Hotline’s Inaugural 2014 Senate Rankings

Republicans have the majority in their sights, but they haven’t expanded the playing field.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., left, asks a question as Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., listens, during the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington Monday, May 17, 2010. The hearing is to assess the nation's response to BP PLC's Deepwater Horizon oil spill.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
National Journal
Aug. 23, 2013, 2 a.m.

The battle for the Sen­ate is primed to go down to the wire. Demo­crats can lose up to five seats while re­tain­ing the ma­jor­ity — as­sum­ing Cory Book­er wins Oc­to­ber’s spe­cial elec­tion in New Jer­sey — but the party is threatened by mem­bers fa­cing tough races in the Deep South and oth­er con­ser­vat­ive states. Already, races for three Demo­crat­ic-held open seats (Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia) are fa­vor­ing Re­pub­lic­ans, and Sen. Mark Pry­or is look­ing in tenu­ous shape in Arkan­sas.

But as strong a cycle as this is look­ing for Re­pub­lic­ans, that’s as at­trib­ut­able to the very con­ser­vat­ive bent of the “play­ing field” as it is to the en­vir­on­ment or strong re­cruit­ment. Demo­crat­ic Sens. Al Franken, Mark Ud­all, Jeanne Shaheen, and Mark Warner look like sol­id fa­vor­ites to win second terms, without fa­cing for­mid­able op­pos­i­tion (yet). Re­pub­lic­ans have struggled with re­cruit­ment in Iowa with a muddled field of can­did­ates, and in Michigan, where the party isn’t thrilled with its likely nom­in­ee, Sec­ret­ary of State Terri Lynn Land.

These are all battle­ground states, and the lack of qual­ity can­did­ates doesn’t give the GOP much mar­gin for er­ror in win­ning a ma­jor­ity. Demo­crats, mean­while, landed sol­id can­did­ates in states where the party faces longer odds: Ken­tucky and Geor­gia.

So bet on a late night next Novem­ber to see which party runs the show. One in­triguing scen­ario for polit­ic­al junkies: Re­pub­lic­ans take enough seats to win con­trol, but GOP Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell loses his own race, cost­ing the party. That’s not likely, but it’s not im­possible, either.

Here are The Hot­line‘s in­aug­ur­al 2014 Sen­ate rank­ings of the seats most likely to switch parties. (We’re not in­clud­ing New Jer­sey on the list, which was held by Demo­crats un­til Gov. Chris Christie ap­poin­ted GOP Sen. Jeff Chiesa on an in­ter­im basis.)

1. South Dakota (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

The most in­ter­est­ing part of this race is the Re­pub­lic­an primary. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the heavy fa­vor­ite, but fisc­al con­ser­vat­ives aren’t fans of his gubernat­ori­al re­cord. State Sen. Larry Rhoden is chal­len­ging Rounds for the GOP nom­in­a­tion. Demo­crats aren’t look­ing like they’ll be able to ex­ploit the in­tra­party rift, los­ing out on their top re­cruits. For now, that leaves them with former Tom Daschle staffer Rick Wei­l­and, who isn’t ex­pec­ted to put the seat in play.

2. West Vir­gin­ia (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Shel­ley Moore Capito is the sol­id fa­vor­ite to win. The Demo­crat­ic Party’s po­s­i­tion on en­ergy (read: coal) has made it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for it to com­pete — or even re­cruit — in what was once a solidly Demo­crat­ic state. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has hin­ted that a sur­prise Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate could be an­noun­cing. If it’s Sec­ret­ary of State Nat­alie Ten­nant, the race would be worth watch­ing.

3. Montana (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Demo­crats can win in Montana — they’ve won 19 of the past 22 Sen­ate races in the state — a point proven by the elec­tion of Gov. Steve Bul­lock and reelec­tion of Sen. Jon Test­er last year. But the party can’t find any can­did­ates will­ing to run this time around. After former Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer stunned sup­port­ers by passing on the race, a host of second-tier can­did­ates op­ted out, too. Re­pub­lic­ans are ral­ly­ing be­hind fresh­man Rep. Steve Daines, even though he hasn’t an­nounced his in­ten­tions yet. Daines would start out as the early fa­vor­ite, after win­ning statewide in a fed­er­al race last year.

4. Arkan­sas (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

The next sev­er­al months will de­term­ine wheth­er the state’s deeply con­ser­vat­ive bent will over­whelm Demo­crat Mark Pry­or’s per­son­al pop­ular­ity. Re­mem­ber: Blanche Lin­coln lost by a 21-point mar­gin in 2010. And polls already show Pry­or in trouble. Even if the en­vir­on­ment isn’t quite as bad and Pry­or runs a bet­ter cam­paign than Lin­coln, he still has to over­come a pun­ish­ing statewide en­vir­on­ment. Rep. Tom Cot­ton, an Ir­aq war vet­er­an, gives Re­pub­lic­ans one of their strongest re­cruits this cycle. But he could be vul­ner­able over leav­ing the House so quickly for a pro­mo­tion. Demo­crats are also hit­ting him for lonely votes against re­du­cing stu­dent-loan in­terest rates and on the farm bill — and are bet­ting that his hawk­ish views on na­tion­al se­cur­ity won’t sell.

