Senate: Revised Bottom Lines

Bottom Lines are our most current take on a race.


Citing his frustration with President Trump and the direction of the Republican Party, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake announced on October 24 that he would not run for a second term. Flake had been facing a primary challenge from former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who ran against U.S. Sen. John McCain in the 2016 primary, taking 40 percent of the vote. That percentage says more about the very conservative nature of the state’s Republican primary electorate and its dislike of McCain than it does about Ward or the campaign she ran. Ward will have opposition for the nomination. U.S. Rep. Martha McSally is all but announced, while former state party chairman Robert Graham is looking at the race. Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, has talked about running, but it seems unlikely that he will ultimately get in. Meanwhile, Democrats got their first choice of challenger in U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema was first elected in 2012 to represent the 9th congressional district, which encompasses the central and eastern suburbs of Phoenix, Tempe and western Mesa. It has a Partisan Vote Index of D+4, which means that it votes four points more Democratic than the country as a whole. The DSCC immediately endorsed Sinema, which will keep other credible candidates out of the primary. It’s difficult to assess the general election without knowing who the GOP nominee will be, but it’s safe to say that Sinema would be a slight favorite against Ward, and evenly matched with McSally. Regardless, the race is in the Toss Up column.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein finally ended speculation about her political future when she announced in early October that she would run for a sixth term in 2018. At this point, all the opponents who have announced are Democrats. The state’s relatively new top-two primary system means that all candidates regardless of party run on a single primary ballot with the top two candidates moving on to the general election. State Senate President Pro-Tem Kevin de Leon is the most credible challenger, and he is running to Feinstein’s left. That’s not as big a threat as it sounds as Feinstein is likely to consolidate votes among more moderate Democrats, as well as independents and some Republicans. At this point, there is not a single announced Republican candidate. The contest is in the Solid Democrat column.


Republicans always seem to target Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, but fall well short of defeating him. He was re-elected in 2012 with 55 percent against then-GOP U.S. Rep. Connie Mack. Earlier this year, progressives threatened to recruit a candidate who would run to Nelson’s left in the primary, but it doesn’t appear that such a challenge will materialize. It is almost certain, though, that Nelson will be locked in a tough general election race against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is termed out of office in 2018. Scott hasn’t announced yet, but then again he can afford to wait. He is already well known to voters after seven years at the helm of the state. Scott is a strong fundraiser, but he is also demonstrated a willingness spend of his personal wealth; he has spent in excess of $100 million between his two gubernatorial races. Early polling of a Nelson-Scott match up show the Democrat ahead by single digits, but under 50 percent, which suggests that the Governor could give Nelson the most competitive race he has had since winning this seat in 2000. For now, the contest is in the Lean Democrat column, but it will move to the Toss Up column once Scott formally announces.


In 2012, Democrat Joe Donnelly, who was then in the U.S. House, was considered an underdog in this Senate race where he was supposed to face long-term GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, but Lugar lost his primary and Donnelly’s opponent became then-state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Mourdock won with the support of tea party activists, but stumbled out of the primary with a series of impolitic remarks about partisanship, abortion and rape, and never recovered. So even while then-President Obama lost the state, Donnelly defeated Mourdock, 50 percent to 44 percent. In 2016, President Donald Trump carried the state by 19 points while Republicans also won an open U.S. Senate seat, the Governor’s office and six of eight congressional districts. This puts Donnelly high on Republicans’ target list this cycle. Republicans will host a competitive primary between U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, former state Rep. Mike Braun, attorney and staffer to former U.S. Sen. Dan Coats Mark Hurt, and Purdue Polytech director Andrew Takami, and Andrew Horner, who was the Libertarian Party’s nominee in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. Today, the frontrunners are Messer and Rokita, but Braun, who can put some personal money in the race and who has already aired television ads, shouldn’t be counted out. Messer and Rokita have a long history of animosity, so the primary will be contentious and expensive. Even with a good political climate, it is very hard to see how Donnelly does not get very competitive race this cycle. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


President Trump’s victory in Michigan last November has energized Republicans in the state heading into the 2018 election cycle. They are preparing to defend an open gubernatorial seat, and hope to give Democrat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who is seeking a fourth term next year, a competitive race. Apart from her first Senate race, which she won with just 49 percent, Stabenow has won re-election with relative ease, taking 57 percent in 2006 and 59 percent in 2012. So far national security consultant John James, economist and businessman Sandy Pensler, and retired state Supreme Court Justice Robert Young, Jr. have all announced. But, Republicans didn’t get their top recruit when U.S. Rep. Fred Upton decided not to run. Party strategists were less disappointed when musician Kid Rock (a.k.a Robert Ritchie) ended his dalliance with running. Stabenow may be vulnerable, but it doesn’t look like Republicans will get the caliber of nominee that they need to take advantage of whatever weaknesses may exist. The contest is in the Likely Democrat column.


