Tough Terrain for Senate Democrats
Landscape: Democrats Defending 2006 Gains; Republicans Focus on Top-Tier Recruiting
With less than 16 months to go, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sees opportunities in a laundry list of states that grows longer with each recruit.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s (R) decision this week to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) keeps Michigan in the competitive category right when it seemed as if the Senator was cruising. The states to watch are Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Virginia and Wisconsin. Outside groups and the party committees have already turned their attention to Democratic incumbents there and have emphasized recruiting.
Democrats’ weak bench in North Dakota means the state’s open seat is already considered the party’s first casualty of the 2012 cycle.
Because Republicans need to pick up four seats to take the Senate majority, they are in a strong position this early in the cycle. The GOP has a wide field of states in play, thanks to Democratic gains in the 2006 elections.
Throw in West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin (D) is running for a full term but has yet to see an opponent step up, and Hawaii, where the GOP is awaiting a decision from former Gov. Linda Lingle (R), and there are pathways aplenty to 51 seats come January 2013. Doing so, however, might require Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to win full terms in states that President Barack Obama carried by double-digit margins.
Roll Call Politics shifted the Senate race ratings after fundraising reports landed for the second quarter, as several incumbents appear safer now than they were at the beginning of the year. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D) moves from the Tossup category to Leans Democratic.
There is a final category below that reflects the political mood of the nation: competitive GOP primaries.
Senate seats in Indiana, Texas and Utah are highly likely to remain represented by Republicans in January 2013. But each will first see an intraparty battle. In Indiana and Utah, longtime GOP Sens. Dick Lugar and Orrin Hatch, respectively, are on the ropes and being accused by conservative groups of being too moderate. Lugar, 79, and Hatch, 77, say they saw what happened in the 2010 Republican primaries and aren’t taking their challenges for granted. They have been playing defense for months.
Texas is a bit different, with Republicans confident they will easily hold the seat. But before the party can focus on that general election matchup, the candidates can expect a Wild West-style GOP primary.
Sen. Scott Brown (R) | Tossup
Brown has three big problems. He’s a Republican in a state that’s definitely not, he will be on the ballot with an incumbent Democratic president whose presence will substantially increase turnout from Brown’s January 2010 special election victory, and he’s a top Democratic target this election cycle. That means the party and its allies will be willing to spend significant sums of money on an effort to unseat him.
But Brown also has some serious advantages 16 months out: He’s a likable incumbent who has maintained his popularity, he has carefully crafted a relatively moderate course during his tenure in the Senate, a top-tier opponent has yet to emerge, and he had $9.6 million in cash on hand at the end of June. The contours of this race, which remains a true tossup, have yet to be fully revealed.
The reason for that is Democrats have yet to coalesce behind a candidate. Brown’s declared Democratic opponents (there are seven) include Newton Mayor Setti Warren, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, activist Bob Massie and state Rep. Tom Conroy.
Khazei, who lost the 2010 primary to Martha Coakley, raised $933,000. But that figure paled in comparison to the more than $2 million that Brown raked in during the second quarter.
Brown won his seat in part because national Democrats were unprepared, and Coakley was not running a strong statewide campaign. The party won’t be caught off guard this time around, which is one reason leaders are looking to Harvard University law professor Elizabeth Warren as a possible contender. Warren has met with top Democrats and many leaders of the Bay State delegation, and she even had a phone chat with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.).
Now that Warren won’t be permanently named to lead the new watchdog organization that she helped start, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, expect more public pressure from Democrats who want her to jump into the primary. Liberals like Warren, and she has national name recognition thanks in part to her frequent television appearances, including as a guest on “The Daily Show.”
Should Warren get in, the dynamics of the race will change, but it won’t be a lock for Democrats by any means.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) | Tossup
Given the uphill battle that she faces and her missteps earlier this year, McCaskill actually appears to be in pretty good shape 16 months before voters in the Show-Me State decide whether to send her back to Washington, D.C., for a second term.
You would think McCaskill would be in more trouble because the state has been trending Republican and she only narrowly won in 2006. Republicans have made her one of their top targets, and she did not do herself any favors by billing taxpayers for nonofficial travel on her private plane. But over the past few months, McCaskill paid off hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on that plane and vowed to sell it.
McCaskill’s two declared GOP opponents, Rep. Todd Akin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, have had their share of early problems. Akin, who announced his Senate bid in May, recently told a conservative radio program, “At the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God,” a remark he was forced to clarify. He raised just more than half a million dollars in the second quarter.
