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Morning Line’s Top 10 Senate races

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij and Simone Pathe  April 25, 2014 at 9:33 AM EDT

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The Morning Line

Today in the Morning Line:

  • Our inaugural Senate rankings
  • Eight of the top 10 most likely to change control are Democratic-held seats
  • The top eight are all states Mitt Romney won in 2012 and by an average of 15 points
  • Boehner swats at his conference on immigration

Battle for control of the Senate: Republicans need to gain six seats in order to take over majority control in the Senate. Below is our list of the top 10 races that are most likely to change party control, with No. 1 being the most likely to flip. We base our analysis on conversations with campaigns, committees, public and private polling shared with us, as well as voter and state trends. We will update our rankings the last Friday of each month from here until Election Day and possibly more frequently closer to November.

  1. South Dakota (Open-Democratic controlled): This is one where both parties agree. When Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson announced he was retiring, South Dakota rocketed to the top of everyone’s lists. Former Gov. Mike Rounds is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and the odds-on favorite to win in November. He’s raised more than $700,000 in the first three months of the year, leaving him with about $1 million in the bank. Democrat Rick Weiland raised a little more than $200,000 in the first quarter of the year and has $485,000 cash on hand. There would need to be a dramatic development to make this race competitive for Democrats.
  2. West Virginia (Open-D): Another Democratic retirement — Sen. Jay Rockefeller — gives Republicans a clean shot at this pick-up opportunity. Republicans landed a top recruit in Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. And this state is tough terrain for Democrats. There are few places in the country where President Barack Obama is more unpopular. Capito and Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant each raised about $800,000 in the first quarter, but Capito has more than $4 million in the bank, giving her a four-to-one cash-on-hand advantage. Despite the political bent of the state in presidential elections, Republicans actually haven’t won a Senate race here in more than 50 years. But polling shows Capito looks poised to break that streak.
  3. Montana (Walsh-D): Once again, a Democratic retirement puts this one near the top of the list. Sen. Max Baucus stepped down and is now ambassador to China. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock appointed John Walsh in February to replace Baucus, which helps Walsh’s cause a bit, but it’s still an uphill climb. The appointment also wasn’t enough to help Walsh outraise Rep. Steve Daines, the favorite in the GOP primary. Daines hauled in $1.2 million compared to $946,000 for Walsh. Montanans have shown they are willing to split their ticket in the past. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, for example, won re-election by four points in 2012, even though Republican Mitt Romney outpaced President Obama by 13 points. Still, Walsh is seen as trailing by low double-digits.
  4. Louisiana (Landrieu-D): This is where things start to get interesting. From No. 4 on down are some of the most competitive races, many of which are pure coin flips at this point. Democrat Mary Landrieu is no stranger to close elections, having won her first race in 1996 by less than half a percentage point (about 5,000 votes). She then scored a three-point victory in her 2002 runoff. She won by six points in 2008, a presidential election year. Landrieu is a name brand in the state and everyone agrees she is probably the toughest candidate of the vulnerable red-state Democratic incumbents. But she faces a difficult mathematical reality. She, like any Democrat, needs a strong turnout in New Orleans, a city that has fewer residents than before Hurricane Katrina. That didn’t stop her in 2008, but that was a presidential year. Rep. Bill Cassidy looks to be the top Republican contender, but he’s lagged behind Landrieu in terms of fundraising. Landrieu can’t be counted out, though. She will pull out all the stops. She has already stressed her chairmanship of the energy committee and its importance to Louisiana, and she has the backing of big businesses in the state. It’s worth noting that there are no party primaries in the Bayou State, so all the candidates will be on the ballot in November. If no candidate clears 50 percent on Election Day then the top two vote-getters will face off in a December runoff.
  5. North Carolina (Hagan-D): The purple political hue of North Carolina nudges this one behind Louisiana. But incumbent freshman Sen. Kay Hagan’s favorability ratings and poll numbers show her to be very vulnerable. In head-to-head match-ups with state Rep. Thom Tillis, the likely GOP nominee, the race that is essentially tied. But Tillis, the speaker of the state House, also has vulnerabilities. His favorability ratings have not impressed and the legislature has been embroiled in controversy. Hagan has been hammered by outside groups on the airwaves for her support of the president’s health care legislation. But Democrats contend that her numbers will improve once she starts spending some of that $8.5 million in the bank. Hagan won her race with just 53 percent in 2008, when a Democrat won the state at the presidential level for the first time since 1976. This time she won’t have the benefit of President Obama’s ground operation.
  6. Kentucky (McConnell-Republican controlled): The first Republican on the list is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who remains tied with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in polling. McConnell looks like he will breeze through his May 20th primary, but his campaign has had to work. Public polling shows a tie and both sides agree. Republicans argue, however, that McConnell will pull away in the fall when Republicans, who are holding out and supporting his tea party challenger Matt Bevin, come home. That hasn’t happened YET. But if it does, that would push this further down the list. Republicans also aren’t buying the strength of Grimes’ candidacy. The Kentucky secretary of state has been largely untested so far, and it will be important to watch how she handles the spotlight in a race of this magnitude. Plus, this is another Appalachian state where President Obama is staunchly unpopular. The key for Grimes will be carving out her space as a Kentucky Democrat, not an Obama Democrat. McConnell, though, remains vulnerable. His tenure and his support for home-state projects is not as popular anymore with the conservative base. But he has survived close races before. In 2008, he won just 53-47 percent over a Democrat who wasn’t as well funded as Grimes.
  7. Arkansas (Pryor-D): Given President Obama’s poor performance here in 2012 and 2008, there’s an argument for this race to be even higher. But incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor has shown some resilience. Like Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Begich in Alaska, Pryor has a famous last name — his father, David, was governor and a U.S. senator. Pryor leads in most public polling over Republican Rep. Tom Cotton (but private polls show a closer margin than 10 points). Republicans think this one, though, will break their way with grassroots energy behind Cotton.
  8. Alaska (Begich-D): Even Republicans will concede that Begich has run a strong campaign to date, highlighting his Alaska roots and support for the state’s energy interests in finely produced television ads. Plus, Republicans have a crowded — and late — primary to contend with. The primary here is not until Aug. 26 and consists of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and Joe Miller, who was the Republican nominee in 2010, knocking off incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary before Murkowski incredibly won a write-in independent campaign.
  9. Colorado (Udall-D): Republicans landed a top-tier recruit in Rep. Cory Gardner. Democrats believe support among women will put incumbent Sen. Mark Udall over the top at the end of the day. But right now, this is a tight race. A Quinnipiac poll out Thursday had Udall up 1, but up 17 points with women. Republicans are going to try and make this all about health care. The Quinnipiac poll found the law widely unpopular with Coloradans, who said they were against it by a margin of 59 percent to 37 percent. Gardner faces the problem most members of Congress do when they run statewide — they’re known in their districts but not very much outside of it. The race is on to define him. Udall released his first ad of the cycle attacking Gardner for opposing abortion rights.
  10. Georgia (Open-R): Saxby Chambliss’s retirement, a crowded Republican primary and a Democratic recruit, who even Republicans concede has performed fairly well to this point, help this one round out the top 10. Democrat Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is waiting in the wings to face off with either Reps. Jack Kingston, Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, former Susan G. Komen senior vice president Karen Handel or former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue, a political novice. Both sides see the strongest of those being either Perdue or Kingston. Nunn has tacked to the center so far while lamenting the lack of pragmatism in Congress. She has tried to talk locally, but national issues will creep in, including a local issue that’s become national news — guns. And Nunn has indicated she would support things like Manchin-Toomey background check bill.

