In close races, the quality of the candidates can make all the difference. And with a few notable exceptions, most incumbents acquit themselves well with strong fundraising, good campaigns, and a message tailored for victory.
So this year, Roll Call has decided to rank the Senate challengers — that is, the candidates for office who aren’t incumbents. It’s a list that leans heavily Democratic in 2016, a year when Republicans are playing defense in all but two seats currently considered at all competitive.
The rankings are based on the candidates’ electoral history, their fundraising, and to a lesser extent, the quality of the campaigns they’ve assembled around them. They’re also based on Roll Call's own assessments, made during the course of the election cycle, of their strengths and weaknesses as candidates.
- Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (Running against Sen. Kelly Ayotte)
As the twice-elected governor of New Hampshire, Hassan has effectively universal name identification and a proven record of winning statewide. She’s also never held office in Washington, a big plus at a time when voters are primed for change. Hassan is a cautious but disciplined campaigner, who’s attracted plenty of outside financial support. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates the Senate race as a Pure Tossup .
- Republican Nevada Rep. Joe Heck (Running in an open-seat race against Catherine Cortez Masto)
Heck has shown during a trio of victories in a battleground congressional district that he can win over Latino and Asian-American voters, a necessity in a diverse state like Nevada. The battle-tested lawmaker, a doctor and brigadier general in the Army Reserve, has vulnerabilities buried in his immigration record, but his early work on the campaign trail has helped Republicans forget about the Nevada Republican they first wanted to run, Gov. Brian Sandoval. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates the race as a Pure Tossup .
- Democratic Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (Running against Sen. Roy Blunt)
The young Army veteran is the favorite candidate of many Washington Democrats, who credit his strong work ethic and natural political talent with forcing an otherwise uncompetitive race into play. Kander has already been elected statewide, and he’s moderate enough to contest a Republican Favored seat. He’s also proven a stronger fundraiser after outraising Blunt in the first quarter of this year.
- Democratic former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (Running against Sen. Ron Johnson)
Feingold has the name identification, deep connections to his state, and — above all — fundraising chops to be a top-flight candidate. Polls indicate he’s winning his race, one rated as a Tossup/Tilts Democratic . His biggest problem might be that, at a time of deep voter discontent with the status quo, Feingold has already served 18 years in the Senate.
- Democratic Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth (Running against Sen. Mark S. Kirk)
Democrats don’t necessarily need a great candidate to win a deep-blue state like Illinois. But Duckworth has proven more than up to the challenge so far, out-raising Kirk in recent fundraising reports and easily winning her primary. More good news for the congresswoman: A civil case pending against her was settled last week. Her race is already rated Leans Democratic .
- Democratic former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (Running against Heck in an open seat)
Cortez Masto has done only a handful of interviews and has generally been kept out of public view for most of her campaign. But she has the weight of history on her side, trying to become the first Latina senator in a state where that could really mean something. Combined with strong fundraising and the help of Sen. Harry Reid’s old political machine, that makes her a solid candidate in a race rated as a Pure Tossup .
- Democratic Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Running against Sen. John McCain)
Kirkpatrick is a veteran of a battleground House seat and so far during an uphill challenge against an entrenched incumbent, her fundraising has been solid. She wasn’t the original pick of Washington Democrats, but she’s nonetheless one reason that Democrats think they have a legitimate chance to win a race rated Republican Favored . Still, her support of things like Obamacare give Republicans a big target.
- Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (Running against Sen. Rob Portman)
Strickland is difficult to rank. On the one hand, his high name recognition and deep history with parts of the state make him a formidable foe — which is borne out in early dead-heat polls of his race against Portman. The ex-governor’s time in office and a subsequent stint at a liberal think-tank, however, also give Republicans plenty of ammunition. The race is rated as a Tossup/Tilts Republican .
- Democratic Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (Running against Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul)
Gray has the profile of a Democrat who could conceivably win in deep-red Kentucky: He’s a mayor and a businessman due to his role in the family construction company. His fundraising has lagged, but he did chip in $1 million of his own money. Kentucky is still a long shot for Democrats — the race is rated Safe Republican — but Gray at least has given the race a pulse.
- Democratic Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy (Running against Sen. Marco Rubio)
Murphy would have been much higher on this list a month ago. But a series of damaging stories in the local media have questioned his entire political biography, and raised real doubts about whether Democrats were wise to unite behind him so early in the campaign. That said, he still has a moderate voting record and the fundraising muscle to come out on top of a winnable race rated as a Pure Tossup .
11. Democratic Former White House environmental policy official Katie McGinty (Running against Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick J. Toomey) Democrats and allied-groups spent about $5 million helping McGinty win her primary against underfunded former Rep. Joe Sestak. In the time since, she has changed campaign managers, communication directors, and faced questions over whether she lied about being the first person in her family to attend college. An adequate fundraiser, McGinty has time to turn it around in what is still a winnable race currently rated as a Tossup/Tilts Republican .
- Democratic former Arkansas U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge (Running against Sen. John Boozman)
Eldridge has the right law-and-order background and conservative positions to be a viable candidate in Arkansas. The problem for him is, he just hasn’t raised much money — only about $300,000 in the year’s first fundraising quarter. The race is rated Safe Republican .
- Democratic former North Carolina state Rep. Deborah Ross (Running against Sen. Richard M. Burr)
Ross outraised Burr in the first quarter of the year, but she wasn’t Democrats’ first choice. Her tenure as head of the state American Civil Liberties Union is already coming back to haunt her with Republicans painting her as too liberal for a purple state contest currently rated Leans Republican .
- Democratic Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (Running against Sen. Charles E. Grassley)
Judge entered the race late, faced criticism from fellow Democrats and newspaper editorial boards, and struggled more than she should have in a primary. In a massive wave election, she might give Democrats a chance to win a race rated Safe Republican . But for now, she’s not yet a credible candidate.
- Republican El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn (Running against Sen. Michael Bennet)
The El Paso County commissioner won his primary with an all-volunteer staff and little money. He had last-minute help from outside conservatives, but he doesn’t have the operation to attract the financial assistance he’d likely need to take on Michael Bennet and his $6 million war chest in this Democrat Favored seat .
Simone Pathé contributed to this report.