The Senate 7: GOP Still Short of Magic Number

Arkansas and North Carolina look better for Democrats as GOP prospects brighten in Iowa and Colorado.

The GOP would pick up wins in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia if the election were held today.

The GOP would pick up wins in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia if the election were held today.

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The Republican quest for six additional U.S. Senate seats is being tempered due to a slate of mediocre candidates who are underperforming expectations.

If the election were held today, the GOP would net pickups in South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana, propelling them halfway to the marker necessary to win control. The next most favorable environment looks to be in Louisiana, where Rep. Bill Cassidy is slightly ahead of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in race likely headed to a December runoff. Arkansas and North Carolina – a pair of states that seemed like the party’s best battleground conversion opportunities – now look less promising.

That gets Republicans to a gain of four, but at least seven other seats remain too close to call – including emerging opportunities in Iowa and Colorado – leaving the GOP just short of a majority four months from the election.

Here’s the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Senate 7 – a monthly summary of the seven key races that look to be decisive in the slog for Senate control.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., speaks at a campaign event in Douglasville, Georgia.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.

1. GEORGIA: There’s one meaningful primary in the month of July and it is the Peach State GOP runoff, which will again test the mettle of the reinvigorated Republican establishment. They’re united behind the candidate they know, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. After a second-place finish to millionaire David Perdue in May, Kingston has consolidated the bulk of his other opponents support, allowing him to leapfrog into the lead in the open seat race to take on Democrat Michelle Nunn. Even though Kingston is saddled with two decades of Washington votes, Perdue has been hobbled by a few tone deaf comments and a lack of finesse that’s doomed many a wealthy candidate before him. There’s still three weeks until the July 22 faceoff and Perdue is lambasting Kingston as the candidate of “PACs and special interest groups.” But that may be an advantage this year. As Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. proved, the establishment’s muscle can still matter.

Who Won June: Kingston

Latest Primary Poll: Kingston 46 percent, Perdue 35 percent (InsiderAdvantage, June 10-11, 401 registered voters)

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on June 10, 2014, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

2. KENTUCKY: Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes failed to keep a political promise when it was revealed she didn’t defend the coal industry to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at a private fundraiser as she said she would. On the heels of that flap, Grimes showed she isn’t afraid to align herself with another partisan ideologue even further to the left – Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who stumped with her in Louisville over the weekend. To Republicans, it’s a jarring tactical shift for a candidate who initially took pains to separate herself from all things Washington.

“She’s spent several months trying to say she’s not part of the national Democratic regime. It seems to me she’s tearing down that strategy, bringing in the one politician in America for whom Barack Obama is not liberal enough,” says Scott Jennings, an adviser to a super PAC supporting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Warren may inject some populist economic fervor into the campaign, but at the same time her mere appearance falls neatly into the GOP playbook that seeks to nationalize the consequences of a Grimes victory. “If Alison Grimes wins this race, there’s a 100 percent chance Harry Reid is going to be the majority leader,” says Jennings. “I don’t think Kentuckians believe she can change the mind of Reid or Elizabeth Warren.” The calculation is as close a call as this race remains. Even GOP pollsters have produced different results on the race. Magellan Strategies found Grimes ahead, but the National Mining Association – which paid for the survey – doesn't want the pollster talking about it. "I can't comment on the U.S. Senate ballot test results in that survey based on their wishes," pollster David Flaherty emailed U.S. News.

Who Won June: McConnell

Latest Poll: Grimes 49 percent, McConnell 46 percent (Magellan Strategies, June 4-5, 800 likely voters)

Senate Armed Services Committee Member Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., center, is pursued by reporters after being briefed by military officials about the prisoner exchange that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl at the U.S. Capitol on June 10, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., center

3. NORTH CAROLINA: It is the ground zero Senate race where the free market Koch Brothers and the Democratic Senate Majority PAC are dueling for supremacy on the air. And right now, the Democrats are winning. It’s been two months since state house Speaker Thom Tillis eclipsed his rivals in a primary, but with the state assembly’s session dragging on into summer because of an impasse on the budget, Tillis continues to be tied to an unpopular state body. It’s made it difficult for him to break through and carve out any separation. Fights over teacher pay, Common Core, voting requirements and coal have dominated the discussion in Raleigh. 

Meanwhile, outside spending continues to dominate the dynamics of the race. Democratic interests have spent more than $7 million against Tillis between the primary and the general election. The onslaught has kept Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., marginally ahead. This spending is a testament to how important Democrats view the race. The Center for Responsive Politics, however, estimates outside groups have spent just $650,000 against Hagan. Yet that estimate only includes outside spending that is reported to the Federal Election Commission. It is only a fraction of the money spent against her. A recent analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, estimated $10.5 million had been spent thus far to defeat the first-term senator.  Hagan is also far ahead of Tillis in terms of fundraising with $8.6 million in the bank, compared to Tillis’ million he has after battling his way through a hard-fought primary. His July fundraising report will be one of the most closely scrutinized.

Who Won June: Hagan

Latest Poll: Hagan 47 percent, Tillis 43 percent (Civitas Institute, June 18-22, 600 registered voters)

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. riding the the Pink Tomato Festival parade as he campaigns in Warren, Ark. on June 14, 2014.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

4. ARKANSAS: Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor continues to make the statewide election in his state about just that: Arkansas issues. In a year when Democrats are running with the president’s health care law around their neck, Pryor, the lone Democrat in his state’s delegation, is proving candidates can successfully make a statewide race about the power of personality and family legacy. Pryor’s been the subject of television attack ads for more than a year at this point, but Republican Rep. Tom Cotton’s still not pulling away in the kind of blow out pundits once predicted.

