DDHQ 2018 Senate Races Ratings – July 2017

Looking at next year’s races, here is DDHQ’s initial assessment of how the 2018 Senate races are starting off.

We’ve sorted the races into the Republican, and then the Democratic, held seats, ranked in generally descending order of competitiveness.

Before the individual state profiles, here’s our overall summary:

REPUBLICAN HELD SEATS:

 

NEVADA

While there are few offensive opportunities for Democrats with next year’s map, their most promising target looks like Nevada. In 2012, the Silver State was one of the few competitive Senate contests that broke to the GOP. That year, appointed incumbent Dean Heller (R) narrowly won a full term against Rep. Shelley Berkley (D), who was a longtime Congresswoman from Las Vegas.

Before his time in the Senate, Heller served in the House since 2006. Though Reno was the center of gravity in his district, it actually contained area in all of the state’s counties. Heller previously served as NV Secretary of State for three terms.

If we were rating this race two weeks ago, we’d probably call it LEANS REPUBLICAN. There have been two developments which have pushed things in the Democrats’ direction since then, though.

First, they’ve landed a strong challenger in Rep. Jackie Rosen (D). A freshman member from southern Las Vegas, Rosen won last year in a seat that also supported the President. Other candidates considering this race are ex-Treasurer Kate Marshall (D) and Clark County DA Steve Wolfson (D). However, since Harry Reid’s machine is still influential in Democratic politics, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the primary field cleared for Rosen.

Secondly, Heller has broken from his Senate GOP colleagues on their recent healthcare overall bill. While this would make for good optics in blue Nevada, Trump-aligned groups are hitting Heller on his reluctance to support Republican healthcare reform. In last year’s Senate race, the GOP nominee, Rep. Joe Heck (R), similarly unsupportive of Trump. This hurt Heck with Trump’s core supporters, and was considered a factor in his narrow loss.

We still consider Heller a slight favorite, and rate Nevada as TILTING REPUBLICAN. Going forward, it will be worth watching the quality of Rosen’s campaign, as well as how far pro-Trump groups will go in undermining Heller.

ARIZONA

Arizona is looking to be one of the more competitive GOP-held seats next year. In 2012, then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R) won this seat by a notably close 3% against Bush 43-era Surgeon General Rich Carmona (D). During his time in the House, Flake was towards his party’s more libertarian wing. In the Senate, he’s shown something of an independent streak, in the style of fellow Sen. John McCain (R).

Flake has been one of the President’s more vocal intra-party critics. As a result, he’s drawn a primary challenger in ex-State Sen. Kelli Ward (R). In last year’s primary, Ward challenged McCain. She ran as a more Trump-esque alternative, but lost 51/40 to the Old Maverick. Another possible candidate is State Treasurer Jeff DeWit (R), who is also more aligned with the President.

Democrats potentially have Rep. Krysten Sinema (D), who is often mentioned as a statewide candidate, of the Phoenix area; she said she’s running for reelection “for now”. If she doesn’t jump in, their field consists of two first-time candidates: veteran Chris Russell (D) and attorney Deedra Abboud (D). A legislator who may run is State Rep. Randy Friese (D), of the Tucson area.

While Flake will have to tend to his right flank in the primary, we see him as a clear, but not completely safe, bet over the current Democratic field. Therefore Arizona starts out this cycle as LEANING REPUBLICAN.

MISSISSIPPI

Mississippi is one of the least elastic states in the county, which bodes well for Sen. Roger Wicker (R). Wicker was appointed to the Senate in 2007, and has won reelection in his own right twice since then.

Wicker’s biggest possible challenge will likely come in the GOP primary. Ex-State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) is considering this race. McDaniel ran for Senate in 2014. He was an anti-establishment candidate who ran a scorched-earth campaign against the more moderate Sen. Thad Cochran (R). Cochran held on by 2% in a runoff, though McDaniel famously refused to concede.

The strongest potential Democrat here is State AG Jim Hood (D). It seems that Hood, though, is looking more at the open Governor’s race in 2019.

As no Democrats are running here – and any would start out an underdog – we rate Mississippi as STRONG REPUBLICAN.

 

ALABAMA

Alabama will have a special Senate election this year, which was triggered after ex-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) was confirmed as Attorney General. Then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R)who has since resigned in scandal, appointed State AG Luther Strange (R) to fill Sessions’ seat.

