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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Leigh Ann Caldwell

Trump nudges Tarkanian out of Nevada Senate race

President Donald Trump on Friday gently — but very publicly — persuaded perennial conservative candidate Danny Tarkanian to leave the Nevada Senate race where he is challenging Republican Sen. Dean Heller in the primary.  

The president sent the message via Twitter, writing: "It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada, and it’s [sic] unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a really good job, could run for Senate unopposed!"

Shortly after Trump's tweet, NBC News confirmed that Tarkanian is dropping out of the Senate primary and will run for Congress in the state's 3rd district instead.

With GOP candidates facing stiff headwinds for the midterm elections, Trump was backing Heller in the primary even though the two had a rough start. Heller repeatedly criticized Trump during the 2016 presidential election and the president had previously threatened to support Tarkanian in a primary.

Heller was struggling in the primary among the GOP faithful, especially in Northern Nevada, who have been  disappointed in the incumbent senator for what they say are a lack of conservative bona fides.

Anger peaked when Heller opposed efforts in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, an effort to appeal to the more moderate Republicans in southern Nevada and the independents in a possible general election.

Carrie Dann

Pew: How pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions view each others' 'values and goals'

It's not exactly surprising that Trump supporters don't see themselves having that much in common with Trump opponents — and vice versa — but a new poll shows just how sizable a chunk of Americans see those who view Trump differently as vastly different from themselves on a personal level as well. 

The new survey from the Pew Research Center found that, among Trump approvers, 51 percent say that those who don't like the president also "probably don't share many of my other values and goals." 

Among those who disapprove of Trump, an even greater share — 56 percent — say pro-Trump folks don't share their values and goals. 

Here's a chart summing up Pew's findings. 

Source: Pew Research Center

Pelosi on Lamb: 'I don’t think he ran against me the entire time'

Conor Lamb pointedly said during his campaign that he wouldn't support Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader, a move that likely neutralized GOP-led attempts to paint him as a liberal in Pelosi's mold. 

On Thursday, the minority leader disputed the idea that the disavowal played an important role in the outcome. 

"I don’t think he ran against me the entire time," Pelosi told NBC's Kasie Hunt. "I think he ran on his positive agenda." 

Pelosi added that she "just wanted him to win" and that she's a target of GOP attacks simply because she's a party leader. 

"Yes, I am a liberal — but I don’t think it’s the misrepresentations or the demonizations that are put out against any leader on the Democratic side. Whoever the leader is will be the target," she said. 

Andrew Rafferty

Chris McDaniel to run for Mississippi Senate seat vacated by Cochran

Conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel announced Wednesday he will run for the Senate seat being vacated by Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, abandoning his primary challenge to Sen. Roger Wicker.

"By announcing early, we are asking Mississippi Republicans to unite around my candidacy and avoid another contentious contest among GOP members that would only improve the Democrats' chances of winning the open seat," McDaniel said in a statement. "If we unite the party now and consolidate our resources, we can guarantee Donald Trump will have a fighter who will stand with him."

The move means Wicker will avoid what was already turning out to be a nasty GOP primary battle with McDaniel, and McDaniel will have the chance to compete either for an open seat or against whoever Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant chooses to fill the remainder of Cochran's term. 

McDaniel is an outspoken critic of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is pushing for Bryant to appoint someone who will have a good chance of defeating McDaniel. 

Cochran will step down April 1.  

Andrew Rafferty

New Hampshire primary status at center of brewing political battle

A political battle is brewing in New Hampshire that has some warning the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status could be at stake.

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern announced he will challenge Bill Gardner, the nation’s longest serving secretary of state, to oversee New Hampshire’s elections.

Gardner has been in the influential post for 42 years and is a well-known defender of the state's role in the presidential primaries. But the Democrat angered members of his own party when he agreed to take part in President Trump’s now defunct election integrity commission and supported other tweaks to the state’s voting laws that Van Ostern told the New Hampshire Union Leader will discourage voting.

The post has considerable power during presidential years by determining the date of the first presidential primary. It has traditionally been the week after the Iowa caucuses and a good showing can give candidates a significant boost, while a poor one can effectively end their run. New Hampshire law allows the secretary of state to move the primary date a week before any “similar election.”

Gardner has sparred with Democrats in the past for being seemingly too accommodating to Republicans, but his last serious challenge came in 1984, according to the Union Leader.

“New Hampshire would lose our First-in-the-Nation prestige and our election integrity would be at risk with a political hack as Secretary of State,” the New Hampshire Republican Party said in a statement.

The secretary of state is elected by members of the New Hampshire legislature.


Carrie Dann

GOP: 'Conor Lamb ran as a Republican'

In the wake of the Pennsylvania special election, one talking point has emerged from the GOP: Conor Lamb won, they say, because he acted like a Republican in this conservative district. 

