Democrats catching breaks in North Carolina

While we’re keeping the toss-up rating of the North Carolina Senate race, it’s reasonable to question the Republicans’ chances there against first-term Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC).

The top announced candidate for the GOP is Thom Tillis (R), speaker of the state House of Representatives. National Republicans do not seem all that thrilled with his candidacy, and grassroots conservative leaders aren’t really on board either. For instance, editor Erick Erickson has endorsed Greg Brannon (R), a conservative physician. Our North Carolina sources don’t seem to think that Brannon would be a particularly viable general election candidate, but the Erickson endorsement is giving him some oxygen at the moment — and, in a Republican primary, who knows what could happen?

With Tillis in the race, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R) looming as another potential candidate, Republicans have to be alarmed that their eventual candidate might be a leader of the controversial state legislature, which has taken the state in a conservative direction and inspired a series of liberal protests, called “Moral Mondays.” Earlier this week, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a strict voter ID law, which also limits early voting. Democrats believe these laws are designed to make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote (although the electoral effects of such a law are probably overstated). In any event, Democrats will use the voter ID law to motivate their base in 2014, just as they did to great effect in places like Philadelphia in 2012. For Democrats, if the Senate race features a leader of the unpopular legislature who passed the law, all the better.

Perhaps the most palatable candidate for Republicans could be Jim Cain (R), a former ambassador to Denmark, but it’s unclear whether he’ll run. Running a candidate without a voting record might be a good thing for the Republicans in this race. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R) is also mentioned as a candidate, but we doubt that the five-term representative would want to ditch her safe seat. Other members of Congress from the Tar Heel State have already passed.

North Carolina voters were 30% non-white in 2012; unfortunately, there’s no exit polling data for North Carolina in 2010, but presumably the electorate will be whiter and more Republican-leaning in 2014 than in the 2012 presidential election. Democrats need a rallying cry for this race, and the Republican legislature has provided them with one; whether the Republican Senate primary voters do as well is an open question.

The unsettled Republican field means, to us, that of the four incumbent Democratic senators running for reelection in states that Mitt Romney won in 2014 — Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA) and Kay Hagan (NC) — Hagan is probably in the best shape at the moment.

House ratings changes: Republican movement in New England?

The GOP does not control a single House seat in New England — all 21 seats in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont are held by Democrats. As it stands now, the best opportunities for the Republicans in this Democratic region are in New Hampshire, where both seats flipped parties in 2010 and 2012. But there are two other seats that merit close watching in the region.

The first is ME-2, which is held by Rep. Mike Michaud (D). Michaud is reportedly going to officially announce his bid for governor today, and in so doing will open up this seat, which is the largest district east of the Mississippi River. It has a slight Democratic lean — Obama won 53% there in 2012 — but former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) held this district for a long time in the 1980s and 1990s, and Maine can be open to Republican candidates. Michaud himself is a Blue Dog Democrat with a fairly moderate reputation.

As we wait for the field to develop, we’re switching the rating from likely Democratic to LEANS DEMOCRATIC. There appear to be credible candidates on both sides; the Portland Press Herald runs them down here.

In Massachusetts, Rep. John Tierney (D, MA-6) barely hung on in 2012 in the face of a tough challenge from Richard Tisei (R), a former state legislator. Tierney’s struggles can be traced back to legal troubles involving his wife and her brother-in-law. It’s possible that this story, which has been out in the public for years, will blow over by the election, although the House Ethics Committee is still looking into it. An internal GOP poll finds Tisei up slightly on Tierney. Tierney has also attracted a couple of primary challengers: immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco (who lost badly to Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic Senate nomination in 2012) and Seth Moulton, an Iraq War veteran.

Still, MA-6 is a 55% Obama 2012 district. LEANS DEMOCRATIC is the new rating here, but there’s a ways to go before we call it a toss-up.

One other New England race merits mention, but that’s because it’s not particularly competitive: Rep. David Cicilline (D, RI-1) is now rated SAFE DEMOCRATIC, from likely Democratic. Cicilline, a former mayor of Providence, was strongly criticized in 2010 and 2012 for his stewardship of the city, but the district is so Democratic — 66% Obama — that it’s just really hard to see him losing. Republicans have many other, better targets, even in New England.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

With these changes, there are 231 leaning, likely or safe seats for the Republicans, 196 seats leaning, likely or safe for the Democrats, and only eight toss-ups. The current House breakdown is 233 Republicans and 200 Democrats (with one safe Republican vacancy and one safe Democratic). At this point, any net gain made by either side in the House is likely to be minimal, but there are almost 15 months before election day.

Our full House ratings are available here.