DDHQ 2018 Senate Races Ratings – Democratic Seats (Part III)

Here’s is the last installment of our initial sweep through the 2018 Senate ratings. Today, we’ll conclude by looking at Democratic-held seats west of the Mississippi River.

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MINNESOTA

Few incumbents up for reelection next year are as popular as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D). She made a strong debut in 2006, winning an open seat in her light blue state by 20%. In 2012, as President Obama carried her state by 8%, she was reelected 2:1. Klobuchar has mostly kept a low profile, especially compared to her counterpart Sen. Al Franken (D). Still, she’s still been mentioned as a 2020 Presidential candidate, has a penchant for working on infrastructure issues, and was recently elevated to conference leadership.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans aren’t lining up to run here. The Gubernatorial race, and some of the state row offices, are more attractive targets. The entire State House is up next year, however State Senators aren’t up until 2020, meaning Republicans Senators who want to raise their profile could have a ‘free shot’ here. 2012 nominee Kurt Bills (R), an ex-legislator who has a libertarian streak, could run again. The GOP may also try to find a wealthy outsider who could self-fund. They tried this approach in 2014, though, as businessman Mike McFadden (R), lost by 11% to Franken.

Minnesota is unquestionably STRONG DEMOCRATIC. More than anything else, we’ll be watching how far Klobuchar’s coattails go in lifting DFL candidates lower down the ballot, as she’ll likely be winning a landslide up top.

NORTH DAKOTA

One of the biggest surprises of 2012 was how Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) defied the lean of her state. The state’s former Attorney General, she was a strong recruit in her own right, but was also lucky to have then-Rep. Rick Berg (R) as a opponent. Berg, by contrast, took the race for granted, and seemed to campaign with the assumption that the state’s red hue would be enough.

In the Senate, Heitkamp has, not surprisingly, been one of the more centrist members of her caucus. As a result, she’s drawn a primary challenge from the Sanders wing of her party in 2016 legislative candidate Dustin Peyer (D).

The GOP’s most obvious candidate would be Rep. Kevin Cramer (R), who succeeded Berg in the House. A fallback candidate may be State Sen. Tom Campbell (R), who has a legislative seat that hugs the Minnesota border. As Republicans hold all ten of North Dakota’s statewide offices, they have several of other possible names to draw from.

Heitkamp is officially undecided on reelection, though her multi-million dollar fundraising hauls suggest she’ll run again. It seems that even state Republican would consider her a favorite of she ran, as North Dakota lends itself well to Heitkamp’s style of retail politics.

Assuming she runs, we’ll start her off as LEANS DEMOCRATIC. However, if she retires, this will swing to LIKELY/STRONG REPUBLICAN pretty quickly.

MONTANA

In terms of style, Sen. Jon Tester (D), a farmer sporting a buzzcut and missing fingers from a meat-grinder accident, matches his state pretty well. Tester was initially in the blue wave of 2006, narrowly ousting incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R). In 2012, he drew a top-tier challenger in Rep. Denny Rehberg (R); it was a tossup much of the cycle, but Tester held on by a clear 4%, even as President lost his state by 13%.

Republicans were dealt a recruitment setback, as their strongest candidate, State AG Tim Fox (R) declined to run – he’s presumably eyeing the 2020 Governor’s race instead. The GOP has two official candidates, though. State Sen. Al Olszewski (R), who represents an area near Kalispell, and businessman Trot Downing (R) are running. Former judge Russ Fagg (R) has formed an exploratory committee.

Other Republicans who may consider this race include two statewide officials who were swept into office last year. Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), hailing from the far-eastern part of the state, has been mentioned. SOS Corey Stapleton (R) may get in. One drawback to Stapleton is that he may seem opportunistic. Before winning last year, he lost a 2012 bid for Governor and a 2014 race for Congress.

We consider Tester a favorite over the current field. There was a recent House special election here, were musician Rob Quist (D) lost to now-Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) by 6%. This was still a nice improvement fro Democrats over last year, and Tester is a considerably higher caliber candidate than Quist. LEANS DEMOCRATIC

MISSOURI

We consider Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri to be the most vulnerable Democrat of this cycle. Once a true swing state, the Show Me State is now clearly Republican-leaning. As a result, McCaskill has, famously, resorted to some creative antics. In 2012, Democrats covertly helped the gaffe-prone Rep. Todd Akin (R) win the competitive Senate primary. Akin went on to implode in the general election, with his “legitimate rape” comment. This essentially handed the election to McCaskill; she won by 16%, even as President Obama lost her state by 10%.

This time, McCaskill likely won’t be so lucky. It’s been an open secret, since about 2014, that Rep. Ann Wagner is running. Ironically, she currently holds Akin’s old House seat, which soaks up the wealthy St. Louis suburbs. Less polarizing than her predecessor, Wagner is a mainstream conservative who has fundraised well.

Though the frontrunner for the nomination, Wagner may not have a clear field. Other names include ex-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R), State AG Josh Hawley (R), Treasurer Eric Schmitt (R), and State House Speaker Todd Richardson (R).