On December 13, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton announced that he is appointing Tina Smith, his Lieutenant Governor, to the seat being vacated by the resignation of Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken. It is expected that Smith will be sworn in some time in early January. She will have to run in a special election in November of next year. The seat will also be up for a full term in 2020. Smith, 59, has a background in marketing. From 2006 until 2010, she was chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. She managed his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2010. She then joined Dayton’s gubernatorial campaign as a senior adviser. He appointed Smith to be his chief of staff in the Governor’s office. When his Lieutenant Governor said that she would not be on the ticket in his bid for a second term, Dayton named Smith as his running mate. It is unlikely that Smith will get serious opposition in the primary. There is a long list of potential Republican candidates. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be the strongest challenger on the list, and he has indicated that he might like to run for office again. If he decides not to run, strategists are likely to turn to the GOP members of the congressional delegation in search off a candidate. The situation is very fluid and will be until the GOP field starts to take shape. As such, it is in the Toss Up column.


Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker doesn’t have much to fear from Democrats as he seeks a second full term next year, but he might get a challenge from within his own party. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Wicker’s more senior colleague, is well acquainted with the reality of primaries. When Cochran was up for re-election in 2014, state Sen. Chris McDaniel challenged him in a primary, and forced a run-off that Cochran won by a narrow 51-percent to 49-percent margin. McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, said that Cochran was part of the reason that Washington is broken, citing his longevity in the chamber and his membership on the Appropriations Committee. McDaniel is now contemplating a primary run against Wicker. But, the incumbent would start the race in better shape than Cochran did. Wicker had nearly $3.6 million in the bank as of September 30, 2017, and while his past races weren’t toss ups, they were more competitive than the easy races Cochran had enjoyed for years before McDaniel’s primary challenge, leaving Wicker better prepared. Wicker won’t be able to take McDaniel for granted if he runs, but McDaniel would be less of a threat than he was against Cochran. Given the current political environment and the need to net two seats to win the majority, Democrats are recruiting candidates even in the reddest of states. Their potential standard bearer here is Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who has said that he will make a decision about the race early next year. Democrats’ chances against Wicker are very uphill, but if McDaniel was to score an upset, the general election could get interesting. For now, the race is in the Solid Republican column.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill won this seat in 2006, a very good year for Democrats nationally, with just 50 percent of the vote. When she was up for re-election in 2012, McCaskill hoped to avoid another nail-biter of a race by influencing the outcome of the Republican primary in order to pull a weaker opponent. With television and radio ads, and some help from the DSCC, she succeeded as then-U.S. Rep. Todd Akin prevailed in an eight-way field with 36 percent. McCaskill believed that Akin was too conservative as a general election candidate, even by Missouri standards, and there was ample evidence that he was a weak campaigner and a mediocre fundraiser. But, Akin managed to exceed Democrats’ expectations when shortly after the primary he argued that victims of “legitimate rape” don’t become pregnant because “…the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” And that was the end of the race despite the fact that it was only the third week in August. McCaskill took 55 percent to 39 percent for Akin; a Libertarian got 6 percent. She isn’t likely to have as easy a path to re-election this cycle as Republicans have a clear frontrunner for the nomination in state Attorney General Josh Hawley, and they aren’t likely to let McCaskill and Democrats dictate the terms. And while the Democratic incumbent understands what a fine line she walks in a Republican-leaning state, the electorate has become even more conservative since 2012. In 2016, President Donald Trump carried the state by 19 points, as Republicans won a U.S. Senate seat and every statewide office on the ballot. Assuming the 37-year old Hawley is the nominee, he will give McCaskill a very tough race. The race is in the Toss Up.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester kicked off the cycle by getting a very big gift from President Donald Trump when he named At-Large U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke to be his Interior Secretary. Zinke was gearing up to challenge Tester, and would have given the incumbent a very tough race in state that Trump carried by 20 points. There isn’t another candidate as strong as Zinke, but there are others who can give Tester a competitive race. There are seven announced candidates: financial adviser James Dean, USAF veteran and storage company CEO Troy Downing, former Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg, attorney Scott McLean, businessman Ronald Murray, state Auditor Matthew Rosendale, and state Sen. Albert Olszewski. Obviously, it is going to take some time to for the Republican field to sort itself out. For now, Downing and Rosendale are getting the most attention; Rosendale has the endorsement of former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon. Whether the primary will produce a first-tier nominee remains to be seen. Tester, who has built a record as a populist, is a good fit for rural Montana, and will not be easy to beat. The race is in the Likely Democrat column.


