Daily Kos Elections is pleased to announce our first set of Senate race ratings for the 2013-14 election cycle. Democrats are defending 20 seats (including one in a special election next week), while 15 Republican seats are up for re-election. The overall playing field favors the GOP, though they need to net five seats in order to take control of the chamber.
Our full chart rating the competitiveness of each contest is below (with Democratic seats shaded in blue and Republican seats in red), along with a description of our ratings categories and an explanation for why we've rated each race the way we have.
Safe: Barring unforeseeable developments, one party is certain to win.Below the fold are brief explanations of our initial ratings, grouped by category of competitiveness and following our chart from left to right and then downward.
Race to Watch: A foreseeable but as-yet unrealized development has the chance to make an otherwise "Safe" race potentially competitive (such as an incumbent retirement), or an incumbent faces a potentially competitive primary.
Likely: One party has a strong advantage and is likely to win, though the race has the potential to become more competitive.
Lean: One party has an identifiable advantage, but an upset victory is possible for the other party.
Tossup: Both (or all) parties have a strong (though not necessarily perfectly equal) chance of winning.
• Colorado — Mark Udall (D): Republicans keep coming up empty when it comes to finding someone willing to take on Udall, a freshman who won a comfortable open seat victory in 2008. Democrats seem to have cracked the Colorado nut, turning a red state light blue and winning in both good years and bad. Udall will be hard to unseat, and the national GOP is likely to focus its attention elsewhere.
• Massachusetts — OPEN (D): While Democratic Rep. Ed Markey hasn't exactly set the world on fire with his campaign to fill John Kerry's seat, Massachusetts remains a very blue state—and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez is no Scott Brown. Republicans caught lightning in a bottle the last time the Bay State held a Senate special election, but there are far more differences than similarities between this race and that one.
Suffice it to say that not a single public poll has shown Gomez with a lead; indeed, surveys have consistently found Markey ahead 7 to 12 points. The NRSC must be seeing similar stuff in their internals, since they haven't lifted a finger to aid their candidate. Markey, meanwhile, has badly outraised and outspent his opponent, and national Democratic groups have added seven figures in TV ad spending that looks like an insurance policy, not a sign of weakness. A Gomez upset here next week would be extraordinary, to say the least.
(NB: This election is for the final year-and-a-half of Kerry's term. Another election for the full term will be held in 2014. Our rating applies only to the special election.)
• Minnesota — Al Franken (D): After he beat Norm Coleman by just 312 votes in 2008, who'd have imagined we'd be slotting Franken in at Likely D? Yet here we are. Franken seems to have confounded Republicans, who expected the clown they remember from his long-ago Saturday Night Live days and never seemed to understand that he'd transformed himself into a serious political figure long before he ran for Senate. And taking a page from Hillary Clinton, he's embraced the workhorse-not-showhorse approach.
It's paid dividends back home, where he's earned solid approval ratings and has healthy leads over a wide array of top-tier GOP challengers. So far, most notable contender to emerge is financier Mike McFadden, who is rich but anonymous. The NRSC undoubtedly likes the fact that McFadden can probably self-fund, but with juicier targets in other states, they aren't likely to help him out. Franken certainly won't lack for money; combined with his work ethic and Minnesota's blue hue, he's in great shape for re-election.
• New Hampshire — Jeanne Shaheen (D): If we were forced to pick which Likely D race had the greatest potential to be competitive, we might pick New Hampshire, but that's really not saying much. Shaheen's strongest potential opponent, ex-Sen. John Sununu, declined a rematch, and while several other Republicans have expressed interest, none can be considered top tier, and none have taken the plunge. Polls have shown Shaheen beating them all handily anyway, even former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Rather, it's New Hampshire's notorious volatility in recent years that could put it in play (Democrats won the state House in 2008, lost it in 2010, then won it back in 2012, for instance). But there's no evidence that the Granite State's pendulum is swinging back to the GOP in 2014, so Shaheen looks solid.
• Oregon — Jeff Merkley (D): Merkley may not have been a household name when he was recruited to run in 2008, but he benefited from a wave election in which Oregon finally decided it was truly a blue state and didn't want a Republican senator anymore. Since then, Merkley's proven himself as a senator (becoming a hero to many progressives along the way), and Oregon's GOP bench has just gotten thinner and thinner. There are no Republicans officially in the race, and it's simply hard to see Merkley losing.
