Sabato's Crystal Ball

Senate 2016: Sorting Out the Democrats’ Best Targets

Johnson falls, Toomey rises, in our latest ratings

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 21st, 2015

Former Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D) long-expected decision to challenge Sen. Ron Johnson (R) in a 2016 rematch crystallized for us that Johnson is the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the country. But it also helped put the other top Senate races into context.

First of all, let’s re-set the scene. Map 1 shows Senate Class 3, which will be contested in November 2016. The 34 seats up next year are lopsidedly controlled by Republicans: They are defending 24 seats, while the Democrats are only defending 10.

Map 1: Senate Class 3, which is up for election in 2016

This is what happens in Senate elections: The successes of one cycle that occur under favorable conditions — 2010 for Republicans — lead to challenges in a future cycle where the national environment is not as ideal. The GOP is overextended on next year’s Senate map, period.

However, Republicans are not as overextended as Democrats were on last year’s Senate map. Democrats held seven seats going into that election won by Mitt Romney — Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia — and all but one (North Carolina) were blowouts for the GOP in 2012. Even including the Tar Heel State, Romney got an average of 57% of the vote in these seven states, or about 10 points better than he performed nationally. Republicans swept all seven states, and added swing states won twice by President Obama, Colorado and Iowa, to their Senate haul, netting nine seats and a 54-46 edge in the current Congress. Additionally, four of those nine flipped seats were open, so retirements hurt Democrats as well.

In 2016, Republicans are the ones defending turf won by the other party in the last presidential election, but it’s a collection of states whose presidential election results were far closer to the national average in 2012. Obama-state Republicans are defending seven seats: Florida, Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Of these, the Land of Lincoln is really the only one that we feel supremely confident the Democratic presidential nominee will carry; at the same time, only Florida and Ohio were less Democratic than the nation as a whole in Obama’s two elections.

Taken together, Obama’s average 2012 performance in these seven states was 52.4%, or roughly just a point and a half better than he did nationally. Additionally, one of these states has an entrenched, popular incumbent — Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — who is virtually guaranteed reelection so long as he’s on the ballot (and he plans to be). Of the other six, only one, Florida, is an open seat.

The point is this: Democrats have tantalizing opportunities in ‘16, but the terrain is not as clearly favorable to them as the 2014 map was to the Republicans.

Early attention has focused on the three most reliably Democratic states of the seven mentioned above: Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It is right to assume that there’s not much of a credible path to a Democratic Senate restoration if the party doesn’t sweep these states, and reasonable minds differ as to which state provides the best opportunity for Democrats. We started all three states as Toss-ups in our initial ratings, but we now see the races as distinctly different.

Which brings us back to Feingold, and the first domino Democrats must knock over to win the Senate.

There seems to be a wide consensus that, of the vulnerable Republican senators in 2016, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is the weakest. While Feingold has undeniable vulnerabilities, and he is hardly a lock to win back the Senate seat he lost to Johnson in 2010, we think he starts as the favorite. So we’re moving Wisconsin to Leans Democratic and making Johnson the explicit underdog — an unusual position for an incumbent, especially this early in the cycle. But even members of Johnson’s party seriously question whether he has made the kind of ideological concessions in the Senate that could help him win under conditions that probably won’t be as ideal as they were for him in 2010. The respected Marquette Law School Poll shows Feingold leading Johnson by a staggering 16 points as the race begins. That strikes us as high, but we do believe Feingold begins ahead.

Optimistic Democrats also expect to take the Senate seat in reliably blue Illinois, which they lost to Mark Kirk (R) in the GOP wave year of 2010 by a small margin (about 1.5 points). Kirk had been a five-term House member from the suburban Chicago area; he represented a competitive seat and voted a fairly moderate line. Kirk’s recognition of the need to attract Democratic votes produced a similar Senate record, but the senator is more defined by the devastating stroke he suffered in January 2012. While he survived the ordeal, Kirk faced a long and difficult rehabilitation to overcome substantial paralysis. His determination to return to the Senate despite continuing physical limitations has won him both sympathy and respect, and Kirk is already running an ad about his recovery.

Illinois will undoubtedly back the Democratic presidential nominee, and probably by a wide margin, which should provide a major assist to the party’s eventual Senate candidate. That’s likely to be Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a two-term congresswoman and a much-decorated double amputee in the Iraq War, though at least one other candidate, Chicago Urban League president and CEO Andrea Zopp, is also vying for the nomination. At this point, the only sensible rating continues to be Toss-up, even though Illinois is more Democratic than Wisconsin. We’re giving Kirk some benefit of the doubt, and we want to see how Duckworth performs as a statewide candidate.