Strange carries some baggage, from his association with Bentley, though is otherwise a mainstream Alabama conservative. However, the field for Republican primary has gotten crowded, which has prompted national Republicans to run ads for the incumbent.

One dynamic which helps Strange is that the anti-establishment vote should be fractured. Rep. Mo Brooks (R), who represents the Huntsville-area AL-05, is running. Known for his tough line on immigration, Brooks is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. The other high profile candidate in this race is ex-State Supreme Court Roy Moore (R). He is famous for losing his judgeship after refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Moore is the most controversial candidate here, though has a strong following with social conservatives and thus shouldn’t be underestimated.

Given Alabama’s election system, if Strange doesn’t clear 50% in the primary, a runoff with ensue. IN that case, he’d almost certainly face Moore or Brooks.

The highest tier Democrat is Clinton-era US Attorney Doug Jones (D), who served in northern Alabama. Other credible candidates could be pastor Will Boyd (D), Talladega County Constable Vann Caldwell (D) or Robert Kennedy Jr. (D) – not related to the dynasty, but it would be interesting to see how far the name goes.

Democrats could have an opening if the GOP primary is exceptionally bitter, but even then, the crimson hue of Alabama would be hard to overcome, especially given the compressed timeframe here. For now, the upcoming December special election looks STRONG REPUBLICAN.

Sessions was unopposed in 2014, which made for a fascinating map electoral map:

 

TENNESSEE

After two terms, Sen. Bob Corker (R), known for his role as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, enters this cycle in a strong position. With a well-funded war chest, Corker still has nominal GOP primary opposition. Christian Counselor Larry Crim (R) has announced a run, though we expect Corker to win the primary easily.

Despite being the home of President Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory’s party has not been competitive in statewide elections here since 2006. This year, they’ve recruited Iraq War veteran and attorney James Mackler (D). Mackler seems like a cut above other candidates Democrats have run recently, but the terrain here will make it challenging.

All things considered, this is pretty easily STRONG REPUBLICAN.

TEXAS

After being initially elected in 2012, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) is running again. Swept into office with tea party support, Cruz became a national figure with his role in the 2013 government shutdown, then with his 2016 Presidential bid – where he came closer than any other Republican against Trump.

Despite his penchant for making unnecessary enemies, Cruz has thus far only drawn one low tier GOP opponent in attorney Stefano de Stafano (R). A more serious challenger would be Rep. Michael McCaul (R). As his district, TX-10, straddles both Austin and Houston, McCaul would have built-in name recognition in two major metros. As one of the wealthiest members of the House, he could significantly self fund (though Cruz’s 2012 primary opponent, ex-LG David Dewhurst, was similarly wealthy). McCaul’s name has been floated since 2016, and he hasn’t ruled it out.

The most likely Democratic nominee is Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D). He represents the deep blue TX-16, which is essentially coterminous with El Paso. Elected at 41, O’Rourke went against the local establishment to win his seat in 2012. In this race, O’Rourke is looking to capitalize on the backlash against the President.

Larger states, like Texas, tend to gravitate towards the party that they naturally favor. In 2016, Secretary Clinton lost by a respectable 9%, down from Obama’s 16% loss, but Texas is still quite red. For now, we’re starting things out here as STRONG REPUBLICAN. 

NEBRASKA

As with the Nebraska’s Gubernatorial race, things are looking very sleepy in the Cornhusker State’s Senate race. Sen. Deb Fischer (R) will be running for a second term, after winning in 2012.

Fischer staged something of a upset in the 2012 GOP primary; after her two main rivals pulverized each other, she came from behind to win. In the general election, she defeated ex-Sen. Bob Kerry (D) by a more robust than-expected 16%.

Until other candidates begin actively exploring bids, we have to say STRONG REPUBLICAN.

WYOMING

In the President’s best state, no candidates have announced a challenge to Sen. John Barrasso (R). Considering that Barrasso was reelected with 76% in 2012, and remains broadly popular, it’s easy to see why this race has been slow to develop.

Barrasso goes into 2018 as one of the safest members from either party, thus our STRONG REPUBLICAN ranking.

UTAH

Utah is home to the Senate Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch (R), who has served since 1976. In his 2012 reelection, Hatch said that he was running for his last term – however, he’s since reversed course. Or not. Maybe.

Assuming Hatch runs again, this will be a very boring race, as he’d have the party apparatus, at both the state and national levels, in his corner. However, in Utah, there’s no shortage of Republicans who would run for a rare open seat.