Steelman — who spent more than she raised in the second quarter, according to the Associated Press — has struggled with lackluster fundraising and staff shake-ups. She has had difficulty building momentum but recently brought on new staff, so watch to see whether the campaign can right itself during the third quarter. McCaskill raised almost $1.4 million and had $2.8 million in cash on hand at the end of June.
The GOP has allies in its aim of unseating McCaskill.
Powerful conservative group American Crossroads is already running television ads against McCaskill, a harbinger of the abundance of independent money that is likely to flow into the Senate race. “Defining her early as a big-spending liberal … will pay dividends as the race heats up next year,” a Crossroads spokesman said.
The very nature of the Show-Me State’s split politics, with deeply conservative voters outstate and liberal bastions in St. Louis and Kansas City, means that this contest will likely remain a tossup until the bitter end.
Sen. Jon Tester (D) | Tossup
There is little doubt that a year from now the race for Tester’s seat will remain among the most competitive in the country, and it has the potential to be one of the nastiest.
There was little surprise when Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) entered the race in February, but his candidacy immediately elevated the Big Sky State contest to be a top race. The most recent public polling showed the contest is within the margin of error, which is where it is expected to stay.
There is no love lost between the campaigns of Tester and Rehberg, who each have been attacking the other’s Congressional record for months already. This was one of the first states where GOP-affiliated outside group Crossroads GPS launched TV ads, and it will likely see independent expenditures from both Senatorial campaign committees.
Tester has had two strong fundraising quarters already, including raising $1.3 million from April to June and ending the second quarter with $2.3 million in cash on hand. Rehberg raised about $915,000 and had $1.5 million on hand at the end of June.
Whether President Barack Obama’s campaign has much presence in the state could have an effect on voter turnout, but the Senate race should not be compared to Obama’s ability to win Montana.
As the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics website reported, since 1912 a Democrat was elected to the Senate in Montana nine times out of 17 cycles when a Republican presidential nominee carried the state. That figure is easily the most of any state.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D) | Tossup
Nelson remains one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this cycle. This makes him a popular opponent in the Cornhusker State — so much so that he attracted yet another GOP challenger last month.
State Sen. Deb Fischer jumped into the GOP primary with state Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg. Although Fischer has yet to prove herself as a viable statewide candidate, Republicans expect her candidacy to have an effect on the primary results.
Bruning has the edge so far. He made all the right moves these past few months for the GOP primary — except for fundraising. He stockpiled big-name endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and the Tea Party Express. The leader of Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature backed Bruning, who strategically timed that announcement just a couple of days after Fisher entered the race.
But Bruning’s fundraising proved disappointing, with just $342,000 raised in the second quarter. He still has $1.3 million in the bank thanks to the massive $1.5 million that he raised earlier this year, but his showing is not encouraging for Republicans.
Nelson continues to fundraise at a steady clip. He raised $911,000 in the second quarter, bringing the total in his war chest to $2.9 million.
Fisher entered the race too late in June to post any meaningful fundraising. Stenberg raised just $46,000 in the second quarter, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.
Sen. Dean Heller (R) | Tossup
Democrats are trying not to have a primary problem in Nevada, where wealthy Las Vegas businessman Byron Georgiou has stockpiled almost $1.5 million through the first two quarters of the year. Much of that came from Georgiou himself, while Rep. Shelley Berkley raked in $1.2 million in the second quarter, leaving her with $2.5 million in the bank through June.
Berkley has the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and, more importantly, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Reid is doing all he can to ensure Berkley is the Democratic nominee next November against Heller, who took office in May after being appointed to replace Sen. John Ensign (R).
The seat could be vital to the Democratic Party’s chances of holding the Senate majority. Along with Massachusetts, it’s one of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities and could marginalize likely losses elsewhere.
Reid has built the most well-respected state party in the country, and with President Barack Obama’s campaign targeting Nevada as a crucial battleground, Berkley will have an unmatched turnout operation on her side.
But so far Heller is holding his own in fundraising against Berkley, bringing in more than $1 million in the second quarter and holding $2.3 million in the bank through June. And Republicans in the state are heavily motivated not to let Democrats control both Senate seats.
Open seat (D) | Tossup
New Mexico has two potentially competitive primaries that feature some interesting parallels. Rep. Martin Heinrich, who represents the Albuquerque-based 1st district, was recruited to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D), and he is the favorite for the Democratic nomination over state Auditor Hector Balderas.
The Republican primary features the former 1st district Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, who is being challenged for the nomination by another downballot statewide officeholder, Lt. Gov. John Sanchez.
Wilson lost a close Senate primary in 2008 after her opponent, Rep. Steve Pearce, made it a referendum on her conservative credentials. Sanchez, as well as conservative candidates Greg Sowards and Bill English, is taking the same angle against Wilson this year. But Wilson is sounding a conservative tone on the campaign trail and reaching out to tea party groups around the state.
