When it comes to political handicapping, the easiest thing to do would be to put all of the most competitive contests into the Toss-up category and declare them too close to call. Or to argue that because Donald Trump was elected president against the projections, it’s not worth rating any races at all.
But that’s not particularly helpful to people looking for some direction and distinctions in congressional elections.
The prevailing narrative about this year’s Senate races relates to the 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states Trump carried in 2016.
But not all of those senators are created equal in their prospects for another term. Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and West Virginia are currently in a tier of their own, and distinctions are developing within that batch of seats.
North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp is arguably the most charismatic senator running for re-election this cycle on either side of the aisle, but she also might be the most vulnerable incumbent in the country. Her 2012 victory over Republican Rep. Rick Berg, by less than 1 percentage point, has been the Democrats’ only statewide victory in the Peace Garden State in the last eight years. And of the 29 statewide races they lost over the same time frame, the closest margin was 10 points. It looks like the state has shifted to the right since Heitkamp’s initial win. And right now, a majority of the quantitative data show that the senator is already narrowly behind in the race against three-term GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer.
We’re changing the Inside Elections rating of the race from Toss-up to Tilts Republican. Democrats will point out that a majority of the polling data in the 2012 pointed to a Berg victory and The Rothenberg Political Report rated the race as Tilts Republican before Heitkamp’s win. But that doesn’t mean history will repeat itself nor is it reason to ignore the current situation.
Of course, Heitkamp can still win re-election, and our ratings will reflect fundamental changes in the race in the months ahead. But she is in a more vulnerable position than her colleagues right now, in a difficult state for any Democrat.
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On the other side of the spectrum, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III starts the stretch run in slightly better shape than his most vulnerable colleagues, even though he’s a Democrat in a state Trump won by more than 40 points. We’re changing the Inside Elections rating from Toss-up to Tilts Democratic.
Right now, a majority of the polling data show Manchin with anywhere from a small to sizable lead over state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in his bid for a second full term. The senator’s image has remained strong (although down from previous years), while Morrisey has some residual negatives from a competitive re-election race in 2016 and a competitive primary this year.
Morrisey can still win the race this race as well. He’ll be Manchin’s most credible opponent in years, and this could be the senator’s most competitive statewide general election ever. Republicans will need to take this from a popularity contest to a partisan race.
Two more Senate races in Trump states have been slower to develop.
And Republicans are still working through a primary in Wisconsin before focusing on first-term Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Either state Sen. Leah Vukmir or Marine veteran Kevin Nicholson should be a credible challenger in the fall, but neither candidate has caught fire. We’re changing that rating from Tilts Democratic to Leans Democratic.
Overall, it remains to be seen how engaged Trump will be in the top races, if his coalition is transferable to GOP candidates — or if he has the willingness, influence and discipline to bring down Democratic senators.
You can read more analysis on every Senate race, including more on the states with a rating change, in the recent July 6 issue of Inside Elections.