Hatch has said that he’d retire if Gov. Mitt Romney (R) ran to succeed him. As the first Mormon Presidential nominee, Romney popular in Utah- he took 93% in the state’s primary, and 73% in the 2012 general election. He’s even received an interesting cross-party endorsement from ex-VP Joe Biden.

Though Romney would be the clear frontrunner for an open seat, other candidates include State AG Sean Reyes (R)Rep. Chris Stewart (R), and CEO Jeff Miller (R).

On the Democratic side, ex-State House minority leader Scott Howell (D), who was their 2012 nominee, is running again. Other names are Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson (D) and former legislative candidate Dan Drew (D).

An interesting candidate would be 2016 Presidential candidate Evan McMullin (I). Originally a Republican, he ran as an third party candidate courting the #NeverTrump vote. Considering that McMullen’s Twitter feed has taken somewhat of a leftward turn since November 2016, we imagine that he’d siphon off many Democratic votes.

Any Republican will start off favored in Utah, so this is STRONG REPUBLICAN.

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DEMOCRATIC SEATS

 

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 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 his 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 was an open secret, since about 2014, that Rep. Ann Wagner (R) was running. Wagner had been sending all the signals you’d expect of a Senate candidate, such as her prolific fundraising. However, in a major surprise, she decided to run for reelection to her House seat.

The frontrunner for the nomination now seems to be State AG Josh Hawley (R), who has emerged as a favorite of state Republicans. Hawley was elected last year, as the GOP took all the statewide offices up then. Still other names who may consider include ex-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R)Treasurer Eric Schmitt (R), and State House Speaker Todd Richardson (R).

If McCaskill opts to retire, 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. It seems that Hawley is likely to challenge McCaskill, but until he commits, we consider this a TOSSUP.

INDIANA

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) fits the red-leaning Hoosier State about as well as a Democrat can. Before winning this seat in 2012, he represented the South Bend area in the House; he was in the Blue Dog caucus.

While a good candidate in his own right, Donnelly caught a major break. Longtime moderate Republican Sen. Dick Lugar (R) was defeated in the primary by the more conservative State Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R), who ran a tea-flavored campaign. Lugar would have easily won the general election; Mourdock, by contrast, was a controversial candidate. He had a particularly bad gaffe towards the end of the election, claiming that “God intended” rape-induced pregnancies; an ironic gaffe, considering Donnelly is also pro-life.

The President carried the previously light-red Indiana by a wide 18% – though his margin was probably helped by his selection of then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) as VP. Still, so far, only lower tier Republicans have entered this race. The current field includes Attorney Mark Hurt (R), businessman Terry Henderson (R), and Purdue University official Andrew Takami (R). Three bigger names considering this race are Congressmen Todd Rokita (R) and Luke Messer (R), as well as State AG Curtis Hill (R).

We see Donnelly as a slight favorite, all things considered. Indiana has trended red, but Donnelly is much better funded than his current field of opposition, and has a record of winning competitive races. Until a bigger name gets in, we consider this TILTING DEMOCRATIC.

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 fortunate to have then-Rep. Rick Berg (R) as an opponent. Berg, by contrast, took the race for granted, and seemed to campaign with the assumption that the state’s red fundamentals 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 elected 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. The GOP still has two official candidates. 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

WEST VIRGINIA

Sen. Joe Manchin (D) is probably the candidate who is helped the most by Trump being President instead of Secretary Clinton. The most conservative Democrat in the Senate, he has a strong personal brand, but watched last year as his state voted Republican by a punishing 68/26 margin. Still, Manchin goes into next year without the albatross of Clinton, and has a good relationship Trump.

After the 2010 death of West Virginia’s best known legislator, Sen. Robert Byrd (D), Manchin, then Governor, won Byrd’s seat 53/43 in a special election. In the 2012 regular election, he faced a rematch with his 2010 opponent, gaffe-prone businessman John Raese (R). That race wasn’t really on either party’s radar, and Manchin won a full term by 24%.

As West Virginia has reddened in further since then, Republicans are more serious about competing here. The GOP has already landed a top-tier recruit in Rep. Evan Jenkins (R). Jenkins represents the coal-heavy WV-03, in the state’s south. A Democratic state legislator since the 1990’s, he switched parties to run for Congress, ultimately ousting 18-term incumbent Nick Rahall (D). 