• Iowa — OPEN (D): One important thing to bear in mind with all race ratings is that just because two races appear in the same category, that doesn't mean their chances of flipping are equal. That's especially true as you get closer to the center of the board, though the Lean D section offers a good illustration as well. After Tom Harkin announced his retirement, Democrats quickly coalesced around Rep. Bruce Braley, and he faces no opposition for his party's nomination.
Republicans, meanwhile, have suffered the exact opposite fate. They'd have had a decent pickup shot had Rep. Tom Latham decided to go for it, but he—and then just about every other top-tier Republican—said no. The GOP is now down to around Plan G or H, with Paulist former U.S Attorney Matt Whitaker and former Chuck Grassley chief of staff David Young the most prominent candidates so far, though more may join. Braley will have a good long time to raise (and hoard) campaign funds while the Republican JV squad squabbles its way to the primary, putting this race closer to the "Likely D" column.
• Michigan — OPEN (D): As in Iowa, Michigan Democrats rallied around a highly capable congressman, Rep. Gary Peters, almost as soon Sen. Carl Levin said he'd retire. Peters defeated an incumbent in a swingy suburban district in 2008, held on against very tough headwinds in 2010, and then, after Republicans eviscerated his seat in redistricting, pivoted to a resounding win in a Democratic primary in a majority-black district in Detroit last year. (Peters is white.) That evidenced some pretty considerable political skill and an ability to appeal to a broad range of voters.
Republicans didn't have an obvious choice like Peters (and their top choice, Rep. Mike Rogers, declined), though they did ultimately land a decent candidate in former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. But secretaries of state seldom win Senate races, and Land hasn't been on the ballot since 2006. A recent PPP poll showed Peters 5 points ahead of Land, despite her greater name recognition, a reflection of the fact that Michigan is simply a reliably blue state. That demographic reality is going to be hard for Land to overcome.
• North Carolina — Kay Hagan (D): At the other end of the "Lean D" spectrum is North Carolina, which brushes right up against the Tossup column. Later this cycle, we may borrow the Rothenberg Political Report's in-between rating of "Tilt D" (and "Tilt R"), which they've graciously given us their blessing to adopt. But almost a year-and-a-half away from Election Day, we're reluctant to slice the apple that thin, particularly since it'll be a while yet before the GOP settles on a candidate, so we've chosen to keep things simple and start Hagan off at Lean D for now.
Indeed, those Republican recruitment problems are a key reason why we've made that decision. The GOP lacks any obvious superstar recruits, and so far, their only declared candidate is state House Speaker Thom Tillis. Tillis had been unofficially running for this seat for some time, but he barely registers in hypothetical primary polls. What's more, the Republican legislature in North Carolina is deeply disliked, and if Tillis is the nominee, Hagan will be able to saddle him with every unpopular piece of legislation they've ever touched. Other candidates may yet get in, but none are especially imposing on paper, and at least one (Virginia Foxx) is the kind Democrats dream of.
North Carolina is also no longer the red state it once was. After narrowly winning it in 2008, Obama lost it by just 2 percent last year, putting it firmly in a separate category from the Democrats' most difficult turf in the Tossup aisle. Demographics trending in the right direction and an unimpressive roster of potential opponents are just enough to give Democrats a slight edge heading into 2014.
• Alaska — Mark Begich (D): Had the late Sen. Ted Stevens not been convicted of ethical wrongdoing shortly before the 2008 elections (a conviction that was later overturned), it's hard to imagine that Begich, despite running a flawless campaign, would have won. He hasn't made any glaring mistakes during his tenure as senator, and there's no reason to believe he can't spearhead another flawless effort, but even that may not be enough for Begich in deep red Alaska.
However, he does have some advantages. For one, the GOP field has been slow to form and could potentially yield up the despised Joe Miller. For another, Sarah Palin won't be at the top of the ticket; her presence in the VP slot likely exerted some downward pressure on Alaska Democrats that year. And finally, Alaska was actually one of just six states last year where Obama bettered his 2008 performance; in fact, it was his most-improved state. Again, that may have had something to do with the Palin effect, but it was the largest share of the votes a Democratic presidential candidate had taken in the state since 1968, suggesting there might be a slight blueward trend here.