Finally, there’s Pennsylvania, which is generally a bit more Democratic than the nation as a whole in presidential races. While Sen. Pat Toomey (R) only barely beat former Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in 2010, we think the race has developed in such a way that he merits a slight edge in our ratings: We’re moving Pennsylvania Senate to Leans Republican.

Franklin and Marshall Prof. Terry Madonna and former Penn State professor Michael Young recently made a solid observation about Toomey in their regular Politically Uncorrected column on Pennsylvania politics: “Toomey’s personal style is neither confrontational nor provocative. His mild mannered and low-key demeanor resonates well with the Pennsylvania electorate. Indeed, it is a style Republicans have won with for decades despite the substantial Democratic voter registration edge in the Keystone state.”

Remember, this is the state that reelected Rick Santorum (R) to the Senate in 2000 while backing Al Gore, and although Santorum is to the left economically of Toomey, who is a former president of the very economically conservative Club for Growth, Toomey is not nearly the culture warrior that Santorum was and is. Toomey’s savvy enough that he’s probably not going to beat himself, though a recent reversal — he stopped sponsoring a bill that would have delayed a train safety system after the recent deadly Amtrak crash — is but one issue that Democrats can attempt to exploit against a senator who is significantly more conservative than a majority of his constituents.

Another factor is at work in the Keystone State. National Democrats loathe Joe Sestak, who is running again. The antipathy has developed for a multitude of reasons, not least his successful challenge to party-switching former Sen. Arlen Specter in a 2010 primary as well as the fact that Sestak simply does not take direction or advice from the leadership. With some encouragement, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski (D) jumped into the primary, but his bid for governor last cycle was a flop. Democrats are probably going to try to get another candidate to enter — Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro (D) is often mentioned — but at this point they appear likely to be stuck with Sestak. And it’s quite possible Sestak could beat Toomey; he came close to Toomey six years ago in a highly unfavorable national environment. National Democrats will almost certainly support Sestak’s candidacy (if he’s the nominee) because of the importance of this seat in their overall Senate strategy. Let’s remember, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ended up spending millions against Toomey (and in support of Sestak) in 2010 despite propping up Specter in the primary.

The presidential race might matter more in this race than any other factor: If Hillary Clinton wins by more than Barack Obama’s 2012 Pennsylvania margin of slightly more than five points, Toomey will be in real trouble. But as of now we can imagine the incumbent winning a majority of the small pool of actual independents plus a few points worth of crossover support from Democratic presidential voters, which might be enough. This is a very tenuous Leans Republican, like similarly rated races featuring first-term GOP incumbents in New Hampshire and Ohio.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Map 2: 2016 Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Ultimately, there’s a three-step process that Democrats must complete to win back the Senate next year:

  1. Hold all 10 of their current seats, including the open Toss-up in Nevada (the retiring Harry Reid’s seat) and a Leans Democratic seat held by Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in Colorado. Both seats should be competitive, although Colorado is clearly the easier hold for Democrats right now, for reasons that veteran handicapper Stuart Rothenberg explained well earlier this week. Democrats have clear candidates in these races: the incumbent Bennet (CO) and former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, the likely nominee in Nevada. Meanwhile, Republicans are still narrowing down their challengers, but the top potential candidates for each appear to be sitting House members who represent swing districts: Reps. Mike Coffman (CO) and Joe Heck (NV), who each seem to be about 50-50 to run and who could potentially coast to the GOP nomination in their respective states. Barring catastrophe, Democrats should have no trouble holding their other eight current seats on this map, even though open seats in California and Maryland will feature somewhat competitive primaries. Accomplishing all of this would maintain the Democrats’ current total of 46 seats, assuming all the current Democratic senators not up for reelection this cycle stay in office (Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota could run for governor next year, which could create a vacancy that would affect the Senate math).
  2. Win Wisconsin, where we now give the Democrats a slight edge, and Toss-up races in Illinois (against Kirk) and Florida (the open seat that Sen. Marco Rubio is giving up to run for the presidency). We addressed Illinois above; in the Sunshine State, the Republican Senate primary could feature Rep. Ron DeSantis vs. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, with outside conservative groups lining up for DeSantis and party leadership potentially backing Lopez-Cantera, although other candidates may still emerge (among those considering the race are millionaire businessman Randy Fine, former Attorney General Bill McCollum, and Reps. Jeff Miller and David Jolly). On the Democratic side, Rep. Patrick Murphy is the favorite of party leaders, though bomb-throwing Rep. Alan Grayson, who many Democrats believe is unelectable statewide, could also run in the primary. Democrats would love to avoid a divisive primary, and they know if Grayson runs, he’s unlikely to soft-pedal his attacks on Murphy. Anyway, wins in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida, should they occur, would get Democrats to 49 seats.
  3. Win two of the following three races: Senate contests against first-term GOP incumbents in New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte, who Gov. Maggie Hassan might challenge), Ohio (Rob Portman, who probably will face former Gov. Ted Strickland next year), or Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey, whose potential opponents were mentioned above) — OR win just one of those seats plus the tie-breaking vice presidency. That would get Democrats to either 51 seats, or 50 seats and the VP. A successful challenge to two-term Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) or some other unforeseen Democratic upset would also suffice, but we see the other options as more plausible at this point.

