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Top 10 most likely Senate flips

With today’s launch of the “Rundown,” we wanted to unveil our list of the Top 10 Senate seats that could switch parties in November — a list we’ll continue to update between now and Election Day 2018. No. 1 means most likely to flip. A reminder: Democrats need to pick up a net of two seats to gain control of the U.S. Senate.

  1. Nevada (R): A tough GOP primary + a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 + a Dem challenger facing minimal opposition = Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, being the most endangered Senate incumbent of 2018.
  2. North Dakota (D): Republicans are divided over whether this race or the Senate contest in Missouri is their best pick-up opportunity now that GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer has decided to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. But the tiebreaker goes to North Dakota, given that Trump got 63 percent of the vote there in 2016 versus 56 percent in Missouri.
  3. Arizona (R): This race remains the most fascinating Senate contest of 2018. There’s a competitive GOP primary to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, the potential of a November showdown between two female candidates (Democrat Kyrsten Sinema vs. Republicans Martha McSally or Kelli Ward) and, of course, the presence of Joe Arpaio.
  4. Missouri (D): In what looks like a 50-50 race between incumbent Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill and Republican Josh Hawley, the scandal surrounding Republican Gov. Eric Greitens doesn’t help the GOP.
  5. West Virginia (D): Who would you rather be: West Virginia’s most famous politician (Democrat Joe Manchin) running in a state where Trump got 68 percent of the vote in 2016, or a lesser-known Dem senator (Joe Donnelly) running in a state where Trump got 56 percent? Because Democrats have had more recent success in Indiana (see Obama in 2008), we’ll go with Donnelly. But we expect these states to switch back and forth between now and November.
  6. Indiana (D): See above.
  7. Wisconsin (D): It looks like it will be a long — and expensive — GOP primary between Republicans Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, with outside groups pummeling incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in the meantime.
  8. Florida (D): We could very well move up this race if/when Republican Gov. Rick Scott — and his millions — jump into the contest to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott’s shift on guns after the Parkland shooting has been striking.
  9. Tennessee (R): Republicans caught a break when retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker decided not to re-enter this race, which would could have produced a bitter primary between Corker and Rep. Marsha Blackburn. But given the national environment and the big-name Democratic candidate (former Gov. Phil Bredesen), this race remains worth watching.
  10. Ohio (D): One of the key questions of this 2018 season is if Democrats — in the Senate and gubernatorial contests — can get their groove back in Ohio after their shellacking there in 2016. Brown seems to be in as good of a position as Democrats could have hoped at the beginning of this cycle. But like Tennessee, this race is worth watching.

Other Senate races to watch (in alphabetical order): Minnesota (Tina Smith seat), Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas

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Ben Kamisar

McSally to face electoral gauntlet after Senate appointment

Arizona Rep. Martha McSally's 2018 has been a whirlwind—she jumped into one of the closest-watched Senate races of the cycle, fending off a competitive challenge from her right flank before falling short to Democratic Senator-elect Kyrsten Sinema. 

McSally won a consolation prize when Arizona Republican Gov. Steve Ducey appointed her to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCain (by way of Jon Kyl, who filled the seat for the three months after McCain's death).

But that appointment thrusts her into an electoral gauntlet, as she'll have a tough fight ahead of her to keep her seat. 

The first challenge is straightforward—the calendar. McSally will have to defend the seat in 2020 because appointments only last until the next general election. And then she'll have to run again in 2022 because that's when McCain's seat is normally up for reelection. 

But she also faces further challenges too, both from within her party and in a general election. 

Once she joins the Senate, she'll once again have to face the difficult, if familiar task of navigating life as a Republican in the Trump era. 

McSally moved to her right during the 2018 GOP primary as Republicans Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio took aim at her right flank. But that shift cost her in the general election, as Democrats tied her to President Trump. 

She'll have to do that same balancing act again to protect herself from a credible primary challenge but be ready for a general election, which Democrats will likely contest hard after their 2018 victory. 

McSally is certainly no stranger to a tough election, as she's been running hard her entire political career first for he competitive House seat and now for the Senate.

