First thing I'm going to say is, no, it's never too early. Now onto business.
Everyone is focused on the 2014 elections, and for good reason - they're happening in just a few months, and we have our work cut out for us. We have to hold at least two of the Endangered Seven (AK, AR, NC, WV, SD, MT, LA), or, failing that, take GA and/or KY to make up the deficit. I personally believe that we are in a good position to do so, and I wrote a detailed analysis as to why. But that is not the focus of this diary.
The focus of this diary is to look ahead to the 2016 Senate. Some things, even at this point, are certain. Others can be considered reasonably likely. This diary will attempt to discern some of these things and paint a picture for what things are going to be like in two years.
*Note: This diary assumes that Hillary Clinton will be our nominee in 2016, for the sole reason being that she's the most likely person right now. You will not, under any circumstances, debate the 2016 presidential primary in this diary. Take that shit elsewhere.
Everyone here remembers 2010, likely with PTSD. Republicans took six seats in the general, and another one earlier in the year. It was a blowout of epic proportions. Well, that class is up for reelection in 2016 - a presidential year. 2016 is likely to see the entry of the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, who is currently polling well over 50% in several swing states and even appears competitive in deep-red states like Arkansas, Kentucky, and Georgia. Assuming the polls are even reasonably accurate here, we could see quite a blowout in her favor. Such blowouts at the presidential level often translate to victories downballot.
But what's not as widely known is the history of this class. Class III has encountered the following election years: 1992, 1998, 2004, and 2010. Of these, only 1992 could be considered a Democratic wave year. 2004 could be considered a modest Republican wave - they picked up a net of four seats, all in the south or rural prairie states. 2010, as mentioned, was their best year since 1994, which this class did not experience.
So let me repeat: This class of senators has not seen a Democratic wave election since 1992.
As a consequence, there are 10 Democrats and 23 Republicans who will be running for office in 2016. Of the ten Democrats, eight are in 100% safe seats: WA, OR, CA, MD, NY, VT, CT, and HI. The two left are in Dem-trending states: NV and CO. Both are in swing states that Hillary Clinton will target. This means we will be almost completely on offense in this cycle, with very little need to play defense - particularly in a presidential year with presidential level turnout. (Note: The one person who could make NV-Sen competitive, Gov Brian Sandoval, has not expressed any interest. This analysis assumes he does not run.)
Of the 24 Republicans, 4 are completely, 100% safe, no questions asked: AL, OK, KS, and SC.
Of the remaining 20 Republicans, 9 are very likely to be safe, barring retirements or particularly strong candidates: AK, ID, UT, ND, SD, LA, AR, IN, and GA.
This leaves 11 Republicans whom we can target and expect a competitive race: AZ, IA, MO, FL, NC, PA, NH, OH, WI, IL, and KY. This diary will focus on these races.
Arizona: Right now, McCain has the seat locked down. However, there have been warning signs that McCain will either retire or will lose in a primary. McCain is currently the least popular senator in the nation, and his favorables with Republicans are in the gutter. If a well-funded challenger smells blood, that challenger is very favored to knock McCain out of his seat.
Therefore, we can reasonably treat the seat as open. In 2012, in a fairly neutral environment nationwide, Richard Carmona ran against sitting congressman Jeff Flake in a dem-trending state. He lost by a mere 3%, 49/46. While Richard Carmona had some serious money to put the seat in play, Jeff Flake still outraised him by three million dollars. Should Carmona decide to run again, I believe he would have a very serious shot at taking the seat in a more favorable climate for Democrats. A preliminary rating of Lean or Tilt R is warranted.
Iowa: Iowa is another instance where a Republican incumbent is currently locking up a seat that could easily go our way otherwise. Ever since Obama's two victories in this state, Iowa has become one of our safest sources of electoral votes among the swing states. It's difficult to say that the state is Dem trending; rather, it's better to say that the state already has a slight lean towards Democrats at the federal level, particularly in presidential years. But Chuck Grassley is a long-term incumbent without any personal popularity issues. Should he decide to run again, the seat will start off as likely-R.
However, it's difficult to see Grassley running again. The man will be 83 in 2016, and I would say he's very unlikely to go on for another term. Thankfully, he decided to run again in 2010 when a victory in Iowa was all but impossible even in an open seat contest, and so will most likely leave the seat open in 2016.
Our bench in Iowa is pretty deep. We have several candidates who could easily take the seat in an open race. Former governors Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack would be our best chance at taking the seat. Republicans, on the other hand, do not have anyone besides the popular Tom Latham, who would put up a very good fight. But Latham chose to pass up the open seat this year when the environment will be more favorable to Republicans compared to 2016. Steve King, the only other "traditional" choice for a senate race, would be demolished just by repeating "cantaloupe calves" over and over on the airways. And should Governor Branstad win in 2014, as seems likely, it's unlikely he'd be willing to leave his governor's seat to run for the senate. I would start off an open-seat Iowa race as lean-D.
