Today we are releasing our new Senate Rankings for the 2018 cycle. We haven’t updated these in a while, but that’s fitting as this cycle looks set to be one of the more boring Senate elections in memory. To the map!
|Safe D||Likely D||Lean D||Tossup||Lean R||Likely R||Safe R|
|TX (Cruz)||AL (Strange)
As always, bold denotes a projected flip while italics denotes a D-held Tossup seat. The nominal “Independents” Sanders and King are counted as Dems.
RRH Elections has made the following 10 changes to our Senate Ratings since January, 2 in favor of Republicans:
Arizona Lean R from Tossup || Missouri Lean R from Tossup
And 8 in favor of Democrats:
Montana Lean D from Tossup || Minnesota Safe D from Likely D || New Mexico Safe D from Likely D || Ohio Lean D from Tossup || Pennsylvania Likely D from Lean D || Texas Likely R from Safe R || Virginia Likely D from Lean D || West Virginia Lean D from Tossup
These rankings mean that are predicting a Republican gain in the Senate of between 0 and 3 seats. This cycle is likely to be the first since 1998 with no real chance of Senate control changing; even if Democrats swept every single non-Safe R seat, they would just barely take control of the chamber.
Flip over for the full narratives!
Leans Toward Challenging Party:
1. Missouri Lean R (2)
We have a new contender for the most likely seat to flip, and we feel ready to call a seat more likely than not to change party control – and amazingly enough, it is in spite of what looked like a major recruiting failure as little as two weeks ago. Rep. Ann Wagner (R) surprisingly decided not to challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), but the full story seems to have come out that it was more a question of intraparty support than a commentary on Republicans’ chances in the general election. Instead, it looks like the field is being cleared for newly-elected AG Josh Hawley (R), who is receiving entreaties from all corners of the GOP to challenge McCaskill. Polling shows McCaskill, who only won a second term in 2012 when her opponent memorably self-destructed, unpopular and trailing both Hawley and multiple lesser-known contenders. Democrats’ best bet here is probably for McCaskill to stand down and allow ex-SoS and 2016 Senate nominee Jason Kander (D) to make a second run. However, Kander’s conversion from a non-partisan outsider to national left-wing minor celebrity since the election last year may hinder his ability to win the crossover votes that almost allowed him to pull an upset last year. Should Republicans suffer a second recruiting failure with Hawley, possible “B” list contenders could include Reps. Vicki Hartzler (R), Sam Graves (R), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R), and Jason Smith (R), and State Treasurer Eric Schmitt (R). Gov. Eric Greitens (R) has even been mentioned as a potential candidate. One Republican is already in the race, State Rep. Paul Curtman (R), but it seems unlikely that he will be more than a minor candidate for such a top-tier race. Given polling showing her unpopular and trailing her challengers, it looks like McCaskill will once again need a lucky break to win re-election, and we feel comfortable marking Republicans as slight but noticeable favorites here.
2. Nevada Tossup (6)
Democrats’ obvious best pickup opportunity is the only Hillary-state Republican up for re-election in Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller (R). Heller is one of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate and has a history of statewide wins in the light-blue state. However, Democrats have at least one top-tier recruit in the race already in freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen (D). Though Rosen has only won one election against a weak opponent, she was able to carry a Trump district and has strong backing from ex-Sen. Harry Reid and his powerful organization, and with Democrats having few major opportunities to go on offense elsewhere she will likely have strong national support. However, Rosen may face a tough primary with fellow Rep. Dina Titus (D). Titus is a more experienced political figure and represents the state’s biggest concentration of Democrats. She has also not hesitated to poke Reid in the eye by taking on his preferred candidates. A bloody Dem primary here could work to Heller’s benefit, especially due to “None of These Candidates”, Nevada’s unique and popular protest vote option. However, NOTC could also hurt Heller if he draws his own intraparty challenger. Perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian (R) has announced he is considering a run against Heller due to the latter’s hesitance in voting for the healthcare plan. Heller may be in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation in that respect in trying to thread the needle between possible general election and primary opponents, and as a result this race moves significantly up the rankings in possible pickup opportunities, though staying as a Tossup.