And she's turned it around before—after a tight loss in 2012 in the race to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, McSally ran again in 2014 and won by yet another razor-thin margin. 

She'll need to replicate that effort again in 2020, convincing a majority of voters to back her just two years after they chose someone else. 

Mark Murray

Poll: GOP governor faces a tough re-election

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, who’s up for re-election next year, trails state Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear in a hypothetical general election matchup, and just 38 percent of voters approve of his job, according to a Mason-Dixon poll of the state.

In the poll, Beshear is ahead of Bevin by 8 points, 48 percent to 40 percent, while Bevin leads Secretary of State Alison Grimes by 1 point, 47 percent to 46 percent; Grimes lost the Senate race against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2014.

Bevin’s job rating is 38 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove.

Despite these tough numbers for Bevin, the Mason-Dixon pollsters say not to count out the Republican governor.

“It is not unusual for Republican candidates to trail in the early stages of elections in Kentucky. Bevin himself trailed for most of the 2015 race, pulled about even a few weeks out and went on to win. Senator Mitch McConnell has also faced early adversity in his two most recent reelection campaigns, but in both races he stormed back late to win,” they write in a memo.

“Given this recent history, it is far from over for Bevin. However, Beshear is a formidable opponent who won four years ago in a GOP-friendly state election.”

Kentucky’s primaries in 2019 take place on May 21, and the general election is November 5.

 

Ben Kamisar

South Bend mayor won't run for reelection as 2020 decision looms

South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the latest Democrat to stoke speculation about a 2020 bid after he announced he's not running for reelection after this year. 

Buttigieg has a stellar resume—a Rhodes scholar and an Afghanistan veteran, he ran a stronger-than-expected bid to lead the Democratic National Committee after the 2016 election, one that left him short of the crown but with an increased station in the party. 

The mayor refused to specifically address speculation about a 2020 bid, speculation that's existed since 2016, when New York Times columnist Frank Bruni ran a piece asking if Buttigieg would be America's first gay president

"I don't think its a secret that we're looking at things and we'll continue to do so going into the new year," he said.

"My expectation is to serve through these next 54 weeks and use them to the absolute maximum." 

Hear more from Buttigieg below. 

 

Ben Kamisar

Iowa polling gives us very early look at possible 2020 Democratic landscape

It may still be 2018, but there’s already polling on how the potential 2020 Democratic field shapes up in Iowa.

The new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden sits in a clear first place with 32 percent support, with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders in second with 19 percent.

Texas Rep Beto O’Rourke follows in third place with 11 percent support and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren follows with 8 percent.

But with the field still infancy (remember how early 2016 polling didn’t even include Donald Trump, or put Sanders within spitting distance of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton?) one interesting use of these early polls is to gauge voter sentiment about these possible candidates.

Biden has far-and-away the highest favorability rating at 82 percent, and the highest net favorability (his favorability number minus his unfavorable number) at 67 percent.

Sanders, Warren and O’Rourke follow with the three next-highest favorable figures—74 percent, 64 percent and 43 percent respectively. All three have strong net favorability ratings, between O’Rourke’s 42 percent and Sanders’s 52 percent.

California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker both finished with a 49 percent favorable mark and similar, low-double-digit unfavorable ratings.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are have favorability ratings hovering between 35-42 percent.

But with a 31 percent unfavorable mark, the billionaire Bloomberg is viewed unfavorably by more potential caucus-goers than any other candidate except for Clinton, by a significant margin.

The rest of the candidates suffer from some combination of low name recognition and/or mixed feelings from those who do know who they are.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Maryland Rep. John Delaney and California Rep. Eric Swalwell all have favorable ratings in the 20s, and relatively low unfavorable ratings considering their relative lack of name identification.

But even while few potential caucus-goers said they were familiar with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti or Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, those who do know them are virtually split on their view.

Environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars promoting his push to impeach President Trump, receives mixed marks from possible caucus-goers, with equal 19-percent favorable and unfavorable marks. 

