Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

The Senate map is looking better and better for Democrats

By Amber Phillips

April 8, 2016 at 12:14 PM

Even before they were forced to decide whether to support Donald Trump and whether to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Senate Republicans had their work cut out for them to keep control of the chamber they won in 2014.

They're defending 24 of the 34 seats up in 2016, and seven of those are in states that voted for Obama not once but twice.

The map hasn't changed much since the last time The Fix revisited the top 10 rankings, in March. Eight of the top 10 Senate races most likely to change parties in November are Republican held, and University of Virginia electoral experts Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik think if Trump is the Republican candidate, it will move nearly every race on this list (and then some) closer to Democrats' reach.

There's some reshuffling in the top 10 as some candidates get ready to post strong fundraising numbers, while others not so much. But for the most part, the takeaway is that Democrats have more than one path to win back the Senate.

Here's The Fix's latest rankings of the Senate seats most likely to flip parties in November, with No. 1 being most likely and No. 10 being least likely — but still competitive. To the line!

10. Missouri (Republican held): Missouri may be the sleeping giant on the Senate map. One of Democratic Party’s most interesting recruits this cycle, 34-year-old Secretary of State and Afghanistan veteran Jason Kander, is hoping to prove Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R) double-digit 2010 election was just a fluke. Kander is expected to report solid fundraising numbers in the first quarter of the election year, proving he can play with the big guys (though at the end of 2015, he was still some $3 million short of Blunt’s cash). And despite Kander’s obvious appeal, Missouri is an increasingly difficult lift for Democrats. It’s a state that has voted for the Republican candidate for president since 2000, though it's an open question how voters here will tolerate a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as their candidate. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) won her reelection in 2012 only after some meddling to ensure she faced a weaker tea party candidate. A Democratic win here would be an upset, but it's possible. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Colorado (D): After failing to get a top recruit, Republicans have yet to figure out who is most likely to challenge Sen. Michael F. Bennet, one of the most — if not the most — vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents this cycle. Among the dozen or so Republican candidates in the race, there are no fewer than four front-runners. The clouded narrative could change Saturday with the party's state convention where members will vote some candidates onto the June 28 primary ballot and probably leave others off. The muddled Republican primary race is good news for Bennet, who is going on the air and raking in the cash — $6.7 million in the bank at the end of 2015, with a fundraiser with Vice President Biden scheduled for Friday. Despite Bennet looking stronger, this state's swingy nature in a presidential year — it's split evenly in the past four elections — keeps it on the top 10 list for now. (Previous ranking: 8)