3. North Dakota Tossup (1)
This race moves down the rating list somewhat, as the same polling that has shown McCaskill very vulnerable has shown Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) as fairly popular despite the deep-red nature of her state. Additionally, the small nature of North Dakota could work to Heitkamp’s benefit, giving her better opportunity to differentiate herself from the national party. That said, Democrats have one big, big problem here – that Heitkamp herself has not committed to seeking re-election. Should Heitkamp retire, this seat should be close to an automatic GOP pickup due to the deep-red nature of the state – though of course, that’s what we thought about this seat in 2012 as well before Heitkamp pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Indeed, this seat improbably has the longest streak of electing left-of-center Senators of any Senate seat, going back all the way to 1922(!). Possible alternatives for Democrats, none of them particularly appealing, could include Heitkamp’s brother, talk show host Joel (D), State Rep. and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Marvin Nelson (D), and various no-name legislators. Republicans have a clear recruitment target for the seat, with or without Heitkamp in the race, in at-large Rep. Kevin Cramer (R). Though Cramer is not on great terms with either the state or national GOP establishment, he is a proven vote-getter in North Dakota and it’s hard to argue against him being the strongest possible GOP contender for this seat. Beyond Cramer, State Sen. Tom Campbell (R), who may have some self-funding ability, is chomping at the bit for a federal seat and is all but certain to seek whichever seat – House or Senate – Cramer doesn’t. State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt (R) has also been mentioned as a potential candidate. Heitkamp will not be a pushover, but her incumbency, the small and elastic nature of the state, and the potential for a good Democratic year leads us to move us down a bit from the top of the list toward the middle of the Tossup category.
4. Indiana Tossup (3)
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) is the other first-term Democrat sitting in a deep red state; like much of the Midwest, Indiana swung strongly right in 2016 and Democrats saw their highly-touted gubernatorial and Senate recruits go town in flames to unexceptional Republicans. But this race is among the slowest-developing contests even by this cycle’s slow-as-molasses standards. A pair of Reps., Luke Messer (R) and Todd Rokita (R), and AG Curtis Hill (R) are all thought to be considering bids, but neither has made a concrete announcement. Both Messer and Rokita would be very credible if somewhat Generic contenders against Donnelly, while Hill has rising-star potential but is not yet particularly well-known on a statewide level. There is a chance that more than one runs and trigger a bloody primary that leaves the winner weakened. As we saw in Missouri, counting ones’ recruits before they declare is not a great idea either, and there is a chance that none enters the race. Possible backup options in that event could include LG Suzanne Crouch (R), SoS Connie Lawson (R), or State Sen. Mike Delph (R). State Rep. Mike Braun (R) has become the first candidate to publicly decleare interest in the race but looks like a decidedly “C” list option. Donnelly has proven a strong campaigner, but is facing tough terrain; with so many questions about what kind of year 2018 will be among Trumpist Midwesterners and recruitment for this race, we default to leaving this race firmly in the Tossup category.
Leans Toward Incumbent Party:
5. Ohio Lean D (8)
This race seems to be by far the quickest-developing of the major Senate contests, seeing as the most likely candidate matchup hasn’t changed since 2013: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is very likely to face a rematch with his 2012 opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), who transparently began a second bid for this seat immediately after coming up short in his first effort. Mandel seems to have been able to keep other “A” list Republicans, most notably Rep. Pat Tiberi (R), out of the race. However, some establishment Republicans, most notably Gov. John Kasich (R), are far from fans of Mandel due conservatism and often scorched-earth campaign strategies. Many believe that Kasich is behind the candidacy of investor Michael Gibbons (R), whose candidacy seems more focused on attacking Mandel than Brown. In the general, Brown has won two hard-fought races in the state, but Ohio seems to be moving right very rapidly and he will not have the luxury of the 2012 Obama turnout apparatus on his side. That said, Mandel has some weaknesses as a candidate and seems to enjoy less-than-unanimous GOP enthusiasm. So we are moving this race by a hair into the Lean D category.
6. Arizona Lean R (5)
The other significantly vulnerable Republican senator is Arizona’s Jeff Flake (R), who has been an impressive epitome of the Peter Principle in recent years. After being one of the stars of the GOP caucus in his safe House seat as a staunch fiscal conservative, Flake was elected to the Senate in 2012 by a surprisingly tepid margin. He has then proceeded to make enemies of the GOP base in the state with some maverick tendencies – but unlike his senior colleague John McCain, Flake shows little sign of building strong crossover appeal. Flake has already drawn a primary challenger, but that challenger ex-State Sen. Kelli Ward (R), is generally regarded as a crackpot and was thoroughly discredited in her 2016 run against McCain. Likely more concerning for Flake will be the general election. Arizona moved strongly left in 2016, with Trump carrying the state by a narrow margin. Democrats have two “A” list contenders considering runs in Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. Sinema has locked down a purple House seat and has a moderate voting record, but has some liabilities in a history as a self-proclaimed “Prada Socialist” activist in the 2000s. Stanton, for better and worse, is a more Generic D and has name recognition in the state’s largest city and metro area. Either will likely be a tough opponent for Flake. However, the healthcare bill that has been a curse for Heller seems to be something of a blessing for Flake, in that he has been able to return the conversation to fiscal issues, an area where he agrees with the party base, instead of the topic of immigration, where he is far less in tune with Republican orthodoxy. As a result, we are pushing this race over the line into Lean R to consider Flake a slight but noticeable favorite for a second term.