In 2012, Deb Fischer, then a state legislator, scored an upset in the Republican primary by beating two better-known and battle-tested candidates. She took 41 percent to 36 percent for then-Attorney General Jon Bruning and 19 percent for state Treasurer Don Stenberg. Democrats recruited former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey to run, but Kerrey had been living in New York City for much of the previous decade and Republicans were able to portray him as out of touch with voters. Fischer prevailed in the general election, 55 percent to 42 percent. Although she has amassed a conservative voting record and remains connected to her rural roots, former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon has threatened to recruit a primary challenge to her. Given the current political environment and the need to net two seats to win the majority, Democrats are recruiting candidates even in the reddest of states. They are enthusiastic about Lincoln County Councilwoman Jane Raybould, the only announced candidate to date. Primary threats notwithstanding, Fischer is on track to win a second term. The contest is in the Solid Republican column.


U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has the unfortunate distinction of occupying the most vulnerable of the 10 Republicans seats up this cycle. His vulnerability stems largely from the fact that he is the only Republican incumbent facing voters next year who is sitting in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. This means that Democrats have put a very big target on him, and are throwing everything they have at him. But before Heller can focus on his Democratic opponent, he must first survive a primary challenge from Danny Tarkanian, who is running to the incumbent’s right and is a favorite of former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon. Tarkanian has unsuccessfully sought a number of offices in the last 12 years, including the U.S. Senate and House, the state Senate and Secretary of State. Heller needs to take Tarkanian seriously, despite his losing record. The presumptive Democratic nominee is U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen, who was elected to Congress in 2016, beating none other than Tarkanian. Heller is well acquainted with close races; he won this seat in 2012 by just over 10,000 votes, but this may turn out to be a tougher race as he is under siege from both Democrats and conservatives in his own party. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


On November 16, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez’s trial on 14 federal counts of corruption, including bribery, conspiracy and making false statements ended in a hung jury, leaving the judge no alternative but to declare a mistrial. Prosecutors have not said whether they will retry Menendez on any of the counts in the indictment. In some ways the mistrial puts Menendez in a sort of political purgatory. He can’t claim vindication, but opponents can’t say that he is guilty either. And, he isn’t completely out of the woods as the Senate Ethics Committee is investigating some of the charges against him to determine if his actions were in violation of Senate rules. New Jersey voters have reached a verdict on Menendez, though. Nearly two-thirds consistently tell pollsters that the incumbent doesn’t deserve re-election and his job approval rating is in the low 30s. Given the current political environment and the heavily Democratic nature of the state, Menendez is probably most vulnerable in a primary. But, he issued a harsh warning to potential opponents while speaking to reporters immediately following the trial, saying, "To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are, and I won't forget you." For now, Menendez is suggesting that he will run for re-election, but the situation seems fluid. Republicans don’t have much of a bench here and aren’t likely to be very competitive next year regardless of whether Menendez runs. For now, the contest is in the Likely Democrat column.


