The Fix’s top 10 Senate races of 2014

November 8, 2013

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky..) faces a primary challenge. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With the 2013 election now in the rearview mirror, 2014 is coming into sharper focus. In the battle for the Senate, that means it's time to take a closer look at the primaries that could shape the landscape and speak volumes even where the outcome doesn't affect the general election.

Republican primaries in Georgia and Alaska look to be heated, which is good news for the Democrats running in those states. Meanwhile, primaries in Wyoming and Mississippi will provide more clues about the future direction of the Republican Party. And when the top-ranking Republican in the Senate faces a primary, we pay attention. But so far, there are no signs that he is in imminent danger of losing.

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Below is our latest rundown of the top 10 Senate races of the cycle, ranked as usual from the safest — No. 10 — to the most in danger — No. 1. Scroll down a bit more for our rundown of the top five primaries.

To the Line!

10. Georgia (Republican-controlled) and Michigan (Democratic-controlled). Last quarter, Georgia Democrat Michelle Nunn and Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land both showed that they can raise money. Both are underdogs who need circumstances to fall in their favor to have a good shot at winning. The key for them is to do everything they can to put themselves in a strong position leading up to the election in case the door is open. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Iowa (D): None of the Republican candidates put up impressive fundraising numbers last quarter, while Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley's money machine kept on churning. If state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) wants to distinguish herself in the crowded GOP field, she is going to have to pick up the pace. (Previous ranking: 9).

8. North Carolina (D): The air war is heating up already. Americans for Prosperity recently hit Sen. Kay Hagan (D) with an ad tying her to President Obama while Senate Majority PAC came to her defense with a spot saying those who are attacking her tried to shut the government down. North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) won't run, which is good news for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, albeit not unexpected news, either. Tillis still has to deal with tea party candidate Greg Brannon, who is dealing with his own issues, like potential plagiarism. (Previous ranking: 8)

7. Kentucky (R): The willingness of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) to negotiate an  end to the shutdown showdown seemed to indicate that he is less worried about his primary challenge than many people may have thought. Indeed, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes looks like the bigger worry for McConnell at this point, especially after she put up a huge third quarter fundraising number. We'll be watching to see whether the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsement of Matt Bevin (R) does anything to help him move the needle against McConnell, against whom he's made little progress. (Previous ranking: 7)

6. Louisiana (D): GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy's disappointing fundraising haul and SCF's endorsement of Rob Maness (R) was turbulence the GOP did not need as it looks to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu (D). But Landrieu, like other red state Democrats, will have to deal with the fallout from the rollout of Obamacare. Still, the GOP's issue here and the growing sense among strategists that Landrieu could be a tough out moves Louisiana down the line one spot. (Previous ranking: 5)

5. Alaska (D): Former Alaska attorney general Dan Sullivan (R) recently made his campaign official, putting him in the mix with  Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who announced a bid this summer, and disastrous 2010 nominee Joe Miller, who has filed papers to run. A rough primary would be welcome news for Sen. Mark Begich (D). (Previous ranking: 6)

4. Arkansas (D): Ads pegged to the government shutdown in this race illustrated how both political parties will seek to use the standoff to their advantage. Meanwhile, competitive House races and a competitive governor's race make Arkansas an interesting state to watch, and a coordinated Democratic effort could boost the chances of Sen. Mark Pryor (D). Still, Pryor remains the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent on the map. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Montana (D): Republicans landed the recruit they wanted this week when Rep. Steve Daines entered the race. Democrats, meanwhile, are rallying around Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who faces a primary against former lieutenant governor John Bohlinger (D). Bohlinger raised eyebrows when he compared the tea party to the Taliban. This is a must-win race for Republicans hoping to win back the majority. So far, it's been going well for them. (Previous ranking: 2)

2. West Virginia (D): It's been nearly a year since Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) became one of the first high-profile Republicans to announce for the Senate this cycle. It's been a good decision for her so far. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) entered the race after numerous other Democrats passed. Capito is in the driver's seat in a state where Obama is woefully unpopular. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. South Dakota (D): The seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D) remains the GOP's best opportunity for a pickup. After sputtering at first as a fundraiser, former governor Mike Rounds has put together two straight $600,000+ quarters. (Previous ranking: 1)

Bonus! Below is a look at the top five highest-profile primaries of 2014. The highest-profile race is No. 1.

5. Georgia (R): This primary is both slow-starting and hugely important. A crowded GOP field so far includes Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston, along with businessman David Perdue and former secretary of state Karen Handel. Given the state has runoffs if nobody gets a majority of the votes, the May 20 primary is all about getting through to the July 22 runoff.

4. Kentucky (R): McConnell’s race would definitely be higher on this list if we knew for sure that Bevin was going to be a top-flight challenger. As it stands, Bevin’s first quarter of fundraising was underwhelming. Were he to defeat McConnell, it would go down as one of the biggest primary upsets in history – over a party’s Senate leader.

3. Hawaii (D): The lowest-profile race on this list really shouldn’t be so. We’ve got an appointed senator, Brian Schatz, being challenged by a sitting House member, Colleen Hanabusa. And not only that, but Hanabusa’s supporters are angry that Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) appointed Schatz – then his lieutenant governor — despite the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) making a deathbed request that Hanabusa be his successor. A poll conducted for Schatz’s campaign in July showed the two candidates neck and neck.

2. Mississippi (R): No one candidate has gotten as much early support from conservatives and tea party groups as state Sen. Chris McDaniel in his quest to upend U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). The Club for Growth, SCF, FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Express and the Madison Project all jumped on board with McDaniel shortly after he launched his campaign. The question from here is just how vulnerable the longtime senator is. So far, there’s little polling data.

1. Wyoming (R): This has certainly been the most contentious primary to date, with Liz Cheney (and her father) openly feuding with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). The latest scuffle: The former vice president took issue with Enzi’s claim that they were fishing buddies. “Never happened,” Cheney said a couple weeks back. Enzi’s office responded by standing by the claim and bemoaning “the loss of any friendship.” Early polls suggest Liz Cheney has lots of work to do to defeat the incumbent, but as a spectacle, no primary can match this one.

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Sean Sullivan · November 8, 2013