Ultimately, our assessment of the Senate situation remains this: Democrats have a decent chance to win the Senate next year, but the Republicans retain better odds to hold it because of the cushion they built for themselves in last year’s election. If the GOP had only won a total of 51 or 52 seats in 2014, then Democrats might well be hurtling toward a Senate takeover in ’16.

The great unknown as of May 2015 is the presidential outcome. If either party’s top-of-the-ticket candidate runs impressively and has coattails in most of these swing presidential/Senate states, then the bonus on election night will be control of both the White House and the Senate. After all, split-ticket victories are getting few and far between, not just in solid red and blue territory but also in the most competitive states.

Governors 2015-2016: Republicans Lose Edge in Kentucky

Intra-party divisions causing early problems for GOP in red states

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 21st, 2015

The potential for Republicans to build on their already-gaudy collection of state governorships — they hold 31 of 50 — was rooted in their red state opportunities among the 15 states being contested this year and next year. Democrats are defending open seats in Kentucky this year, and Missouri and West Virginia next year. These are all states that Republicans now regularly win at the presidential level but where Democrats retain strength in elections for statewide executive offices. Democrats hold five of six of these executive offices in each of these three states.

Still, one would think that Republicans should have a generic advantage in these states given the increasing nationalization of gubernatorial races and a natural desire for change following what will be at least eight straight years of Democratic control in each state. But there’s reason to question that generic GOP edge in all three states.

In Tuesday’s Republican primary in Kentucky, businessman Matt Bevin apparently defeated Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner. Bevin was the third wheel in the race for much of the contest as Comer and Heiner battled for first, but late-breaking accusations that Comer abused a former girlfriend upended the race, particularly because Comer alleged that Heiner played a role in bringing the accusations to light.

The result cannot please the state GOP’s leader, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Bevin challenged McConnell in a primary last year, which the long-time incumbent won handily. Bevin did not endorse McConnell in the general election. One would not expect McConnell to do much for Bevin, although it is worth remembering that Sen. Rand Paul got his start by defeating a McConnell ally in a 2010 Senate primary. McConnell and Paul are now uneasy allies, and McConnell has at least technically endorsed his fellow Bluegrass State senator for president, though we doubt McConnell’s support is all that deep.

Bevin, assuming a recanvass and possible recount confirms his 83-vote win over Comer, moves on to face state Attorney General Jack Conway (D) in the general election. Conway lost to Paul in that 2010 Senate race.

We have legitimate questions about the state party’s ability to come together after such a muddy primary, especially because the primary produced a candidate who just last year alienated vast swathes of the party leadership. Also, Democrats have shown mettle in Kentucky over the past few cycles: term-limited Gov. Steve Beshear (D) is popular and performed well in his two election victories, and Republican efforts to win the state House of Representatives last year stalled.

The general election, we think, is anyone’s game. In fact, Conway probably starts out ahead, and Bevin will have to work hard to mend the fences he should have mended last year. The Kentucky governors’ race is now a Toss-up, as opposed to Leans Republican.

What happened in Kentucky reminds us of the unsettled field in next year’s Missouri GOP gubernatorial primary, although the events in the latter go far beyond the rough stuff and controversy of the Kentucky primary. State Auditor Tom Schweich (R) committed suicide earlier this year, and mean-spirited attacks from his political enemies appear to have contributed to the tragedy. As we wrote in April when we changed the rating from Leans Republican to Toss-up, the circumstances are unique and the primary and general election are hard to handicap. Announced or potential candidates include former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, 2012 Senate candidate/businessman John Brunner, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens, and state Sen. Mike Parson, among others. State Attorney General Chris Koster, a former Republican, has a clear path to the Democratic nomination.