Inslee and Bullock have identical, 11 percent, favorability figures, as well as 8 percent unfavorable marks. Garcetti’s favorable rating is 13 percent, but 11 percent of likely caucus-goers view him unfavorably.

The poll also included Andrew Yang, a businessman running an incredibly long-shot bid based in part on a universal basic income. His favorability rating is 7 points underwater. 

There are obviously still political eons between now and the Iowa Caucuses, so it would be unwise to put too much stock in any early numbers. But these favorability figures help suggest which candidates need to get out there and start raising their profile among voters, and which candidates have to do more to sway hearts and minds.

The poll surveyed 455 likely Democratic caucus-goers between Dec. 10 and Dec. 13. The poll has a margin of error of 4.6 percent. 

Ben Kamisar

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander to retire in 2020

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander will not run again in 2020, he announced Monday, a decision that could create a scramble among Republicans looking to replace him.

NBC News's Jonathan Allen has more on Alexander's career, which included stints as governor, the secretary of education, and at the head of the Senate Health,Education,Labor and Pensions Committee. 

The move means that the state is losing its two prominent Republican senators in a span of two years—Sen. Bob Corker is retiring at the end of the year, with GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn slated to replace him after her November victory. 

Now, Volunteer State Republicans have to settle on a replacement for Alexander, who's held the seat since 2003. Some possibilities for the GOP include those who ran, or flirted with, bids for Corker's seat or for retiring Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's position. 

Former Rep. Stephen Fincher briefly ran against Blackburn in this year's GOP primary and has $1.75 million left in a federal campaign account. 

The Club for Growth PAC is calling on Congressman-elect Mark Green to run for the seat. Green, a Republican, briefly flirted with a Senate bid before running and winning the race to replace Blackburn. 

Rep. Diane Black, who chose not to seek reelection to launch an unsuccessful bid for governor, could also look toward a return to Washington. 

A current congressman like Rep. David Kustoff could be well-positioned to jump into the race. 

And there will also likely be speculation about whether Haslam wants to run. He briefly flirted with a bid to replace Corker, as some within the party called for a more establishment pick.  

It’s possible Democrats could mount a serious challenge too. But they may be dissuaded by Blackburn’s double-digit victory over former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen

Ben Kamisar

Deep partisan divisions drive sentiment on climate change

Americans as a whole are increasingly concerned about addressing the effects of climate change, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, but Republicans remain as skeptical as ever about the need for immediate action.

The new data shows that 45 percent of Americans believe that  "global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action is necessary." That's the highest since the poll began asking the question in 1999, and up from the 39 percent who felt that way in Sept. 2017. 

Another 21 percent say that "there is enough evidence that climate change is taking place and some action should be taking." Taken together, two-thirds of Americans want there to be action taken on climate change. 

But 30 percent of Americans remain skeptical—18 percent of the total sample say that they aren't sure if climate change is real and want to see more research, while 12 percent say "concern about global climate change is unwarranted." 

These numbers are driven by a deep partisan divide that shows Democrats feeling their highest levels of urgency in the almost 20-year history the data spans. More than 7 in 10 Democrats believe climate change is "serious" and requires "immediate action," a 42-percentage-point increase from the just 29 percent of Democrats who believed that in 1999. 

Just 15 percent of Republicans share that sense of urgency, the exact same portion who did so in 1999. 

Meanwhile, independents are growing more alarmed about climate change, with 47 percent calling for "immediate action" compared to the 25 percent who felt that way in 1999. 

President Trump has been brushed aside warnings of global climate change, questioning whether it's the result of human activity during an October "60 Minutes" interview and arguing he doesn't believe his own government's study on the coming financial impact of climate change. He also followed through on a campaign promise to withdraw from the international Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The majority of Americans, 52 percent are more concerned that the "failure to address climate change will lead to greater financial costs and higher energy prices" than if the costs associated with regulations implemented to curb the effects of climate change. Thirty-five percent of Americans are more concerned about the costs associated with regulations. 

The same partisan divide exists in this question too, with a clear majority of Democrats more concerned about the failure to address climate change than regulations, and a near-majority of Republicans more concerned about the economic impact of those regulations. 