If McCaskill opts to retire, state Democrats will certainly look to ex-SOS Jason Kander (D), their 2016 nominee. Kander ran 16% over Secretary Clinton to nearly out Sen. Roy Blunt (R). Another option would be appointed State Auditor Nicole Galloway (D); she’s already running next year to win the office in her own right, so perhaps would consider moving up.

This is the seat that President Harry Truman held while he served in the Senate; like Truman, McCaskill is a better campaigner than most, and has appeared an underdog before. Still, Missouri is among the GOP’s best pickup opportunities this cycle. TOSSUP

NEW MEXICO

New Mexico is a blue state that tends to reelect its Senators. As such, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) is favored for a second term. Elected in 2012, Heinrich previously represented the Albuquerque-area NM-01. In the Senate race, he beat ex-Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who actually preceded him in the House.

The center-right Wilson had appeal with independents, and was one of of the NM GOP’s stronger candidates, but still came up 6% short. Republicans currently have State Labor Commissioner Mick Rich (R) running. Other names who have been mentioned for this, as well as the Governor’s race, are Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) and Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry (R). Allen Weh (R) could try again – he was the party’s Senate nominee in 2014, losing by 11%. Republican State Senators won’t face reelection until 2020, so any could run without giving up their seat.

National Republicans have several other more promising races in friendlier states. If Heinrich loses, its likely the result of a massive red wave. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

CALIFORNIA

In the county’s second bluest state, it looks like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) will run again. At age 83, and holding her seat since 1992, she is a political institution in the state. Her first few contests, in the 1990’s, were were competitive – back when the GOP was viable in statewide races – but since then, it’s been smooth sailing for her.

Counterintuitively, Republicans are likely better served having Feinstein run again, for two reasons.

First, on a purely ideological level, she’s a relative centrist, at least by the standards of California Democrats. The electorate could easily support a more full-throated liberal – it’s other Senator, Kamala Harris (D) is a good example.

Second, consider the state’s jungle primary. In the open contest last year, two credible Democrats ran, and the Republican vote was fractured between several low tier candidate; consequently, the GOP was shut out of the November runoff. If this is the case again, it could precipitate lower Republican turnout, which would hurt in downballot races; they’re defending several potentially vulnerable House members, such as Rep. Darrell Issa (R). If Feinstein is on the primary ballot, she’ll soak up the lion’s share of Democratic votes, which will help a Republican candidate make the runoff. This was the case in 2012, with Republican Elizabeth Emken (R).

Other than the incumbent, the primary field largely consists of a combination of perennial candidates and Some Dudes. Democrats running include 2014 House candidate Steve Stokes (D), engineer Tom Brennan (D), attorney Pat Harris (D), and Sanders campaign activist David Hildebrand (D). Two Republicans are businesswoman Caren Lancona (R) and frequent candidate Tim Kalenkarian (R).

California’s sheer size makes it an expensive state to campaign in, let alone against an entrenched incumbent like Feinstein. If she sticks to her plans, she’s virtually assured reelection. STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

WASHINGTON

After three terms representing this blue state, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) starts the cycle in a rather secure position. A software executive by background, Cantwell served one term in the House, before being swept out in the 1994 wave. She made a comeback in 2000, narrowly ousting Sen. Slade Gorton (R); she won by about 2,200 votes, out of almost 2.5 million cast. Her campaigns since then, however, have not been close – she won by 17% in 2006, and 21% in 2012.

This race has been pretty slow to develop. Like California and Louisiana, Washington uses a jungle primary system. Two candidates, perennial candidate Jennifer Ferguson (D) and liberal activist Clay Johnson (I) are running, though the GOP doesn’t seem to have found a candidate.

The closest Republicans have come to winning a Senate seat in Washington, post-2000, was in 2010. That year, its other Senator, Patty Murray (D) still managed to win by 5% against ex-Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi (R). The GOP actually holds two statewide offices in the Washington, with SOS Kim Wyman (R) and Treasurer Duane Davidson (R). From the state’s Congressional delegation, the strongest candidates would be either Rep. Dave Reichert (R) or Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R).

As none of those higher tier Republicans are taking steps towards a Senate bid, STRONG DEMOCRATIC is a pretty easy call.

HAWAII

Hawaii is the county’s bluest state and has never ousted an incumbent Senator. Thus, we consider freshman Sen. Mazie Hirono (D) to be almost guaranteed another term. Hawaii is a near one-party state, and Hirono has appeal with the traditional Asian bloc in her party, as well as the more progressive wing.

In 2012, Republicans recruited their strongest candidate, ex-Gov. Linda Lingle (R). She was popular during her two terms, and actually beat Hirono to win her first Gubernatorial term, in 2002. However, in states like Hawaii, there is often a clear difference between local and federal races. Though Lingle fared almost 18% better than Gov. Romney, she still lost by a wide 25%. No Republican is currently running.

If Hirono changes course and decides to retire, Hawaii’s two House members may try to move up. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D), came the closest in the state’s history to beating an incumbent Senator; she challenged, and nearly defeated, Sen. Brian Schatz (D) in the 2014 primary. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) is popular with the Sanders faction of the party, though raised eyebrows with a trip to Syria and her defense of President Assad.

If any Senator ends up running unopposed this cycle, there’s a fair chance it may be Hirono. STRONG DEMOCRATIC.