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The Race for the White House -- Nomination Phase

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 18th, 2014

After releasing our initial Senate, House, and gubernatorial ratings for 2016 earlier this month, we’re finishing off this year’s Crystal Ball with an updated look at the race for each party’s presidential nominations. We’ll be back Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

The Editors

Thank goodness the midterm election is fully behind us so we can focus your attention on the White House sweepstakes of 2016. Oh, we can hear a few spoilsports among you moaning and whining: “Give us a break! Couldn’t you at least wait until after the holidays?” No, we couldn’t. Super-early analysis of future elections is what separates the possessed professionals in our business from the sane amateurs.

Not only is it just 691 days from the November ’16 election, but it’s a mere 410 days until the Iowa caucuses (as currently scheduled on Feb. 1, 2016). That’s practically the day after tomorrow.

Now that the self-justifications are completed, let’s take a preliminary gander at the way both parties’ fields are shaping up.

It’s hardly worth the effort on the Democratic side — or so it appears for now. By all objective standards, the Anointed One will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee for president, unless she chooses not to run. Forget about the comparisons to 2008. Hillary Clinton was only “heavily favored” back then to be the Democratic standard-bearer. This time an overwhelming majority of both elite and rank-and-file Democrats appear to have reserved space for her visage on Mount Rushmore. The party that gave the United States its first African-American president wants to create another first, and because about 57% of the voters in Democratic nominating contests are women, Clinton has a bit (or a lot) of an edge — probably even if another woman enters the race.

And yet, there are distant rumblings reminiscent of 2008. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), beloved by progressives, could give Clinton a stiff challenge. Hundreds of former Obama campaign staffers have urged her to run, and liberal groups like are poised to spend money to encourage Warren. However, so far we don’t sense in Warren the overweening ambition and determination necessary to mount a frontal attack on the nominee-in-waiting, and she has consistently said, with these exact words, “I am not running for president.” Still, that can change on any given day.

What of the other possible Democratic challengers? Vice President Joe Biden seems to sense the futility of what would be his third presidential candidacy at age 73 on Election Day 2016. Ex-Sen. Jim Webb (VA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) would needle Clinton and make debates worth the price of admission, but actually dethroning her? The rationale for outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (MD), if there ever was one, seemed to evaporate when he couldn’t get his lieutenant governor elected to replace him in one of the nation’s bluest states. There are lots of other Clinton substitutes, but these are backup candidates, spare equipment likely to remain unused. One often-mentioned possibility, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY), has so infuriated the left in his state that we are no longer even listing him as a backup.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball Democratic presidential rankings

First Tier
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Hillary Clinton
Ex-Secretary of State
•Very popular within party, more so than in ’08
•Pro-Iraq War vote fading in importance
•Woman: chance to make history
•Can potentially scare away most/all strong opponents if she runs (unlike ’08)

•Age (69 by Election Day ’16)
•Ran unfocused, too-many-cooks ‘08 campaign; could make similar mistakes in ’16
•Keeping Bill in check — and on the porch
•Peaking too soon? Already dominating headlines day after day
•What policy rationale is there for a new Clinton presidency?

Second Tier
Elizabeth Warren
Senator, MA
•Adored by Dem activists
•Claims not to be running but is very visible
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•National ID and fundraising network
•Still seems unlikely to run against Clinton
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans
•’12 campaign baggage
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•Next in line?
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (73 by Election Day ’16)
•Gaffe machine
•Poor presidential campaign history
Third Tier

Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA

•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views

•Not liberal enough
•Not the best stump speaker

Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.), VT

•Left loves him
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Not actually a Democrat
•Electability? Democrats seem to care more about that than Republicans
Martin O’Malley
Governor, MD
•Willing and very available
•Liberal record and policy achievements
•Baltimore baggage
•Loss of Maryland governorship
•Nationally unknown

Would Only Run If Hillary Clinton Doesn’t
Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator, NY
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•Fairly strong liberal record
•NY fundraising base
•Bland persona
•Nationally unknown
•Past NRA support?
Amy Klobuchar
Senator, MN
•Woman — same history-making potential as Clinton
•Moderate-liberal record
•Nationally unknown

List changes
Subtractions: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (NY)
Never on the list, won’t be after Ferguson: Gov. Jay Nixon (MO)

Barring a Warren decision to get in, or a stunning Clinton decision to stay out (which would create a free-for-all among Democrats), the nominating fun will mainly be on the Republican side, where there is a cast of thousands. Or at least a cast of about 18 to 23, depending on who’s counting the potential candidates and how generous they are to long shots.

