DDHQ 2018 Senate Races Ratings – Republican Seats

After we ranked the upcoming Gubernatorial races last week, here’s DDHQ’s initial assessment of where the 2018 Senate races stand.

While the Democrats will be playing a lot of defense, as they hold over 2/3 of the seats up next year, there are a few Republican seats worth watching, as well. We’ll start out our series by looking at the nine seats that the GOP holds.

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 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.

Fortunately for Strange, 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. There are number of other lower-tier candidates, but one of the Strange/Brooks/Moore trio will almost certainly get the nod.

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.

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 goes into the GOP primary against two candidates. Christian Counselor Larry Crim (R) and Iraq War veteran James Mackler (R) have announced runs. 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. No Democrat has announced a run, though the state’s open Governorship looks like a more promising contest for Democrats.

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 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 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.

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 Maverick. Another possible candidate is State Treasurer Jeff DeWit (R), who is also more aligned with the President.

Democrats suffered a recruitment setback when Rep. Krysten Sinema (D), who is often mentioned as a statewide candidate, opted to run for reelection. 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.