By Jim Ellis
March 17, 2017 — As we approach the end of first quarter 2017, we see political maneuvering beginning to occur in many in-cycle US Senate states. Despite what columnists and news reporters are already saying about the Republicans potentially sustaining big mid-term losses in 2018, the Democrats have only one legitimate Senate target: Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV).
Unfortunately for them, Democrats must defend 25 of the 34 in-cycle seats (the latter number includes the Alabama special election), and this political fundamental is likely the key reason Republicans will hold the majority irrespective of what the political climate may be like at election time. Arguably, seven of the nine in-cycle GOP seats are located in some of the strongest Republican states in the nation. Today we take a look at the states alphabetically from Alabama through Maryland.
• Alabama: Appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) has over a year to solidify himself politically before standing for election. He may well receive a Republican primary challenge because of the circumstances under which he was appointed to succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sen. Strange, while the Alabama attorney general, was conducting an investigation into Gov. Robert Bentley (R), which was obviously stalled when the appointment was made. So far, no one has announced against Sen. Strange, but state Senate President Del Marsh (R) is a possible candidate.
The Republican nomination will be the new senator’s most critical test. Democrats are not particularly competitive in Alabama, so the focus should be on the GOP primary. The 2018 special election winner serves the balance of the current term, and will stand for a full six-year stint in 2020.
• Arizona: Largely due to his public campaign feud with President Trump, Sen. Jeff Flake (R) is hemorrhaging politically within his own party structure. Early polling finds Sen. Flake with an unfavorable rating among his own Republican primary voters. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who challenged Sen. John McCain in the 2016 Republican primary — and she and others held down his victory percentage to just 51 percent — has already announced for the 2018 race.
All eyes, however, are on state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who was President Trump’s chief Arizona spokesman during the campaign. Polling indicates that DeWit would begin with a relatively substantial lead over Sen. Flake, so this is a potential challenge that must taken seriously. DeWit has already announced he will not seek re-election as state treasurer, thus leaving the door open for him to enter the US Senate race.
• California: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), the oldest member of the legislative body at 83, has publicly said she is leaning toward seeking re-election. Most believe she will retire, however. Now it appears that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) may be waiting in the wings, though he may run as an Independent if he chooses to enter the race. The Independent status may well help him in the California jungle primary. It would be difficult for him to continue his feud with President Trump as a GOP Senate candidate. The jungle primary system allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election irrespective of political party affiliation. A number of Democrats would likely become candidates if the seat were to open, but the race, even as an open seat, will likely be over-shadowed by the open governor’s race.
• Delaware: Sen. Tom Carper (D) had made early statements suggesting that retiring was a possibility for him in the next election. Last week, however, he said he is energized over battling President Trump’s agenda, and now is likely to seek re-election. He will draw little opposition if he chooses to run.
• Florida: The first polling in a hypothetical race between three-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R), was surprisingly close. Both February statewide polls, one from the University of Northern Florida and the other from professional pollster Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, find Sen. Nelson leading only in the neighborhood of five points, meaning Gov. Scott is running much better than anticipated in the early going. Sen. Nelson, who will be 76 years old at the time of the next election, says he is running again. Gov. Scott, ineligible to seek a third term, is publicly contemplating entering the Senate contest.
• Hawaii: Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono will be on the ballot seeking a second term. There was early speculation that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Kailua) was examining a potential Democratic primary challenge against Sen. Hirono, but there is less chance of that after overwhelming negative reaction surfaced about her controversial surprise trip to Syria that included a meeting with dictator Bashar al-Assad. It is now probable that Sen. Hirono will not receive any serious challenge next year.
• Indiana: With GOP representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita looking at a Senate run, first-term incumbent Joe Donnelly (D) is assured of a tough re-election challenge. With Indiana going so strongly Republican from the top of the ticket to the bottom in November, Sen. Donnelly could well be considered the most vulnerable senator standing for re-election.
• Maine: Independent Sen. Angus King stands for his first re-election in 2018, and looks to be drawing some interest from two-term Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Sen. King, barring any further health problems, looks to be in strong position for re-election but a challenge from Gov. LePage would certainly make things interesting. It is unlikely the Democrats will nominate a candidate – although two former state legislators are reported to be considering a Senate run – meaning LePage will lose the three-way dynamic that allowed him to win the governor’s race in consecutive elections. Since LePage has never even reached 40 percent of the vote in a previous election, he would begin a head-to-head contest with Sen. King as a decided underdog.
• Maryland: Sen. Ben Cardin (D) appears to be preparing for a second re-election campaign, and should see little opposition in both the Democratic primary and general election. Cardin has been in elective office since first winning a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates back in 1966.
The next Senate Update will cover Massachusetts to New Jersey.