The Crystal Ball is, for now, in the middle. We feature 21 actual or potential contenders in our analysis, and we have divided them into seven tiers or categories.

The top tier is vacant — completely empty. If you think there’s a GOP frontrunner, then you are probably a staffer or family member of one of the candidates. Until one or more contenders can break a paltry 20% or 25% in the polls, this tier will be akin to the vacuum in outer space.

Few will dispute the quartet we’ve identified for our second tier, The Big Boys. Ex-Gov. Jeb Bush (FL), Sen. Rand Paul (KY), Gov. Scott Walker (WI), and Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) have the right stuff to compete in the nominating process, though the nominee will not necessarily be one of the four.

We’ve had Bush atop our list of GOP presidential contenders for months, and earlier this week he made a non-announcement announcement of a campaign, saying that he will “actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States.” Bush has to be taken very seriously as a candidate, and we suspect that if he does in fact follow through on a campaign, other potential candidates such as Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and perhaps many others from the mainstream of the party (more on them below) will defer to another member of the First Family of the Republican Party. That said, Bush may not be able to overcome his surname baggage and the aggressive dislike of much of the Tea Party.

Walker is charisma-challenged and the least well-known, but has a governing record that may make him very appealing to the conservative base. Christie might not be able to surmount his image as not sufficiently conservative, and his home-state problems (such as Bridgegate and budget woes) will dog him. But his obvious talents on the stump will help. Paul has quite a job to do to convince the party establishment he’s mainstream enough, especially on foreign policy, to carry the GOP banner.

We have placed The Outsiders next. It is difficult at the moment to see precisely how they could be nominated and keep the party intact. Nonetheless, the Iowa caucuses are structured to give these candidates with intense grassroots backing a potential rocket boost into the finals. Especially after last weekend’s “cromnibus” Senate session, Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) doesn’t have a lot of friends in Congress, but this certifies him as worth supporting for the Tea Party faction and other anti-establishment elements — and nobody is going to out-argue this Princeton debate champ. (We watched him close-up in a University of Virginia class before a partly unfriendly audience; Cruz was agile and persuasive, and he should never be underestimated.) Dr. Ben Carson hasn’t been elected sheriff anywhere, yet his backers are numerous and passionate, and he is seen as a conservative Mr. Smith who could go to Washington and clean house. Carson could easily have a major impact at some stage in the contest.

Establishment alternatives to those in the top tier make up our fourth category. If Mitt Romney were to get serious about running, he’d immediately vault to the top of Tier Two. Romney will have to fight flat-out to win, however. Nobody gets a modern presidential nomination handed to him on a silver platter. If Bush and Christie both run, the rationale for the completion of the Romney Presidential Trilogy, which is to save the party from a fringe nominee, likely evaporates. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) probably won’t run if Bush does, but a Bush-less field would be attractive to him. Complicating matters for Rubio is that he is up for reelection to the Senate in 2016, so he cannot run from safety. Gov. John Kasich (OH) is dropping hints and crusading for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, though there’s little time to be coy: Most of the talented staff and generous donors will be snapped up quickly. Some operatives are pushing Gov. Rick Snyder (MI), but he’s a long shot. Of course, in the present herd, most are long shots. Snyder might be a good VP ticketmate for the eventual nominee, although there’s a long vice presidential list already. The Republicans’ twin midterm triumphs have given the party a deep bench of statewide-elected senators and governors from which to choose to fill the second slot, and that’s beyond the many recent statewide victors already included on our voluminous table of presidential contenders.

Our fifth tier entries all seem ready to roll. Their ambition is plentiful; it’s their bandwagons that aren’t moving fast. Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) is hobbled by low approval ratings at home. Two Rick retreads, Gov. Perry (TX) and ex-Sen. Santorum (PA), appear so far to lack compelling rationales in their bids for reconsideration. The candidate field in 2016 is also much stronger than in 2012 when each briefly flourished.

