sen­ate seat, and flipped two House seats. Heller was nar­rowly elec­ted to a full term in 2012, and Demo­crats still privately grouse that he would have lost if not for their eth­ics-chal­lenged nom­in­ee. But Demo­crats, who sug­gest Heller will be caught between the com­pet­ing de­mands of his base and mod­er­ate GOP voters, lack an ob­vi­ous chal­lenger. Former state Treas­urer Kate Mar­shall and state Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Aaron Ford are among the names floated.

5. West Vir­gin­ia — Sen. Joe Manchin (D)

Few sen­at­ors would enter an elec­tion cycle in a state that the op­pos­ing party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee car­ried by 42 points and stand any chance of win­ning again. But this Demo­crat, who turns 70 in Au­gust and has held statewide of­fice since 2000, is the ex­cep­tion to that rule. Manchin has gone out of his way since Novem­ber to make it clear he is open to work­ing with Trump, but he also firmly op­posed Trump’s plan to re­peal Obama­care. Re­pub­lic­ans have already tied Manchin to Hil­lary Clin­ton in a di­git­al ad, and the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee has met with Rep. Evan Jen­kins and state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Patrick Mor­ri­sey about tak­ing on the former gov­ernor.

6. Flor­ida — Sen. Bill Nel­son (D)

The greatest hurdles for any Sun­shine State can­did­ate chal­len­ging a Sen­ate in­cum­bent are money and name ID. Those dis­ap­pear if Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Rick Scott takes on Nel­son, who was reelec­ted in the strong Demo­crat­ic year of 2006 with 60 per­cent and in the more neut­ral en­vir­on­ment of 2012 with 55 per­cent. Scott, one of Trump’s earli­est back­ers, can eas­ily be tied to the pres­id­ent, who likely lifts Nel­son’s pro­spects des­pite win­ning Flor­ida nar­rowly in Novem­ber. Nel­son led Scott by 5 or 6 points in four polls re­leased just this month.

7. Montana — Sen. Jon Test­er (D)

Test­er may have caught his luck­i­est break with Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ry­an Zinke choos­ing to join Trump’s Cab­in­et. But there re­main a num­ber of Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Tim Fox and state Aud­it­or Matt Rosend­ale, who could mount vi­able cam­paigns in a state that Trump car­ried by more than 20 points. Still, Test­er, the most re­cent chair of the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, en­joys a strong brand in his home state and has two ex­traordin­ar­ily tough races un­der his belt. Demo­crat­ic Gov. Steve Bul­lock’s reelec­tion in Novem­ber of­fers ad­di­tion­al proof that the party can still run suc­cess­fully statewide.

8. Ohio — Sen. Sher­rod Brown (D)

In some ways, the 2012 race nev­er ended. Josh Man­del, the Re­pub­lic­an state treas­urer, who came up 6 points short against Brown last time, waited less than a month after the 2016 elec­tions to enter the race. Demo­crats have pounced on Man­del’s use of a state-fun­ded mar­ket­ing cam­paign as part of its nar­rat­ive that he is an am­bi­tious politi­cian more fo­cused on his next job than his cur­rent one. The open-seat gov­ernor race, and back­ing from Sens. Marco Ru­bio and Tom Cot­ton, helps keep Man­del’s primary op­pon­ents to a min­im­um, but Rep. Pat Tiberi is still con­sid­er­ing it.

9. Wis­con­sin — Sen. Tammy Bald­win (D)

A crowded GOP primary once again ap­pears likely in this tra­di­tion­ally Demo­crat­ic state that nar­rowly swung for Trump. Rep. Sean Duffy is out, but sev­er­al oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans may be in, in­clud­ing busi­ness­men Kev­in Nich­olson and Eric Hov­de, who lost in the 2012 primary. GOP strategists hoped to avoid a re­play of six years ago, but they are em­boldened by two re­cently suc­cess­ful midterm elec­tions, plus Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Ron John­son’s come-from-be­hind vic­tory last year. Re­pub­lic­ans are already at­tack­ing Bald­win on the Tomah VA crisis and cast­ing her as a clone of Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren.

10. Pennsylvania — Sen. Robert Ca­sey (D)

With no one likely to rep­lic­ate the road maps that Trump and Sen. Pat Toomey used in their nar­row vic­tor­ies last year, Pennsylvania Re­pub­lic­ans likely need a can­did­ate who can com­bine the two. Former Trump del­eg­ate An­drew Sheck­t­or and state Rep. Rick Sac­cone, a fel­low Trump loy­al­ist, have already de­clared cam­paigns, but na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are likely to keep re­cruit­ing here. Mean­while, Ca­sey has emerged as an out­spoken force against Trump, read­ily align­ing with his base on fights over the Su­preme Court and Obama­care.

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