Senate races

2016’s top 10 most vulnerable senators

Greg Nash


Senate Democrats are hoping to take advantage of a favorable electoral map in 2016 to swing majority control back their way.

This cycle, Republicans are defending 24 seats compared to Democrats’ 10, including seven in states President Obama carried twice.

Democrats don’t have any red-state incumbents facing reelection either, and they could be buoyed by higher turnout from a presidential cycle.

{mosads}The race for the White House will have a huge impact on Senate control — both because of the overall political climate and because if candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) run for president their Senate seats become more vulnerable. 

Here is The Hill’s latest ranking of the top 10 most vulnerable senators. See our previous ranking here

1. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) (last ranking: 1)

The first-term senator has worked hard to bolster his bipartisan credentials, backing gay marriage, immigration reform, gun control and environmental protections.

Democrats are hoping they can avoid a contentious and expensive primary, and most believe Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is their best option. The Iraq veteran, who lost her legs in the war, neutralizes Kirk’s military credentials and voter sympathy due to his ongoing recovery following a stroke.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) may not back down from a primary though, and if he jumps in other Democrats could see an opening that could give Kirk a better shot at hanging on in the deep blue state. Either way, Republicans admit Kirk faces an uphill fight.

2. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) (last ranking: 2)

There’s debate in both parties about whether Johnson or Kirk is the most vulnerable senator, though the pair top everyone’s list.

Johnson is likely to face a rematch against former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who just left his State Department job and is strongly hinting at a run.

Unlike Kirk, Johnson has remained a hardline conservative through his term. That’s dangerous for a man running in a state the GOP hasn’t carried for president since 1984.

Polls show Johnson isn’t that well-known or well-liked, and those who’ve spoken to Feingold say he’s learned his lesson after refusing outside money in 2010 en route to a five-point loss and will now allow super-PAC help.

Republicans are looking to paint Feingold as a man who abandoned Wisconsin since he first went to Washington decades ago. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) could also boost Johnson if he’s on the presidential ticket. But strategists in both parties say Johnson is an underdog.

3. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (last ranking: 3) 

The Senate minority leader is unpopular back home, but the man who could likely crush him — Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) — appears unlikely to run.

Nevada has been trending Democratic due to its fast-growing Hispanic population, and the party tends to do much better there in presidential years.

Reid also won by a surprisingly comfortable margin in 2010 against a deeply flawed GOP nominee. He’s proven to be a scrappy campaigner, and it’s unclear whether Republicans will be able to avoid the type of nasty primary that has hurt them before. 

4. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) (last ranking: 5)

Democrats are increasingly optimistic they can woo New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) to challenge Ayotte, though they don’t expect a decision until the summer. 

The GOP’s nervousness is evident, and Crossroads GPS has already spent $280,000 on ads against Hassan.

And while Republicans believe Ayotte will be tough to oust, especially if the presidential race remains close in the state, they concede a race against Hassan will likely be a nail-biter. 

5. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) (last ranking: 4) 

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is back for a rematch after narrowly losing to Toomey in 2010 — but not all Democrats are happy about it. 

Sestak had a rocky campaign rollout this week and remains at odds with some state and national Democrats he infuriated by primarying the party-switching Arlen Specter for Senate in 2010.

Toomey has worked hard to shed his image as an unyielding Tea Party candidate, working with Democrats on some budget issues and crafting bipartisan gun-control legislation with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Pennsylvania’s blue lean in presidential years means Toomey’s likely to face a tough fight, but Sestak still needs to show he’s ready for a marquee matchup. Some Democrats are still looking for another candidate, and a nasty primary fight could knock this race further down the list.

6. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (last ranking: 8)

Rubio is moving hard towards a presidential run, and an open seat immediately becomes a toss-up. However, either he or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) atop the ticket would boost the GOP.

But first, both parties are facing potentially divisive and expensive primaries.

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Reps. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) and Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) are all giving the race a hard look, with most strategists believing the moderate Murphy would be Democrats’ best general-election candidate.

Potential GOP candidates include Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R), Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater (R), Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford (R) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). 

7. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (last ranking: 9)

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s (D) decision to run has moved this race higher, but with the formidable Portman it’s still a tough task.

Republicans believe Strickland is weak because of Ohio’s dismal economy while he was governor, and question whether the 73-year-old is prepared for another statewide bid. 

Democrats say Portman can be tarred as a Wall Street elitist and that if Hillary Clinton carries the state, Strickland can hang on to her coattails. But they admit Ohio starts out as an uphill race.

8. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) (last ranking: 6)

Burr’s $1 million fundraiser in late January knocked down concerns he might retire, helping him replenish his depleted campaign coffers.

Polls show he isn’t that well-known in North Carolina, a disconnected state with 15 separate media markets. But he’s worked hard to establish himself as an even-tempered lawmaker in the slightly GOP-leaning state.

Democratic recruitment will be crucial here. Former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is taking a break this spring at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, and Democrats hope they can convince her to run again.

9. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) (last ranking: 7)

Bennet narrowly won in 2010 against a gaffe-prone Republican and is coming off a rough cycle as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman that saw him lose his home-state colleague.

Colorado is a pure toss-up state but Democrats have done better there in presidential years. The big question is whether Republicans can land a strong recruit — and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) tops their wish list.    

10. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) (last ranking: unranked)

Democrats pulled out a recruiting coup when Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) jumped in, and state and national Democrats quickly rallied around him. 

Still, Missouri leans Republican and has trended that way in recent years, and Blunt is a strong fundraiser and hard worker. Kander faces an uphill battle.

Tags Alan Grayson Bill Foster Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Joe Manchin Kay Hagan Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio Mark Kirk Michael Bennet Richard Burr Rob Portman Ron Johnson Roy Blunt
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