Nebraska Deb

Senate: March Revised Bottom Lines

Bottom Lines are our most current take on a race.


Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced in October of last year that she would run for a sixth term in November. She is heavily favored to win re-election, but her most competitive challenger is a Democrat, not a Republicans. 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, a Democrat, is the most credible challenger, and he is running to Feinstein’s left. Another eight Democrats filed, but none pose any threat. Although 11 Republican candidates filed for the primary, there is not a first-tier candidate in the group. As a result, it is very unlikely that the general election will include a Republican. Another 11 candidates filed as independents or under the banner of other parties. Feinstein is the favorite in a general election contest against De Leon. While he may be the more progressive candidate in a heavily Democratic state, Feinstein is likely to consolidate votes among more moderate Democrats, as well as independents and some Republicans. The contest is in the Solid Democrat column.


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, and former state Rep. Mike Braun. This was supposed to be a two-way race between Messer and Rokita, but the nomination is up for grabs today. Braun, who started the contest with almost no name identification, is largely self-finding his campaign, and has been on television longer than his opponents. Messer and Rokita have a long history of animosity, so the primary will be contentious and expensive, particularly since both now see Braun as a threat. Even with a good political climate for Democrats, it is very hard to see how Donnelly does not get very competitive race this cycle. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


In 2006, Democrat Ben Cardin won this open seat with 55 percent of the vote. Six years later, he won re-election to a second term with 56 percent. Republicans don’t have much of a bench and the party seems very focused on re-electing Gov. Larry Hogan to a second term than they are in mounting a competitive challenge to Cardin. Cardin has pulled seven primary challengers, including Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army private who was convicted for leaking documents to Wikileaks, but none are likely to get any traction against the incumbent. Even Manning, who can probably raise some money, has said that she doesn’t plan to run a full-blown campaign. Eleven candidates are seeking the Republican nomination, but there is not a first-tier candidate among them. Perhaps the only candidate with the potential to make Cardin work for a third term is philanthropist Neal Simon, who is running as an independent. Cardin shouldn’t have much trouble winning re-election in this solidly blue state. The contest is in the Solid Democrat column.


Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker no longer has much to fear in his bid for a second full term. State Sen. Chris McDaniel, who had announced a primary challenge to Wicker, reversed course and decided to run in the special election to replace GOP U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned from the Senate effective April 1 for health reasons. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant appointed state Agriculture and Commerce Commission Cindy Hyde-Smith to seat; she will run in the special election. Wicker now faces just nominal primary opposition from businessman Richard Boyanton. Democrats thought they had found a very strong candidate in Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, but Presley decided not to run. Six Democrats are vying for the nomination, but state House Minority Leader David Baria is the frontrunner. Political newcomer Howard Sherman, a venture capitalist married to actress Sela Ward, is a dark horse. The race is in the Solid Republican column.


Citing his poor health, Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran resigned from the Senate effective April 1. Gov. Phil Bryant appointed state Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith to fill the seat until a special election is held in November. Under Mississippi law, all candidates will run on a single ballot on November 6. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, then a run-off will be held. The Secretary of State has not yet determined a filing deadline or confirmed the date of the run-off. This jungle primary presents Hyde-Smith with her first challenge in the race. Before Hyde-Smith was appointed, Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite, announced he would run, dropping his primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker who is up for re-election this cycle. When Cochran was up for re-election in 2014, McDaniel challenged him in a primary, and forced a run-off that Cochran won by a narrow 51-percent to 49-percent margin. McDaniel is arguing that Hyde-Smith is really a Democrat, citing the fact that she only became a Republican in 2010. Hyde-Smith points out that McDaniel is a vocal critic of President Trump while she has supported him. To date, no other Republicans have announced their intention to run. On the Democratic side, former U.S. Rep. and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy is all but certain to run, while former state Rep Jamie Franks and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton are contemplating bids. For now the contest is in the Likely Republican column, but the rating will be reassessed once the filing deadline closes.