5. Alaska (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Joe Miller’s fall from grace with­in the Alaska GOP is one bit of en­cour­aging news for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. A PPP poll con­firmed the state in­tel: The er­rat­ic tea-party fa­vor­ite faces long odds against the early fa­vor­ite, Lt. Gov. Mead Tread­well. The sur­vey also found Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich polling at only 44 per­cent, a low num­ber, against Tread­well. Also: Keep an eye on Alaska’s Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mis­sion­er Dan Sul­li­van, a Mar­ine Corps lieu­ten­ant col­on­el who re­cently de­ployed to Afgh­anistan. Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives in Wash­ing­ton think his bio­graphy is more com­pel­ling than that of the low-key Tread­well.

Alaska polling is no­tori­ously volat­ile, and Be­gich is still well-liked. But as in Arkan­sas, the na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment could be the de­cis­ive factor here if Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate the right can­did­ate. Ex­pect Demo­crats to fo­cus on Be­gich’s Alaska roots, in con­trast to Tread­well and Sul­li­van, who grew up in the lower 48.

6. Louisi­ana (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Mary Landrieu’s seat could be the Demo­crat­ic fire­wall to pro­tect the party’s ma­jor­ity. Des­pite the state’s con­ser­vat­ive elect­or­ate, she’s a strong in­cum­bent, with a his­tory of out­per­form­ing early ex­pect­a­tions. Her broth­er’s pop­ular­ity as may­or of New Or­leans should help Landrieu win a little cros­sov­er sup­port. And she be­ne­fits from Louisi­ana’s un­usu­al elec­tion rules, where all can­did­ates com­pete on the same Novem­ber bal­lot and head to a run­off if no one wins 50 per­cent. That could mean the GOP front-run­ner, Bill Cas­sidy, will have to fo­cus ef­forts on pro­tect­ing his right flank rather than tak­ing on Landrieu full time.

7. Ken­tucky (Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled)

Re­pub­lic­ans are as nervous as ever about Mc­Con­nell, even though they view him as the fa­vor­ite. His own polling shows him with mid­dling ap­prov­al rat­ings, and he faces a well-fun­ded chal­lenger (Matt Bev­in) on his right. In Al­is­on Lun­der­gan Grimes, the Demo­crats have a dy­nam­ic can­did­ate who should make this a com­pet­it­ive race un­til the end. Her biggest chal­lenge is dis­tan­cing her­self from Pres­id­ent Obama, his health care law, and the na­tion­al Demo­crat­ic po­s­i­tion­ing on en­ergy, all of which are tox­ic in Ken­tucky. There’s a reas­on her cam­paign slo­gan is “Team Switch.” If the race be­comes a ref­er­en­dum against Mc­Con­nell, she can win. If her stances on is­sues be­come the fo­cus, it be­comes a lot harder.

8. North Car­o­lina (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Com­par­ing the vul­ner­able South­ern Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors, there are two schools of thought among strategists. Some pos­it that Kay Hagan is more vul­ner­able than Landrieu and Pry­or be­cause she’s the least ex­per­i­enced and isn’t well-known. Oth­ers be­lieve her an­onym­ity could be an as­set and that she stands to be­ne­fit from North Car­o­lina’s chan­ging demo­graph­ics in fa­vor of Demo­crats.

Hagan’s biggest as­set may end up be­ing the mid­dling qual­ity of the Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion. The early front-run­ner, state House Speak­er Thom Tillis, has seen his cam­paign defined early on by the Le­gis­lature’s right­ward turn. He’d much rather be talk­ing about his pre­vi­ous busi­ness back­ground and the eco­nomy, not the GOP’s re­stric­tions on vot­ing ac­cess­ib­il­ity. If he can’t re­bound with a stronger mes­sage or if Re­pub­lic­ans don’t land a more com­pel­ling al­tern­at­ive, Hagan may be in for a smooth­er ride than ex­pec­ted.

9. Geor­gia (Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled)

The race will come down to whom Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate and wheth­er Demo­crats can mo­bil­ize Afric­an-Amer­ic­an turnout in the state. The three House mem­bers run­ning — Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gin­grey, and Jack King­ston — all look like un­der­whelm­ing can­did­ates. Broun and Gin­grey, in par­tic­u­lar, have a his­tory of con­tro­ver­sial state­ments that spark memor­ies of Todd Akin. But Re­pub­lic­ans also have former Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del and busi­ness­man Dav­id Per­due, who don’t have Wash­ing­ton bag­gage, in the mix. Han­del, who gained fame from her out­spoken op­pos­i­tion to Planned Par­ent­hood grants at the Ko­men Found­a­tion, would prob­ably be their strongest can­did­ate.

As in In­di­ana last year, Demo­crats have a cap­able can­did­ate in Michelle Nunn, daugh­ter of the former sen­at­or. They face the ar­du­ous but ne­ces­sary task of identi­fy­ing black voters and get­ting many to show up when Obama isn’t on the bal­lot. If Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ate an­oth­er not-ready-for-prime-time can­did­ate, they could make this a race to watch.

10. Iowa (Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled)

Make no mis­take: Demo­crats hold a clear ad­vant­age in the race to suc­ceed lib­er­al Sen. Tom Har­kin. Rep. Bruce Bra­ley is a tal­en­ted politi­cian who banked more than $2 mil­lion after the second quarter, and none of the Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers look ready for prime time — right now. But Iowa should be a state where the GOP can win an open seat. Obama’s job-ap­prov­al num­ber is down to 41 per­cent, per Quin­nipi­ac, and Re­pub­lic­ans have time to sort out their crowded field.

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