7. Montana Lean D (4)
A solid bet for the luckiest man of the 2018 Senate cycle so far is Sen. Jon Tester (D), who needs to be sending Trump a muffin basket. In one stroke – the selection of Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) as Interior Secretary – Trump removed the most likely top-tier challenger to Tester and triggered a House special. Of course, we know that Tester’s second lucky break came the day before that special when now-Rep. Greg Gianforte (R) “body-slammed” reporter Ben Jacobs. Though the incident didn’t prevent Gianforte from winning the election, it likely means his political career is unlikely to progress above the House level. And that opened up the 2020 gubernatorial race as a more attractive option for Republicans’ second choice recruit here, popular AG Tim Fox (R). Likely looking forward to a 2020 election where he will now be the front-runner for Governor without interference from Gianforte, Fox declined a bid against Tester. And that leaves Republicans in a major recruiting quandary here, as no other names on the MT bench can match the stature of Zinke or Fox. Republicans’ new best option appears to be newly-elected State Auditor (Insurance Commissioner) Matt Rosendale (R), who is thought to be considering a bid. In the race already are a few “C” listers including State Sen. Al Olszewski (R), retired judge Russ Fagg (R), and storage company owner Troy Downing (R). Tester is a very strong campaigner and Montana is an elastic state, though one that has been slowly trending right in recent years. But mostly it is the major double recruitment failure for Republicans that leads us to move this seat well down the rankings.
8. West Virginia Lean D (7)
There is a high degree of uncertainty about how well Sen. Joe Manchin (D) will perform in his bid for a second full term; on one hand, West Virginia has stampeded right like few other states in the last decade, rejecting national Democrats on a near-total level. On the other hand, Manchin remains a broadly popular figure, with a brand distinct from the national party and high approval ratings. That brand hasn’t stopped a pair of Republicans from entering this race though – Rep. Evan Jenkins (R), who represents the southern third of the state, entered the race in April while AG Patrick Morrisey (R), who has gained national attention for crusades against Obama-era environmental regulations, jumped in last week. The primary promises to be competitive; while Jenkins has more establishment support, Morrisey appears to be closer to the grassroots. Both also have major liabilities with the primary electorate; Jenkins was a Democrat until 2014, and most of his base in the southern part of the state is Democrats who cannot vote in the GOP primary, while Morrisey hails from the Eastern Panhandle (culturally very unlike the rest of the state) and is a transplant from New Jersey, not a great selling point in a parochial rural state. A third flawed candidate who could complicate the primary even more is mining company owner Don Blankenship (R), who was one of the state’s most prominent coal executives before a conviction on safety violations. All three would be imperfect challengers to Manchin, but there is a chance that the Republican nominee may not matter all that much. Much of the race may depend on whether Manchin’s profile as a conservative Democrat will outmatch the state’s love for Trump. Owing to the state’s embrace of a Democratic candidacy for Governor in 2016 and the potential for a brutal GOP primary that results in a flawed nominee, we feel comfortable marking Manchin as a slight but significant favorite for re-election.
9. Florida Lean D (10)
Gov. Rick Scott (R) has not officially declared his candidacy for this race, but insiders of both parties are widely expecting him to throw his hat into the ring to take on Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Scott has been a reasonably successful (if not overwhelmingly popular) Governor, winning two hard-fought re-election races with help from his limitless personal wealth. Nelson, by contrast, has not faced a truly tough race since his first election in 2000, prevailing over “B” list Republicans in 2006 and 2012 without much real effort. However, personalities work in Nelson’s favor; Nelson has a long history in the state and a somewhat grandfatherly image, while Scott’s public image might be well described as a cross between Monty Burns and Lord Voldemort. Though this race will be hard-fought, polls have shown Nelson with a small lead, and we feel comfortable marking him as a moderate favorite. One potential wrinkle in this race would be if Nelson pulls a late retirement. In that case, possible Dem options could include Rep. Charlie Crist (D), ex-Rep. and 2016 nominee Patrick “Fratrick” Murphy (D), and wealthy trial lawyer John Morgan (D), but without an incumbency advantage, any other Democrat may face a tougher time against Scott. Conversely, should Scott surprise and not run, possible alternative Repulicans could include Reps. Ron DeSantis (R) and Tom Rooney (R) and LG Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R), though all would struggle to gain name recognition in the hugely expensive mega-state.
