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Morning Line’s Top 10 Senate Races for July

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij, Rachel Wellford and Simone Pathe  July 31, 2014 at 9:00 AM EST
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The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Our updated Top 10 Senate races
  • Iowa jumps four spots to No. 5
  • Kentucky, Georgia slide a little for Democrats
  • Can Congress get it all done with hours to go before recess?

Battle for control of the Senate: With Congress heading out of town for five weeks starting Thursday (more on today’s action below), we thought we’d look at where the battle for Senate control stands with our latest Top 10 most likely races to change control. There hadn’t been much change in the Senate landscape in the last few months, but in July the ground appears to have shifted a bit beneath Democrats’ feet. In the last month, most of the movement has been in favor of the GOP, which needs six seats to take control of the Senate. Iowa has popped onto the map as a very real target for Republicans. It jumped four spots all the way to No. 5; what had been a Democratic bright spot in Arkansas appears to have dimmed a bit; Republicans got a preferred candidate in Georgia, one of only two Democratic targets this cycle, and Democrats suffered an unforced error there with the leaking of an internal memo; in the other Democratic target — Kentucky — Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has looked a bit stronger; Democrats also suffered a self-inflicted wound with a plagiarism scandal in Montana, a race they were HOPING to make more competitive. There are two Democratic bright spots: Mark Begich in Alaska continues to be in a surprisingly strong position so far ahead of the GOP primary, which will be decided Aug. 19; and in North Carolina, incumbent Kay Hagan caught a break as her opponent, Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, has been stuck in the spider web of the legislature. Overall, it adds up to Republicans building to a stronger position this fall than they were in even a couple of months ago in their quest to take control of the Senate. Here’s one thing to watch on Election Night: Can Republicans pick off one of these four seats that are turning into the Democratic firewall — Iowa (5), North Carolina (7), Colorado (9) or Michigan (unranked)? If one of those falls, there will likely be a Republican majority. If not, it likely means Democrats hold on narrowly.

1. South Dakota (Open-Democratic controlled): No change here with former Gov. Mike Rounds still heavily favored to best Democrat Rick Weiland, a former aide to Sen. Tom Daschle, in November. (Previous: 1)

2. West Virginia (Open-D): Democrat Natalie Tennant’s first television ad of the campaign attacks President Barack Obama and not GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a sign of how deeply unpopular the president is in this conservative state. It’s a harder sell for a Democrat to make the case they will be better able to challenge the president when it comes to the administration’s policy toward coal energy. (Previous: 2)

3. Montana (Walsh-D): There had been chatter that Democratic Sen. John Walsh had started to gain ground on GOP Rep. Steve Daines. Then came the New York Times report published this week that found Walsh had plagiarized his U.S. Army War College thesis. The episode brought to a screeching halt whatever momentum Walsh had and also took away a potential positive week for the Democrat with the Senate taking up his bill to give tax breaks to employers that bring jobs back to the U.S. (Previous: 3)

4. Louisiana (Landrieu-D): From here on out in our rankings, it gets much tougher to differentiate between the races. Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu has raised a lot of money and is familiar with close elections. Polls show the veteran Democrat in a dead heat with GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. With no primary in the Bayou State, Cassidy must contend with two other Republicans, which is likely to keep him below 50 percent on Election Day. If Landrieu can’t break 50 percent then the two would head to a December runoff (aka Louisiana Limbo), where the odds would appear to favor the challenger. (Previous: 4)

5. Iowa (Open-D): The race in the Hawkeye State has turned into a genuine toss-up. Republican Joni Ernst got a boost from winning the GOP primary. Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, meanwhile, has made a series of unforced errors that have raised doubts about his candidacy, starting with his “farmer” comments disparaging GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley earlier this year. More recently he released a television ad featuring a baby “chick” that never seemed to take off and was criticized by some, and then he was captured on video at a Fourth of July parade seemingly claiming to be a farmer after an onlooker appeared to hector him about his comment. All that said, Iowa is a more friendly state for Democrats than many on this list, and Braley has a significant cash-on-hand advantage over Ernst ($2.7 million to 1.1 million) to help boost his campaign. (Previous: 9)