Begich will need all the help he can get, though. He's a good fundraiser (not easy to do in Alaska) and an excellent campaigner. But he can't bank on Miller earning the Republican nod. Someone much closer to Generic R, like Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell or former state AG Dan Sullivan, is likely to be his opponent. A Begich win in 2014 would be just as impressive as his win in 2008 was, but if anyone can pull it off, he can.
• Arkansas — Mark Pryor (D): Pryor, remarkably, was unopposed in 2008, but this time, he's one of the GOP's top targets. He's also one of Mike Bloomberg's top targets, too, for his vote against expanded background checks for gun buyers. That means Pryor is in the unenviable position of getting hit from both the left and the right, and he can ill afford to lose any votes in the first place. As recently as 2010, Democrats still maintained a lock on Arkansas politics, holding three of four House seats and the legislature. They've since lost all of those, and may lose the governorship next year, too.
It's against the backdrop of a state that's belatedly playing catch-up with its Southern neighbors that Pryor now seeks re-election. He's a capable fundraiser, and the DSCC will surely go to bat to save him. He's also fortunate that he doesn't have a real opponent yet, with freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, the establishment GOP choice, frustrating his party by taking his time to decide. And Bloomberg's intervention has given Pryor the chance to go up with ads of his own, playing the "I won't let coastal elites tell me what to do" card. But he has a tough needle to thread, and the eye is only growing tighter.
• Louisiana — Mary Landrieu (D): When Mary Landrieu was first elected senator in 1996, she was one of eight Democratic statewide elected officials in Louisiana. Now she's the last one standing. The 2008 wave protected her the last time she ran for re-election, but she won by a narrower-than-expected 6 points and has never taken over 52 percent of the vote. Unlike Pryor, she didn't court Bloomberg's wrath (and his billions), voting in favor of background checks. But also unlike Pryor, she has a top-tier opponent in Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Indeed, Louisiana is one of the few states where the GOP got its man and got him quickly. What's more, while Louisiana doesn't conduct primaries as such, it appears that Cassidy has a clear shot to take on Landrieu one-on-one; Democrats were undoubtedly hoping for a messy intra-party battle. Republicans have gotten cocky in the Pelican State before, particularly when Karl Rove haughtily dubbed his expected rub out of Landrieu "Operation Icing on the Cake" in the 2002 runoff. She won, and it would be a mistake to count her out. But after many tough races, this one is likely to be her toughest yet.
• Montana — OPEN (D): If ex-Gov. Brian Schweitzer decides to make the race, then Democrats may be lucky that Sen. Max Baucus decided to retire, since his long service in D.C., and especially his central role in dragging out the Affordable Care Act negotiations, damaged his reputation at home. Indeed, with Schweitzer, Democrats might even have a slight advantage, thanks to his iconoclastic profile.
But no one knows what he'll do, which is why everyone on both sides seems to be waiting on his decision. If Schweitzer gets in, this race will definitely stay at Tossup for the foreseeable future. If he doesn't, Democrats will have to drop down to their B Team, though Republicans don't really have any killer candidates themselves, unless ex-Gov. Marc Racicot tries for a political comeback. But even if both sides field second-string candidates, the advantage will lie with the GOP, just thanks to Montana's clear red lean. For now, though, we wait.
• Georgia — OPEN (R): In a year with very slim pickings, Georgia right now looks like the Democrats' best pickup opportunity. Saxby Chambliss's retirement has created a free-for-all GOP primary with no obvious frontrunner and a number of very flawed candidates (and one outright Democratic dream in Rep. Paul Broun). If things get bloody—and they look like they will—Republicans could be left with a weakened nominee in a state that slowly but surely is trending against them.
The problem for Democrats is recruitment. Rep. John Barrow and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the two most prominent Democratic officials in the Peach State, have both taken a pass. One intriguing possibility is non-profit founder Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, though she hasn't publicly announced any plans to make a bid yet. Nunn's never run for office before and would have a lot to prove, but she does have a famous last name and lots of connections. If she turns out to be a capable candidate, and the GOP primary turns into a grenade-swallowing contest, this race could move into the Lean R column.