Jenkins’ party switch is complicating his candidacy somewhat, as he supported Manchin in previous years. In fact, allies of his likeliest primary opponent, State AG Patrick Morrisey (R), have dubbed Jenkins a ‘mini-Manchin.’

A third Republican who may consider this race is Rep. Alex Mooney (R). West Virginia is poised to lose a House seat after 2020. Mooney’s WV-02, which runs from the eastern pandhandle to Charleston, is liable to be split between the state’s other two districts. Mooney may look at running for Senate instead of waiting for a potentially unfavorable remap.

Manchin has a challenger on his left, as environmental activist Paula Swearengin (D) is running in the primary. However, given the state’s large amount of registered Democrats, the Democratic electorate in West Virginia is likely the most conservative in the country.

We still see Manchin as a favorite, and his poll numbers are holding up well. Further, the Mountain State hasn’t completely abandoned the party of Jackson; Gov. Jim Justice (D), for example, ran nearly 50% ahead of Clinton to win. LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

OHIO

Ohio proved to be fertile ground for the President’s message of economic nationalism. Many Democrats in the state’s industrial centers jumped ship to support him, as he carried this erstwhile swingy state by a comfortable 8%. Interestingly, some of the factors that made Trump a strong candidate here may also benefit Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).

Brown is a strong retail candidate who has framed himself as a populist for much of his career. With an electoral base in the Akron area, he’s been especially critical of free trade. Brown was elected in 2006, and won again in 2012. Last year, he was often mentioned as a potential running mate for Secretary Clinton.

Republicans are going into this race with a decent, though perhaps not exceptionally strong, candidate in Treasurer Josh Mandel (R). Mandel was the party’s 2012 nominee, and lost by 6% to Brown. A 40 year-old veteran, Mandel is from his party’s more conservative wing. Last year, while the more moderate Gov. John Kasich (R) had broad homestate support in his Presidential run, Mandel endorsed Sen. Rubio instead. This may be why wealthy investment banker Josh Gibbons (R) recently got in. Gibbons is was a donor to Kasich, and is closer to the Governor’s wing of the party. Mandela is favored, though the OH GOP’s factionalism here could make things interesting.

Going into this cycle, we see Brown as still having the advantage. He’s considered a strong campaigner, and some potentially tougher opponents have passed on this race. LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

WISCONSIN

In 2012, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) won her seat by defeating popular 90’s era Gov. Tommy Thompson (R). Baldwin previously represented the 2nd Congressional District in the House, which is centers around Madison. Despite having a base in the state’s most liberal area, she outperformed President Obama in many rural areas, though perhaps also benefited from Thompson’s allegedly subpar campaign. In the the Senate, she’s has kept a fairly low profile.

Baldwin caught a break when her strongest potential opponent, Rep. Sean Duffy (R), declined to run. Duffy has held the 7th Congressional District, which stretches from Wausau to Lake Superior, for four terms, and would have likely been able to unite the party. Still, the GOP has several others looking at this race. One possibility is businessman Eric Hovde (R), who also ran in the 2012 primary, and nearly beat Thompson. The likeliest sitting member of the legislature to run seems like State Sen. Leah Vukmir (R), of suburban Milwaukee. State Senate Majority leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) and State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R) are also looking at this race. Controversial Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke (D), is technically a Democrat, but is a strident supporter of the President and may run as a Republican.

Democrats, in general, took Wisconsin for granted last year; most notably, the President narrowly edged out Secretary Clinton there. More surprisingly, Sen. Ron Johnson (R), who was thought to be an underdog against ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D), held on by 3%. Still, like the second golfer up to the tee, Baldwin has the benefit of learning from the party’s mistakes last year, and is running an active campaign. Coupled with the fluid Republican field, we currently give her the edge for reelection. LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

FLORIDA

In the country’s quintessential swing state, its sole statewide Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is running for a fourth term. A former astronaut with a southern drawl, Nelson represented the Space Coast area in the House before becoming State Treasurer, and then winning his Senate seat in 2000. Since then, he was reelected twice by double-digits.

Though he hasn’t formally announced plans to run, Gov. Rick Scott (R) is widely expected to challenge Neslon. He’ll be term-limited in 2018 and has been strongly encouraged by the President to run for Senate. Scott, described by our friends at Red Racing Horses, as a ‘combination between Voldemort and Montgomery Burns’, isn’t particularly likable at the personal level. Still, he’s come out on the winning side of two razor-close races for Governor, so he shouldn’t be underestimated. Scott is also personally wealthy; his self-financing abilities would be very helpful in this expensive state.