The NBC/Wall Street Journal interviewed 900 people between Dec. 9-12. The poll has a margin of error of 3.27 percent. 

Hearing on uncertified North Carolina congressional race set for Jan. 11

The North Carolina State Board of Elections announced on Friday that it will conduct a public evidentiary hearing into alleged irregularities in the state's 9th Congressional District on January 11, leaving the race undecided into the new year. 

The board had said it would hold the hearing before December 21 of this year. The board has twice voted not to certify the race between Republican Dan Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, which Harris appeared to have won by 905 votes after Election Day, after allegations of election fraud surfaced.  

The board said that state investigators are still waiting on "additional documents from parties subpoenaed in this matter and finalizing the investigation prior to the hearing."

 

Mark Murray

The GOP’s border troubles in 2018

For all the talk about Trump’s border-wall demand in the current fight to keep the government open, it’s worth reminding everyone of the GOP’s midterm performance in the states along the U.S.-Mexico border.

That performance? It wasn’t that great.

In California, the GOP got wiped out, losing seven House seats, the gubernatorial race, and Republicans didn’t even have a candidate in the Senate matchup due to the state’s Top 2 primary system.

In Arizona, the GOP won the gubernatorial race, but it lost a Senate seat, as well as the competitive AZ-2 House contest.

In New Mexico, Democrats won up and down the ballot — for governor, senator, and it picked up the NM-2 House seat.

And in Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz *barely* won his Senate race, while Democrats picked up two congressional seats outside of Dallas (TX-32) and Houston (TX-7).

Now much of that poor performance by the GOP could be attributed to the sizable portion of the Latino vote in these four states, or the Dem performance in the suburbs in Dallas, Houston and Phoenix.

But as President Trump tried to make the last weeks of the midterms about immigration and that caravan, note the states where that message appeared to fall flat — the ones closest to the border.

Ben Kamisar

How the potentially massive Democratic 2020 field is shaping up

There are two near certainties about the 2020 Democratic presidential field—it's going to be overwhelmingly large and it's going to start to come together way faster than in other cycles. 

Two candidates are already in the race (Maryland Rep. John Delaney jumped in more than a year ago), and Julián Castro dipped more than just a toe in the water this week by announcing an exploratory committee and that he'll announce his final decision in January. 

At least a handful of additional candidates are expected to announce sometime after the holiday season, allowing them to take full advantage of 2019's first fundraising quarter. 

With so many candidates to keep track of, here's the latest news from the dozens of candidates considering bids, and their timelines for making a decision where they've expressed a timeframe. 

Senators

  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) — While Bennet has stayed out of the presidential spotlight, Colorado Public Radio reported that he’s seriously considering a bid, according to three people who spoke with Bennet about a potential candidacy.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) — Booker traveled to New Hampshire again this month, a state he’s prioritized politically, where he told WMUR that he will take the holidays to decide whether he’ll run.
  • Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) — Brown told New York Magazine that he and his wife have been “pretty overwhelmed by the number of people” that reached out telling him to consider running for president. 
  • Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) — Casey told NBC News last month “We’ll see what happens” when asked twice if he plans to run for president.
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) — Gillibrand might be playing the long, long game, releasing a children’s book just days after the 2018 elections. But as far as wooing Americans who are eligible to vote in 2020, Gillibrand has kept up her public profile and made repeated assurances she’s considering a bid. 
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) — After concerns that Harris might lose her slot on the Senate Judiciary Committee thanks to seniority, Democrats struck a deal to keep her on the panel, giving her critical visibility as she weighs a 2020 bid. She told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski during a December interview that she’ll decide over the holidays as well.
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — Former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Minnesota political icon, told the New York Times he wants her to run, as her questioning of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh gained her more national notoriety.
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) — Merkley, who has been eyeing staff in Iowa and New Hampshire, tweeted last week he’s fine with there being no changes to the current state law that bars him from running for president and reelection on the same ballot. So all that’s left is for him to decide which office to run for.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — Sanders told New York Magazine last month that “if it turns out that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run.” And his 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, told the Associated Press that Sanders’s success in 2016 will help them build a “much bigger campaign if he runs again.”
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) — As Politico reported this week, Warren is quietly building out a robust effort for a potential presidential bid. But she’s also had to battle some rough headlines too, specifically some second-guessing to her.