In another 2016 red-state gubernatorial race — West Virginia — we still see a narrow Republican edge after Sen. Joe Manchin (D) passed on a run for his old job, but the candidacy of billionaire coal mine owner Jim Justice (D) is putting that rating to the test. Justice, who has never run for office but generated goodwill in the state by saving the Greenbrier resort, can effectively put unlimited amounts of money into the contest if he wants. However, Justice has a long and checkered business history for his opponents to dissect, and he does not have a clear primary field. State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler is also running for the nomination, though he appears to be a substantial underdog.

Republicans could have a primary of their own, with state Senate President Bill Cole, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and U.S. Rep. David McKinley all considering the race.

The two other gubernatorial elections this year, in the Deep South’s Louisiana and Mississippi, should both stay Republican, though there are developments for political watchers to monitor in both states.

In Louisiana, an all-party primary in November will determine who advances to a runoff if no one clears 50%, which is likely. Sen. David Vitter (R) is the favorite, but there are two other credible Republican candidates, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, along with a single noteworthy Democrat, state Rep. John Bel Edwards. A recent poll from Southern Media and Opinion Research showed Vitter and Edwards advancing to the runoff. It may be that Dardenne and Angelle will need to train their fire not on Vitter, but on each other and Edwards, in order to set up a runoff with Vitter in December. Indeed, Louisiana State University Prof. Robert Mann, a former Democratic staffer and shrewd Bayou State political observer, just made a compelling argument about why state Democrats’ best bet to influence the gubernatorial outcome is to vote for a Republican other than Vitter. We agree with Mann: Edwards really doesn’t have a path to victory, so we’re moving the race from Likely Republican to Safe Republican. But maybe one of the other Republicans could make the runoff and get enough crossover support to threaten the front-running Vitter.

On the other side of the Mississippi River, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) will have little trouble defeating attorney Vicki Slater (D) in his reelection bid, although there could be action down the ticket. Popular state Attorney General Jim Hood (D), the only statewide elected Democrat in the Deep South, is running for another term, and (while it is probably an illusion) Democrats believe they have an outside shot to win back the state House. Republicans currently control every state legislative chamber in the 11 states of the old Confederacy.

The bottom line remains that Republicans are likelier to end 2016 with more governorships than they now control, but their path is bumpier than it seemed at the beginning of this cycle. Map 1 shows our ratings of the 2015 and 2016 gubernatorial contests.

Map 1: 2015-2016 Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

Democrats 2016: Sanders Now Clinton’s Chief Rival

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 14th, 2015

“Inevitable.” That’s the word often used to describe Hillary Clinton and the 2016 Democratic nomination. Can anyone beat her? Anything’s possible, but the odds appear quite low. Still, her most threatening intraparty opposition could prove to be a man who isn’t even technically a Democrat (yet, anyway): independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-identified “democratic socialist.” We see him as a potential thorn in Clinton’s side, and to reflect that, we are moving Sanders to the top of the non-Clinton tier in our presidential rankings for Democrats.

Some progressive activists are still hoping Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) will get into the race. However, while she reportedly met with some members of the “Draft Warren” movement in late April, it still seems very unlikely that the Bay State senator will run. The idea of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) running, and doing so credibly, is even harder to fathom than a Warren candidacy: He’s only less than a year and a half into his first term, and already he is controversial and has just a 44% job approval rating (according to Tuesday’s Quinnipiac survey).

Sanders is in a position to fill the void to Clinton’s left, possibly attracting voters who are skeptical of Clinton because of her ties to Wall Street and her perceived hawkishness on foreign policy issues. Because of his issue positions and personality, Sanders could be an attractive candidate for liberals who want someone to press Clinton on topics like income inequality, free trade, and her Senate vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq War (although that vote is now more than a decade old).

On the issues, Sanders was the third-most liberal senator in the last Congress, behind only Warren and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). His presidential announcement speech highlighted his goal of creating “an economy that works for all people rather than a small number of billionaires” and denounced the role of money in politics, particularly the post-Citizens United campaign finance system. While a member of the House in 2002, Sanders voted against the Iraq War and is a leading opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and other free trade deals. He has also favored nixing the Keystone XL Pipeline project, a matter about which Clinton has remained publicly undecided. These are all positions that will win him support among progressive and labor groups.

