The Senate 7: Democrats Defend Against GOP Assault
Democrats remain in the game to keep the majority, keeping their endangered incumbents afloat.
Republicans are winning their U.S. Senate primary battles by nominating their best candidates, but can they achieve victory in the general election war?
Five months from Election Day, the GOP hasn’t yet taken a measurable lead in a battleground Senate race.
The party is heavily favored for pickups in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana, but Democrats have stubbornly defended against gains in the most competitive states that hold the key to majority control.
They’ve essentially held Republicans to draws in Arkansas and North Carolina and continue to pace ahead in Louisiana and Alaska. The icing on the cake for Dems: They’re now marginally ahead in Georgia, and Kentucky remains in play.
Add it all up and if the election were held today, Republicans would gain just two seats – four short of the six needed to dethrone Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It’s true the GOP enjoys a wide and vast playing field this year. But they haven’t yet converted in the red zone. Fortunately for them, it’s only second down.
Here’s the May edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Senate 7 – a rolling monthly wrap-up of the seven races that look to be decisive for Senate control and who’s winning them.
1. IOWA – The stars appear to be aligned for Joni Ernst – the farm girl turned National Guard soldier – to capture Tuesday’s Republican primary in the open seat race against Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. Ernst has cobbled together perhaps the broadest coalition of any GOP Senate candidate this cycle, landing support from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Her closest opponent, Mark Jacobs – a self-funding former energy company CEO – remains alive largely because of his personal fortune. But due to the assembly of outside help, odds point to Ernst clearing the 35 percent bar on Tuesday that’s necessary to avoid an unpredictable convention vote to determine the nominee. She’d begin the general election a single-digit underdog to Braley.
Who Won May: Ernst
Latest Primary Poll: Ernst 34 percent, Jacobs 18 percent, Sam Clovis 14 percent, Matt Whitaker 6 percent (Public Policy Polling, May 15-19, 303 registered voters)
2. GEORGIA – By sending on millionaire David Perdue and 11-term Rep. Jack Kingston to the July runoff, Republicans averted a potentially explosive nominee in the fall. But they aren’t out of the woods yet. Polling out of the gate still shows the November matchup with Democrat Michelle Nunn balanced on a knife’s edge no matter which GOPer survives the summer. But for the next seven weeks, the focus will center around the contrast between Perdue’s outsider credentials and Kingston’s credibility with conservatives. Kingston’s already collected the backing of third place finisher Karen Handel, who Perdue essentially deemed unfit for the Senate due to her lack of college degree. But the former Dollar General CEO’s financial firepower makes him a formidable opponent. The x-factor: How much more of his own cash is he willing to throw in? Nunn’s team doesn’t seem to have a preference on their opponent. Either they dub Kingston a career politician who is part of the Washington problem or they tag Perdue as Mitt Romney light, an out-of-touch plutocrat whose business record is marred by debt and shipping jobs overseas.
Who Won May: Nunn
Latest Primary Poll: Kingston 46 percent, Perdue 34 percent (Public Policy Polling, 410 likely Republicans, May 21-22)
3. KENTUCKY – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might have won the month’s marquee Republican primary against businessman Matt Bevin with 60 percent of the vote, but it was his challenger Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes that delivered the stand out speech primary night. Hitting the high notes and illuminating confidence, Grimes gave the McConnell camp a preview of what its up against – a tough-talking, charismatic competitor. “I am not an empty dress, I am not a rubber stamp and I am not a cheerleader,” Grimes declared hitting back on attacks lobbed against her from McConnell duringthe past few months. “ I am a strong, Kentucky woman … who, when I'm Kentucky's next senator, the decisions I make will be what's best for the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
In a race the McConnell campaign has sought to make a referendum on President Barack Obama, Grimes has managed to distance herself from the unpopular administration on key issues like coal and health care. With the primary out of the way, the McConnell machine is poised to kick into full gear now, but Grimes is proving herself to be a more formidable challenge then the Senate minority leader might have expected.