This race is shaping up to be a rematch between Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel. In that 2012 open-seat contest, Brown, who was then serving in the U.S. House, beat Mandel, 51 percent to 45 percent, with an independent candidate taking the remaining 5 percent. Mandel, who was 35 years old during that race, has a strong personal narrative, but his campaign got tripped up often for what Politifact called a “casual relationship with the truth.” Mandel is still state Treasurer and has had time to hone his political skills, but the question is whether he learned anything from his loss to Brown. While some GOP strategists have good reason to be skeptical that he will be a better candidate this time around, the conventional wisdom is that he is the clear frontrunner. That doesn’t mean that Mandel is escaping a primary as investment banker Michael Gibbons has announced his candidacy. For his part, Brown remains the progressive populist that has defined his career, and still has support among blue-collar Democrats, many of whom abandoned the party in last year’s presidential race. It is a good bet that many of the issues that defined the contest in 2012 will be back this cycle. The race is in the Lean Democrat column for now, and the onus is on Mandel and Republicans to make this a Toss Up.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey won this seat in 2006, a very good year for his party nationally, with 59 percent of the vote. In 2012, Casey was re-elected to a second term with 54 percent, outperforming President Barack Obama by two points. That year, GOP nominee Tom Smith, a political novice and former coal company executive, spent enough personal money to make the race interesting, but never got close enough to pose a real threat to Casey. Republicans are on a high after carrying the state in the 2016 presidential contest and seeing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey win a second term, but they will need a first-tier candidate if they are going to give Casey a competitive race. There are currently five candidates seeking the GOP nomination: businessman Paul Addis, cyber security consultant Cynthia Ayers, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, state Rep. Jim Christiana, and small businessman Bobby Lawrence. Barletta is probably the nominal frontrunner by virtue of his base; he has represented the Harrisburg/suburban Wilkes-Barre-based 11th congressional district since 2010. There is some concern, though, about whether Barletta can raise the kind of money necessary to win a primary and then mount an effective general election campaign. At this point, the onus is on Republicans to make this a competitive contest. It is in the Likely Democrat column.


Democratic Sheldon Whitehouse has earned a reputation in the U.S. Senate as one of its more progressive members. He focuses on issues like climate change and “dark money” in politics, and he has been one of the chamber’s most vocal critics of the Trump Administration. These positions don’t put Whitehouse at odds with voters in this heavily Democratic state – unless they believe that he has lost touch with their more immediate needs and issues closer to home. So far, there hasn’t been any indication that is the case. Whitehouse won this seat in 2006 – a good year for his party nationally – by beating Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee, 54 percent to 46 percent. He was re-elected in 2012 with 65 percent, outperforming President Barack Obama by two points. Two Republicans have announced their candidacies: former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Flanders and state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo. Flanders gets very strong reviews from political observers in the state, but either candidate would face a steep hill against Whitehouse. The contest is in the Solid Democrat column.


After his disappointing showing in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz had to spend time tending to business at home, particularly mending fences with his own party. Soon after leaving the presidential contest, some Texas Republicans started talking about a primary challenge to Cruz. The most vocal was U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, but it now appears that McCaul is unlikely to give up his seat in the House to challenge the incumbent. This may well spare Cruz a truly competitive nomination contest, although businessman Thomas Dillingham, Houston attorney and political newcomer Stefano de Stefano, Christian television executive Bruce Jacobson, accountant Mary Miller, and former La Marque Mayor Geraldine Sam have filed to run in the primary. Democrats believe that they can give Cruz a very credible challenge in the general election. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. Currently in his second term, the 45-year old O’Rourke represents the El Paso-based 16th congressional district. The district is reliably Democratic with a PVI of D+17, meaning that it votes 17 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. Members of the congressional delegation tend to struggle in statewide contests. With 36 CDs and 19 media markets, building name recognition is an arduous and expensive process. For now the race is in the Solid Republican column, but it is worth watching to see if O’Rourke can gain any traction.


Will he or won’t he? That is the operative question in this race as GOP U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch contemplates whether to run for an eighth term, and the conventional wisdom on the answer seems to change each week. When he was running for re-election in 2012, Hatch said that campaign would be his last. Over the last couple of years, though, he has indicated a strong desire to run again in 2018. And while Hatch has said that he plans to run barring any unexpected developments, he has also said that he might step aside if 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney is willing to run. For his part, Romney is giving the idea serious consideration, but he won’t challenge Hatch and would wait for Hatch to opt out of seeking re-election before he makes a final decision. Hatch has always struggled with the party’s most conservative voters who believe that the incumbent’s willingness to work with Democrats on some issues is nothing short of treasonous. These conservative activists won’t be happy if Hatch runs again, and will likely find a candidate to challenge him for the nomination, despite some recent support he got from President Trump. In the past, this might have presented a serious threat to Hatch because the party nominated candidates in a convention with a no path to get on a primary ballot. This is how incumbent Bob Bennett lost the nomination in 2010. The nominating process has now changed, allowing candidates to petition on to the primary ballot in addition to (or instead of) participating in the convention process. This will be very helpful to Hatch, but doesn’t mean that he won’t have a competitive primary. To date, the only announced challenger is Duchene County Schools Director Danny Drew, although several better known candidates have been mentioned. On the Democratic side, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson has announced. Wilson has extensive experience in campaign politics and has a strong political pedigree; her father, Ted Wilson, was Mayor of Salt Lake City. Democrats struggle in statewide races here, so Hatch’s decision may have very little impact on what the general election looks like. For now, political observers are waiting to see what Hatch, and thus Romney, does. The contest is in the Solid Republican column.