With her Albuquerque base and proven fundraising abilities, Republicans see Wilson as a strong candidate to put the seat in the GOP column. They feel confident even though it’s a state that President Barack Obama carried by 15 points in 2008.
Heinrich and Balderas entered the race in April, and so far Balderas has kept up in fundraising. Heinrich reported raising $485,000 last quarter compared with $415,000 for Balderas. However, Heinrich had a head start and holds nearly twice as much in cash on hand, with $710,000 compared with $371,000 for Balderas.
Open seat (D) | Tossup
The past few election cycles have moved Virginia into a group of reliable swing states, and next year’s Senate race between likely nominees Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R) promises to provide further evidence of the state’s competitiveness.
Even the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute has added Virginia to its stable of regularly polled states, along with Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. President Barack Obama will be back on the ticket after a 7-point win there in 2008, and voters will get a Senate battle of the titans between two former governors.
The eyes of the political world were glued to Kaine even before Sen. Jim Webb (D) announced his retirement in February, and the fundraising quarter that he just turned in partly explains why. Kaine, who served two years as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, one term as Virginia governor and two terms as Richmond mayor, raised more than $2.2 million from 4,600 donors in the past three months.
Webb’s upset win in 2006 to unseat Allen and deliver the Senate chamber for Democrats was assisted by severe missteps by the incumbent Senator. But Kaine can’t bank on that happening a second time. Three public polls released in the past two months found Kaine and Allen statistically tied, and they are closely matched in fundraising as well.
Kaine raised twice as much, but Allen had a second strong quarter. The two are close in cash on hand, with $1.9 million for Kaine to Allen’s $1.6 million.
Open seat (D) | Tossup
This Senate race is set to take on national significance when Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) formally enters the contest. The seven-term Congresswoman could become the first openly gay Senator, a feat women’s and gay rights groups have promised to help her accomplish.
She turned in a solid second-quarter fundraising haul, bringing in $503,000 to give her $1.1 million in the bank as of the end of June. But Baldwin is not assured of the Democratic nomination, as Rep. Ron Kind and former Sen. Russ Feingold have not ruled out bids.
On the Republican side, former Gov. Tommy Thompson is expected to run, giving the GOP a top-tier candidate.
Right now, though, the state is mired in a series of recall elections that are sucking up enormous political energy and resources from both parties. Democrats expect to take control of the state Senate next month through six recall elections. They also plan to put Gov. Scott Walker (R), who was elected last year, back on the ballot in November 2012 for a recall. Feingold also could consider challenging Walker.
The Badger State promises to be one of the more unique and interesting battleground states. Amazingly, it won’t be the top race in the state, but holding the seat of retiring Sen. Herb Kohl (D) is crucial to Democrats’ ability to keep its majority in the Senate.
Leans Democratic: The Hold-Steady Four
Sen. Bill Nelson (D) | Leans Democratic
Nelson is the type of guy who mostly goes along and gets along without making waves or ruffling feathers. It’s a strategy that paid dividends during his previous two elections for Senate. His strategy appears to be working, at least until a GOP frontrunner emerges.
Since the previous quarter, the GOP field against Nelson has both expanded and contracted. There are now four declared contenders seeking the Republican nomination: former Sen. George LeMieux, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, retired Army Col. Mike McCalister and former Ruth’s Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller.
State Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who was a fundraising favorite and brought in more than $2.6 million in the first quarter of the year, abruptly dropped out of the race Monday, citing conflicting legislative and political responsibilities.
Hasner has been angling to be seen as the grass-roots conservative candidate in the mold of his former colleague, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Though he only raised about $560,000 in the second quarter, Hasner has nabbed endorsements from national conservative figures such as blogger Erick Erickson, radio host Mark Levin and the influential conservative group FreedomWorks. In a preview of one of the themes voters can expect to see in the primary, Hasner has repeatedly highlighted LeMieux’s ties to former Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who appointed him to a 16-month term in the Senate.
LeMieux, a practicing lawyer with ties to Washington, D.C., raised more than $950,000 in the second quarter and has been quietly building support in campaign appearances around the state. Whether he’ll be able to shed his connection to Crist in the eyes of primary voters over the next year remains to be seen.
Recent polling has shown Nelson with a comfortable lead over all his potential rivals, and he remains popular back home.
For now, without a strong opponent having emerged from the GOP pack or a potent narrative against Nelson, who had more than $6 million in cash on hand at the end of June, Roll Call Politics is removing this race from the most competitive Tossup category.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) | Leans Democratic
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s decision to challenge Stabenow makes this race competitive, although the Senator still holds the upper hand.