10. Wisconsin Lean D (9)
Republicans seem to be experiencing another recruitment failure in this race, to take on first-term Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D). Rep. Sean Duffy (R), who was widely expected to run, declined a bid, but unlike Ann Wagner in Missouri, the contention that it was a calculation motivated by poor general election odds is somewhat easier to believe. Though Wisconsin swung right in 2016, it remains one of the most polarized states of all. And Wisconsin’s Dem base, bolstered by a large collection of moonbats in the 30 square miles surrounded by reality (AKA Madison) is likely to be extremely fired-up to #resist in 2018. Thus, Baldwin’s profile as a Madison liberal may not be a terrible fit for the environment. Republicans’ new choice recruit in this race appears to be State Sen. Leah Vukmir (R). Vukmir hails from the state’s Republican heartland in the deep-red Milwaukee suburbs, and has been making obvious moves toward running. It’s unclear how strong a candidate she would be against Baldwin, but she does seem to have potential. 2012 candidate Eric Hovde (R) and several other lesser-known Republicans are also thought to be considering runs. As Trump and Sen. Ron Johnson (R) proved last year, Wisconsin is far from unwinnable for even less-than-ideal Republicans. But all in all the lean of the year and the likelihood of a “B” list challenger leads us to mark Baldwin as a moderate favorite for a second term in her purple state.
Likely to Stay with Incumbent Party:
11. Pennsylvania Likely D (12)
Sen. Bob Casey (D) has been about as big of an empty suit as they come, with a moderate image largely inherited from his socially conservative late father that belies his current status as a party-line backbencher in the Senate. But though Pennsylvania swung right last year and is firmly a purple state, Casey’s support from the Dem base and modicum of crossover appeal is enough to make him reasonably popular. Republicans still have a shot at getting an “A” list recruit for this race, as Rep. Lou Barletta (R) is still openly considering a bid; however, CW is that Barletta is unlikely to actually pull the trigger and give up his safe House seat for an uphill statewide run. A pair of little-known SWPA Republican legislators are in the race, State Reps. Jim Christiana (R) and Rick Saccone (R), along with SEPA businessmen Paul Addis (R) and Jeff Bartos (R). All look like credible “C” list options, but their chances are likely limited to the event of Casey making a substantial unforced error. Though Republicans should not be ready to write off this race, especially if Barletta declares, it is increasingly looking like a long-shot and thus we are moving it from the Lean D category over the line to Likely D.
12. Michigan Likely D (14)
This race was thrown for a loop after we compiled the ratings with the revelation that singer Robert “Kid Rock” Ritchie (R) is apparently serious about making moves toward a bid. Ritchie would certainly be the best-known challenger Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) has had in her three terms. However, his status as, well, a stereotypical celebrity, could be a double-edged sword with various assault convictions and other unsavory aspects on his resume. But in terms of ability to put this race on the map, Ritchie would likely be a major step up from the “C” listers currently in the race, judge Robert Young (R) and businesswoman Lena Epstein (R). Though both seem like credible candidates, they seem unlikely to end up with the name recognition or funds necessary to be a serious threat to upset the entrenched Stabenow. Complicating the race further, Stabenow has not officially declared she will seek a fourth term, though CW is that she is likely to run. Should she retire, Democrats’ best options would probably include Rep. Dan Kildee (D) and Macomb CE Mark Hackel (D). Overall, the historically-blue nature of the state and her incumbency leads us to mark Stabenow as a moderately strong favorite for a fourth term, but Ritchie’s entry could make this race much more interesting – and this race has potential to move up the list significantly in our next update.
