The Senate 7: March Springs Senate Hopes For Republicans

Republican Senate race fortunes improved in Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire this month.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pauses during a media briefing after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Committee luncheon on Dec.17, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's missteps on the campaign trail so far include mistaking the Duke Blue Devils for the Kentucky Wildcats in a campaign ad. 

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Republican odds improved in a trio of Senate races this month, due to recruitment successes and an unforced error by a Democratic congressman.

If the election were held today, the GOP would likely pickup seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Arkansas. They’d still need three more to get the six necessary to flip the chamber, but their playing field of options has grown.

The March edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Senate 7 – a rolling monthly summary of the seven hottest races in the country and who’s winning them – includes Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire, the newest opportunities on the map for Republicans.

If the party can pull off victories in those Democratic-leaning states, the Senate is likely theirs.

Here’s the Senate 7:

Democratic Senate challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes addresses a group of supporters at a fundraiser at the Galt House Hotel, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Louisville, Ky.
Alison Lundergan Grimes

1. KENTUCKY

While embarrassing and untimely, mistaking Duke for Kentucky basketball in a Web video isn't a fatal blow for Sen. Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign. But for an operation that’s billed itself as one of presidential timber and publicly boasts about the ability to throttle opponents, the most recent error is just a humbling reminder that actions speak louder than chest-thumping. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’ own foul – choosing Wichita State over Kentucky in her NCAA bracket – didn’t draw as much media, partly because of Team McConnell’s misstep. The video mishap wasn’t just an insider-driven story either. CBS’ Greg Gumbel mentioned it on the air during the Kentucky-Louisville game, a reference far more valuable to Grimes than any campaign ad.    

Who Won March: Grimes

No recent public polling

Then Senate hopeful, State Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, speaks during the North Carolina Democratic Party Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, May 2, 2008.
Sen. Kay Hagen, D-N.C. 

2. NORTH CAROLINA

There might be an eight-way Republican primary race roiling in the Tar Heel State, but Sen. Kay Hagan has spent the month leveling most of her attacks against Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina state house. Tillis, who is the establishment favorite, lost his slight lead over his competitors, but remains featured on the splash page of Hagan’s website: “Thom Tillis & The Koch Brothers’ Agenda.” Yet, Tillis has his own problems. On the campaign trail, Tillis upset the GOP base when he said that “Obamacare is a great idea that can't be paid for.” And more recently, questions surfaced about where Tillis graduated from college. While Tillis had written on his resume and said in a series of interviews that he graduated from the University of Maryland, he actually earned his degree from the University of Maryland University System. Staff have corrected the discrepancies on the campaign website and his LinkedIn page. In an interview with the News and Observer, Tillis said “I’ve never listed my education degree as why people should vote for me, I think the average person is thinking more about what I’ve accomplished in my professional career and what I’ve accomplished in my career as a legislator.” Small gaffes could still have an impact on the tight primary field where tea party-backed Republican Greg Brannon is neck-and-neck with Tillis, the candidate Democrats fear most.

Who Won March: Hagan

Latest Primary Poll: Tillis 14 percent, Brannon 14 percent, Heather Grant 11 percent, Ted Alexander 7 percent, Mark Harris 7 percent, Alex Bradshaw 6 percent, Jim Snyder 4 percent, and Edward Kryn 1 percent. (Public Policy Polling, March 6-9, 392 GOP primary voters)

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Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on March 28, 2012.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska

3. ALASKA

Democrats in Republican-leaning states have turned their fight to keep the Senate into a rally against Republican mega donors, the Koch Brothers. In Alaska, however, the fight is a considerably more localized, and therefore potentially more resonant. In most parts of the country, the Koch brothers are relatively unknown. In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich claims they are a household name and blames the Koch Brothers for closing Flint Hills Resources oil refinery, a subsidiary of Koch industries. “In Alaska, people know who [the Koch brothers] are,” Begich told U.S. News last week. “They own a refinery in Alaska that they are closing down and people know.” Republican interest groups are outspending many Democratic candidates across the country, however that doesn’t look to be the case in The Last Frontier where, according to The Washington Post, Democrats are keeping pace with Republicans. Part of the even matchup can be traced back to the ostensibly cheaper media markets there. The latest poll shows Begich tied with former Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan and slightly trailing behind GOP Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Sullivan, the emerging choice of establishment Republicans, got a boost this week when his former state department boss  Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed him in a television ad.