Tier Six consists of Wild Cards. Ex-Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) is making noises about a second candidacy, but few believe him. Maybe he’ll surprise, and bring back his coalition of blue-collars and evangelicals. Gov. Mike Pence (IN) has loads of street cred with conservatives, but will he give up his governorship for a crapshoot? Unlike many of the other statewide elected officials on this list, Pence was elected in 2012, so a credible presidential run would practically prevent him from running for reelection in 2016. Former business executive Carly Fiorina would add gender diversity to an all-male GOP field, but her only foray into elective politics (a 2010 U.S. Senate contest in California) was unsuccessful. Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) has had plenty of success getting elected and is well known from his many TV appearances and John McCain-like profile. Whether the GOP as currently constituted would welcome a McCain substitute is doubtful, but Graham’s bluntness would liven up any campaign. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is raising money and plans to push for an aggressive foreign policy. As he starts out, few would categorize him as a major candidate, yet he may find some moments to shine as the campaign moves forward. That said, the group that might be most receptive to Bolton’s pitch — the party’s more conservative voters — will have more exciting options, like Cruz or Carson.

As usual, there will be candidates who have no real chance to become the nominee but who are either convinced they are the next Jimmy Carter or possessed of another agenda (you get lots of attention simply by filing, and this can be cashed in for a TV show or book sales). Rep. Peter King (NY), ex-Gov. George Pataki (NY), and ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (MD) are good examples, and there may well be more. Most, like Pataki and Ehrlich, will be blasts from the past.

One thing is for sure: The 2016 Republican presidential nomination will be well worth having. Despite demographic trends that clearly favor Democrats, there is a natural cycle of two-term presidencies that gives the GOP legitimate hope. For instance, Stony Brook University Professor Helmut Norpoth’s White House election model projected that the next Republican nominee will win 51.4% of the two-party vote , and our senior columnist Alan Abramowitz has found that 51% of the two-party popular vote is certainly sufficient for an Electoral College majority — countering the belief among some overly optimistic Democratic activists that they have an automatic, decisive edge in the Electoral College.

The challenge for Republicans is to look down their list of contenders and pick someone who can actually win and govern well. This promising opportunity would be a terrible thing to waste on an unprepared or blindly ideological candidate.

Table 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Republican presidential rankings

First Tier
ABSOLUTELY EMPTY — still chaotic.
Second Tier: The Big Boys
Candidate Key Primary Advantages Key Primary Disadvantages
Jeb Bush
Ex-Governor, FL
•Strong gubernatorial resume
•Potential Hispanic appeal
•Early moves toward running might dissuade other establishment candidates from entering race
•National Bush money and organization
•Wrong last name (Bush dynasty)
•Offshore private equity funds could be political headache
•Party has moved to the right
Rand Paul
Senator, KY
•Working hard, reaching out to diverse audience
•Most successful and prominent early campaign
•Strong support from libertarian and Tea Party wings
•National ID and fundraising network; benefits from father’s previous efforts
•Too dovish/eclectic for GOP tastes? Party leaders likely to prefer someone else
•Association with out-of-mainstream father
•Would be unconventional nomination winner

Scott Walker
Governor, WI

•Heroic conservative credentials
•Checks boxes for many wings of party
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Too bland? Next Pawlenty?
•Do lingering scandals hurt him?
•Not a polished speaker
•Does lack of college degree matter?

Chris Christie Governor, NJ

•Dynamic speaker
•The more Democrats and media criticize him, the more acceptable he becomes to GOP base
•Establishment favorite
•Bridge scandal still playing out
•Bullying and out-of-control-staff questions
•Not conservative enough for base
Roots for the Dallas Cowboys
Third Tier: The Outsiders

Ted Cruz
Senator, TX

•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Diversity + conservatism
•Anti-establishment nature plays well with base
•Too extreme?
•Disliked on both sides of the Senate aisle
•Strong Tea Party support ensures establishment resistance to candidacy

Ben Carson
Neurosurgeon and activist

•Adored by Tea Party grassroots
•Diversity + conservatism
•Good on TV
•No political experience whatsoever
•Little chance of establishment backing and funding
Fourth Tier: Establishment Alternatives