If Scott doesn’t end up running, Republicans have a few other options. Current Rep. Ron DeSantis (R), may be a consensus choice among state conservatives. DeSantis’ FL-06 is based in Daytona Beach, and encroaches on the suburbs of Orlando and Jacksonsville. Another option may be Rep. Tom Rooney (R). Rooney’s FL-17 is near the Sarasota area, and takes in a large swath of south-central Florida. Scott’s Lieutenant, Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R) could run; he ran in 2016, when it appeared that his close ally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R), would be retiring. As he hails from the Miami area, state Republicans would probably be better running Lopez-Cantera for the open FL-27.

Nelson and Scott should both be pretty familiar to voters in the Sunshine State. As the Democrat has led in every poll taken so far, we’ll start this race out as LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

PENNSYLVANIA

In the Decision Desk’s favorite state, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D), will run for a third term. Casey was elected in 2006, ousting ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (R) by 18%. In 2012, he was criticized for running a lackluster campaign, but still beat wealthy businessman Tom Smith (R) by 9%.

One of Casey’s biggest assets is his name; his late father, and namesake, served as Governor from 1987 to 1995, and is considered the most popular Pennsylvania politician in recent memory. A devout Irish Catholic, his father was known for being strongly pro-life; while Casey Jr. has been more of a generic partisan, he still is considered one of the more socially moderate Democrats.

A number of Republicans, likely encouraged by the President’s victory here, are running. Fortunately  for Casey, none seem especially high-caliber. Two legislators from reddening southwestern PA, Rick Saccne (R) and Jim Christiana (R) are running. Other candidates include Trump campaign activist Bobby Lawrence (R)Andrew Shecktor (R), a local official from Columbia County, energy executive Paul Addis (R), and partisan fundraiser Jeff Bartos (R).

Two bigger name Republicans to watch, who haven’t announced anything but are considering this race, are Reps. Lou Barletta (R) and Mike Kelly (R). Both represent areas that the President had significant upside in last year; Barletta is from the Wilkes-Barre area, and Kelly represents Erie.

Overall, given the current field of Republicans, we see Casey as a clear favorite. It’s interesting that the GOP looks to have a better chance in the Governor’s race, but their field here is more crowded. In any case, we start out PA as LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

MICHIGAN

Michigan is the only Trump state with two Democratic Senators, and we think that’s likely to be the case after 2018, as we consider Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) a favorite for reelection.

Stabenow was a Congresswoman from the state’s 8th Congressional district in the 1990s; at the time, she represented Lansing, as well as the Flint and Ann Arbor areas. In 2000, she ousted Sen. Spencer Abraham (R), narrowly. The single-term Abraham was the only GOP Senator Michigan has had since the Carter era. Stabenow was reelected easily in both 2006, by 17%, and 2012 by 21%.

As several big Republican names eyeing the open Governor’s race, their Senate field is looking less promising. Two Republicans are currently running: businesswoman Lena Epstein (R), who worked on the Trump campaign, and ex-State Supreme Court Justice Bob Young (R). Perhaps the biggest name who is considering this race is Congressman Fred Upton (R), who’s represented the state’s southwestern corner, primarily St. Joseph and Kalamazoo, since 1987. Upton is popular in his district, so he’d have to be willing to give up a safe seat to run in a tough statewide race.

Given the current field and likely environment, its hard to see how Stabenow doesn’t start out as a clear favorite. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC. 

VIRGINIA

In blue-trending Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine (D) starts out this cycle in a pretty strong position. Kaine ran for this open seat in 2012. He brought an impressive resume, has he served  as mayor of Richmond, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and then DNC Chair. In what was considered a tossup most of the cycle, he beat ex-Sen. George Allen (R) by a healthy 6% margin.

More recently, Kaine was, of course, tapped to be Secretary Clinton’s running mate. In an unfortunate irony for state Republicans, this seat would be much more susceptible to flip if Kaine was serving as Clinton’s Vice President. Instead of contesting an open seat, Republicans will have to run against a popular incumbent.

