U.S. Senate

Senate control looks tantalizingly close for the GOP, but Democrats still have a fair chance to hold the line.

National Journal

By Scott Bland, Andrea Drusch and Alex Roarty
October 13, 2014

Three weeks before Election Day, Republicans are on the brink of winning the Senate. But their advantage is so slight that a morale-sapping defeat is still very much possible.

That’s the state of play in the latest edition of National Journal Hotline’s Senate race rankings. At this point, it looks like Republicans have the inside track on taking over six red states currently represented by Democrats, and two of this year’s rock-star GOP nominees also have Democrats on the ropes in a pair of swing states, Iowa and Colorado. Those states could give Republicans some breathing room if a state such as Alaska surprises when the returns come in. But late-breaking trouble in Kansas, of all places, has opened the door to continued Democratic control a little bit wider.

Democrats currently control 55 seats in the Senate, meaning the GOP has to win six to take over the chamber. As we’ve said before, the best way to think about the Senate landscape is in tiers: The top three states look very likely to flip; the GOP appears to have smaller advantages in the next three states; the next bloc of three look like something close to pure toss-ups; and the incumbent party is favored in the races after No. 9. The races in our list are ordered by the likelihood of the seat flipping between the parties.

1. Montana (Open D, Sen. John Walsh retiring) (Previous ranking: 3)

Montana Democrats are on their third candidate of the cycle at this point (fourth, if you count Brian Schweitzer’s planned-then-canceled bid) after Walsh withdrew following graduate-school plagiarism revelations. That, in a nutshell, shows why the state has been the Democrats worst Senate race of 2014. It’s almost hard to remember that last year, most analysts believed either Sen. Max Baucus or the former Gov. Schweitzer would hold the seat for their party. Now, GOP Rep. Steve Daines is nearly certain to win against Democratic state Rep. Amanda Curtis, which will mark the first time a Republican will hold the seat in more than 100 years.

2. West Virginia (Open D, Sen. Jay Rockefeller retiring) (Previous: 2)

Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant hasn’t done badly at all in this race, but GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is just too strong and the state too conservative. This race has never really been on the radar, despite some late July spending by Senate Majority PAC—which just happened, coincidentally we’re sure, to almost match the $250,000 Rockefeller donated to the Democratic super PAC this year.

3. South Dakota (Open D, Sen. Tim Johnson retiring) (Previous: 1)

Almost overnight, this race has risen from the dead. Make no mistake: Former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds is still the favorite here. But a coalition of outside groups has been hammering Rounds on his involvement in a visa scandal, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said its internal polls showed a close-enough race to prompt a late $1 million TV blitz that started this week. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is responding with $1 million of its own. But with Rounds, Democrat Rick Weiland, and former Sen. Larry Pressler—a former Republican-turned-Obama-praising independent—splitting votes, each side faces a puzzling question of where to direct its firepower. While Rounds still solidly holds control of this race, Republicans are lamenting a lack of effort from what should have been a sure-thing campaign, forcing them to spend money in an unexpected place while other races around the country remain tightly contested.

4. Louisiana (D, Sen. Mary Landrieu) (Previous: 4)

The last few months have dulled some of the shine on Landrieu’s vaunted political operation. First were a series of damaging stories about billing taxpayers for private plane rides, followed by news that her campaign manager was being replaced just a month before Election Day. Both have increased the palpable sense that the Bayou State’s three-term senator is an underdog in her fight against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. Polls show the Republican physician, whose own campaign hasn’t blown anyone away, with a slight edge on Landrieu. Still, this race is headed to a Dec. 6 runoff, and it’s impossible to predict what that one-month contest will look like. (For example, whether the Senate majority is still at stake would have a major effect on the campaign.)

5. Arkansas (D, Sen. Mark Pryor) (Previous: 6)

This race is swinging back the way Republicans had always planned, a battle that has less to do with two-term Sen. Pryor’s personal qualities and everything to do with an unpopular national Democratic agenda. Considering how inhospitable the state has become, Pryor may actually be exceeding expectations by keeping the race within a few points all summer. The Democrat has done everything he can to paint conservative superstar Tom Cotton as out of step with Arkansas. But Cotton’s military background has come in handy as voters’ attention shifted to foreign policy late this year.

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