Ratings Changes: A Senate Sleeper in Kentucky?

Plus, Democrats get some improved odds in a handful of House races


The prospect of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) winning the Republican presidential nomination seems as remote as ever. But that doesn’t mean Senate Republicans can just assume the seat will stay safely in their column next year. The Senate situation in the Bluegrass State highlights six Crystal Ball race ratings changes, which are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Crystal Ball race rating changes

Notes: Some of these changes were previously announced on Twitter earlier this month.

Kentucky Senate: While he appears to be fading in the presidential race, Rand Paul did win a victory in his home state recently. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Paul persuaded Kentucky Republicans to hold a presidential caucus next March instead of a presidential primary in May. That will allow Paul to compete for presidential delegates in his home state while also preserving his ability to run for renomination in the Senate primary. Kentucky law prohibits candidates from running for different offices in the same primary election. Paul has agreed to pay the state party $250,000 by this Friday to help cover the costs. The party told us earlier this week that it will not publicly reveal whether the payment has been made until then. If Paul doesn’t pay, the caucus would revert back to a May primary, which is when Kentucky Democrats will pick their preferred presidential nominee and when down-ticket primaries, like the Senate nomination, will be held.

If Paul became the GOP presidential nominee after being renominated in the May Senate primary, he likely would not be able to appear on the ballot twice, and the party could not replace him in the Senate race, which could hand a Senate seat in a red state to the Democrats. Again, this is unlikely: Paul’s flagging presidential bid might not last until the Kentucky caucus, let alone the later Senate primary.

But some Republicans are also privately concerned that Paul’s presidential aspirations might have damaged him a bit at home, perhaps leaving the window slightly cracked open for a Democratic challenger next year. Complicating matters further is that the potential Democratic nominee probably won’t emerge until after this year’s election for statewide offices — if Democrats are successful in some of these races this year (the party currently holds five of six statewide executive positions), a strong statewide elected official might challenge for the Senate seat next year.

Ultimately, Kentucky is very likely to send a Republican, almost certainly Paul, back to the Senate in November 2016. The state is deeply red in federal elections these days. But there’s enough uncertainty that we are moving the Senate race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican for now.

Alaska Senate: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who won reelection as a write-in after losing a primary to Joe Miller in 2010, is gearing up to reclaim her party’s nomination. She appears to be in decent shape, even if someone like Miller again challenges her. Democrats also appear to have no one of note to challenge her: Former Sen. Mark Begich (D) could be formidable, but there’s no indication he wants to run. So even while we acknowledge that Murkowski could face primary trouble, we’re confident that a Republican, probably Murkowski, will win this seat next year. So it moves from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

North Dakota governor: To the immense relief of Senate Democrats, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) announced last week that she would be passing on a race for governor next year and staying in the Senate (she will be up for reelection in 2018). That gives Republicans a better chance to hold the governorship, which is now open after Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R-ND) opted against running for another term. So this race moves from Leans Republican to Likely Republican, and that may be understating the Republican nominee’s chances (Democrats have not won this office since 1988). Both sides are still figuring out their fields.

House race changes: The recent retirements of Reps. John Kline (R, MN-2) and Dan Benishek (R, MI-1) give Democrats a couple of additional open seat targets. Both are now Toss-ups, although MN-2, narrowly won by Obama in 2012, is a more obvious target than MI-1, which Mitt Romney won by nine points. Only one Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), holds a more Republican district based on the 2012 results, so Democrats have had little success in such GOP-leaning districts in recent elections. It may be possible that Benishek’s successor as the Republican nominee will end up being a stronger nominee than him, given that Benishek turned in relatively weak performances in both 2012 and 2014. So we may be going back to Leans Republican in MI-1 after the fields shake out.

With promising candidates already running in both places, Democrats are confident they will field strong challengers in both MI-1 and MN-2. The Republican fields are less settled, but despite the fact that bigger names like Mary Pawlenty, wife of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and 2014 Senate nominee Mike McFadden have already passed on the MN-2 race, there’s not much reason to think respectable contenders won’t emerge in both of these districts.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Rep. Scott Garrett (R, NJ-5). He’s always been more conservative than the average voter in his district, which supported Romney by three points in 2012, and he upset party leadership by not voting for Speaker John Boehner (R, OH-8) at the opening of the ongoing 114th Congress. Recent news that Garrett refused to contribute to the National Republican Congressional Committee because of the NRCC’s support for gay candidates rankled some of Garrett’s Wall Street supporters, as does his opposition to the Export-Import Bank. Probable Democratic nominee Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is already running hard against Garrett.

This is a sleeper race for 2016, the kind of upset Democrats need to pull on Election Night if they are to have any chance to win the House. Still, Garrett has never won less than 55% in this Republican-leaning district, and we’ll need to see a lot more before we truly consider him vulnerable. This race moves from Safe Republican to Likely Republican for now.