Missouri: Roy Blunt will most likely run for a second term. His position as an incumbent in a fairly red state means he'll start from a position of strength. But here's the ace up our sleeve: Jay Nixon. Nixon is a wildcard. He's already run for the Senate twice, losing both times. But since then, he's carved out a position as an incredibly popular figure in the state. Should he decide to run in a presidential year in which Hillary Clinton will probably be competitive in the state, he too will also be competitive. It's difficult to see us eliminating a Republican incumbent in a Republican-leaning state without him, so if he doesn't run, it'll start out as a lean-R race. But if he does, I'd be happy with any rating between tilt-R and tilt-D.
Florida: We'll most likely be facing Marco Rubio in 2016. The fact is, we have a very thin bench in Florida. Patrick Murphy is the only name that springs to mind when I consider who could challenge an incumbent senator in a red-tilting tossup state. However, Rubio is the poster child of how not to behave as a politician, and the seat will be competitive so long as we nominate someone capable of running a decent campaign and articulating a message suitable to Floridians. I'd start off a rating as tilt-R.
North Carolina: We'll most likely be facing Richard Burr, a relatively inoffensive incumbent first elected in 2004 and easily reelected in 2010. Given that NC is still a reddish state, I don't expect this seat to be among our top targets. However, 2008 has a recent parallel in which an incumbent Republican was defeated during a Democratic wave year. It is possible to defeat Burr, but it will likely require a solid candidate.
Our bench is spread pretty thin here. The Republican gerrymander of the state was brutal - it reduced NC's 7D-6R US House delegation after 2010 to a paltry 9R-4D, one of which we will be losing this year upon Mike McIntyre's retirement. I believe our best shot is Brad Miller, a former Congressman who was turfed out by the very same gerrymander. He's a solid Democrat, and apparently he even blogs here on DKos on occasion. Still, Burr's an incumbent in a reddish state, so I'd start this off at lean-R.
Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey's going to be in trouble in 2016. While he hasn't done as bad a job at moderating himself as Ron Johnson in Wisconsin (notably in pushing for the Manchin-Toomey amendment), he's still a very far-right politician in a fairly blue state. With turnout at presidential levels, Toomey's going to need to get lucky to survive this one. Our bench is deep in Pennsylvania, and we have several who could dispatch Toomey. Those who failed in the governor primary this year will be some of our top recruitment opportunities, but there's also Kathleen Kane and Matt Cartwright, the latter of whom is a solid progressive. I'd start off the race at lean-D.
New Hampshire: Kelly Ayotte is also likely to face a tough reelection. While New Hampshire is one of those weird New England states that loves to proclaim its independence and lack of partisan affiliation, the fact is, the state has been trending towards us ever since Kerry won it in 2004 despite Gore losing it in 2000. The Democratic party is on the ascendancy in the state, and it has several very good candidates who could take on Ayotte. A challenge from current uber-popular governor Maggie Hassan, who has drawn only token challenges for the governorship this year, would be our best candidate. Ayotte is from the Lindsay Graham, John McCain wing of the party with strong ties to hawkish foreign policy. That isn't going to play well in NH. A race against Hassan would start out at tilt-D in a presidential election - indeed, multiple polls have shown Ayotte vulnerable to a challenge from Hassan.
Ohio: Rob Portman's an interesting fellow. He's certainly done more than most of the class of 2010 to moderate his positions. He's even taken the rather extraordinary step of being the first Republican senator to endorse gay marriage. Unfortunately, we do not have a strong base in the state, and our strongest candidate, former governor Ted Strickland, has already decided against running (although, as with all things in politics, this may change). Given that Ohio is red-tilting, I'd put a Portman bid at lean-R.
But Portman's stance on gay marriage may prove fatal in a Republican primary. Should the Tea Party still be on the rise in 2016, he may face a challenge from 2012 senate candidate Josh Mandel, who was crushed by Sherrod Brown in that election. If that happens, the senate race moves to tilt-D.
Wisconsin: This is probably our strongest pickup opportunity outside of Illinois. Ron Johnson is a wealthy Tea Party fellow who was first elected in 2010 over the wonderful Russ Feingold. Since then, he does not seem to be aware that he comes from a blue-leaning state, and that his next election will coincide with presidential level turnout. He has done nothing to moderate his positions, and has largely been a reliable Tea Party vote in Washington.
We have several candidates who could easily defeat him, including fmr senator Russ Feingold and congressman Ron Kind. No, unless we screw the pooch on this one, Johnson is going to be a one-and-done senator. I'd start it off as lean-D until Feingold or, more likely, Ron Kind enters the race, at which time it'd go to likely-D.
Illinois: Illinois is a pretty deep-blue state, but it's filled with a corrupt and incompetent Democratic Party. As a result, Mark Kirk won an open seat race in 2010 for Obama's former seat. In 2016, we'll almost certainly take it back. Now, Kirk has done more than most at moderating his positions, but he's still to the right of even Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. There's just no room for a moderate Republican these days who could survive reelection in such a deep blue state during a presidential election.