At this point, Cotton and Pryor are nearly locked in a dead heat. That doesn’t mean that outside groups have any intentions to ease up on Pryor or their strategy to bill him as a “rubber stamp for Obama.” In a $440,000 ad buy that went up in June, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads is still betting on that they can nationalize the election in Arkansas. Democrats have become notably more bullish about Pryor's prospects than they were at the start of the year. Real Clear Politics has them in a virtual tie entering July, which is in essence, a win in itself, and Cotton's lead in the most recent poll is barely outside the margin of error.

Who Won June: Pryor

Latest Poll: Cotton 49 percent, Pryor 45 percent (Magellan Strategies, June 4-5, 755 likely voters)

State Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to supporters at a primary election night rally after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, Tuesday, June 3, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.
State Sen. Joni Ernst

5. IOWA: Whereas clouds have gathered over GOP prospects in Arkansas and North Carolina, there are rays of light in Iowa as state Sen. Joni Ernst has shot into a virtual dead heat with Rep. Bruce Braley for the open seat. Since her primary victory, Ernst has staffed up and hit the national fundraising circuit hard in order to replenish resources for the emerging battleground race of the cycle.

Democrats, meanwhile, are badgering her for recalibrating her stand on the federal minimum wage in an interview with U.S. News, accusing her of trying to “etch-a-sketch” previous comments saying she didn’t believe in one. The League of Conservation Voters has jumped in to portray her as a foot soldier for Sarah Palin. Outside Democratic groups are going to be forced to spend more of their cash here; the long-term question for the untested Ernst is whether she continues to shine as the spotlight of scrutiny burns brighter. Asked recently if she espouses views too far to the right for the Hawkeye State, she invoked the her state’s name three times in three sentences: “I am Iowa. I speak for Iowans. We have Iowa values.” If voters buy it, this will be a GOP pickup.

Who Won June: Ernst

Latest Poll: Braley 44 percent, Ernst 40 percent (Quinnipiac University, June 12-16, 1,277 registered voters)

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Mark Begich, D-Ak., questions witnesses during a Senate Homeland Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, March 25, 2014.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska

6. ALASKA: In the Last Frontier, it’s the curious case of Dan Sullivan. Yes, he’s a Republican candidate for Senate who is favored to win the August primary. But his favored status may be much to do about his name. That’s because there’s another, more widely known Dan Sullivan, who is the popular GOP mayor of Anchorage, who is also running for lieutenant governor and sports yard signs saying simply “Sullivan.”

“Mayor Dan Sullivan has higher favorability and less unknowns. It’s pretty clear to us, as far as the coattails go, the mayor of Anchorage is providing them to the Senate candidate. There is confusion and I think it's accruing to the benefit of Dan,” says Matt Larkin, an Alaska based-pollster who has recently been retained by Sullivan’s primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. But before Larkin signed on to do work for Treadwell he conducted a poll that found the primary race between Sullivan and Treadwell much tighter than perceived.

Democrats, though, are expecting the familiar name to carry the day, firing away at Sullivan on the airways. “If his name was Dan Shepard, not Dan Sullivan, he wouldn’t even have a shot,” says Jim Lottsfeldt, head of the Democratic super PAC Put Alaska First, supporting Sen. Mark Begich. But the history of outsiders polling in Alaska has been fraught with problems. For instance in 2010, Public Policy Polling placed Joe Miller up by 7 points in the 3-way race that Sen. Lisa Murkowski went on to win the general election. . Meanwhile, Larkin’s firm nailed it. “We’ve never been wrong in 45 years in calling races here,” he says. “I think it’s close.” Lottsfeldt even thinks polling is so dicey Miller, who is also running for the Senate seat, can’t be counted out. “If you call up Joe Miller supporters and survey them, they just assume it’s the NSA and don’t participate in polls,” he says. Perhaps wishful thinking, but Begich can only hope.

Who Won June: Begich

Latest Primary Poll: Sullivan 37 percent, Treadwell 35 percent, Miller 12 percent (Dittman Research, May 27-29, 500 likely voters)

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., speaks to reporters after meeting with the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, June 24, 2014.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo.

7. COLORADO: Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is finding himself embroiled in an ever tightening Senate contest. In a state where independent voters have swung the political pendulum from red one race to blue the next, Colorado remains a battleground where turnout of women and Hispanics in the suburbs of Denver could mean the difference between another term for Udall or a job promotion for up-and-comer Rep. Cory Gardner.

Gardener got an additional boost this month when Republican primary voters elected establishment candidate Bob Beauprez to be their GOP nominee for governor over anti-immigration candidate Tom Tancredo. With Beauprez at the top of the ticket in 2014, Gardner can more easily make inroads with Latino voters who represent about 14 percent of the electorate in the state.

Without Tancredo on the ballot, Latino voters might also be more inclined to stay home in November. Udall’s campaign has tried to motivate Democratic voters by painting Gardner as an extremist candidate akin to the failed 2010 GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck, especially on social issues like personhood and contraception access. However, Gardner has distanced himself from some of his past positions on abortion and immigration. Knowing he needs to close the gender gap with women, in June, Gardner authored a compelling op-ed in the Denver Post calling for the government to allow women to buy birth control over the counter without a prescription. The overt political conversion may be working.

Who Won June: Gardner

Latest Poll: Udall 43 percent, Gardner 42 percent(Rasmussen Reports, June 25- 26, 750 likely voters)

Updated on July 2, 2014: This story has been updated to include estimated funds spent against Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., that are not reported to the FEC.