Decision 2014: Handicapping the US Senate races


In general, midterm elections are a good barometer of what the public thinks of the party in power. What makes this midterm election interesting is that the US Senate is up for grabs – Democrats currently control that chamber 55-45.

The Senate is in play for three reasons: (1) midterm elections typically tilt against the party in power, (2) those Democrats elected in the 2008 landslide are now up for re-election, so they have more exposure (i.e., seats to defend) than Republicans do, and (3) Republicans seats are in more favorable terrain, while several Democrats are defending seats in states where President Obama is unpopular.

However, the theoretical background we just described also has to be weighed against this reality: elections are as much of a function of the candidates running as they are of voter attitudes. To illustrate, the Republicans in 2010 and 2012 in the aggregate lost five winnable Senate races (Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada) due to the quality of the candidate they nominated. By a curious coincidence, these five “lost opportunity” seats equal the margin by which Democrats control the Senate . Will there be missed opportunities this year? At this stage in election season, we truly don’t have an answer to that question – of the 36 Senate races on the ballot this year, only two have thus far conducted their primaries.


On surface, there would be seem to be near parity in terms of seats up for election: 21 of the 36 seats are held by Democrats, while 15 are Republican held. However, only one of the Republican held seats is from a state Obama carried (Susan Collins in Maine), while seven of the 21 Democratic held seats are in states Mitt Romney carried. That imbalance is what makes the Senate races competitive.

Plus, there is an additional factor: it’s always easier to pick up an open seat than it is to defeat an incumbent – of the nine open seats, six are held by Democrats, and three are held by Republicans. This factor similarly helps Republicans this year.

Given these dynamics, here’s how JMC sees the Senate races at this time (Gray = no Senate race, dark red = safe Republican, pink = lean Republican, yellow=tossup, light blue = lean Democratic, dark blue – safe Democratic):

2014 Senate races

2014 Senate races











Safe Democratic (8 seats)

Delaware – Chris Coons

Hawaii – Brian Schatz

Illinois – Dick Durbin

Massachusetts – Ed Markey

New Jersey – Cory Booker

New Mexico – Tom Udall

Oregon – Jeff Merkley

Rhode Island – Jack Reed

JMC Commentary – All of these states were carried by Obama by at least 10 points. Plus, these incumbents haven’t yet drawn top tier challengers. Unless voter opinion swings substantially against the Democrats in upcoming months, these seats will keep their “dark blue” classification.


Lean Democratic (3 seats)

Minnesota – Al Franken

New Hampshire – Jeanne Shaheen

Virginia – Mark Warner

JMC Commentary – These seats are on the “watch list” for several reasons: (1) all three seats were Democratic pickups in the 2008 election (that year, Democrats gained 10 seats in the Senate), (2) all three states went for Obama, but not overwhelmingly, (3) with New Hampshire and Virginia, both Democratic incumbents have drawn respectable challengers, and (4) what little polling has been done on the Minnesota Senate race shows incumbent Al Franken hovering around 50% against various challengers – it’s important to remember that he only won his first election with 42% of the vote.


Tossup (8 seats)

Alaska – Mark Begich

Arkansas – Mark Pryor

Colorado – Mark Udall

Iowa – open seat

Louisiana – Mary Landrieu

Michigan – open seat

Montana – John Walsh (appointed to this seat when Max Baucus resigned)

North Carolina – Kay Hagan

JMC Commentary – Given that these eight seats determine who controls the Senate, there is another level of analysis we need to perform: open seat races vs races with an incumbent.

While the two open seats (Iowa and Michigan) are in states Obama carried, statewide and local Republican candidates have consistently outperformed Republican Presidential candidates. In Michigan (which has a Republican Governor, legislature, and a majority of the US House delegation), Republicans have coalesced behind their Secretary of State Terry Land, and she is running competitively in the polls. Iowa has a Republican Governor, a split Legislature, and a split US House delegation. While the Republicans don’t have “name” candidates, the race took a different turn when the presumptive Democratic nominee was caught making disparaging remarks about farmers at a Democratic fundraiser. This gaffe, in addition to his earlier complaint about the House gym not having towels, has put the Democrat in a less than flattering spotlight. This race, however, is still unsettled, because the GOP may possibly have to use a convention to choose its nominee if no one gets 35% of the vote in the June 3 primary.