"Both of these people, both of these candidates, the Republican and the Democrat, ran as conservatives, ran as pro-gun, pro-life, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservatives, and I think that’s the takeaway you see here," said House Speaker Paul Ryan. 

"Conor Lamb ran as a Republican," said RNC spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. "He said 'I’m not running against Trump but I am running against Pelosi.'"

It's true that Lamb refrained from taking many shots at Trump and said he wouldn't support Pelosi as Democratic leader. But the idea that Lamb convinced voters that he is "anti-Pelosi" also concedes, at the very least, that the $6 million barrage of GOP TV advertisements against Lamb — most of which took pains to tie him to the unpopular Minority Leader — didn't exactly stick with voters. 

Here's just a smattering of screenshots from ads that aired in the district. 

PA-18 results a troubling sign for GOP ahead of midterms

Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent victory in Pennsylvania's special congressional election has left Republicans struggling to explain how the party lost a seat in a district President Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

Here’s a roundup of NBC News’ analysis of what the race means for Democrats, the midterms, and beyond.

  • From First Read: Why the Pennsylvania special election was a gut punch for the GOP. Democrats have been over performing strongly in elections since 2016, and neither Trump nor GOP money save Republican Rick Saccone.
  • Democrats now have a national model for victory in the midterms, NBC News' Jonathan Allen writes
  • Pennsylvania result is another blow to GOP’s November House prospects, Cook Political Report and NBC News election analyst David Wasserman writes. There are 118 GOP-held House districts that are more Republican than the one Lamb appeared to win Tuesday, according to the Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index. That could spur some more Republicans to take a hard look at retirement. 
Andrew Rafferty

Razor-thin margin separates Lamb and Saccone in Pennsylvania

As of midnight: Democrat Conor Lamb holds a slight lead over Republican Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania's special congressional election with votes left to be counted.

The close race in the congressional district President Trump won by nearly 20 points was enough for many Democrats to begin declaring victory even before a winner was announced.

Saccone vowed to supporters late Tuesday that he will “fight all the way to the end.” A margin within .5 percent triggers an automatic recount in statewide races in Pennsylvania, though it is unclear exactly how the law could apply to a congressional race. A candidate can also request a recount.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a statement declaring victory, while the national campaign arm of the Republican Party said the race remained too close to call shortly before midnight. 

Two precincts and several thousand absentee ballots, enough to swing the election, have yet to be tabulated.

Republicans privately sought to tamp down expectations heading into Tuesday, saying Saccone ran a lackluster campaign

Also on the ballot was Libertarian candidate Drew Miller, who earned more than 1,000 votes.

“I think I have a shot. Even if I don't, I think this race is so close between Lamb and Saccone, I could actually be the spoiler between who wins,” Miller told the Tribune-Review in January.

Tonight's outcome will reverberate beyond PA's 18th district

The race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone has occasionally been described as a high-dollar contest for a district that's "going extinct." That's partly accurate: the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision to strike down the current GOP-drawn congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander mean that all 18 districts will be newly configured in November. But the Republican outside groups attempting to rescue Saccone, including the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, wouldn't have spent millions on TV ads attacking Lamb if the outcome didn't have big implications for the fall.

First, the race's outcome will have big local repercussions. If Lamb wins tonight, he would likely run for re-election in the new 17th District, a seat that takes in much more of his suburban Allegheny County base than the current 18th District and is much more favorable to Democrats. He might even be the favorite there against GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus in the fall, assuming both Lamb and Rothfus choose to run in the district where they live. If Saccone wins, he would have the inside track to win reelection in the new 14th District, which takes in much of the current 18th District but is roughly three points more Republican. Regardless of who wins, both Lamb and Saccone will only have a week to plot their next moves: Pennsylvania's filing deadline for the November elections is March 20.

Second, tonight's outcome will reverberate nationally. If Lamb wins, the election would tell Republicans that even districts that voted for President Trump by 20 points may not be safe this fall. It could also indicate that the tax cut bill - a key element of GOP groups' messaging throughout February on the Pittsburgh airwaves - failed to motivate Trump supporters to get behind Saccone sufficiently, a development that could cause several more incumbent Republicans to contemplate retirement. Even if Saccone wins, he's unlikely to do so by nearly the same margin as Trump did in the district. And that would signal it's become possible for Democrats to make inroads in GOP districts by running to their party's right on issues like guns, trade and energy - just like Lamb did.

GOP 'not feeling good' about PA-18?

Polls are still open for another couple of hours in Pennsylvania, but one GOP source is already predicting doom and gloom.

A Republican following the race closely tells NBC's Alex Moe that the party "isn't feeling good" about the outcome, placing blame partly on Rick Saccone's lackluster candidacy.

With votes yet to be cast, the pessimism could still be all about expectations-setting, and it's still no guarantee that Democrat Conor Lamb pulls out a win in this 20+ Trump district. But at this point, it certainly behooves Republicans to paint their candidate as an underdog.