The Emerging Senate Cycle

By Jim Ellis

Tennessee state flag

Tennessee state flag

Oct. 25, 2017 — Though we still have more than two full months remaining in calendar year 2017, the 2018 US Senate field is beginning to take clear shape. With 34 statewide contests to be decided, including the Alabama special election that will conclude Dec. 12, no fewer than 10 campaigns are basically set. Action is occurring in an additional 13 states suggesting that some sort of primary or general election competition will soon come to the forefront. Eleven incumbents seeking re-election are rated as “safe” at the present time.

Former Tennessee US Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Crockett County) announced Monday that he would join the open US Senate Republican primary battle, attempting to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R). This race already appears to be evolving into a possible two-way primary between ex-Rep. Fincher and current 7th District veteran incumbent Marsha Blackburn (R-Brentwood).

Andy Ogles, the former Tennessee director for Americans for Prosperity, remains in the race after launching what is now a moot primary challenge to Sen. Corker but it is unclear how strong he will be now that several conservative organizations are already beginning to coalesce behind Rep. Blackburn.

The only other bit of Volunteer State intrigue centers around Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen and whether he will enter the statewide contest. Originally, Bredesen took himself out of consideration, but now agrees to consider becoming a candidate. He says a decision will be forthcoming in a matter of weeks. Without Bredesen, the Democrats would likely concede the seat to the eventual Republican nominee since other strong potential candidates, specifically US Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, have already said they will not run.

Though one Fox News poll projected a tie between former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) and ex-US Attorney Doug Jones (D), the preponderance of survey research suggests Moore has a significant lead heading toward the Dec. 12 special election date. The winner will next face the voters in the 2020 election cycle.

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R) has bowed to the serious competition in he was about to face from his own Republican party in the upcoming primary when he made his surprise retirement announcement yesterday. While his retirement address was devoted mostly to addressing issues with President Trump and his direction, and Sen. Flake said he had “regrets” about leaving elected politics over the nation’s current state of affairs. But, the more likely reason he decided to retire is likely recent polling data that shows that his standing among Republicans is worse than the Arizona electorate in general, and that he would probably lose in the primary to Kelli Ward, a former state senator, and subsequently to US Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) when matched with her in general election polling. Conversely, the Democratic side appears set. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix) is well positioned to become the consensus party candidate as her two top potential opponents, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and state Rep. Randy Friese (D-Tucson), both are headed to different campaigns.

Since California Republicans have no apparent viable US Senate candidate, a double-Democratic general election between Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Senate President Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) appears probable. Campaign strategy will be highlighted in this race, particularly for the veteran incumbent, as she attempts to position herself to attract Republican and right-of-center unaffiliated voters who have few options.

Though his candidacy is still officially unannounced, it appears that Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), ineligible to seek a third term, will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D). With no other viable Republicans making moves and the governor not denying he will eventually form a campaign, a tough general election battle is on the political horizon. Several early polls show a dead heat contest developing between the two men.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) officially becoming a Senate candidate virtually assures that the general election match-up in this state will feature he and two-term Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). This will become one of the nation’s premier Senate contests next year.

Though Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) faces re-nomination at least from frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian (R) the Democrats have coalesced around a candidate. Freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Henderson) appears well positioned to become the party standard-bearer for the general election, which promises to remain in the toss-up category all the way to Election Day.

With Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) receiving only token Republican primary opposition so far, a re-match between he and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) appears a virtual certainty. In 2012, a high-spending campaign yielded a 51-45 percent Brown victory, but the Democratic incumbent had President Obama carrying the state in the same election thus helping to create a favorable political climate for the incumbent senator. This year, a critical governor’s race will lead the Ohio ticket thus likely creating a much different turnout model that could potentially change the Senate campaign’s outcome.

Though two wealthy Pennsylvania businessmen could create some Republican primary competition for Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazelton), the four-term congressman appears to be a heavy favorite for the nomination particularly since he has a strong relationship with the Trump forces in the state. Should he claim the nomination, Barletta will square off with two-term Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) in a test to see which way this politically marginal state will swing for the coming election.

Finally, in Texas, Democrats are coalescing around El Paso US Rep. Beto O’Rourke and, with Sen. Ted Cruz apparently having little to fear in a Republican primary, such a general election pairing appears to be a lock.

Much more will soon unfold to paint the full Senate picture, but we can count on seeing the aforementioned campaigns being front and center next year.

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