Fresh off his narrow loss in the Republican Gubernatorial primary, Prince William County councilman Corey Stewart (R) is interested in this race. Stewart is a strident supporter of the President, and is known for defending Confederate monuments. Another polarizing candidate who is considering this race is 2013 Lt. Gov. nominee E. W. Jackson (R). 2016 Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina (R) is looking at in this race; she was the GOP’s nominee in California for the 2010 cycle, and lost by 10%. Similarly, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham (R) has expressed interest.

The GOP’s strongest candidates seem less likely to run. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). Comstock is a centrist conservative, who won reelection in her northern Virginia VA-10, even as Secretary Clinton carried it. Comstock seems likelier to run for reelection, though. Another candidate who may fare well with moderate voters is ex-Rep. Scott Rigell (R), of Virginia Beach. Rigell retired last year after three terms, and endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson over his party’s nominee.

Given the confluence of the weak GOP field, his popularity, and Virginia’s blue tint, Kaine has the upper hand. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

 

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.

NEW JERSEY

With most of the Garden State’s political oxygen being sucked up by the open Gubernatorial race, its easy to overlook the Senate race next year. Things are somewhat interesting, as sophomore Sen. Bob Menendez (D) is under indictment. Menendez is under investigation for favors that he allegedly did for a campaign donor. As a trial is set for September, we’ll know a bit more then.

Still, local New Jersey Democrats don’t seem that worried about Menendez. If his investigation worsens, a likely replacement would be Rep. Donald Norcross (D). New Jersey elections are still very much driven by political machines, and Norcross’ brother controls the southern part of the state. Menendez already has a challenger in progressive activist Lisa McCormick (D), though is still heavily favored.

A Republican who is mentioned is Rep. Tom MacArthur (R), who represents a light red seat in running from the New Jersey shore to the Pennsylvania border. MacArther played a key role in helping pass the GOP healthcare reform bill through the House. A good candidate here for the GOP may have been current LG Kim Guadagno (R), but she instead opted for the very unfavorable Governor’s race. She’d likely carry baggage from her impending-loss this year, if she ran for Senate.

Despite Menendez’s potential problems, we still see Democrats as having a good chance to hold this seat. We’ll be following his trial, but otherwise start things out here as LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

MAINE

Maine is one of the friendliest states for third parties, and currently has one of the Senate’s two Independents. Elected with 53% in 2012, Sen. Angus King (I) caucuses with the Democrats. Before running for Senate, King was a popular Governor, who served two terms in the 1990’s.

King has drawn three challengers, all with different party affiliations. Fred Wiand (D) is a veteran, and first time candidate. Republicans are running State Sen. Eric Brakey (R). Brakey was active in Ron Paul’s Presidential campaigns. A third candidate is Alex Hammer (I), who, like King, seems to be a left-leaning independent.

Other bigger names could get in, but given that King is reasonably popular and has broad name recognition, we consider Maine to be LIKELY INDEPENDENT.

CONNECTICUT

Sen. Chris Murphy (D) was elected in 2012, after serving three terms in the House. Weeks before Murphy was sworn into the Senate, the Sandy Hook shootings took place; since then, he is best known for his efforts to reduce gun violence.

In 2012, he defeated wealthy self-funder Linda McMahon (R) by 12%; McMahon currently serves in the Trump Administration. The Republican who is most mentioned for this race is State Sen. Tony Hwang (R). His district is centered around Bridgeport, an area that swung hard to Clinton last year.

As Murphy starts off reelection in pretty good shape, we rank Connecticut as STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

VERMONT

The Senate’s higher-profile independent member is Bernie Sanders (I), who became a household name last year with his Presidential run. A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders is popular at home. In the Vermont’s primary, he took 86% to Secretary Clinton’s 14%. Later, despite his full-throated endorsement of Clinton, 6% of Vermonters wrote in Sanders’ name in the general election.

So far, no candidates have announced plans to run here. As Sanders still has a national profile, which is quite helpful with fundraising, and routinely ranks among the most popular Senators, we call this race STRONG INDEPENDENT.

 

MASSACHUSETTS

Before Bernie Sanders rose to national prominence, the clear leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic party was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D). Warren is still popular with Democrats, and is favored for reelection in her deep blue state.

Warren was elected in 2012, defeating incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R) in what was one of the most expensive races in history. This cycle, the Senate race here likely won’t be as closely-watched.