13. Virginia Likely D (11)
Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D) VP bid may have failed and netted him a not-particularly-great national image as an angry soccer dad. But in light-blue Virginia, he is known as a relatively successful Governor and a quiet, milquetoast party-line vote in the Senate. That positioning is not terrible in a state that has been trending fairly strongly left in recent years, and most “A” list Republicans seem to be showing no desire to take on Kaine. Kaine’s most likely challenger is a decidedly weak Republican, Prince William CE and self-hating Yankee Corey Stewart (R). Stewart did surprisingly well in a low-turnout primary after a nearly-comical campaign based on defending Confederate Monuments. Needless to say, that type of campaign may be a tougher sell in a general election. The other Republican connected with this race is 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina (R), who moved to the DC suburbs after her 2010 Senate loss in California. While Fiorina would be a weak candidate in her own right, she would be unlikely to bring out additional Democratic turnout that could be problematic for suburban Reps. Scott Taylor (R) and Barbara Comstock (R). But for now it looks like Stewart is the most likely GOP nominee here. And that means, while the lean of the state and possibility of a strong Republican entering leave this race as not quite Safe, Kaine should be considered a very strong favorite for a second term.
14. Maine Likely D (13)
King Angus I Sen. Angus King (I/D) is fond of remembering his history as an aggressively centrist Governor in the 90s. King was known for being a genuine upscale centrist as Governor, supporting measures from both parties of a fiscally conservative and socially liberal nature. But since entering the Senate, King has been a party-line Democrat in all but name and an occasional moderate vote (particularly on guns). That is not terrible for him politically, as his state is purple to light-blue and he likely retains enough crossover support to be a strong favorite for re-election. However, for someone who came to the Senate in 2012 (apparently sincerely) hoping to reduce partisanship and chart a centrist course, being a party-line Dem foot soldier of low seniority has probably been a disappointment. King’s fundraising has been consistently anemic, leading us to be somewhat surprised by his apparent desire to seek re-election. However, with his main antagonist, Gov. Paul LePage (R), deciding to forgo a Senate run, King should definitely be put back on retirement watch. There is a real possibility he would have run for re-election for the sole purpose of spiting LePage, whose downscale brash and pugnacious populism is the embodiment of everything King Angus’s regal nature is not. Should King run for re-election, the most likely opponent for him is State Sen. Eric Brakey (R), a young “B” list Republican with libertarian tendencies who has won a couple tough State Senate races. Brakey is credible but probably doesn’t stand a strong shot of actually winning. But if King retires, this race will likely shoot far up the rankings; each side has an obvious ready-made contender for the seat in Reps. Bruce Poliquin (R) and Chellie Pingree (D), who will almost certainly be the ones to square off for an open seat. In a state that seems to be trending both ways between an upscale liberal south and a downscale conservative north, such a clash would likely be hard-fought. But with King still in the race we mark Democrats overall as fairly strong favorites to hold this seat.
15. Texas Likely R (18)
Democrats’ odds at taking control of the Senate went from zero to not-quite-zero when Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) entered the race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R). Though Democrats would need to sweep every single competitive race up this year to take a meager 1-seat majority, that fantasy has proven catnip for liberal donors. In addition, the prospect of beating the staunchly conservative Cruz, and actually TURNING TEXAS BLUE !!!111!! are also beyond exciting for Democrats. As a result, O’Rourke, a backbench liberal Rep. who is unknown in the 95% of the state outside his remote El Paso base, has attracted an amazing amount of interest from liberal donors. O’Rourke has things going for him – Texas shifted strongly left in 2016, Cruz is at best tepidly accepted by establishment Republicans, and 2018 is likely to be a good year for Democrats. So his odds are not to be written off as totally zero. But let’s not overstate the case here – Texas is huge and brutally inelastic, meaning O’Rourke will be fighting to both gain name recognition and persuade a lot of hard-to-persuade voters, without the benefit of a prior brand or moderate positioning. All in all it looks more like this is a gambit for a MSNBC gig than a serious bid to flip the seat, but since we can’t discount the possibility of an upset, we are moving the race a hair over the line and on to the playing field.
