Now is the time in an election cycle when the tectonic political plates undergirding key Senate races begin to shift in real and meaningful ways. Millions are spent. Debates happen. People start paying attention.
And so, before we ranked the 12 most competitive races in the fight for the Senate majority this fall, we chatted — via e-mail — with a half-dozen strategists in both parties to get their sense of which races are moving where.
With a few exceptions, their impressions jibed — private polling rarely lies — and suggested that Republicans should feel good, but not great, about their chances of picking up the six seats they need to retake Senate control in November.
In pursuit of clarity ahead of our rankings, we’ve broken down their thoughts into three categories:
1. Races that Democrats feel good about/Republicans don’t.
2. Races that Republicans feel good about/Democrats don’t.
3. Races about which opinion is mixed.
Obviously, this is not a comprehensive guide to where the races will end up, but it reflects the thinking of several well-connected operatives who are seeing lots and lots of good polling.
(Note: These categories don’t include three open Democratic seats — West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana — that everyone agrees will flip to Republicans.)
Races that Democrats feel good about/Republicans don’t:
Races that Republicans feel good about/Democrats don’t:
Races about which opinion is mixed:
Below are the races ranked on the likelihood that the seat will change hands.
11. (tie) Kansas (Republican-controlled). The most shocking entry on our list all year, this one’s a little complicated. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) clearly has problems. Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of the race, which could help independent Greg Orman consolidate the anti-Roberts vote. But Taylor apparently didn’t do what he needed to in order to get his name off the ballot (litigation is ongoing), so this might be a three-way race anyway.
11. (tie) Kentucky (R). A look at the polling of late in the race between Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) suggests that the incumbent has opened up a mid-single-digit lead. That agrees with what strategists are seeing in unreleased data. McConnell’s team always insisted that once he united Republicans behind his candidacy, the numbers would shift toward him.
10. Colorado (Democratic-controlled). Rep. Cory Gardner (R) is a talented politician. Unfortunately for him, some of the votes and positions — particularly on personhood — during his time in the House are being effectively used by Democrats as a cudgel against him in the battle for the votes of suburban Denver women, whom he badly needs to beat Sen. Mark Udall (D).
9. Georgia (R). National Republican Senatorial Committee Vice Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sounded very confident about Republican David Perdue’s chances against Democrat Michelle Nunn at a Thursday breakfast with reporters. Recent polls have shown Perdue leading, on average.
8. Iowa (D). It seems as if Rep. Bruce Braley (D) has done just about everything he can to lose a race in which he was the favorite from the outset. Republican State Sen. Joni Ernst’s problem is twofold: She is being heavily outspent on TV, and the idea that she is too conservative for the state is starting to take hold.
7. North Carolina (D). President Obama’s recent visit to the state forced Sen. Kay Hagan (D) to walk a tightrope. She greeted him on the tarmac but distanced herself from him on veterans’ issues. Hagan will continue to have to strike a careful balance as her campaign against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) rolls on.
6. Alaska (D). Democratic Sen. Mark Begich’s decision to air a TV ad holding former attorney general Dan Sullivan (R) partly responsible for releasing a man from prison who later allegedly killed an elderly couple and sexually assaulted their grandchild backfired, taking a race that was solidifying in his favor and making it less favorable.
5. Arkansas (D). Republican Rep. Tom Cotton’s campaign hasn’t been the smoothest, but it looks as if it is going to be good enough. He has led in 10 of the last 11 public polls and enjoyed his biggest lead — five percentage points — in a high-quality NBC News-Marist College poll released last week.
4. Louisiana (D). Everyone agrees that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will finish far ahead of Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) and Rob Maness (R) in the Nov. 4 jungle primary. The problem for Landrieu is that no one thinks she will break the 50 percent mark, meaning that she will have to face off against the second-highest vote-getter — almost certainly Cassidy — in a Dec. 6 runoff. The runoff electorate — particularly if control of the Senate is at stake — isn’t going to be a friendly one for Landrieu.
3. West Virginia (D). Of the three open Democratic seats on our list where Mitt Romney won in 2012, West Virginia appears to be the Democrats’ best chance of pulling off an upset. But that’s not saying much because the other two are virtual locks to flip Republican. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polling in this race shows Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) leading Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) by 19 points.
2. South Dakota (D). National Democrats have written off their nominee, Rick Weiland, from the outset. But there was a really interesting poll last week. The survey, from the automated-polling firm SurveyUSA, showed former governor Mike Rounds (R) leading Weiland 39 percent to 28 percent, with former GOP senator Larry Pressler (I) at 25 percent. In a race without Pressler, though, Weiland would be within the margin of error against the once-popular former governor.
1. Montana (D). Little-known state Rep. Amanda Curtis (D) is the replacement nominee for Sen. John Walsh (D), who dropped out over a plagiarism scandal. She’s no match for Rep. Steve Daines (R), who is firmly in control of this race.
Aaron Blake and Sean Sullivan contributed to this column.