Honorable mentions: Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire, which are all Republican targets. Mississippi is a potential Democratic target, depending on who wins the GOP primary. But right now Thad Cochran is favored, and if he wins it won’t likely be a competitive race. Virginia is a longer shot for the GOP, and it hopes, with a big wave, Oregon could become competitive.

LINE ITEMS

  • Speaking at a Rotary Club in his Ohio district, Speaker John Boehner hit his party for not wanting to take on immigration reform. “Here’s the attitude,” he said. “Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard.” He also criticized groups in Washington that he said use the tea party to make money for themselves. Asked if Boehner’s comments indicated a shift in policy for a renewed immigration push, spokesman Michael Steel told Morning Line, “No. No change. As he always says, he only teases the ones he loves.”
  • Republicans on Thursday distanced themselves from Cliven Bundy following reports the Nevada rancher had made controversial statements about minorities. Bundy, according to the New York Times, wondered whether blacks would be better off as slaves and charged that people of color are “against us.” After initially voicing support for Bundy’s standoff against the federal government over grazing rights, Sens. Dean Heller and Rand Paul condemned his remarks as “racist” and “offensive.”
  • In preparation for a possible presidential bid, Rand Paul is courting a “tight-knit tribe of philanthropists and entrepreneurs” who, despite their strong influence on conservative policy, “have historically spent more on nonprofit groups and endowing college economics departments than they have on backing candidates,” reports the New York Times. Friday, however, he’ll be meeting with former Mitt Romney donors in Boston.
  • Without another long overseas trip until after the midterms, Mr. Obama is shifting his focus to helping Democrats, with fundraisers planned for early May.
  • An Arkansas judge struck down the state’s voter ID law, one of the strictest in the country because it requires photo documentation to vote.
  • Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is up with his first TV ad in the Iowa Senate race.
  • Politico notes that while some Democrats are keeping quiet on the health care law, Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz is playing up her support for the Affordable Care Act in her campaign for governor.
  • The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi looks at the jockeying for the first interview with Hillary Clinton about “Hard Choices,” her forthcoming memoir.
  • 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.

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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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