6. Arkansas (Pryor-D): Republicans see conservative support solidifying for GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, by tailoring his message to win over those in the party who might have been on the fence about his candidacy. Still, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor has managed to keep things close, despite the president’s low approval ratings in the Natural State. The polls — public and internal — have been all over the map on this one. Pryor’s campaign released a poll showing the Democrat up six points. Republicans, meanwhile, have Cotton up somewhere in the mid-single digits. (Previous: 7)

7. North Carolina (Hagan-D): Republicans rejoiced when Thom Tillis won the GOP primary outright in May, avoiding a potentially damaging runoff and freeing him up to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. But you know what they say about “best laid plans.” Tillis, the state House speaker, has been tied up in a tough legislative session that has consumed his time and energy and hampered his ability to engage Hagan directly. By the way, earlier in the year, outside groups had been blasting Hagan for her support for the Affordable Care Act, but those attacks may have lost some steam as the health care law got over its bumpy rollout. (Previous: 5)

8. Kentucky (McConnell-R): This one drops a couple spots because of movement in other races and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell looking stronger. The latest Bluegrass Poll released this week had him leading Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes 47 percent to 45 percent. This contest is likely to be one of the nastiest and most expensive races of the cycle. Grimes set a state record for fundraising in the second quarter with $4 million, while McConnell hauled in $3.1 million. McConnell has more money in the bank though, with almost $10 million compared to $6 million for Grimes. (Previous: 6)

9. Colorado (Udall-D): This is still a very tight race and one that could be one of the closest and most expensive when all’s said and done. Republicans like their candidate in Rep. Cory Gardner, but Democrats have a good, incumbent candidate in a state President Obama won twice, and Democrats are likely going to spare no expense here. This race is still all about women. Watch that gender gap. (Previous: 9)

10. Tie – Alaska (Begich-D) and Georgia (Open-R): Democrat Mark Begich continues to run perhaps the best campaign of the cycle in Alaska, and he benefits from a Republican primary that hasn’t wrapped up yet. Once it does, does this race shift? In Georgia, Republicans got the best candidate they could hope for in former Dollar General/Reebok CEO David Perdue. Democrats certainly would have preferred to run against Rep. Jack Kingston or any of the other congressmen or former elected officials who ran. It would have given a cleaner outsider vs. insider messaging. And Nunn’s campaign — with the leaking of their internal strategy memo — played into narratives about her potential “relatability” weaknesses Republicans were looking to exploit. The polling has been a bit scattered so far with the race still tight, so the next month or so will be critical to watch here.

As always, we base our analysis on our reporting, plus conversations with campaigns, committees, public and private polling shared with us, as well as voter and state trends.

Pointing fingers: Back to Congress… It’s the last day for Congress to act before heading out of town, and it still has the major issues it started the week with on the table — the highway bill, reforming the VA and, of course, the border bill to deal with the unaccompanied minors crisis. Highway and VA seem on track to pass, but it’s still not at all clear what the end result will be on the border bill. Both sides are blaming the other and still can’t agree on the 2008 child-trafficking law. There are votes scheduled in both chambers, but being able to get two bills passed, then merge those two and re-pass them if there are any changes is going to be a VERY heavy lift, doesn’t bode well and could mean it drags on into the evening. The most likely scenario appears to be the House passing its version and the Senate bringing its up, with the question becoming whether Democrats can get enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

A note to our readers — Time for recess: With lawmakers leaving for a five-week recess, your Morning Line authors are going to take a little recess of our own. We will be off starting Friday and back sometime in mid-August. In the meantime, be sure to check out the NewsHour’s Rundown blog for any breaking developments.

Daily Presidential Trivia: On this day in 1875, former President Andrew Johnson died. Johnson was one of five presidents who never ran for the office; who were the other four? Be the first to Tweet us the correct answer using #PoliticsTrivia and you’ll get a Morning Line shout-out. Congratulations to Ben Goodman ‏(@BenGoodman) for guessing Wednesday’s trivia: Who did LBJ call “the real daddy of Medicare”? The answer was: Harry Truman.