16. New Jersey Likely D (15)
The ghost of Frank Hague lives on in this race. It’s hard to imagine anything more quintessentially Jersey than the fact that a Senator about to go on trial for massive corruption – Bob Menendez (D) – not only retains his establishment support, but also has quite solid approval ratings. Thus, the fate of this race is probably riding on a baker’s dozen of people – 12 jurors and a judge, both in what the outcome of the verdict is and when it comes. The state’s Democratic establishment seems to be taking a “wait and see” attitude to Menendez, betting that either he will be convicted with enough spare time to start a campaign, or that he will beat the charges and head on to an easy re-election. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t candidates waiting in the wings. The front-runner to replace Menendez is likely Rep. Donald Norcross (D). Norcross is the brother of George (D), an insurance executive who serves as the de facto dictator of the southern half of the state. The tentacles of La Cosa Norcross extend to various machines across the northern half of the state as well, and will likely be activated at full strength for Donald’s bid, which has been rather transparently in the works since then-Rep. Rob Andrews (D) was bought out of his House seat with a cushy job to make way for Donald. The main stumbling block to this plan could be Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D), whose unexpected decision to forgo a run for Governor likely presaged interest in a Senate run; Fulop has strong support in vote-rich Hudson County that could counterbalance Norcross’s southern machine. The swing vote between the two will likely be the Essex County machine of Joe DiVincenzo (D), which has ties to both machines. Republicans have a path to victory here, but it’s largely out of their hands. It likely involves Menendez filing for re-election, making it onto the ballot, and continuing to run either under a continuing indictment or despite a conviction. As improbable as that is, in Jersey’s crazy political culture we can’t call the odds of that zero, and so the race remains on the board by a hair. Possible Republican contenders for this race could include LG Kim Guadagno (R), who is on pace to lose the gubernatorial election this fall, or her defeated primary rival, State Rep. Jack Ciattarelli (R).
Safe for Incumbent Party:
17. New Mexico Safe D (17)
New Mexico’s Senate races have been somewhat frustrating for Republicans – the state is just blue enough for Democrats to be secure in normal circumstances, but not so blue that Republicans can’t come close. That dynamic was underscored in 2014, when Republicans came close to beating Sen. Tom Udall (D) with an unheralded “C” lister. But this year there doesn’t seem to be much interest from credible Republicans about trying their luck against Udall’s colleague, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D). Though a pair of credible Republicans, LG John Sanchez (R) and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry (R), have been mentioned as considering the race, CW is that neither is likely to pull the trigger. Should Republicans get a credible recruit against Heinrich the rating will require re-evaluation, but with so many more enticing pickup opportunities on the board for the GOP, it looks likely that Heinrich’s backbench milquetoast liberalism will be enough to guarantee him a fairly easy ride to a second term.
18. Minnesota Safe D (16)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) continually ranks among the nation’s most popular Senators. Though she does not have a high national profile, she has an affable personality and a mainstream liberal record that has left her basically untouchable in her light-blue but relatively inelastic state. Since Klobuchar declined a gubernatorial bid and announced she would seek a third term, there has been essentially no movement from credible Republicans toward challenging her. And thus, we are moving the race well into the Safe category. We are leaving this race relatively high in the rankings because of Minnesota’s light-blue nature, but unless a credible Republican shows up soon this race may be likely to fall even further down the list.
19. Alabama Safe R (20)
Alabama is a contender for the title of the most inelastic state of all, and that means that all the attention to this year’s special election race has been focused on the GOP primary. Sen. Luther Strange (R) made a, well, strange, decision in accepting an appointment to this seat. As AG, he was leading an investigation into then-Gov. Robert Bentley’s (R) use of state resources to cover up an affair. Instead of doing the sensible thing and asking Bentley to schedule a quick special and appoint a placeholder – which would have left Strange, who was well known statewide and popular, as the prohibitive favorite – Strange accepted an appointment from Bentley that took him out of the AG’s office and the assurance that he would not have to face voters until 2018. However, Bentley was forced out of office this spring under threat of impeachment, and new Gov. Kay Ivey (R) moved up the special election to this summer and fall. As a result, Strange is now facing a quick special election in which his appointment has become the main issue. Strange faces three other credible Republicans: Rep. Mo Brooks (R), an antiestablishment conservative, ex-State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore (R), who is known as a social conservative firebrand but has a dedicated base, and evangelical leader Randy Brinson (R). Polling has shown Brooks, Strange, and Moore tightly bunched, and any two could move on to a likely runoff, which would likely be competitive no matter the pairing. Democrats are facing long odds in the general due to the nature of Alabama; though they do have a potentially credible recruit in ex-US Attorney Doug Jones (D), Jones has not received a lot of national enthusiasm. Perhaps their best bet is likely for the extremely polarizing Moore to be nominated, though Moore’s statewide base has been enough for him to narrowly but consistently prevail in his judicial races.
20. Delaware Safe D (21)
Sen. Tom Carper (D) has been squarely at the top of retirement watchlists, as he has been tepid at best on whether to seek a fourth term. But he has still not made a decision either way. A Carper retirement would be less than meets the eye; though Delaware trended right somewhat last year, it remains a medium-blue state that has a love for bland moderate-liberal Democrats. And Carper’s likely successor should he retire fits that exact same mold. Popular ex-Gov. Jack Markell (D) would likely face no trouble holding the seat should he run. Should Markell and Carper both decline bids, the race may slip onto the playing field; AG Matt Denn (D), freshman Rep. Lisa Blunt-Rochester (D), and LG Bethany Hall-Long (D) may be among Dems’ choice recruits in that scenario. Republicans’ top candidate would probably be State Treasurer Ken Simpler (R), but enticing him out of a re-election bid for an uphill Senate race would be a tall order.
