Skip links

Notes on the State of the Senate


–Last week, national Republicans got their best possible Senate recruit in deep blue Maryland, with former Gov. Larry Hogan.

–Though Hogan will be hard pressed to actually win, as has been the case with some other recent “crossover” governors who’ve run in Senate races, his candidacy is notable enough that it moves Maryland onto the periphery of the competitive map.

–In Montana, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R, MT-2) finally entered his state’s Senate contest, setting up a primary with Tim Sheehy, who national Republicans prefer.

— In Arizona, Kari Lake, a pro-Trump election denier, received the nod from national Republicans, though Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s (I-AZ) plans are still not known.

— With Democrats being so exposed this cycle—they hold roughly two-thirds of the Senate seats that will be up—it’ll be important for them to minimize their losses.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
MD Open (Cardin, D) Safe Democratic Likely Democratic

The Hogan Factor

Last week, on what could have been a slow Friday in the political world, the nation’s attention turned to Maryland. On the final day of candidate filing, now-former Gov. Larry Hogan (R) entered his state’s open-seat Senate race. Though Maryland is one of the bluest states—it was Donald Trump’s third-worst state in 2020—Hogan, in office, routinely ranked among the most popular governors in the country, often sporting positive approval ratings with Democrats. Hogan’s move was a surprise, considering he resisted pressure to enter his state’s 2022 Senate race, and, as of last year, did not seem interested in running for anything below the presidency. Though Hogan’s entry gives Republicans their best possible recruit in a rough state, Senate races are different than gubernatorial contests.

In response to Hogan’s announcement, we downgraded our rating for Maryland from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. Are Republicans favored now? No, not even close—Democrats are still strongly favored to hold this open seat. But are Hogan’s chances zero? We don’t think so. Simply put, despite the terrain of the state, Maryland is now more of a live contest in a way that it wasn’t at the start of the month.

Part of the reason that we moved this race after Hogan’s announcement is that we figured that initial polling would show the race as competitive, making it harder to ignore in the short term. This morning, the first post-Hogan announcement poll came out, from Emerson College, DC News Now, and The Hill. Hogan is tied 42%-42% with Rep. David Trone (D, MD-6) and up 44%-37% on the lesser-known other major Democratic candidate, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. Again, we fully expect the eventual Democratic nominee to take a clear lead in this race later on down the line—but this has gone from a total snoozer of a race to one that national Democrats at least have to monitor and perhaps even fund, depending on how it develops.

We also feel that Hogan-type candidates should be afforded an extra modicum of respect, even in states that clearly do not favor their party at the federal level. In 2022, for instance, had then-Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) challenged Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), we probably would have shifted our rating for Louisiana from Safe Republican to the somewhat more competitive Likely Republican—even though, considering how the Deep South shaped up that year, Kennedy would have probably won outright in the first round of the state’s top-two voting system.

That said, we feel like we’ve seen this movie before. Over the last decade or so, several sitting (or former) governors have tried to run for the Senate in states that lean against their party in presidential contests. While they often overperform the presidential number, the national nature of Senate contests has proven tough to overcome.

In 2012, for instance, Republicans were excited to land former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, who, like Hogan, found herself recently termed out of office. But in President Obama’s best, and native, state, Lingle lost by 25 points instead of Mitt Romney’s 43. In 2018, Democrats recruited former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who in his 2006 reelection to the governorship carried all 95 counties in his state. But in a federal race against then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R)—who was, arguably, not the strongest candidate Republicans could have fielded—Bredesen only carried the same three counties that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, although he outperformed her by 15 points. In 2020, then-Gov. Steve Bullock (D) challenged Sen. Steve Daines, who now serves as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in Montana. Though polls pointed to a close race, Daines won 55%-45%, though his margin was 6 points worse than Trump’s.

The most recent Senate cycle, 2022, was a bit of an exception here: no sitting or former governors ran for the Senate as challengers or for open seats. Earlier in the cycle, it seemed that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) would jump into his state’s contest that year, while national Republicans reportedly lobbied outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) to run for Senate. Both New Hampshire and Arizona backed Biden in 2020, although they are much more competitive than a state like Maryland.

The most recent “crossover” governor to win a Senate race was Joe Manchin (D-WV), right next door to Hogan’s Maryland, when he was elected in a 2010 special election (we are excluding Maine’s Democratic-caucusing independent Angus King here). West Virginia had become reliably Republican at the presidential level even at that time, but the state was still dominated at the local level by Democrats—the retiring Manchin is the last remaining prominent elected Democrat in that state. Governors who have come to the Senate more recently—such as Colorado’s John Hickenlooper (D) and Florida’s Rick Scott (R)—hail from states that routinely back their respective party’s national ticket.

On the Democratic side, the May 14 primary will essentially be a two-way race between the aforementioned Trone and Alsobrooks. Before he won a House seat in 2018, Trone founded Total Wine & More—giving him an immense amount of personal wealth—while Alsobrooks has held elected office in the state’s second-largest county for over a dozen years, and she was an early supporter of now-Gov. Wes Moore (D-MD).

Hogan may become something of a bogeyman in the Democratic primary and force voters to consider the idea of electability—which could possibly benefit Trone, who can self-fund in the general election. Still, we feel that whichever Democrat emerges from the primary would be acceptable to voters who may approve of Hogan personally but wouldn’t want a Republican-controlled Senate (probably a substantial bloc of the electorate). A key factor in a Hogan victory would be a subpar, or significantly weakened, Democratic nominee. We’ll watch how the primary develops but for now, it doesn’t seem like that’ll be something Republicans can count on.