Mitt Romney
Ex-Governor, MA;
’12 GOP presidential nominee

•The ultimate fallback candidate: If party’s falling apart, it’s Mitt to the rescue
•Extremely well-vetted
•Been around the track so often he’s muddy
•Poor campaign in ‘12 — same lack of enthusiasm from base
•Bush-Christie runs would probably crowd him out
Marco Rubio
Senator, FL
•Dynamic speaker and politician
•Diversity + conservatism
•Short time in Senate, which Obama proved could be a plus
•Did his national star peak too soon?
•Went left on immigration, hurt him with base
•Bush run could push him out
John Kasich
Governor, OH
•Long conservative record
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Could be fallback for GOP establishment forces
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Makes verbal miscues, lots of video from time as Fox host
•Would he really excite anyone?
•Nobody’s first (or even second) choice
Rick Snyder
Governor, MI
•Right to Work in major labor state
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest

•Washington outsider
•Supported Medicaid expansion
•Activists have more exciting options
•Washington outsider (not high on establishment lists)
Fifth Tier: The Remainders

Bobby Jindal
Governor, LA

•Diversity + conservatism
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Deep and wide experience
•Knows how to toss red meat to base
•Better on paper than on stump
•Controversial tenure in Louisiana
•His star has been brighter in the past; hasn’t yet lived up to national potential

Rick Perry
Governor, TX

•Showing clear improvement as a candidate — “second chance” mentality
•Running vigorously
•Texas fundraising
•Indictment? Could rally right if vindicated
•Yesterday’s Texan? Has Ted Cruz eclipsed him?
•“Oops,” we forgot the rest; hard to make a second first impression

Rick Santorum
Ex-Senator, PA

•Strong support from social conservatives
•2nd place finisher in ’12 — next in line?
•Been around primary track
•Harder to stand out in much stronger ‘16 field
•Lost last Senate race by 17%
•Chip-on-shoulder attitude
•Social conservatives have flashier options
Sixth Tier: The Wild Cards

Mike Huckabee
Ex-Governor, AR

•Already vetted
•Blue collar appeal
•Strong support from social conservatives
•Southerner in Southern-based party
•Disliked by establishment for economic populism, social views — party leaders don’t think he’s electable
•Small fundraising base

Mike Pence
Governor, IN

•Extensive governing experience
•Excites conservatives, particularly social conservatives
•If GOP doesn’t go South, it could go Midwest
•Low name ID nationally
•Would have to give up governorship to run

Carly Fiorina
Former business executive

•The only woman in the field
•Very wealthy, could self-fund
•Might be able to convince a few people she could compete in blue states
•Really the only Western candidate
•Lost only race (2010 Senate) badly
•Probably too moderate
•Largely unknown, no base of support

Lindsey Graham
Senator, SC

•Prominent Obama critic
•Generally liked by party leaders/establishment
•Media savvy
•Vehemently disliked by grassroots
•Immigration reform efforts hurt him with conservatives
•Would be crowded out by other establishment candidates

John Bolton
Ex-Ambassador to the United Nations

•Foreign policy hardliner and expertise
•Media savvy
•Relatively unknown
•No electoral experience, tough to see him putting together campaign infrastructure
•More gadlfy than candidate
Seventh Tier: Newt Gingrich Society —
“Want to buy a book?”

Peter King
Representative, NY

•Foreign policy hardliner and expertise
•Media savvy
•Probably not conservative enough
•Small base of support (candidates from House rarely win)
•“Pete Who?”

George Pataki
Ex-Governor, NY

•Few enemies because no one remembers him
•Potential Wall Street fundraising base
•Very long elective experience
•Time has passed him by: “George Who?”
•Zero grassroots excitement

Bob Ehrlich
Ex-Governor, MD

— e-mail us if you can think of one
•Lost twice to…Martin O’Malley
•Time has passed him by: “Bob Who?”
•No grassroots support

List changes
Additions: John Bolton, Bob Ehrlich, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Peter King, George Pataki, Rick Snyder
Subtractions: Rob Portman, Paul Ryan

Senate 2016: The Republicans’ 2012 Homework

GOP’s map daunting, but Democrats recently thrived despite starting in similar spot

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 11th, 2014

After playing offense in 2014 and netting nine Senate seats to set up a 54-46 majority in the 114th Congress, Republicans will mostly be playing defense in 2016. That probably means the GOP will end up losing seats, but recent history suggests that we should not be certain about that.

Heading into the 2016 Senate cycle, Republicans find themselves in a position similar to the Democrats going into 2012, with a Senate map dotted with vulnerabilities created by victories won six and 12 years prior.