For months, Republicans sought a Stabenow challenger and came up empty as potential candidates, including Hoekstra initially, declined to run. It looked as if Stabenow could get a pass this cycle.
But Hoekstra changed his mind this week, giving Republicans a big boost in the state.
On the upside, Hoekstra is a tested candidate. If he has dirty laundry, voters have probably heard about it already during his House races or his failed 2010 gubernatorial bid.
The downside for Hoekstra? He’s not the best fundraiser on the GOP Senate bench. It will be difficult for him to raise enough money to be competitive with the $4.1 million that Stabenow reported in cash on hand at the end of last month.
Stabenow ran a strong campaign over the past several months when there wasn’t an opponent in sight. Now she’s going to have to put that aggressiveness to good use.
The former GOP Congressman may not be the perfect candidate to run in Michigan, but he can still give Stabenow a run for her money — all $4 million of it.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) | Leans Democratic
Brown’s re-election prospects are more dependent on the political climate in swing-state Ohio than anything else. However, one Republican’s recent performance here should only encourage the GOP.
While GOP recruiting is lacking in other Rust Belt states, such as Pennsylvania, Republicans found their man in Ohio. State Treasurer Josh Mandel, an Iraq War veteran, boasted a strong few months as a Senate candidate, and he’s not even officially in the race.
Mandel landed two of the most coveted conservative endorsements last month, from the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund. Also, Mandel’s would-be chief competition in the primary, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, announced he would not run. Finally, Mandel finished the fundraising quarter with the best showing of almost any Republican, incumbent or challenger, except Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.). His campaign raised $2.3 million, far more than the $1.6 million that Brown hauled in during the second quarter.
But there were some low points for Mandel over the past few months, and Democrats can take credit for many of them.
Democrats successfully criticized Mandel in the local media for pulling double duty as a newly elected state treasurer and an aspiring Senate candidate. (Mandel has filed paperwork to run but has not yet announced his campaign.)
He also took a hit from his right flank via his lesser-known GOP primary opponent, former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin. Coughlin released a video of Mandel, now 33, cheering on then-Vice President Al Gore’s bid for the White House in 2000 when he was in college.
To Brown’s credit, he is known for running a strong campaign with a top-notch, aggressive team.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D) | Leans Democratic
If there were a credible candidate running against Manchin, Republicans might have a shot at this seat. But for now, the popular former governor is in strong shape to win his first full term.
Manchin has hewed to an independent course since winning the special election over businessman John Raese (R) by 10 points to fill the remainder of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd’s term. Keeping President Barack Obama, unpopular in West Virginia, at a comfortable distance, Manchin has made clear he won’t let anyone paint him as an Obama Democrat.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Manchin said Obama had “failed to lead” in the March budget negotiations. And in an interview with a TV station in April, when he was asked about the president’s leadership, he said, “It’s a different form of leadership than I’ve ever seen.”
West Virginia Republicans are waiting on the gubernatorial race before turning their attention to a Manchin challenger. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is the most obvious choice to run, but it’s not certain she would jump into the race. Freshman Rep. David McKinley has substantial cash in the bank, $737,000 as of June 30, but is unlikely to try for a promotion in 2012.
Sixteen months is an eternity in politics, but with $1.3 million in cash on hand at the end of June, West Virginia’s junior Senator is well-positioned to win a new term.
Leans Republican: High Hopes
in Grand Canyon State
Open seat (R) | Leans Republican
Rep. Jeff Flake (R) is cruising right now. The six-term Congressman is raising good money, spending little and running for the open Senate seat free of any major opposition from either party.
How long this honeymoon period will last is unknown, but even if a Democrat got in the race today, he would already find himself in a deep fundraising hole. Flake, who entered the Senate race in February shortly after Sen. Jon Kyl (R) announced his retirement, had $2 million in the bank through the second quarter after an $831,000 three-month haul.
Flake is well-liked by both the GOP establishment and tea party groups, and he’s already receiving assistance from outside groups such as the Club for Growth. In a state that has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, and with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) not expected to run statewide, Flake is in a good position at this point.
Still, President Barack Obama is looking to expand his electoral map to include Arizona, where he lost in 2008 by single digits to home-state Sen. John McCain (R). The Obama turnout machine could give the boost that a well-financed and well-organized Democratic nominee needs to pick up the open seat. Democrats who have formally announced they are exploring bids include former state Democratic Party Chairman Don Bivens and Tucson businessman David Crowe.