Speaking of the primary, something we’ll also be watching on May 14 is how much of a protest vote materializes against Hogan. Aside from the former governor, there are a handful of lesser or perennial GOP contenders who will be on the ballot. While we’d be truly shocked if Hogan actually lost the nomination, his vocal criticism of Trump may give some partisans reason to pass him over. Hogan was easily leading the GOP primary in the aforementioned Emerson poll, but with just 43% overall (Trone led Alsobrooks 32%-17% in the Democratic primary).

In 2022, Maryland Republican primary voters showed that they weren’t concerned with electability, and gave Hogan something of a black eye on his way out the door. In a contested primary, they snubbed Hogan’s preferred candidate, former Hogan administration official Kelly Schulz, for Del. Dan Cox, a pro-Trump Republican. Cox, with strong support in areas of the state that lean GOP in general elections, won the nomination by 10 points and went on to lose to Moore by 2-to-1 in the general election. As an aside, Cox is running for Trone’s open Biden +10 6th District, although he is not guaranteed the nomination.

Honestly, we found it notable that Hogan is even running as a Republican. Occasionally over the last few cycles, Democratic-aligned candidates in red states have avoided party labels to run as independents—though this has not led to GOP defeats, the nominal independents have come closer than Democrats would have. Two years ago, for instance, Evan McMullin, a former Republican who ran as an anti-Trump third party presidential candidate in 2016, challenged GOP Sen. Mike Lee in Utah. With McMullin in the race, Democrats did not field their own candidate—Lee was ultimately reelected by 10 points, but the result marked the closest Utah Senate race in nearly five decades. Similarly, Eric Cunningham of Elections Daily mused that ditching the partisan label may be a template for popular governors in states that would lean against their party federally. But, with his stances against Trump in mind, Maryland Republicans may not have been willing to defer to an independent Hogan as the Utah Democrats gave McMullin a pass.

Daines, in his capacity as the NRSC’s leader, released a statement praising Hogan, though he stopped short of offering an endorsement, while both Alsobrooks and Trone have fundraised off of Hogan’s entrance into the race.

Republicans have not won a Senate election in Maryland since 1980, one of their longest Senate dry spells in the country. The Democrats should win Maryland for president by (at a bare minimum) 25 points, requiring Hogan to generate a level of ticket-splitting that is very difficult to imagine in this day and age.

Western races shape up

Aside from Hogan, another consequential Senate announcement came on Friday from a Maryland native, but it came in Daines’s state (we’re being a little facetious here). After dragging his feet for some time, Rep. Matt Rosendale (R, MT-2) announced he’d run for a rematch against Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT). Rosendale is originally from Baltimore and spent much of his business career in Maryland, a fact that the Tester campaign used in 2018 to question its opponent’s Big Sky credentials in what can be a parochial state. As with Hogan, Rosendale’s announcement came as at least something of a surprise—last quarter, he only raised a paltry $98,000, a total that did not suggest he was gearing up for a statewide run.

Still, Rosendale enters the race with slightly more cash on hand than his leading opponent, former Navy SEAL and first-time candidate Tim Sheehy. Sheehy has been the favorite of national Republicans, and on Friday, he received a coveted Trump endorsement. During the 15-round House Speaker vote last year, Rosendale, one of the anti-Kevin McCarthy holdouts, was photographed refusing to accept a phone call from Trump—considering the premium that Trump is known to put on loyalty, Rosendale’s snub was almost certainly a factor in the former president’s thinking. Trump, in this instance, could also be acting as a team player—Daines, who was early to endorse Trump’s third GOP presidential bid, has telegraphed his preference for Sheehy.

With Republicans set to decide on a nominee in early June, Democratic-aligned groups, as they did in 2022, are already essentially playing in the primary—a group connected to Democratic outside spending giant Senate Majority PAC has spent millions trying to rough up Sheehy. Rosendale, who already lost to Tester and is considered Republicans’ less-electable option (though he’d still be capable of winning), would seem the likely beneficiary of any continued meddling.

In Arizona, the NRSC endorsed Kari Lake, the GOP’s losing 2022 gubernatorial nominee with a reputation as a vocal election denier, earlier this week. A few weeks ago, a leaked recording surfaced of then-state GOP chairman Jeff DeWit trying to dissuade Lake from staying in the race—the episode ended with DeWit’s resignation. Lake’s most prominent opponent in the late July Republican primary is Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-3) is campaigning as the presumptive Democratic nominee. One of the biggest, and last, question marks hanging over the Senate landscape is whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and was elected as one in 2018, will run again. Arizona’s filing deadline is April 8, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea of the dynamics of the race in several weeks. Last quarter, Sinema raised just $595,000—if she were still in the House, that would make for a good figure, but it is far below what’s needed to compete in what seems likely to become a marquee Senate race. As Matt Holt, a Senate reporter, pointed out, it may be telling that Sinema spent nothing on ballot access petitioning.

The Democrats’ downside risk

As a concluding thought for this week, it has been obvious all cycle how exposed Democrats are in the Senate—all three races we’ve discussed in some depth during this edition are in states that elected Democrats in 2018. They are defending the only three seats they hold in states that Donald Trump won in 2020—Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia, with the Mountain State essentially a guaranteed loss with Manchin’s retirement. In addition to those seats, Democrats are defending an additional five seats in states that Joe Biden won, but by less than his roughly 4.5-point national margin: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

If Republicans win the presidency, they will carry at least some, and perhaps even all, of these aforementioned states. Given the growing convergence between presidential and Senate results, Republicans could then also win a number of the Senate seats in these states. If that happens, Republicans could hypothetically not just win the Senate this year, but also build a decent-sized majority that Democrats would have a hard time erasing in the short term.

CNN’s Ron Brownstein recently wrote about this downside risk for Democrats in the Senate, and he included some observations from us. Check out his piece for much more on this dynamic.

— Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik and intern Tanish Gupta contributed to this piece.