In 2012, many observers, including us, thought the Republicans were primed to net at least a few Senate seats in large part because the Democrats were defending 23 Senate seats to just 10 for the Republicans. That Democratic exposure was created by the party’s solid wins in 2006, when they netted six Senate seats, and 2000, when they netted four seats. Two straight big elections on the same Senate map suggested the Democrats were in line for losses.

Republicans find themselves in almost the same position Democrats did four years ago, when the 2012 election cycle was taking shape. The GOP is defending 24 seats, while the Democrats only need to protect 10. The 2016 map is also the product of not just one previous big Republican victory, but two. In 2010, the last time this Senate class was contested, Republicans netted six seats. And six years before that, in 2004, Republicans netted four seats.

Map 1, the current occupants of the 34 Senate seats that make up 2016’s Senate Class Three, shows the obvious Republican challenge.

Map 1: 2016’s contested Senate seats

All 10 current Democratic seats are in states that President Obama won in 2012 by at least five points, and only two of those states — Colorado and Nevada — are swing states in a competitive presidential election.

Meanwhile, of the 24 states the Republicans are defending, Obama won seven in 2012: Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Additionally, Republicans are defending North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008 and only lost by two points in 2012.

This somewhat mirrors 2012, too. Going into that election, Democrats were defending five seats in states that Mitt Romney would eventually win, convincingly, in that year’s presidential election: Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and West Virginia, and they also had to protect incumbents in swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, as well as what became open seats in New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Republicans, meanwhile, were defending just three seats in Obama states, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada.

That election ended up working out for the Democrats. Despite their overextended defenses, Democrats eventually ended up netting two seats to win 25 of the 33 seats on the map in 2012. A combination of Obama’s reelection victory, strong Democratic performances, weak challengers, bad primary results, retirements, and other factors conspired to sink Republicans that year.

Might something similar happen in 2016, to the Democrats’ detriment? Sure. But at this early point in the campaign, there’s not much evidence to suggest it will — which of course is the same thing we would have said at the start of the 2012 cycle.

With that, take a look at Map 2, the initial Crystal Ball Senate ratings for 2016.

Map 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Democratic defense

Let’s start with the Democratic seats, because there’s far less to say about them. None of these seats start as Toss-ups, although there’s a big caveat in one.

The most vulnerable Democratic senator going into 2016 is the party’s leader in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. The unpopular Reid had a very difficult campaign in 2010, but he survived thanks to his hapless, foot-in-mouth opponent, Sharron Angle (R), and a tremendous ground operation. Assuming Reid runs again — indications are that he will but he could change his mind — we’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt and start the race as Leans Democratic. However, that will shift if Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV) decides to run. Sandoval is so formidable and popular that his entry into the race would make Reid an underdog. We would move the rating to Leans Republican.

As it stands now, Sandoval seems somewhat unlikely to run, according to Nevada political expert Jon Ralston. The state’s two current GOP House members, Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, have said they are not running. Nevada now has a newly stocked Republican bench thanks to a statewide sweep this November, but there’s not an obviously great alternative behind Sandoval.

The other vulnerable Democrat is Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, and his race starts as Leans Democratic. Sen.-elect Cory Gardner (R) just won an impressive victory in the state’s other Senate seat versus outgoing Sen. Mark Udall (D), but despite running what was probably the best Senate campaign in the country, Gardner got less than 50% and won by just two points. There’s not a candidate as widely regarded as Gardner waiting in the wings to challenge Bennet. A GOP presidential win in the Centennial State is probably a prerequisite for a Senate win, and even then that might not be enough.

That could be it as far as plausible Republican Senate targets. There are eight other Democratic Senate seats on this map: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Obama won all these states by at least 12 points in 2012, and so long as the next presidential race is close, they should all remain Democratic strongholds. With the right candidates, or retirements, maybe Oregon, Washington, or one of these other states becomes competitive. But for now all eight of these seats are Safe Democratic.

Republican defense

The most obvious Democratic Senate targets are three first-term Republicans elected from states that have all voted Democratic in at least the past six presidential elections: Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. These races start as Toss-ups.