Governors, mayors and House members

  • Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) – Bullock visited Nevada this past month, as Democratic Sen. Jon Tester had to walk back a declaration that Bullock would run for Senate in 2020.
  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-IN) – The former Democratic National Committee chairman candidate will speak in Iowa for the Progress Iowa Holiday Party and has said he’ll make a decision on running by the end of the year.
  • Rep. John Delaney (D-MD)—One of the two official Democratic candidates, Delaney continues to crisscross Iowa.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—Gabbard telegraphed a potential bid with comments during her recent trip to New Hampshire, and the Daily Beast reported she’s looking at staff.
  • Mayor Eric Garcetti (D-CA)—Garcetti expects to decide in the next few months, arguing his would-be campaign would include three planks: national unity, “winning the future” and “getting sh** done.”
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO)—Hickenlooper hasn’t been shy about his interest in a gig, telling CNN this week he’s “probably 63, 64 percent” of the way to jumping in.
  • Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)—Inslee told The Hill he’s “actively considering” running and recently, unsuccessfully, rallied supporters to oppose West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s elevation to ranking member of the Senate energy committee.
  • Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)—As our own Mark Murray wrote this week, “O’Rourke’s decision on 2020 might be the biggest shoe to drop on the Dem field.”
  • Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) —Swalwell will also speak at the Progress Iowa event as he continues to travel to both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Others

  • Michael Bloomberg—The former New York City mayor has mused about potentially selling his business if he runs, and traveled to Iowa to talk climate change.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden—After a high-profile stretch campaigning and crisscrossing the country during his book tour, Biden is expected to powwow with his family over the holidays about whether he should run for president again, according to the Associated Press.
  • Julian Castro—The former Housing and Urban Development secretary announced Wednesday he’s exploring a presidential bid and will announce his ultimate decision in January.
  • Eric Holder—Another former Obama cabinet member, Holder booked a February trip to Iowa as he continues to speak out on criminal justice issues.
  • John Kerry—A third Obama administration veteran and the 2004 Democratic nominee, Kerry has publicly mulled a bid but emphasized earlier this month that he thinks “I doubt I’ll run for office again.”
  • Richard Ojeda---Ojeda jumped into the race shortly after his failed congressional bid in West Virginia, running on an anti-corruption plank.
  • Tom Steyer—The liberal billionaire traveled to South Carolina this month for an event, and has posted jobs for key staff in early presidential primary states on LinkedIn.

Tom Steyer posts LinkedIn ad for staff in key 2020 states

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer is looking to hire experienced political operatives in early presidential nominating states, his spokesperson confirmed, taking him one big step closer to a potential 2020 presidential bid.

Steyer, one of the largest donors in the Democratic Party and its most outspoken advocate of impeaching President Donald Trump, posted an anonymous job listing on LinkedIn last week looking for state directors in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Those states vote in the Democratic presidential primary process just after Iowa.

Spokesperson Aleigha Cavalier confirmed to NBC News the posting by a "high profile political campaign based on the West Coast" is indeed Steyer's, as first reported by BuzzFeed, but said the San Franciscan has not yet made up his mind about 2020.

"As Tom has said publicly -- he is considering how he can have the most impact in 2020 and our team is exploring staffing options should he decide to move forward with a run. Tom has not made a final decision and any discussions with potential staff are preliminary," Cavalier said.

Steyer is hardly alone among potential 2020 candidates in reaching out to potential staffers, even though most campaigns do not yet officially exist. Likely candidates often select employees on a conditional basis so that, should they decide to formally get in the race, they can have top staffers in place from the start.

Steyer's posting suggests that he's looking to enter the crowded 2020 field with a robust campaign with a presence in all four early states, a luxury that he can afford thanks to his personal wealth. Other candidates will likely start out with smaller footprint in one or two states before expanding to others later in the process.