21. Connecticut Safe D (19)
Sen. Chris Murphy (D) has staked out a niche in his first term as one of the more vocal liberals in the Senate, which makes him a polarizing figure but is in theory is a good fit for his deep-blue state. This race is relatively high up on the list because Connecticut seems primed for a backlash at the state level against Gov. Dan Malloy’s (D) liberal fiscal policies, which give Republicans a tie in the State Senate in 2016 and now a solid chance of picking off the Governorship. That could cause a “C” list Republican the ability to run decently well against Murphy. Possible contenders could include ex-State Rep. and 2016 nominee Dan Carter (R) or former Olympian and 2016 candidate Augie Wolf (R). However, let’s not oversell this; the lean of the state and the federal/state distinction mean that Murphy should be completely Safe barring further unexpected developments.
22. Washington Safe D (22)
In spite of being both the junior and lower-profile Senator from Washington, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) has always been somewhat more popular than her senior colleague, Patty Murray, never receiving a particularly strong challenge in her two re-election bids. This year seems unlikely to break that pattern as no credible Republicans have indicated interest in this seat. As a mainstream liberal with strong ties to the tech industry, Cantwell is a good fit for her blue state and should have an uneventful re-election unless she pulls a surprise retirement. Should Cantwell surprise and retire, the race would likely become far more competitive. But in the likely event Cantwell seeks a fourth term, no serious rivals are likely to take on the very uphill race.
23. Massachusetts Safe D (23)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) should not face much trouble getting a second term in her deep-blue state, but that doesn’t mean some semi-credible Republicans aren’t seeking to take a go at challenging the left’s favorite cookbook writer. Shiva Ayyadurai (R), a tech entrepreneur and Fran Drescher’s ex who is the self-proclaimed “inventor of email”, is in the race, while a more traditional candidate, State Rep. Geoff Diehl (R), is also considering, along with several little-known businessmen. None have any real chance to beat Warren’s national network, but they may be able to land some blows that damage her with a national audience ahead of a possible 2020 bid.
24. Utah Safe R (24)
Seven-term Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R) kabuki dance on whether or not to seek re-election is really getting on my nerves. Hatch initially pledged to retire this cycle, but reversed course and is now sending mixed signals on a day-by-day basis. He has said that he would likely retire if ex-MA Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is about as popular as any pol can get in Utah, ran. But after Romney indicated openness to the idea, Hatch waffled on that and said he might forge ahead anyway – even though his wife is apparently not thrilled with the idea. My bet is that he ultimately does hang it up, in which case the seat would be Romney’s for the taking. Regardless, it seems likely that one of the two will run and face few problems in a state that, while anti-Trumpist, is deeply conservative; thus, the seat should stay in GOP hands barring something massively unexpected.
25. Tennessee Safe R (25)
Sen. Bob Corker (R) is yet another incumbent who is dragging his feet on whether or not to seek another term. Corker has indicated an interest in being Governor, in which case pulling a switcheroo with popular Gov. Bill Haslam (R) may be a possibility. Corker may also retire entirely; he was apparently considering forgoing his first re-election bid in 2012 before deciding to run. If Corker and Haslam do not run, Tennessee is a very red state with a deep bench, so the seat should stay in GOP hands, possibly in the personage of Reps. Diane Black (R), Marsha Blackburn (R), or David Kustoff (R), barring something very unexpected. Democrats’ most likely choice appears to be attorney James Mackler (D), who seems somewhat credible but is basically a Some Dude.
26. Maryland Safe D (26)
Sen. Ben Cardin (D) has not yet indicated if he will seek another term. As an inoffensive mainstream liberal, Cardin is a good fit for deep-blue Maryland and is unlikely to face serious primary or general election opposition. But should he make a late surprise retirement, it would likely trigger a crowded Dem primary; possible contenders could include Reps. John Sarbanes (D) and John Delaney (D), ex-Rep. and 2016 candidate Donna Edwards (D), and Baltimore CE Kevin Kamenetz (D). Even in that scenario, Republicans would be hard-pressed to come up with credible opposition to any Democrat. In fact, Maryland Republicans might be smarter to actively dissuade credible candidates from this race to prevent Gov. Larry Hogan (R) from having to share the ballot with someone credible tasked with campaigning on unpopular Republican federal issues.
