Morning Line’s top 10 Senate rankings – June edition

BY Domenico Montanaro and Terence Burlij  June 30, 2014 at 1:22 PM EDT
Will Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., survive election day? Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Will Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., survive election day? Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Despite Eric Cantor’s seismic loss in Virginia, establishment Republicans had another good month in June. The Virginia congressman and now-former majority leader’s defeat did not appear to have tea party election ripples beyond his district.

In fact, the establishment Republicans, who had a good month in May with primary wins in North Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky, followed that up with another strong month in June. Joni Ernst avoided a runoff in Iowa, and Thad Cochran won his runoff in Mississippi, which in all likelihood takes the Magnolia State off the table for Democrats.

Below is our updated list of Top 10 Senate races to watch, with No. 1 being the most likely to flip. Not much has changed — in fact, our top eight all remain the same — but Iowa makes its debut, Michigan is squeezed out and Alaska drops to No. 10. The firewall for Democrats continues to be Mark Begich in Alaska and Mark Pryor in Arkansas, who is holding steady. It’s early, and the landscape probably will hold for much of the summer. But don’t expect it to remain that way. Most people don’t start paying attention until after Labor Day. So watch for some turbulence in mid-to-late September.

As a reminder, Republicans need to net six seats to win a Senate majority. And, as always, we base our analysis on conversations with campaigns, committees, public and private polling, as well as voter and state trends. These are not intended to be projections, but a look at where things stand right now.

1. South Dakota (Open-Democratic controlled): Republican Former Gov. Mike Rounds looks to be in good shape against Democrat Rick Weiland, even with former GOP Sen. Larry Pressler running as an independent. (Previous rank: 1)

2. West Virginia (Open-D): Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant faces an uphill climb against GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito in a state where President Obama is deeply unpopular. (Previous: 2)

3. Montana (Walsh-D): Republican Rep. Steve Daines continues to hold an advantage over Democratic Sen. John Walsh, both in terms of cash-on-hand and in the polls. Democrats say they have seen some tightening here in recent weeks, but acknowledge Walsh still has ground to make up. (Previous: 3)

4. Louisiana (Landrieu-D): The big question here is whether Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu can win the race outright on Election Day by taking more than 50 percent of the vote. There are three Republicans on the ballot, making it difficult for GOP frontrunner Bill Cassidy to clear that threshold. The odds still look good for this race to head to a December runoff (aka “Louisiana Limbo”) that could potentially decide control of the Senate. (Previous: 4)

5. North Carolina (Hagan-D): The toss-up race between Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican state House speaker Thom Tillis in this presidential battleground state may be the closest thing we have to a political weathervane this November. After being bombarded with millions of dollars in attack ads from Americans for Prosperity, Hagan is starting to see some outside help pour in from national women’s groups such as EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood. Tillis also has had to take time away from the campaign trail to deal with a combative legislative session that began in May. (Previous: 5)

6. Kentucky (McConnell-R): Republicans believe conservatives will come home, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will find a way to pull out a win in November — despite most public and private polls showing the race to be a dead heat. As is the case with the other red states on this list, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes must overcome the president’s low approval ratings in the state — an effort not helped by the administration’s recent announcement of new regulations to cut carbon pollution from power plants in this coal-friendly state. (Previous: 6)

7. Arkansas (Pryor-D): Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor still looks like he’s holding his own despite early on being called the cycle’s “most vulnerable incumbent.” Ironically, Pryor has made GOP Rep. Tom Cotton’s voting record the centerpiece of his campaign, attacking his opponent for supporting the overhaul of Medicare and Social Security and opposing the Farm Bill. Cotton has had his challenges as a candidate, but remains a key recruit and will benefit from plenty of outside spending on his behalf. At the moment, both sides see their candidate with a slight advantage. (Previous: 7)

8. Georgia (Open-R): Things are at a standstill in the Peach State for a few more weeks, as Republicans await the result of the July 22 runoff between GOP Rep. Jack Kingston and former Dollar General/Reebok chief executive David Perdue. The polls show Kington with the lead, an outcome Democrats say would allow them to run against House Republicans. But Republicans will take either over conservative firebrands Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, who lost in the primary. Democrat Michelle Nunn has benefited from the drawn-out GOP primary process, but expect the polls to shift once she has opponent and the attacks start in full force. (Previous: 8)

9. Colorado (Udall-D) and Iowa (Open-D): Both of these states went for President Obama twice, but they are looking like tough terrain for Democrats this fall. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is working hard to define GOP Rep. Cory Gardner as extreme, especially on social issues such as abortion rights and “personhood.” Gardner has looked to reframe his positions, writing an op-ed in the Denver Post advocating that women should be able to purchase birth control without a prescription. Republicans also got some help with former Rep. Tom Tancredo losing the GOP gubernatorial primary, avoiding the prospect of having his past controversial statements redirected at Gardner. In the Hawkeye State, meanwhile, Republican Joni Ernst has consolidated conservative support and started to pick up the fundraising pace, while Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s early campaign has been characterized by missteps. She saw a bump after the primary, but Braley holds a four-point lead in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. (Previous: 10 / Not ranked)

10. Alaska (Begich-D): The fact of the matter is that it Sen. Mark Begich is in better shape than any of the other Democrats on the list. Yes, he represents a state that Mitt Romney won by 14 points in 2012, but the geographic separation of the state from the lower 48 may work in his favor. He can steer clear of a lot of the national political noise. Democrats say Begich has only gotten stronger as the campaign has advanced, and Republicans acknowledge he is running a smart race. On the GOP side, former state natural resources commissioner Dan Sullivan looks to be the favorite, but he must deal with a primary contest that won’t be resolved until August 19. The question is: Does this race start to close in the fall, given its conservative bent? (Previous: 9)

Honorable mentions: Michigan was tied for tenth last month, but it drops off the list for now, as Rep. Gary Peters appears to be in better shape against Republican Terri Lynn Land. New Hampshire, Oregon and Virginia remain uphill climbs for Republicans.