Not Changing Hands, but Fierce Fight Ahead
These races are unlikely to be competitive for Democrats next November, but Republicans will be locked in tough primaries before they can secure victories. Should the incumbent Senators lose in Indiana or Utah, the dynamics would shift dramatically.
Sen. Dick Lugar (R) | Likely Republican
Lugar is in better shape now than he was at the beginning of this cycle, but that’s not saying much. He’s still vulnerable in the GOP primary, but the Hoosier State’s longest-serving Senator is fighting to keep his seat.
In the past few months, Lugar was the most vocal opposition to the president’s decision to initiate military intervention in Libya. He co-sponsored a bill promoting the FairTax, which seeks to replace federal income taxes with a national sales tax. He issued his first television ad — a spot criticizing President Barack Obama. He also put together a campaign team and amassed a $3.5 million war chest.
However, money won’t be able to buy love from many conservative Republicans in Indiana who would like nothing more than to force Lugar into retirement. It’s up to his primary opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, to seize on that sentiment if he wants to be propelled to victory.
But Mourdock’s fundraising has been lackluster since he got into the race, and he brought in only $312,000 in the last quarter. He also has not solidified support from many conservative groups in Washington, D.C., such as the Club for Growth, which could help him raise dough.
Nonetheless, Mourdock has a good chance of defeating Lugar. He’s won statewide twice before, and he’s known as a dogged campaigner.
Rep. Joe Donnelly sits on the sidelines while these two Republicans fight it out in the primary. That’s an advantageous position for a Democrat, although this is Republican-trending Indiana.
Democrats have a better chance of taking this seat if Mourdock is the nominee. But the party’s previous nominee for Senate — another Democratic Congressman, Brad Ellsworth — lost by 20 points in an open-seat race last year.
Open seat (R) | Likely Republican
Local pundits refer to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s nascent campaign as the 800-pound gorilla candidacy, with good reason. The Republican would be the best-known in the field, and he can reportedly throw $10 million of his own cash into the race without blinking.
The question is who will be Dewhurst’s chief competition, especially if the race heads to a runoff in May.
Conservatives including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have banded together to support former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz (R). National conservatives have big concerns about Dewhurst; for example, RedState.com’s Erick Erickson quickly tagged him “DewCrist,” a reference to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who bolted from the Republican Party. Cruz could easily play conservatives’ foil to the lieutenant governor, especially after he brought in big bucks last quarter by raising nearly $800,000 for his bid.
Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert could compete financially, but he’s not well-known outside the city. Leppert reported $3.4 million in cash on hand at the end of June, including significant funds from his own pocket.
Texas Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones is not well-known or a strong fundraiser, and she brought in only $313,000 in the second quarter. But Jones has an inherent advantage as the only female candidate on a Senate ballot filled with men.
State Sen. Dan Patrick (R), a local radio talk-show host, also is pondering a bid.
That’s a crowded Senate field even after two GOP candidates, former Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and former Secretary of State Roger Williams, dropped out of the race last month to run for a newly drawn House seat.
Democrats were joyous to recruit retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez to run here. But it’s uncertain whether Democrats can play in a state where they have not won a major statewide race since the mid-1990s. President Barack Obama’s team thinks it is possible to make the state more competitive but doesn’t have high hopes.
More importantly, can Democrats afford to play in Texas’ multiple media markets? After all, the party has other financial priorities with so many incumbents up for re-election.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) | Safe Republican
Hatch is doing his best to remind Republicans of the conservative record he’s gathered over 34 years in office. The six-term Senator’s campaign is all-systems-go with nine months left before the state GOP convention, where 3,500 locally elected delegates will vote on their nominee.
That’s where former Sen. Bob Bennett (R) met his political fate last year, blindsided by a tea party movement whose force had not yet been proved. But Hatch’s campaign is working at the local level to get supporters elected as delegates to the convention.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) and conservative outside groups including the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks continue to slam Hatch’s record and are actively working to oust him from the Senate. Those groups are organizing to get anti-Hatch delegates sent to the convention as well.
Chaffetz is likely to run, but he won’t announce his candidacy until after Labor Day. He’ll need to kick his fundraising into a higher gear if he does run. Hatch turned in another strong quarter, raising $1.3 million and boosting his war chest to $3.4 million.
Chaffetz raised $124,000 from April to June and had just $227,000 in the bank at the end of the quarter. Those are fine figures for a House re-election campaign, but he would need serious cash for a Senate race.
In the background is a potentially competitive general election challenge by Rep. Jim Matheson (D). He hasn’t announced his plans yet, but even with polling showing Matheson with the lead, it’s hard to see how Democrats win a seat in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic Senator since 1970.