Warren’s most serious opponent looks like State Rep. Geoff Diehl (R), who has represented Plymouth County since 2010. Other Republicans include 2014 candidate Allen Waters (R), Libertarian activist Heidi Wellman (R) and scientist Shiva Aayyadurai (R).

National Republicans have many other considerably better pickup targets, and state Republicans will undoubtedly be more focused on reelecting Gov. Charlie Baker (R). Thus, Warren’s race starts of as STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

RHODE ISLAND

In Rhode Island, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), who is known for emphasizing the impacts of climate change, is running for a third term. He was initially in the 2006 wave, defeating then-GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R/I/D) by 8%. His went on to be reelected by 30% in 2012.

The GOP has two candidates running, the stronger of which looks like State Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R). His district includes the city of Coventry, and is located in the central, and redder, part of the state. Another candidate is ex-State Supreme County Justice Bob Flanders (R).

At the federal level, President Trump actually made decent gains in Rhode Island – compared to President Obama’s 27.5% margin in 2012, Secretary Clinton fell to 15.5%. Still, it’s going to take a lot for the GOP to have a chance here – STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

NEW YORK

Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D) was originally appointed to the Senate in 2009; she took the place of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), who went to lead the State Department. Gillibrand is often mentioned as a potential Presidential candidate herself. In the Senate, she’s been a vocal advocate for women’s issues, especially on working to curb sexual assault.

Before her appointment, Gillibrand represented a swingy upstate House seat – as such, she’s unusually popular, for a Democrat, in that region. She won the Senate seat in her own right twice. She took 62% in a 2010 special election, and 72% in 2012.

Two lower tier Republicans are currently running: first time candidate Rafael Jones (R) and longshot 2016 Presidential candidate David Webber (R).

Gillbrand pretty clearly enters this cycle as one of the safest Senators, thus our STRONG DEMOCRATIC ranking.

MARYLAND

In a state where Secretary Clinton cleared 60% last year, Sen. Ben Cardin (D) hasn’t announced whether he’ll seek a third term. Cardin, who will be 75 on election day, has held office in Maryland, in one form or another, since 1967.

If Cardin runs again, he’ll be favored. If the seat becomes open, any number of Democrats could jump in. Rep. John Sarbanes (D), who’s father preceded Cardin in the Senate, has been mentioned for statewide office in previous cycles. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) would have likely been the favorite for the state’s other Senate seat, which was open last year, but ran for reelection instead. Ex-Rep. Donna Edwards (D), who is close to the party’s more liberal wing, ran in 2016 but could try again. Rep. John Delaney (D), who is personally wealthy, has been mentioned as a candidate for Governor, but may consider an open Senate seat as well.

The Republican bench is considerably thinner. Unless they’re not otherwise retiring, any member of the legislature would have to give up their seat to run next year. 2016 nominee, State Rep. Kathy Szeliga (R) took 37% last year, and could run again. Cardin’s 2012 opponent, former Secret Service officer Dan Bongino (R), carpetbagged to Florida last year to (unsuccessfully) run for Congress. The sole Republican in Maryland’s Congressional delegation is Rep. Andy Harris (R). Representing the eastern shore, he’s a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and would seem unlikely to leave behind his safe seat.

In 2012, there was a strong third party candidate in Rob Sobhani (I). Previously a Republican, Sobhani fared best in the Baltimore metro area. He seemed to siphon off more voters from Bongino, though, as Cardin still easily cleared 50%.

Overall, we expect the general election, with or without Cardin, to be a very boring affair – the Governor’s race should be much more interesting. STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

DELAWARE

Sen. Tom Carper (D), a relatively non-ideological and low-key member of the Senate, fits Delaware well. As he’s held statewide office since the Carter era, though, he’s at top of what’s shaping up to be a short retirement watchlist.

If Carper runs again, we’ll have a very boring race. He took 2/3 of the vote in his previous two campaigns, and we’d expect a similar result. If he retires, ex-Gov. Jack Markell (D), who was term-limited last year, would likely have the inside track to the Democratic nomination. If he passes as well, any number of Democrats could try. Freshman Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D) could try to move up, and State AG Matt Denn (D) may consider.

Republicans already have a candidate in businessman Chuck Boyce (R). Their strongest candidate, though, would be State Treasurer Ken Simpler (R). Given Carper’s strength, he’d likely have to retire for Simpler to consider running.

With or without Carper, Delaware would be a very heavy left for the GOP, so we consider it STRONG DEMOCRATIC.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.