Johnson might start as the most vulnerable, especially if former Sen. Russ Feingold (D), whom Johnson beat in 2010, decides on a rematch. The incumbent has done little to moderate his image in the Badger State, which despite Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) three victories in the past four years (two generals and one recall) is still at least a slightly Democratic-leaning state in presidential years. Johnson also has not raised much money, but he is wealthy and has the ability to self-fund.

Kirk’s profile is a better fit for Illinois, but the state is still clearly the most Democratic-leaning in the Midwest. In an age of polarized, straight-ticket voting, Kirk might be this cycle’s Mark Begich, the recently ousted Alaska Democrat who ran a strong race focused on local issues but was unable to overcome his state’s inherent partisanship. There is a long line of potential Democratic contenders for Kirk’s seat, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan and some members of the state’s congressional delegation.

Toomey, a former president of the conservative Club for Growth and a one-time primary challenger to the late moderate Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, is an odd fit for the Democratic-leaning Keystone State. However, Toomey has tried to stick to the center on some issues, such as gun control, realizing that he would be a one-termer if he is perceived as a very conservative senator. Like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania could also feature another rematch, as former Rep. Joe Sestak (D) appears intent on running. The state’s Democratic establishment, perhaps still smarting from Sestak’s successful primary challenge against the party-switching Specter in 2010, appears to prefer a candidate named “someone else,” but it’s not clear that they have a better alternative.

None of these three Republicans is a certain loser, but all are highly vulnerable to start.

The next best Democratic targets are four Republicans who reside in states that are likely to be key pieces of the Electoral College map in 2016: Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Rubio is a possible presidential candidate, so perhaps he will not run for reelection. It’s also not impossible to imagine him passing on both a presidential run and a reelection bid. If Rubio runs again for the Senate, he might merit a better rating than just Leans Republican, and if the seat is open, Republicans have a very deep statewide bench. Democrats, on the other hand, don’t have a long list of potential challengers, although Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) has won rave reviews for his performance on the campaign trail, though he’s just 31 and will only be starting his second term.

Burr is not particularly well known even as he approaches the end of his second term, and he is not sitting on a giant war chest (he has less than $1 million cash on hand, generally much less than other vulnerable senators who have upcoming races). Burr says he is running again, and he has always put together competent campaigns and outperformed the early polls on Election Day. His top potential challenger might be outgoing Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), who just narrowly lost to Sen.-elect Thom Tillis (R) in November.

The victory by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in the Granite State last month in a rotten environment might be an indication that this state, so famous for its political gyrations, might slowly be becoming more like the rest of the Northeast, which is very Democratic. So perhaps Ayotte, who has had a relatively high profile in her first term, might still be in more trouble than one would otherwise think, particularly if Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) decides to challenge her. New Hampshire elects its governor every two years, so Hassan might figure that if she’s going to have to run anyway in 2016, she might as well try to move to Washington. Hassan appears to have the right of first refusal, but if she passes, there are many other Democrats who might be interested in a challenge to Ayotte.

In Ohio, the ultimate presidential swing state, the Democrats just suffered a statewide wipeout for the fifth time in six elections: In 1994, 1998, 2002, 2010, and again last month, the Republicans won all five state elected executive offices (governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state, and treasurer). A generation of losing has left Democrats with a very thin bench from which to field a credible candidate against Portman, who recently announced he was running for reelection instead of mounting a long-shot presidential bid. The top Democratic possibility appears to be former Gov. Ted Strickland (D), who was elected in the lone Democratic state election in the last two decades (2006). However, Portman would have a lot of ammo against Strickland given that he was governor during the 2008 national economic collapse, and the incumbent could simply repackage the attack ads focusing on job losses Gov. John Kasich (R) ran against Strickland in 2010. That’s one key reason why Strickland ultimately decided against a rematch with Kasich in 2014 even though the opportunity was his if he wanted it. Another Democratic possibility is outgoing Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who is well-liked in the state’s biggest city but unknown beyond it. Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is often mentioned as a statewide contender, but we’ll believe he’s running when he actually announces, and not a second before. Portman, meanwhile, is popular amongst the state’s elites and in Washington Republican circles, but he is not a universally-known political force like the two prior occupants of this seat, former Sens. George Voinovich (R) and John Glenn (D). If the Democratic presidential nominee carries Ohio, it’s not impossible to imagine that coattails could carry even a mediocre Democratic challenger over the finish line in an upset, but Portman starts as the clear favorite in both the primary (where he may face a more conservative opponent because of his support for gay marriage) and the general election.

