An unexpected Alabama victory last year and President Trump’s underwater approval rating have stoked Democrats’ hopes of winning back the Senate majority this year. But with the heart of the map playing out in a dozen states that Trump carried, even some of the best-positioned Democratic incumbents and challengers may only win by a few points.
While Democrats are in a stronger position than ever to flip Nevada, the one highly competitive state that Hillary Clinton won, as well as Arizona, they are also defending a staggering 26 seats. For that reason, the party accounts for most of the slots in Hotline’s latest Senate rankings, as it did in our previous two editions.
But as bitter primaries in states such as Indiana and West Virginia rage on without clear front-runners, Democratic incumbents have continued to post impressive fundraising sums to prepare for tough fights. They have also stood united in their opposition to overhauls in health care and taxes, though Republicans are convinced that the latter will be a winning political issue.
Florida remains the biggest question mark, but still makes the list, while Pennsylvania misses the cut again as Republican Rep. Lou Barletta faces mounting concerns over his campaign.
One month into the election year, here is Hotline’s list of the Senate races to watch, ranked in order of most likely to change party control.
1. Nevada—Dean Heller (R) (Previous ranking: 2)
Heller stands out as the only vulnerable incumbent grappling with both a serious primary and general-election threat. He’s also the only Republican in a Clinton-carried state up in a year when Democrats have the momentum. Heller’s shifting opinions on health care haven’t done him any political favors either, even if his eventual support for repealing the law could help him against GOP opponent Danny Tarkanian. Democrats have a credible candidate in Rep. Jacky Rosen, who has already slammed Heller over that issue and his backing of the tax bill.
2. Missouri—Claire McCaskill (D) (1)
McCaskill’s likely opponent, Josh Hawley, continues to draw fanfare as one of the Republicans’ best recruits this cycle. Trump has already pledged to campaign for the 38-year-old attorney general, and Hawley has support lined up from top GOP donors and Missouri Republicans. Still, McCaskill, who raised $2.9 million in the last three months of 2018, has always anticipated yet another competitive race. She hosted 50 town halls in 2017, and is making a concerted outreach to the rural communities that helped Trump win the state by 19 points.
3. Indiana—Joe Donnelly (D) (3)
Republicans are convinced that they can successfully weaponize an outsourcing attack against Donnelly, after a report revealed that his family company profited from moving jobs to Mexico. Donnelly also has the challenge of running in a state that Trump overwhelmingly carried. But the GOP has a problem of its own with a brutal primary on tap. Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer have been slugging it out for months, while businessman Mike Braun pumps personal money into a race that is now a three-man fight.
4. Arizona—Open (R—Jeff Flake retiring) (9)
Republican chances to hold this seat likely increased when Flake announced his retirement in October and Rep. Martha McSally entered the race in January. But the primary remains a significant hurdle with the presence of both former state Sen. Kelli Ward and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. They could complicate McSally’s path to the nomination by forcing her to expend resources, pushing her to the right, and keeping her focus until Aug. 28 off Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who, with more than $5 million to start the year, promises to be a formidable general-election foe.
5. West Virginia—Joe Manchin (D) (4)
Manchin’s central role in successfully pushing to end the government shutdown secured his decision last week to file for reelection. That in turn kept a state that Trump carried with 69 percent in play for Democrats. Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is the latest entrant in a Republican primary race led by Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The winner, to be decided May 8, will hope that attaching Manchin to Democratic leadership and highlighting his business ties will be enough to end this uniquely popular politician’s run in the GOP-trending state.
6. North Dakota—Heidi Heitkamp (D) (5)
Republicans have struggled to land a prized recruit in a state where Trump thrashed Hillary Clinton by 36 points. Rep. Kevin Cramer’s decision to pass on the race leaves state Sen. Tom Campbell as the only GOP candidate, and he so far is generating little enthusiasm among Republicans. Former state party Chairman Gary Emineth has also signaled he is likely to run, though he too isn’t viewed as a top-tier candidate. Trump last year praised Heitkamp as a “good woman,” a line that is likely to assume a starring role in Democratic ads.
7. Florida—Bill Nelson (D) (6)
The last Democrat to hold statewide office in Florida remains the only vulnerable senator without a major opponent. Gov. Rick Scott’s silence has frozen the GOP field. If he runs, this race instantly rises in the rankings, thanks to his enormous wealth and extraordinarily high name ID. It will likely plummet if he doesn’t. Florida Republicans don’t expect a formal announcement to come until the state’s legislative session concludes in March. Perhaps more than in any other race, a decision by a prominent Republican like Scott not to run would underscore the strong midterm headwinds that Republicans expect.
8. Wisconsin—Tammy Baldwin (D) (10)
Baldwin has attracted more spending from the GOP than any other senator, as Republicans hope to brand her as too liberal for the state long before their Aug. 14 primary. But Baldwin can also claim alignment with Trump on key issues like trade, and Wisconsin Democrats’ recent success in a state Senate election should embolden the party’s prospects here. Baldwin’s two opponents, Kevin Nicholson and Leah Vukmir, are locked in a bitter primary, and the race could turn even nastier if wealthy self-funder Eric Hovde decides to run.
9. Ohio—Sherrod Brown (D) (8)
Republicans lost their top challenger to the two-term Democrat with state Treasurer Josh Mandel’s shocking exit in January. But the party also rid itself of an opposition-research-saddled contender who had already lost to Brown in 2012. Democrats must start a new book on Rep. Jim Renacci, who switched from the governor race and, as a four-term House member, is attempting to run as a Trump-backed Washington outsider in the May 8 primary against investment banker Michael Gibbons. Brown, who had nearly $10 million to start the year, would have the early advantage over either of them.
10. Montana—Jon Tester (D) (7)
After Ryan Zinke and Tim Fox declined Senate bids, state Auditor Matt Rosendale is now viewed as the leading challenger to take on Tester, though he still faces a handful of other Republicans, including Troy Downing. Republicans are likely to seize on Tester being the only red-state Democrat up in 2018 to oppose the continuing resolution to temporarily reopen the government. Still, even in a state that Trump won by double digits, Tester remains well-known. The former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman constantly talks up his background as a farmer and has won two highly challenging races.
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