• Kentucky — Mitch McConnell (R): Thanks to his unhappy role as Senate minority leader, McConnell's job approval ratings back home have been consistently miserable for some time. And despite Kentucky's strong Republican predilection, he even appears vulnerable in head-to-head-polling. Once again, though, Democrats lack a candidate, with all eyes still on Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes has been cagey about whether she'll run, but given her young age and bright prospects, she'd be taking a real risk going after McConnell.
What's more, McConnell has amassed an enormous war chest and will have, for all intents and purposes, unlimited funds. One advantage for Grimes, though, is that because Kentucky elects statewide officials in odd-numbered years, she wouldn't have to give up her current job to run. If she does get in, this contest could also turn into a Lean R affair, and if she can land real blows against McConnell, anything is possible. But without her, Democrats' options get very thin very quickly.
• Nebraska — OPEN (R): Our general policy with open seats in odd-numbered years is to rate them as Likely D or Likely R, even if we strongly suspect that one party or the other has a near-lock on victory. That's pretty much the case with Nebraska, where Mike Johanns's unexpected retirement has created a vacancy. Democrats would need something close to a miracle to prevail here, and this will almost certainly wind up in the Safe R column before long. But for now, we'll play it safe. The GOP primary here ought to be interesting, though, with Gov. Dave Heinemann, who would have cleared the field, declining to run.
• South Dakota — OPEN (D): Democrats really only had a bench of two notable potential candidates, ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, son of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson. But both opted against running, leaving the party with attorney Rick Weiland, who badly lost an open seat House race in 1996. Republicans, meanwhile, landed their dream candidate, ex-Gov. Mike Rounds, and they also avoided a contentious primary when Rep. Kristi Noem said she wouldn't run. To hold this seat, Democrats needed a nominee as good as Heidi Heitkamp and an opponent as flawed as Rick Berg. They got neither. This one is already very close to being solidly in the GOP column.
• West Virginia — OPEN (D): Republicans signaled their intention to pursue West Virginia very seriously right after last year's elections, when Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, their best possible recruit, announced a challenge to Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Not long thereafter, he opted to retire. Yet despite the fact that Democrats still run the show politically in West Virginia, none have been eager to jump into the race, and that perhaps is the most troubling sign of all. In fact, several notable possibilities (including Rep. Nick Rahall and attorneys Nick Preservati and Ralph Baxter) have already said no.
There are still other potential candidates out there, such as Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. And despite the state's sharp march rightward in recent years, Democrats have continued to notch important wins. (No Barack Obama on the ballot in 2014 should also help.) But this may be the beginning of the end for one of the last Democratic redoubts south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Races to Watch:
• Hawaii — Brian Schatz (D): While this seat isn't at risk of going to the Republicans, the newly appointed Schatz faces a stiff primary challenge from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. (Gov. Neil Abercrombie tapped Schatz to fill the seat of the late Sen. Dan Inouye, who had expressed a deathbed wish that Hanabusa serve as his successor.) The battle lines aren't entirely clear yet, but it seems like Schatz starts off to Hanabusa's left. So far, he's the only Senate incumbent to face a legitimate primary, making this contest a Race to Watch.
(NB: This election is for the final two years of Inouye's term. An election for the next full term will be held in 2016.)
• Illinois — Dick Durbin (D): Durbin's only on this list because he still hasn't confirmed whether he'll seek re-election, though stories relying on unnamed sources back in March said that he would. If he does go for another term, this seat will remain Safe D. If he retires, the Democratic primary should be interesting, as Durbin has no clear successor. In that scenario, Republicans may try to contest it, but they'll be at a serious disadvantage.
• Maine — Susan Collins (R): Like Durbin, Collins has yet to formally announce that she'll run for another term, saying only she "intends" to do so. If she follows in Olympia Snowe's footsteps and decides to hang it up, this seat will instantly become the top Democratic pickup opportunity of 2014. But even if she runs again, Collins could potentially face a primary challenge from her right.
• Mississippi — Thad Cochran (R): Cochran, 75 years old and a six-term veteran, has steadfastly refused to announce whether or not he'll retire, saying only that he'll make up his mind at some point later in the cycle. Mississippi hasn't had an open Senate seat in a while, so if Cochran bails, the Republican primary ought to attract a lot of names. But either way, this seat is a lock for the GOP.
• Wyoming — Mike Enzi (R): Enzi's been oddly cagey about his re-election plans. He reportedly told a gathering of Republicans earlier this year that he'd seek another term, but then his staff refused to explicitly confirm that decision on the record. What's more, rumors abound that Liz Cheney, daughter of Dick, might be interested in a primary challenge. For both of these reasons, Enzi wins a spot on the Races to Watch list.