Who Won May: Grimes
Latest Poll: McConnell 47 percent, Grimes 44 percent (Wenzel Strategies, 608 likely voters, May 23- 24)
4. NORTH CAROLINA – Since clinching the nomination on May 6, Thom Tillis has yet to see a bump, despite the avalanche of attack ads that have rained down on Sen. Kay Hagan. Outside Republican-aligned groups have devoted more resources to winning the Tar Heel State than anywhere else in the country and yet Tillis hasn’t been able to carve out an advantage. Now there’s another emerging concern: A Libertarian candidate named Sean Haugh who snagged double-digits in the latest Public Policy Polling survey. GOP strategists aren’t sounding the alarm bells just yet, but he’s certainly commanded their attention. “I don’t know if we’d intervene,” says a top adviser to one of the outside groups targeting Hagan. “The question is how do you make it clear what the choices are.” But if Haugh ends up with anywhere near 11 percent of the vote share, “that would be a re-election stamp for Kay Hagan,” the adviser concedes.
Who Won May: Hagan
Latest Poll: Hagan 38 percent, Tillis 36 percent, Sean Haugh 11 percent (Public Policy Polling, 877 voters, May 9-11)
5. LOUISIANA – Sen. Mary Landrieu has built her campaign around her new post as chairwoman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee and argued her role places her in the prime position to defend Louisiana’s $77 billion booming oil and natural gas industries. But this month partisan gridlock in the Senate doomed her stand out rebellion against the president – a bipartisan Keystone XL bill – and landed her in the hot seat back home where Republicans in the state called into question Landrieu’s effectiveness on Capitol Hill. “Landrieu can’t be counted on when it matters,” RNC Spokesman Ben Voelkel said. However, Landrieu has a built-in advantage: The calendar. Since there is no primary, her top GOP competitor, Rep. Bill Cassidy, has to tangle with his Republican foes into November. Cassidy is fighting off Sarah Palin and tea party-endorsed retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness. Maness is still considered a distant third, but if he can pick up more steam, he could distract Cassidy from his race against Landrieu well into the summer and throughout the fall.
Who Won May: Cassidy
No recent public polling
6. ARKANSAS – While a host of Republican Senate candidates were forced to sweat it out and drain their campaign treasure troves in contentious primaries, the Arkansas GOP bet it all on Rep. Tom Cotton. That early advantage, however, doesn’t appear to have given Cotton a significant boost in the Natural State. Voters still don’t know who the freshman congressman is. An NBC News poll found that more than 1 in 5 voters in May still had no opinion of him. In a nod to that, his most recent ad turned up the folksy, and showed him at home in Dardanelle, Arkansas, with his wife Anna. Cotton’s expected to get almost limitless outside help as he pushes into summer with Club for Growth, American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity spending millions on the race. The VA scandal in Washington could also give him a summertime boost. While Cotton, a veteran, has called for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to resign, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor has stopped short of that request and instead opted to sponsor legislation for VA-wide reforms. Pryor’s move may not be enough for the state’s 250,000 veterans. The right-aligned Concerned Veterans for America launched a TV ad buy calling Pryor out for not doing more.
Who Won May: Pryor
Latest Poll: Cotton 47 percent, Pryor 43 percent (Rasmussen Reports, 750 likely voters, May 27-28)
7. ALASKA – The good news for establishment Republicans in The Frontier State is that their preferred candidate, Marine and former Attorney General Dan Sullivan, appears to have become the front-runner in the Aug. 19 primary race to take on Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. The bad news for them is that Begich remains ahead. That may be what triggered a scathing Crossroads GPS spot this week that essentially pins the incumbent with the blame for grossly inadequate care uncovered at Veterans Affairs hospitals. Democrats have been anticipating Sullivan for months, with one super PAC zoning in on public land law to lob its most recent attack. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has been hamstrung by a staff shake-up and 2010 GOP nominee Joe Miller seems to have lost some of his luster with the GOP base, granting Sullivan some running room heading into the summer.
Who Won May: Sullivan
Latest Primary Poll: Sullivan 40 percent, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell 26 percent, Joe Miller 14 percent (Public Policy Polling, 313 registered voters, May 8-11)