8. Arizona (R): Perhaps more than other Senate Republicans on this list, Sen. John McCain's attempt to win a sixth term is increasingly complicated by one of the two men he'll probably share a ballot with in November: Trump or Cruz. McCain has expressed concern in no uncertain terms about both men, and early on Trump returned the favor by wondering out loud whether McCain is a war hero. McCain has also said he'd support whomever is the nominee, which opens him up to ads such as this one that Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), his likely challenger, put online last month. This race got slightly more competitive because of the money: Kirkpatrick is expected to announce fundraising numbers not far off from McCain's. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. New Hampshire (R): New Hampshire is still the clash of the titans as the state's popular Democratic governor, Maggie Hassan, tries to take out the state's popular Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a race that could decide the fate of the Senate. Both have tried to be as visible as possible in the opioid epidemic, which polls show is the top issue in the state, and both can tout success in that category. What has the potential to make this race slightly less competitive is Hassan's ties to a disgraced prep school teacher, who admitted to sexual misconduct while Hassan's husband was principal at the time. Hassan has apologized for keeping him on a list of supporters, even though she said she didn't know why the teacher abruptly retired, and her husband has apologized for not being as forthright about the misconduct when he found out about it, even though he went to the police right away. This could be a blip on Hassan's radar, but Republicans are closely watching how she handles it to see whether they can make it a potentially damaging campaign issue in November. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Ohio (R): Ohio is a state where presidential politics will factor in heavily — if not be the dominating factor — in its contested Senate race. And that's not great news for Sen. Rob Portman (R). Portman is ahead in the fundraising race; he started this year with some $10 million more than his Democratic challenger, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, and he had another great first few months of 2016 fundraising. But Portman will probably have to use much of that money to boost his name identification and build his individual brand enough to counter someone like Trump being the candidate (Trump came in second in Ohio's primary to Ohio Gov. John Kasich). Meanwhile, Strickland is freed from his primary and has little to no presidential drama of his own with Hillary Clinton as his party's likely candidate. A recent Quinnipiac poll found Strickland narrowly leading Portman, 44 percent to 42 percent. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Pennsylvania (R): Perhaps nowhere is the effect of Trump's potential candidacy as clear as in the swing state of Pennsylvania. If Trump is the candidate, the state goes from leaning Republican to a potential Democratic pickup, according to Sabato and Kondik, who this week shifted the race to a toss-up. But supporters of Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R) are comforted by how he can continue to raise money while Democrats muddle through a competitive April primary that is vexing the Democratic establishment. Former Democratic congressman Joe Sestak is trying to avenge his hairpin loss to Toomey in 2010, but most of the party's brass have put their money behind Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D). The intraparty spat blew open this week when the Democrats' Senate arm put in $1 million of its precious resources to try to help McGinty over the finish line. Still, as with many of the states that top our list, the fact that Pennsylvania went for Obama twice will make it difficult for Republicans to hang onto it in a presidential year, no matter how perfect of a campaign their incumbents run. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Nevada (D): This is one of the two offensive opportunities for Republicans, who are hoping to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) with a Republican. They have a top candidate in Joe Heck, a brigadier general and doctor who has won reelection to Congress in a swing district three times. As a result, Heck has good name recognition in blue Las Vegas. He got some help in March in the form of a $700,000 ad buy from a Koch brothers-tied group, Concerned Veterans of America, which goes a long way in the relatively cheap state. But Democrats are defending Reid's seat with their own first-choice candidate, former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, who would be the first Latina elected to the Senate. Barring any misstep from Cortez Masto, we're not going to bet heavily against the formidable Democratic Reid machine, which is probably singularly bent on protecting the senator's 30-year legacy. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. Florida (R): The race to replace outgoing Sen. Marco Rubio (R) is messy on both sides and is likely to remain that way until the state's August primary. Republicans are in a seven-way primary, with the most recent contender to jump in being wealthy home-builder Carlos Beruff, whose money immediately gives him a boost. On the Democratic side, Rep. Patrick Murphy's (D) hopes for a relatively easy path to the general election have been stymied by Rep. Alan Grayson (D), a controversial and unconventional liberal congressman who has dragged Murphy into a nasty primary battle. Official Democratic Washington is doing what it can to help Murphy: Obama and Biden recently endorsed Murphy, and Reid has called on Grayson to drop out. Whatever happens in both sides' August primaries, Florida has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate each of the last two cycles — and could mirror the hard-fought presidential race in the state again in 2016. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Wisconsin (R): What was once a double-digit lead for Sen. Ron Johnson's (R) challenger, former Democratic senator Russ Feingold, may now be a five-point race, according to a new Marquette University poll. Johnson's campaign is also heartened by the fact that in Tuesday's presidential primary, an eyebrow-raising 1.1 million voters turned out on the Republican side, about 100,000 more than Democrats. They hope their extensive and possibly underestimated ground game perfected during Gov. Scott Walker's (R) two elections and a recall can bring out those voters again in November. The Koch brothers are also getting into the race with a $1 million ad campaign for Johnson. Despite all that good news for Republicans, Feingold remains the guy to beat, raising an impressive $3.35 million in the first few months of 2016. And as we learned Tuesday, Wisconsin Republicans aren't particularly enamored with the increasingly likely idea of a Trump presidency, a scenario that would make Johnson's reelection efforts even more difficult. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. Illinois (R): Illinois is and is likely to remain the best pickup opportunity for Democrats this cycle. Sen. Mark Kirk is the Republicans' most vulnerable incumbent, thanks mostly to math: Obama won the state by 16 points in 2012. As such, Kirk is doing everything he can to appeal to moderate voters. He is pro-abortion rights, pro-same-sex marriage, and he recently broke ranks with party leaders and said Obama's Supreme Court nominee deserves a hearing, even urging his Republican colleagues to meet with Judge Merrick Garland. He also has a dramatic story to tell, returning to Congress in 2013 after having a stroke less than a year earlier. But so does his challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D), a double amputee war veteran who sailed through her primary last month. Some polls show a tight race this early on. But the state's blue politics in a presidential year with a potential Trump or Cruz on the Republican ticket means it will be tough for Kirk to hang on. (Previous ranking: 1)


Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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