But along with his policy views, Sanders’ personal characteristics may also make him a potent “protest” option for liberals in the Democratic primary. He is assertive and knows precisely what he believes in –and is unabashed in expressing himself. Moreover, Sanders is unlikely to have delusions of grandeur — he knows he isn’t going to be the presidential nominee — so he has nothing to lose by pushing Clinton hard.

Looking back at past presidential campaigns, a point of comparison for Sanders is Eugene McCarthy, the Democratic Minnesota senator and three-time presidential candidate. McCarthy ran against President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary and stunned everyone by nearly defeating the incumbent. The outcome spurred Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to announce his own candidacy and led to Johnson’s stunning decision to not seek reelection. Like Sanders, McCarthy had an independent streak, and in fact McCarthy ran for the presidency in 1976 as an independent. Democrats are relieved that Sanders has personally pledged not to bolt like McCarthy and play a Ralph Nader-like role (a la 2000) in the 2016 general election campaign.

To some extent, Clinton may be okay with Sanders potentially becoming her most serious opponent. Clinton has long known that someone would emerge to make the Democratic primary battle at least a minimal contest for the media to cover. Additionally, plenty of party activists in the early states want some competition in the race. Why not have her main challenger be the very liberal Sanders, someone who will lack the resources and standing to truly threaten her? Clinton also knows that she will need the base to turn out heavily in November 2016, so she has already moved to the left on certain issues, most recently immigration. Whereas someone like ex-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-MD) fits the profile of a more serious challenger to Clinton (or did at some point), Sanders is a senator from one of the smallest states, is unknown to most Americans, and cannot defeat Clinton, barring incredible unforeseen circumstances.

Speaking of O’Malley, his stock has tumbled in light of the recent events in Baltimore, where he served as mayor prior to becoming governor of Maryland. Criminal justice policies he implemented as mayor, such as zero-tolerance policing, have come under fire from critics who believe they contributed to the long-term problems undergirding the recent riots in Charm City. O’Malley has said he would announce in Baltimore “if” he runs for president, a very likely move at this point, but this location won’t provide an ideal campaign backdrop. Although he has to own and defend his record as mayor and governor if he’s to remain a credible candidate, Baltimore’s unrest can and will be used against O’Malley. For the time being, he is positioned behind Sanders in our rankings.

While we have shifted our Democratic rankings this week, we also have one change on the Republican side of the ledger: Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI) announced last week that he will not seek the 2016 GOP nomination for president, meaning that we can again remove him from the Crystal Ball list. We had actually taken Snyder out of our rankings weeks ago but brought him back in our last Republican update because of numerous reports suggesting he would run. But now that he’s explicitly said he won’t, “one tough nerd” exits our rankings. That leaves a still-staggering 19 names on our Republican list, which you can see here.

Our Democratic rankings are below in Table 1.

Table 1: Crystal Ball rankings of Democratic presidential candidates

First Tier: The Undisputed Frontrunner
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
•Dominant position scaring off other top Democrats
•Positioning self to avoid being outflanked on her left
•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
•Scandals already emerging
•What policy rationale is there for a new Clinton presidency?
Second Tier: Nobody
EMPTY — Clinton stands apart
Third Tier: The Others
Bernie Sanders
Senator (Ind.),
•Left loves him
•Small-donor fundraising potential
•Gadfly: Plenty of freedom because he has little chance of winning
•Not actually a Democrat
•Outsider in what is very much an insider process
•Gadfly: Few expect him to win so will voters take him seriously?
Martin O’Malley
Ex-Governor, MD
•Liberal record and policy achievements
•Starting to show willingness to mix it up with Clinton
•Baltimore baggage
•Chosen successor lost Maryland governorship
•Nationally unknown
Jim Webb
Ex-Senator, VA
•Unique populist niche
•Strong military background with Democratic views
•Not liberal enough
•Not the best stump speaker
Lincoln Chafee
•Voted against Iraq war
•Willingness to attack Clinton
•Never elected as a Democrat
•Left office very unpopular
•No base of support in party, nationally unknown
The Wild Card
Joe Biden
Vice President
•Vast experience
•VP bully pulpit
•Age (73 by Election Day ’16)
•Gaffe machine
•Poor presidential campaign history