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. While Fischer has amassed a conservative voting record and doesn’t appear to have made any serious errors in her first term, the only poll released in the race suggests some softness in Fischer’s support; her re-elect and job approval scores were in the mid-30s. GOP strategists contend that their polling shows that Fischer is in a much stronger position. Given the increasingly poor political environment for Republicans, Democrats are recruiting even in solidly red states. They are enthusiastic about Lincoln City Councilwoman Jane Raybould, who is an executive in the small chain of grocery stores her family started in 1964. Nebraska isn’t friendly territory for Democrats, but Raybould is an appealing candidate. It isn’t clear whether Raybould is going to gain traction here, but it’s worth watching developments. As such, the contest is moving to the Likely Republican column.


U.S. Sen. Dean Heller has the unfortunate distinction of occupying the most vulnerable of the nine 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. Heller caught a break when Danny Tarkanian, who was running to incumbent’s right and had the support of Trump loyalists, abandoned his primary challenge to run for the U.S. House. 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 prove to be a tougher race as he is under unrelenting attack from Democrats. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is in an unenviable position; she is a Democrat sitting in a state that President Donald Trump carried by 36 points and is a member of a Senate minority doing everything in its power to oppose Trump and Senate Republicans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that she is well known statewide and votes her state’s priorities as much as she can. She won this seat in 2012 by less than 3,000 votes against then At-Large U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, who was a less than stellar candidate. While Heitkamp was eking out a win, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried the state by 19 points. It took more than a year, but Republicans got their top recruit this cycle when At-Large U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer reversed his decision to stay in the House and announced he would run. Cramer is as well known as Heitkamp, creating a level playing field. This may turn out to be one of the closest Senate races in the country. The contest is in the Toss Up column.


This has turned out to be the rematch that wasn’t. Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel announced in December of 2016 that he would again challenge Democrat U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2018. In a 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. In truth, it didn’t appear that Mandel’s candidacy was catching fire, but it became a moot point in early January when he exited the race. GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, who was running for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, switched races. Renacci is the clear frontrunner for the nomination; he faces investment banker Michael Gibbons in the primary. 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. The race is in the Lean Democrat column for now, and the onus is on Republicans to make this more competitive.


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 giving Casey a competitive race won’t be easy. The favorite for the GOP nomination is U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who has his party’s endorsement, but faces state Rep. Jim Christiana in the primary. Barletta 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 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.


Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s September 26 announcement that he would retire at the end of this Congress creates an open seat that will produce a more competitive race than the state’s solid red hue would suggest. The clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination is U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn. Democrats got the strongest possible candidate in former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who won’t get any serious competition for the nomination. Republicans contend that Bredesen has no shot here, but nearly every poll that has been released shows a very close race. The contest is in the Toss Up 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. Ultimately, that challenge never emerged and Cruz pulled just minor opposition. He ended up taking 85 percent in the primary. The Democratic nominee is U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. 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. O’Rourke has impressed observers with his fundraising prowess and tireless campaigning; at this writing he had held events in 226 of the state’s 254 counties. That said, O’Rourke had to be a little disappointed in his showing in the primary. He took 62 percent against two unknown candidates and it doesn’t appear that Democrats didn’t really improve their standing in more rural counties. With 36 CDs and 19 media markets, building name recognition and gaining traction is an arduous and expensive process. This is a difficult state for Democrats, but O’Rourke is a solid candidate who Cruz shouldn’t take for granted. The contest is in the Likely Republican column.


After months of speculation about whether he would or would not seek an eighth term, Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch announced on January 2 that he will in fact retire at the end of this Congress. 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is running, and while he is the clear favorite for the nomination, he has attracted primary opposition to his right. On the Democratic side, Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson has announced. Wilson is a solid candidate with 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, and their chances would have a better against Hatch than they are against Romney. The GOP primary may prove to be the most interesting part of this race. 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 had hoped they would be able to give Kaine a competitive race. Their effort hit a bump last July 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. Other candidates seeking the GOP nomination include state Rep. Nicholas Freitas; 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; and Bert Mizusawa, who worked on the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser. Between the lackluster GOP field and Democrats’ strong performance in statewide races last November, Kaine looks like a very good bet for re-election. The race is in the Solid Democratic column.