Four other seats, all rated as Likely Republican, merit quick mentions.

If he’s on the November ballot, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will cruise, but maybe he retires or loses a primary. Missouri is often competitive even though it is trending away from being a presidential swing state, but Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) looks well-positioned in both a primary and a general election. After winning as write-in following her 2010 primary defeat, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) needs to decide whether she will run in the GOP primary this time or just give it another go as an independent. Finally, Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) probably can have another term if he wants it, assuming he doesn’t face trouble from a GOP primary electorate that threw out long-time Sen. Richard Lugar (R) in 2012, a decision that allowed Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) to grab the seat.

The common thread: If all four of these senators are on the November ballot, it’s hard to see any of them losing reelection.

One more Likely Republican seat is Louisiana, which may become open if Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) is elected governor next fall. If that happened, Vitter would appoint his own replacement, who would then have to run for a full term in 2016. There’s a lot of uncertainty but presumably the Republicans would be well-positioned to win in a presidential year no matter who the nominee is.

Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) both start as safe assuming they don’t change their minds about their announced intentions to run for another term. So does the Senate seat in Kentucky, no matter what happens with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and his likely attempt to run for both reelection to the Senate and president despite the apparent inability to do so under state law.

The remaining Republican seats up this year also start as safe: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah. We’ll save a look at potential primaries in these or other seats for another time.


Republicans really helped themselves by running up the score last month in the Senate.

The importance of netting nine seats in 2014 as opposed to, say, seven or eight, is clear when one looks at the 2016 contests. If the Republicans were at only a 52-48 edge — a net gain of seven — then Democrats could get to a 51-49 majority in 2016 just by holding all of their own seats and winning the three Toss-ups, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The chances of that combination happening wouldn’t be 50-50, but they would be fairly close to even, and control of the Senate would be very much up in the air to start.

But because the Democrats need to net four or five seats to take control, depending on the party of the next vice president, the Democrats’ opening odds to win the majority are significantly less than 50-50. In order to capture the Senate, Democrats will have to put some currently leaning or likely Republican seats in play, along with winning their own seats and the three GOP-held Toss-ups. That’s certainly possible, but the GOP starts with a clear edge as the cycle begins. However, our opening assessment is that Democrats are well-positioned to end the cycle with more seats than they will hold starting in January (46, including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats).

Of course, history — very recent history — raises questions about even that modest opening evaluation.

Governors 2016: Republicans to Make Further Gains?

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 11th, 2014

Gubernatorial elections take something of a back seat during the presidential cycle. Over time, as most states moved to having four-year terms for their chief executives, most also opted to have their gubernatorial contests in non-presidential years. Just 11 states will choose governors in 2016, versus the 36 that did in 2014 (New Hampshire and Vermont only have two-year terms, placing them in both cycles).

Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t be following the 2016 contests closely, along with the three states that will hold gubernatorial elections in 2015 (Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi). Map 1 shows our first batch of gubernatorial ratings for the 2015-16 cycle, with discussion below.

Map 1: Crystal Ball 2015-16 gubernatorial ratings

Coming off of a successful 2014 cycle that saw them win two net governorships, Republicans now hold a 31-18 edge nationally (if we include Peter Shumlin of Vermont in the Democratic total; his situation is discussed below), with one independent in Alaska. The GOP could add further seats during the 2015-16 cycle in part because three red states (Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia) have Democratic incumbents who are term limited, producing open-seat races in places where the GOP may have a natural advantage, particularly in the Obama years.

The 2015 trio of states are all fairly to heavily Republican, meaning that Louisiana and Mississippi are likely to remain in GOP hands. Kentucky will probably feature a competitive contest, but after eight years of Democratic rule in the Bluegrass State, Republicans may benefit from a “time for change” sentiment among the electorate. However, it is worth noting that Democrats did surprisingly well in the 2014 Kentucky legislative elections, holding the line in the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives even as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) was reelected in a landslide. Despite that, we’re inclined to view Republicans as slight favorites as the cycle begins.