The six seats with incumbents are unique situations, and each one has to be discussed separately. In Arkansas and Colorado, the Republicans got incumbent House members to risk a Senate run, and in both situations, these races are two close to call.  In North Carolina, the race is similarly a tossup (as are the state’s political leanings), but we may not have a Republican nominee until the July15 runoff (the primary is on May 6). Montana is a situation where there is an appointed Democratic incumbent, but the Republicans have a June 3 primary – this is another situation where a US House member has decided to seek a promotion to the US Senate. The August 19 primary in Alaska will similarly determine the degree to which the Democratic incumbent is vulnerable.

The Louisiana Senate race deserves its own mention. Three term incumbent Mary Landrieu has never been elected/re-elected with more than 52% of the vote, and recent votes on Obamacare and gun legislation have hurt her. However, she faces multiple Republican opponents: Congressman Bill Cassidy is running on the same ballot as state Representative Paul Hollis and retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness (who has TEA Party support). This race will almost certainly go to a runoff on December 6, and the mobilization efforts of either side will make all the difference.


Lean Republican (4 seats)

Georgia – open seat

Kentucky – Mitch McConnell

South Dakota – open seat

West Virginia – open seat

JMC Commentary – While to a large extent, the Republicans are on the offense this year, there are two seats where Democrats feel confident of their chances. Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell has always had close races, and he has drawn a tough opponent in Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes. Still, his task is easier, as Obama’s unpopularity is very high – a convicted felon got more than 40% of the Democratic primary vote in 2012. Georgia is a similar situation: Democrats are running Michelle Nunn (the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn), while the Republicans have a competitive primary on May 20 that almost certainly will go into a July 22 runoff. Democrats are also confident about Georgia because Obama was competitive here in the 2008 and 2012 elections. However, the record minority turnout he sparked typically stays home in midterm elections, so Georgia is likely to have more of a Republican tilt this year.

South Dakota and West Virginia are open Democratic seats in Republican leaning states where the Republicans have solid candidates running, and at the present time, Republicans see these two seats as pickup opportunities.


Safe Republican (13 seats)

Alabama – Jeff Sessions (who actually has no Democratic opponent)

Idaho – Jim Risch

Kansas – Pat Roberts

Maine – Susan Collins

Mississippi – Thad Cochran

Nebraska – open seat

Oklahoma – open seat and James Inhofe

South Carolina – Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott

Tennessee – Lamar Alexander

Texas – John Cornyn

Wyoming – Mike Enzi

JMC Commentary – These seats are in Republican states, although there are several competitive primaries. Nebraska is first on May 13, followed by Mississippi on June 3, where 36 year incumbent Thad Cochran is getting a spirited challenge from TEA Party aligned state senator Chris McDaniel. South Carolina is a week later, and two term incumbent Lindsey Graham is facing multiple challengers who hope to force him in a runoff (although that prospect at this time is unlikely). Oklahoma has its primary on June 24 for an open seat, which possibly may go into a runoff. The Kansas primary on August 5 could be competitive, given that the Republican incumbent was found out not to have an actual residence in Kansas. However, his opponent recently self destructed when it was recently discovered that he was making uncharitable remarks on Facebook about X-rays of gunshot victims. Finally, Tennessee has its primary on August 7. This is another situation where conservative activists wanted to punish an incumbent for not being conservative enough, although the incumbent in question (Lamar Alexander) will likely not have any problems here – Tennessee is one of two Southern states that doesn’t have a runoff, and Senator Alexander has multiple opponents.


If we want to assume that the GOP can hold own to its two vulnerable seats in Georgia and Kentucky, they need to pick up six seats to take control of the Senate. South Dakota and West Virginia are most likely to flip to the Republicans, and Montana is fairly likely. This would put the GOP at 48 Senators, and they would only need to pick off three Democratic incumbents to take control of the US Senate. As primary season progresses, we will keep you updated as to the status of these races.