LINE ITEMS

  • At 3:30 p.m. ET, President Obama will deliver remarks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the newly-confirmed HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Then at 5:30 p.m. ET, Mr. and Mrs. Obama will host a celebration of the Special Olympics and the Unify Generation at the White House to mark the anniversary of the Special Olympics.

  • The House of Representatives voted to sue Mr. Obama over his failure to abide by the Constitution during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Members voted mostly along party lines, with five Republicans voting against the measure.

  • In a 420-5 vote, the House passed legislation Wednesday to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bill would provide the VA with more nurses and doctors and allow veterans to seek private medical care, among other improvements.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel is determined to continue its mission of destroying Hamas’ tunnels in Gaza with or without a cease-fire.

  • The Senate advanced their own version of a border bill that would provide emergency funding to deal with the mass influx of migrant children and adults. However the Senate GOP is banking on the House passing their form of the legislation today, which could force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hand.

  • In a last-minute push to convince members to vote no to the current House immigration funding proposal, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, held a late night meeting Wednesday with House conservatives.

  • Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker is living on the edge, and that’s not always along party lines.

  • A bipartisan group of eight senators is calling for colleges and universities to take action on campus sexual assault. NewsHour’s Gwen Ifill spoke with co-sponsors of the bill Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., to discuss how the legislation will push institutions to be more transparent and provide more support to students.

  • House Republicans put forward a package of bills aimed at improving the lives of women at work and at home, just one day before the five-week summer recess.

  • During a Q & A with the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., when asked about impeaching Mr. Obama, said, “[The Republicans’ differences with the White House do] not rise to the high crime and misdemeanor level.”

  • Mr. Obama was in campaign mode during a speech in Kansas City, Missouri, Wednesday, knocking Republicans for being “mad all the time,” saying, “stop just hating all the time.”

  • Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill Wednesday that increases security for women going in and out of abortion clinics. The legislation came in response to the Supreme Court’s June ruling that struck down the commonwealth’s 30-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

  • The Justice Department joined a lawsuit against Wisconsin’s voter ID law, which requires voters to show a photo ID, before casting their ballot.

  • A report from the Government Accountability Office shows that a lack of management and poor planning were responsible for the flawed rollout of the HealthCare.gov website.

  • The U.S. attorney in Manhattan is threatening to investigate New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for possible obstruction of justice or witness tampering over his administration’s interference with its own anti-corruption commission.

  • The Republican Governors Association, which is not supposed to choose sides in primaries, apparently funneled money through other political groups to support Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez over Tom Tancredo.

  • Businessman Jonnie Williams testified at the corruption trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Wednesday that the former first lady asked him for financial assistance in exchange for helping with promotion of the nutritional supplement his company was trying to get state health authorities to approve.

  • Despite the 2012 revelations that Rep. Scott DesJarlais forced his ex-wife to have two abortions and had affairs with his patients, one of whom he also urged to get an abortion, the Tennessee conservative is still very much in the game in the GOP primary for the state’s 4th Congressional District.

  • Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate released a bizarre television ad Wednesday attacking Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst not on energy policy, but for signing an anti-tax pledge.

  • Rep. Shelley Moore Capito released a new ad tying Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to Mr. Obama and his “war on our coal jobs,” while touting Capito’s endorsement from the West Virginia Coal Association.

  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a 25-year-old ally running New Hampshire’s GOP.

  • The U.S. Army War College will have the final word on if and how Montana Sen. John Walsh will be punished for plagiarism after they conclude their own investigation.

  • House Majority PAC and the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees are alleging that a Minnesota TV station pulled their ads attacking Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan’s GOP challenger because the station’s owners are allied with the Koch brothers.

  • Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, wants to challenge Greg Walden, R-Ore., as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee after the elections. Speaker Boehner has said he’ll be supporting Walden over the Texas freshman.

  • Heard on the Hill solicited Seersucker Thursday fashion advice from southern women in the House.

  • Keep an eye on the Rundown blog for breaking news throughout the day, our home page for show segments, and follow @NewsHour for the latest.

TOP TWEETS

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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