27. Nebraska Safe R (28)
Sen. Deb Fischer (R) is seeking a second term; though she had some hiccups with an un-endorsement and re-endorsement of Trump last year, she seems unlikely to face a significant GOP primary challenger. And with Democrats struggling to even find a credible candidate to take on Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), it seems very unlikely they will field a contender above “Some Dude” level here.
28. Rhode Island Safe D (29)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) has indicated his intention to seek another term. But surprisingly despite the deep-blue nature of his state, he has not one but two relatively credible challengers. State Rep. Robert Nardollio (R) has strangely decided to give his legislative seat to get flattened, while retired judge Robert Flanders (R) may also decide to contest the primary. Either one will lose to Whitehouse, but could raise their name recognition for a future race.
29. Mississippi Safe R (30)
Sen. Roger Wicker (R) is likely to seek a second full term representing his inelastic red state, and it seems incredibly unlikely that he will face any serious general election opposition. However, one Republican, State Sen. And 2014 candidate Chris McDaniel (R), has indicated he may challenge Wicker in the primary. In the very unlikely event Wicker were to retire, possible contenders could include Reps. Gregg Harper (R), Steven Palazzo (R), and Trent Kelly (R), SoS Delbert Hosemann (R), and McDaniel. Democrats may have a very small chance here if McDaniel were to be nominated, but that seems like an extremely remote possibility at this point.
30. Hawaii Safe D (34)
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D) loses her spot as the safest Senator of all for just about the worst reason imaginable. Though Hirono has been widely expected to seek a second term, she has recently been diagnosed with what is likely metastatic kidney cancer – and thus the possibility of her retiring for health reasons needs to be regarded as very real. It likely wouldn’t make much difference for the safety of the seat though – Hawaii is the bluest state of all, and it would likely mean that Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) would finally make it to the Senate after losing the 2014 primary to Sen. Brian Schatz (D) in a nail-biter upset. The one potential wrinkle could be if fellow Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) seeks to cut in line and run against Hanabusa in a primary, though Gabbard’s quirkiness on foreign policy would likely cause national Dems to mobilize for Hanabusa. Overall it’s almost impossible to see this seat slipping out of Democratic hands.
31. Vermont Safe D (32)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I/D) has parlayed his improbable 2016 presidential run into a major national network and a position as arguably the Democratic Party’s new national leader (despite not even being a member of it). Thus, he is unlikely to face serious primary or general opposition in his deep-blue state – unless the nascent investigation of his wife gains traction. Sanders’s wife, a former college president, secured an irresponsibly large loan to buy her small college a new campus – which then resulted in the college not being able to afford the bill and going bankrupt. The FBI is currently investigating whether Sanders used his influence to get his wife’s college that loan and if there was any fraud in the process. Should Sanders retire (or be forced out), the race would likely stay boring, as popular Rep. Peter Welch (D) would likely simply slide up to the Senate seat in the deep-blue state. Either way, this seat is essentially certain to stay in Dem (or quasi-Dem) hands.
32. California Safe D (27)
Octogenarian Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) has improbably indicated that she will seek another term; due to her name recognition across her huge and deep-blue state and mainstream liberal position, it seems unlikely anyone of either party would give her a serious challenge if she ran again. If Feinstein were to make a late reversal and retire, California’s huge Dem bench would likely take a close look. AG Xavier Becerra (D) would likely start out as the man to beat in that scenario; speculation has been that Becerra was plucked out of the House in preparation for a quick Senate run. Other possible contenders could include ex-Rep. and 2016 Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez (D), whose prior run was unimpressive but could try again, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D), who has indicated some statewide ambitions. Even if Feinstein were to vacate the seat, Republicans making a serious statewide play in California does not seem in the cards, especially in a GOP midterm.
33. Wyoming Safe R (31)
Wyoming is America’s reddest state, and Sen. John Barrasso (R) is popular with Republicans, particularly for his work on health issues. Barrasso is considered unlikely to retire barring something massively unexpected, and that combined with the nature of Wyoming means that this seat is unlikely to see even a mildly credible rival to him emerge in either the primary or general.
34. New York Safe D (33)
The new title of safest Senator goes to New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who has completed a fairly impressive growth in the last ten years from accidental appointee to a major figure in the Dem party and likely 2020 contender. It seems unlikely Republicans will seek to challenge Gillibrand in the hugely expensive state with anyone more serious than a Some Dude.