Some of our best potential candidates include Lisa Madigan, IL Attorney General; Congresswoman, Iraq Veteran, and double amputee Tammy Duckworth; and even Michelle Obama. Any of these individuals would easily defeat Kirk. It would take a level of serious incompetence to lose this seat. I'd start it off at likely-D.
Kentucky: This seat's competitiveness hinges on several factors, the most important of which is whether Rand Paul decides to run for reelection. If he does, the seat is no longer competitive. If he instead chooses to run for the presidency as expected, he will be faced with a Kentucky law forbidding a candidate from running for both the senate and the presidency at the same time, and will have to give up his seat. The seat will therefore be open. Another factor is whether Hillary can pull in some of the old Demosaurs in eastern Kentucky. These people are socially conservative but fiscally populist ancestral Democrats. They drove both of Bill Clinton's victories in the state. Without them, we're not competitive in the state.
The biggest problem is our bench. We have a couple candidates, but so do Republicans. For our side, Lt Gov and former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson looks like our best bet. Alternatively, former congressman Ben Chandler, a conservadem, could make the seat competitive. For their side, relatively inoffensive incumbent congressman Andy Barr would probably be favored. An open seat Senate election would start out as likely-R. One with Paul starts out as safe-R.
Some honorable mentions:
-Idaho might become competitive should Raul Labrador, a fire-breathing congressman, decide to run for the senate and primary out Mike Crapo, who recently achieved fame for driving while drunk. The state would be only marginally competitive, and we'd need a perfect candidate combined with a large wave to take the seat. For that, I'd recommend former one-term congressman Walt Minnick, who's about as conservative a Dem as they come, but who kept his loss in 2010 to within 10% despite the district being insanely conservative.
-Utah is a possibility if soon-to-be-former-congressman Jim Matheson chooses to run for senate instead of governor. Mike Lee is not particularly popular in his state, while Matheson has a knack for pulling off absurdly close races time and again.
-South Dakota could become competitive if John Thune chooses to make a surprise retirement. Former congressman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would be very competitive here, and with presidential turnout and without a popular former governor like Mike Rounds running against her, she might be more willing to take the plunge.
-Louisiana is going to be an interesting case. David Vitter plans to run for the gubernatorial election in 2015, and is very favored to win. That leaves the seat open. Louisiana requires a special election to be held outside of the normally scheduled election, and so we're not likely to pick up the seat in a special. However, with presidential turnout in november, that might be a different story. We'd need a perfect candidate running a perfect campaign against an imperfect incumbent, however, which means the seat is only on the verge of competitiveness. Still, it's something to think about.
-Arkansas is an odd duck. While seemingly fast becoming one of many southern states where Democrats survive only through the power of incumbency, Hillary Clinton is polling quite well in the state. We have a deep bench, as well. If governor Mike Beebe chooses to run, he'd make the seat very competitive, although it's doubtful he'll choose to do that given his age. Two former congressman turfed out in 2010 also hold potential: Vic Snyder and Marion Berry. However, defeating an inoffensive incumbent Republican in a state as red as Arkansas seems like a tough sell. We'll know more about how competitive the state is after 2014 - we're currently competing for both the governors and senate races and we also have two very competitive congressional elections in AR-02 and AR-04. If we run the gamut on those, we'll be able to say that Arkansas Democrats aren't as dead as previously thought.
-Indiana is an ancestrally Republican state, but it's open to Democrats as well. Current senator Dan Coats is making strong indications that he's going to retire in 2016, paving the way for an open seat race. Now, we don't have a huge bench here, but we still have some candidates who could give it a run for their money, including former senator Evan Bayh. Sadly, it looks like Bayh wants the governorship instead of the senate seat, but we won't know what's really on his mind till he announces for one or the other. With Bayh, this instantly becomes a dem-favored race and one of our top pickup opportunities.
-Georgia's Johnny Isakson may hang up his hat in 2016 rather than face a Georgia that is rapidly becoming blue. He'll be almost 72 in November of that year, after all. Should Michelle Nunn lose this year, she could go in for a rematch in an open seat in 2016 and be very favored to win. Jason Carter may also turn a losing gubernatorial bid this year into a winning senate bid in 2016. John Barrow, another conservadem of the Jim Matheson "I can survive anything" mold, would also be very competitive. Still, Isakson isn't a bad incumbent, he isn't likely to be primaried, and if he runs, he's definitely very favored to win.
My current projections for 2014 are a 53/47 Democratic senate. Going into 2016 with those numbers, we'll need an additional seven seats to take a filibuster-proof majority. We're currently favored to pick up four seats that cycle: IA (presuming a Grassley retirement is likely), WI, PA, and IL. Thus, we must flip three more seats. Take your pick among the many potential targets I've outlined. With good candidates, a strong national ticket, and presidential turnout, I'd say we stand a solid chance at coming into 2016 with the same kind of crushing majority that Obama had in 2008.