Who Won March: Begich

Latest Poll: Begich 43 percent, Treadwell 47 percent or Begich 44 percent, Sullivan 44 percent.(Rasmussen Reports Poll Rasmussen Reports Pollof 750 voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points)  

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., gestures after announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Dardanelle, Ark., Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013.
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

4. ARKANSAS

The race remains one of the most solidified contests of the 2014 cycle. Instead of a crowded primary contest, Republicans from the establishment – as well as from the conservative base – have already rallied around Rep. Tom Cotton, giving the Harvard graduate a head start. Cotton has used it to his advantage, keeping the focus on Sen. Mark Pryor and his Washington record. Additionally, the 37-year-old made headlines for his marriage to Anna Peckham. Pryor maintains the power of incumbency, but continues to be outspent on the airwaves in the state and has had to dole out a lot of money early on. Much of the criticism against Pryor relates to his vote for the Affordable Care Act. The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, did go up on the airwaves last week accusing Cotton of “working for the interests of big insurance companies.” But Pryor didn’t help himself when he accused Cotton, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, of having a “sense of entitlement” because he served in the military. Pryor can’t afford any more errors if he hopes to win this race.

Who Won March: Cotton

No recent public polling  

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., holds up a letter he wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as she testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.

5. COLORADO

Sen. Mark Udall’s campaign has spent the last month trying to morph Rep. Cory Gardner into 2010 Senate candidate Ken Buck – a tea party-type who holds views outside the mainstream of independent-minded Coloradans. But Gardner, who slipped into the race last month and cleverly cleared the primary, seems determined not to allow it. Of note, he reversed himself on the issue of personhood, saying he could no longer support an effort that could criminalize some forms of contraception. Gardner is largely unknown, so the race is on to define him early. Democrats, however,  realize he’s not as likely to produce a verbal gaffe that would make that job easier. Add Colorado to the list of the most competitive races in the country. Out of the gate, Gardner’s already in a dead heat.

Who Won March: Gardner

Latest Primary Poll: Udall 42 percent, Gardner 40 percent. (Public Policy Polling, March 13-16, 568 registered voters)

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Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, speaks to fellow Democrats prior to keynote speaker Ed Rendell, at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner, Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. 

6. IOWA

If Rep. Bruce Braley loses the Iowa Senate race, fingers will point back to the moment he appeared to slight home state farmers while speaking to trial lawyers in Texas. It was a damaging incident on several fronts and it has Republicans ginned up about their chances in the Hawkeye State. Fortunately for Braley, the GOP is occupied with a June primary. Five candidates are vying for the nomination, but state Sen. Joni Ernst had the best month. An advertisement touting her experience “castrating hogs” went viral and she earned an endorsement from Sarah Palin. Republicans anxious about the party’s image would love to have a gritty female nominee to matchup against Braley.      

Who Won March: Ernst

Latest Poll: Braley 40 percent, Ernst 37 percent. (Rasmussen Reports, March 24-25, 750 likely voters)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., heads for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in the U.S. Capitol building May 14, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.

7. NEW HAMPSHIRE

Now that the dust has settled over Scott Brown’s initial foray into the Granite State Senate race, Democrats are heartened that polling has largely remained stable. The American Research Group found Brown trailing Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen by 12 points and GOP-leaning Rasmussen Reports put him down nine. At the very least, Republicans like Brown in the race because he’ll suck up Democratic resources. But despite all the attention he’s received, the former Massachusetts senator hasn’t experienced an initial polling bump from the exploratory announcement. Even with all the hype, he’s still a considerable underdog.

Who Won March: Shaheen

Latest Poll: Shaheen 50 percent Brown 41 percent. (Rasmussen Reports, March 12-13, 750 likely voters)