Being on a losing presidential ticket in 2016 hasn’t dampened U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s popularity with voters at home. In fact, it may have enhanced it as Kaine proved to be a very capable addition to the ticket. Even so, Republicans view Virginia as a swing state and they believe they can give Kaine a competitive race. Their effort hit a bump in July, though, when Prince William County Board of Supervisors chair Corey Stewart announced his candidacy. Stewart ran for the gubernatorial nomination, losing the June primary by two points and giving Ed Gillespie a scare. At his announcement, Stewart said, "I am going to run the most vicious, ruthless campaign to dethrone Tim Kaine. … We're not holding back any punches. I'm going to go after him very, very hard.” Stewart is probably too conservative to win a general election, and his take-no-prisoners rhetoric will probably dissuade more competitive candidates from running. Republicans have appealed to former Gov. Jim Gilmore to run, but he hasn’t made a decision. State Rep. Nicholas Freitas and E.W. Jackson, who made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate nomination in 2012 and was the party’s nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2013, have announced their candidacies. Between the lackluster GOP field and Democrats’ strong performance in statewide races this past November, Kaine looks like a very good bet for re-election. The race is in the Solid Democratic column.


On the one hand, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin should be the most vulnerable incumbent up this cycle given that he is a Democrat representing a state that President Donald Trump carried by 42 points. On the other, Manchin has accumulated a very moderate voting record and seems in sync with voters, and thus has solid job approval and favorable ratings. He was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2010 with 54 percent, and then won a full term in 2012 with 61 percent. Republicans are intent on testing theory of presidential performance – that which party wins a state in the presidential contest plays a major role in determining the outcome of a Senate race. They have two first-tier candidates seeking the GOP nomination: U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has an endorsement from former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon. Former coal industry worker Bo Copley is also running, as is former coal company CEO Don Blankenship. Blankenship, who can put personal resources into the race, seems to be running in search of vindication for his 2015 conviction on a misdemeanor charge related to the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 miners. Either Morrisey or Jenkins will give Manchin a competitive general election, but early indications are that it will be a very contentious primary. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


In 2016, GOP U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson was considered the underdog in his bid for a second term, but ended scoring an upset, winning the seat with 50 percent to 47 percent for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. Republicans attribute Johnson’s win to the state GOP’s strong organization that was first constructed by Gov. Scott Walker during his 2011 recall contest and has been refined each cycle since. It is for that reason that Republicans think that Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin is vulnerable in 2018. Strategists contend that Baldwin has compiled a voting record that is far to the left of a majority of voters in the state. Democrats disagree, arguing that Baldwin focuses her attention on the issues that are important to voters. But, if Republicans are going to have a shot at beating the incumbent, they need a candidate. Their first choice, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, has already taken a pass on the race. The Republican candidates are state Sen. Leah Vukmir and political newcomer and management consultant Kevin Nicholson. He has attracted attention of conservative groups and has an endorsement from the Club for Growth and former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, despite the fact that he was once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. Businessman and 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde is also looking at the race. This contest needs more time to develop. Until it does, the race is in the Likely Democratic column.


Republican U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, an orthopedic surgeon by training, was appointed to the chamber in 2007 and won a special election in 2008 with 77 percent. He was elected to a full term in 2012 with 76 percent. Despite a solidly conservative record, GOP mega-donor Foster Friess and Blackwater founder Erik Prince are considering primary challenges. Prince has discussed the race with former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon. We’d be surprised if either actually gets in the race. The only announced Democrat is Gary Trauner, who is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Lacrosse Club and who made unsuccessful bids for the state’s At-large Congressional seat in 2006 and 2008. At this point, Barrasso looks like a solid bet for re-election and the contest is in the Solid Republican column.