• Delaware — Chris Coons (D): In 2010, Coons lucked out incredibly when Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell beat moderate Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary. That allowed Coons to ride to a comfortable win for the final four years of Joe Biden's term. Now he's up for a full six-year hitch, and the Delaware GOP has no bench to speak of.
• New Jersey — OPEN (R): Not that the GOP ever had much of a chance of picking up a Senate seat in New Jersey (where they haven't won one since 1972), but Gov. Chris Christie screwed his party as hard as possible by scheduling the special election to fill the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg's seat this October. Had he waited until November of 2014, a Republican appointee would have had 18 months to build up a profile and might have had a fighting chance.
Instead, with just four months until the special, Jersey Republicans have all but given up, with only the very conservative Steve Lonegan, a former small-town mayor, reporting for duty. Newark Mayor Cory Booker looks set to cruise in the August primary, and polls already show him crushing Lonegan.
(NB: This election is for the final year-plus of Lautenberg's term. Another election for the full term will be held in 2014. Our rating applies only to the special election.)
• New Mexico — Tom Udall (D): Udall won a dominant victory in 2008 when this seat became open, and very few Republicans have even suggested they might want to take him on next year. Udall's strengths as a campaigner, New Mexico's blue hue, and its weak GOP bench place this seat firmly in the Safe D column.
• Rhode Island — Jack Reed (D): Rhode Island's nickname is the Ocean State, and demographically, it's just as blue. Reed's fellow senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, won by 30 points last year. Reed should be similarly invulnerable.
• Virginia — Mark Warner (D): Virginia is a swing state, and last year's open seat contest certainly attracted plenty of Republican money, as well as a top-tier (if flawed) candidate in George Allen. So on paper, you'd expect this seat to be competitive... but it definitely isn't shaping up that way. Warner is personally popular, hugely wealthy, and a solid campaigner who won an utter blowout in his first race in 2008. He's also led top-tier opponents in hypothetical polling matchups, leading all three GOP statewide officials to take a pass. Perhaps some random rich guy will get in, flood the airwaves, and start to make things look closer at some point. But for now, Republicans seem to be abandoning the Old Dominion altogether—a truly remarkable state of affairs, when you consider how red the state was until quite recently.
• Alabama — Jeff Sessions (R): Though it held the legislature (and three of seven congressional seats) as recently as 2010, the Alabama Democratic Party was living on borrowed time. It has since fallen apart and is now utterly a shambles. Sessions is safe.
• Idaho — Jim Risch (R): Idaho was the fourth reddest state in the nation going by the 2012 presidential election results. Risch is untouchable.
• Kansas — Pat Roberts (R): Kansas hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 1932. That won't change this cycle.
• Oklahoma — Jim Inhofe (R): Oklahoma is another implacably red state. The last time it had a contested Senate election was 2004, and even then, Democrats still lost 53-41.
• South Carolina-A — Lindsey Graham (R): If Graham were going to fear anything this cycle, it would have been a challenge from the right, due to his various conservative apostasies. But despite some chatter earlier in the year, no such challenge has materialized. If someone does emerge, and the Club for Growth decides to go after Graham hammer-and-tongs, this seat could wind up on our Races to Watch list, but that's not looking likely.
• South Carolina-B — Tim Scott (R): Scott is running for the final two years of Jim DeMint's term; if he wants a full term, he'll have to run again in 2016. Despite being an appointee, Scott's impeccable conservative credentials, combined with his history-making profile as the first black senator in South Carolina's history, make him a lock.
• Tennessee — Lamar Alexander (R): Television's Judge Joe Brown was actually once a real judge, in his home state of Tennessee. With his show now off the air, Brown has, believe it or not, entertained the notion of running for Senate. In the unlikely event he goes through with it, his wealth and celebrity could make the race entertaining. But Alexander should be just fine no matter whom he faces.
• Texas — John Cornyn (R): Democrats tried to challenge Cornyn in 2008, but Rick Noriega proved unable to raise the Texas-sized sums needed to be competitive. It wasn't entirely his fault, though: Texas simply isn't ready to elect a Democrat senator. One day it will, but not today.