While Democrats were partially pleased about Kentucky in 2014, the same could not be said about West Virginia. Republicans gained control of both chambers of the Mountain State legislature for the first time in eight decades, yet another signal of the state’s shift toward the GOP. With Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) term-limited, the GOP may be able to win the governorship as well in 2016. Much will depend on Sen. Joe Manchin (D), the former governor who is now the state’s only Democrat in Congress. Despite West Virginia’s Republican turn, Manchin has remained a strong force, easily winning his 2012 Senate race. Now in the minority in the Senate, Manchin is considering the idea of running for governor again. If he runs, Manchin may be tough to beat; if he doesn’t, the GOP will have better odds at winning back the governorship for the first time since 1996. As we wait for Manchin’s decision, the race starts as a Toss-up. If Manchin runs, he would start as a favorite despite the state’s growing GOP tilt.

In Missouri, term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon (D) hasn’t exactly been praised for his handling of the admittedly difficult series of events in Ferguson, almost certainly ending any presidential aspirations he may have once had. In recent years, Missouri has become a more Republican state outside of the major metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis, and after eight years with a Democrat ruling the roost in Jefferson City, Republicans start as slight favorites. This remains true even if Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) decides to make a run. Like Manchin in West Virginia, she may not want to stick around the Senate now that the GOP holds a majority. Having lost the state’s 2004 gubernatorial contest, McCaskill could be looking at another gubernatorial run. But while she might appear strong on paper, remember that McCaskill would have been an underdog to win reelection in her 2012 Senate race if not for Republican nominee Todd Akin’s commentary about “legitimate rape.” Attorney General Chris Koster is another Democratic possibility, and the leading Republican candidates are former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and state Auditor Tom Schweich.

Depending on how things shake out, Republicans could also have a shot in Montana, a red state, as well as in New Hampshire and Vermont.

In Big Sky Country, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will be running for reelection. While his incumbency makes him a slight favorite now, Montana’s conservative leanings won’t make it easy for him. However, Attorney General Tim Fox’s (R) decision to run for reelection rather than challenge Bullock is a good sign for the incumbent. In New Hampshire, it’s not at all clear what Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) will decide to do in 2016. She could run again for governor or possibly take a shot at Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in the Senate. An open-seat race in the Granite State would almost certainly start as a Toss-up, but Hassan will be at least a small favorite if she runs again. Next door, in Vermont, it’s plausible that Republicans could make a play for the Green Mountain State governorship. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has only won a majority of the vote in one of three elections. In fact, his 2014 race is still pending: Because no candidate won a majority — Shumlin only won a small plurality — the Democratic-controlled legislature will have to elect him, just as it did after the 2010 election. Shumlin, or another Democrat if he steps down, would benefit from the 2016 presidential race in deep blue Vermont. Nevertheless, unheralded Scott Milne (R) nearly pulled off a shocking upset in 2014 and might want to take another shot. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R), the only elected statewide Republican, could also be a solid option. He easily won reelection in 2014.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) would be a safe bet to win reelection, but whether or not he will seek a return to Indianapolis remains an open question at this point. There have been plenty of rumblings that Pence might run for president, and he would be a strong player in the Republican field if he does. Should Pence take a shot at the White House, an open-seat race in Indiana would probably be competitive, just as it was in 2012 when Pence only defeated former state House Speaker John Gregg (D) by three percentage points. Gregg may run again, especially if Pence isn’t in the way. So might former Rep. Baron Hill (D).

Democrats may only be on the offensive in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) controversial tenure makes him no sure thing to win reelection. Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) appears to be the likely Democratic nominee in the Tar Heel State, and he’s been gearing up to take on McCrory since 2013. With the state’s slight Republican lean and his incumbency, McCrory starts as a narrow favorite. Nonetheless, North Carolina will be a top-to-bottom battleground state in 2016, and this contest is a good bet to wind up being the most hard-fought and costly gubernatorial race in the nation. It’s hard to forget the just-concluded Tar Heel Senate race cost more than $100 million.

As for the unmentioned races, Democrats will start as strong favorites in Delaware and Washington, while Republicans will be overwhelming bets to hold onto North Dakota and Utah.

After state-level wipeouts in gubernatorial and state legislative races in both 2010 and 2014, Democrats are vowing to redouble their efforts in these contests in the upcoming election cycle. But the small number of governorships that will be contested over the next two years gives them few opportunities to cut into the Republicans’ big edge in state governorships, and the GOP has more credible targets this cycle, at least on paper.