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Roll Call’s Senate Challenger Rankings: Take Two

Who are the strongest — and weakest — nonincumbents running for Senate?


This election season has been rife with talk of how the national political climate, shaped by the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, affects the undercard fight over control of the Senate.

But candidate quality matters, especially in a year with so many potentially close races.

So for the second time this year, Roll Call is ranking the quality of challenger candidates. You can read our first rankings here.

A reminder: The challengers are not ranked in order of which seats are most likely to switch party control. This is an independent assessment of the nonincumbent candidates, regardless of whether we expect them to win in November. Factors like fundraising, biography, and presence on the campaign trail are considered as part of the analysis.  

Fall Forecast: Top 10 Senate Race Challengers 

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Only candidates in competitive races were included.

  1. Democratic former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, running in an open-seat race against Rep. Todd Young (previous ranking: N/A)

The former senator faces questions about whether he still lives in Indiana. His post-Senate work on K Street invites scrutiny. He could yet face the voters’ wrath after supporting Obamacare in 2010.

Republicans won’t want for material when they attack Bayh, a longtime political institution in Indiana who’s seeking office at a time when voters might be more interested in fresh-faced newcomers. It’s why the GOP is confident they can defeat Bayh despite his early lead in the polls (and why he may slide down these rankings later).

But Bayh, along with his $10 million war chest, is the only Indiana Democrat who could make this race even competitive. That’s good enough to earn the No. 1 spot.

  1. Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, running against Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte (previous ranking: No. 1)

Hassan gets bumped down because of Bayh’s inclusion, but she remains one of the Senate Democrats’ best recruits. Most impressive for the governor — who lacks a potentially damaging voting record in Washington — are her favorability ratings, which remain strong despite a year-long barrage of negative ads from Republican groups.

She’s also a prolific fundraiser, collecting more cash than the incumbent Ayotte in their most recent reports to the Federal Election Commission.

  1. Republican Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, running in an open-seat race against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto (previous ranking: No. 2)

The best compliment Republicans can pay Heck? He’s making them forget about Nevada GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, who was the party’s top choice for this race.  

Heck is battle-tested in a swing-seat congressional district, possessing the kind of moderate record and tone that attracts support from Latino and Asian-American voters. That profile has helped him leap into an early lead in the race.

Heck is still flawed — Democrats will exploit parts of his record on immigration, and he’s not immune to gaffes. But he’s also the best Senate GOP candidate this election cycle.

  1. Democratic Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, running against Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (previous ranking: No. 3)

That right-leaning Missouri is even on the map (or that Republicans are running TV ads defending Blunt) is a testament to the strength of Kander’s candidacy.

According to Washington Democrats, Kander’s work ethic and personal charm have won over donors, leading to a (relative) fundraising boon in a race the party’s big-dollar contributors would otherwise ignore. He combines his insider appeal with several public breaks in policy with Democratic leaders, like his opposition to the Iranian nuclear arms deal.

The 35-year-old still has a lot of work left to win. But he already rates as one of the party’s big recruitment successes.

  1. Democratic former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, running against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (previous ranking: No. 4)

People can focus on Feingold’s name recognition, his still-strong reputation with Wisconsin voters, or his early lead in the polls over Johnson. Senate Democrats even say the infamously ornery politician has listened to their advice this time around, unlike 2010.

But the strongest and perhaps most surprising part of Feingold’s candidacy might be his fundraising, where he’s proven to be a juggernaut.

For their part, Republicans have landed some real blows against Feingold — it’s just that so far, he’s still standing.

  1. Republican Rep. Todd Young, running in an open-seat race against Bayh (previous ranking: N/A)

Young offers a strong contrast to Bayh: He’s just 44, served in the Marines, and has been in office the last six years. He easily trounced his opponent in the Republican primary, Rep. Marlin Stutzman, and fits the profile of a state that has, of late, leaned heavily Republican in federal races.

His biggest problem is name recognition. His congressional district lies primarily beyond the Indianapolis media market, and now he’s competing against the state’s best-known Democrat. It will be a test of his ability and talent to fix that problem in the two months left before Election Day.

  1. Democratic former state Rep. Deborah Ross, running against Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr (previous ranking: No. 13)

No candidate has climbed this list more than Ross. Democrats once preferred a dozen other potential recruits, worried that she was too liberal to win.

Now, those same Democrats consider her the election’s most pleasant surprise. The former state lawmaker has raised more money than Burr in two consecutive fundraising quarters, outworked him on the campaign trail (a point even many Republicans don’t dispute), and pulled even in the polls.

Danger lurks: Republicans say her tenure as state director for the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union is rife with political vulnerabilities. For now, however, her ascent can’t be ignored.

  1. Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, running against Republican Sen. Mark S. Kirk (previous ranking: No. 5)

Ranking Duckworth is difficult. She’s running a race that has yet to offer a stern test, given that Illinois’s deep shade of blue has made her a strong favorite from the get-go.

She’s a war hero, but also a former state official who faced an ugly civil lawsuit. She’s raised money at a steady, not stupendous, clip.

Democrats just need an average candidate win the race. By most indications, the congresswoman is up to the task.

  1. Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, running against Republican Sen. John McCain (previous ranking: No. 7)

Kirkpatrick has benefitted from an easy race so far, because McCain and his allies have had to keep at least one eye on the senator’s GOP primary.

Now, with the full force of the McCain political machine geared for the general election, the 66-year-old congresswoman will have to prove that her previous victories in a battleground House seat were no fluke. On the surface at least, she gives her party at least a credible nominee.

  1. Democratic former White House official Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, running against Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (previous ranking: No. 11)

The most memorable moment of McGinty’s campaign came during a speech at Democratic National Committee in Philadelphia. She was universally panned.

And yet, not long after, polls showed her moving into a lead over Toomey. The former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is by no means a natural candidate, and Democrats had stronger alternatives in the state.

But the candidate attempting to become Pennsylvania’s first female senator now also looks like a tougher foe than Republicans had expected — regardless of whether she can deliver a strong speech.

  1. Democratic former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, running in an open-seat race against Heck (previous ranking: No. 6)

Cortez Masto’s fall in these rankings is a little deceiving — she’s committed no major gaffe, her fundraising remains on track, and her candidacy retains historical significance as she attempts to become the Senate’s first Latina member.  

It’s just difficult to ignore Heck’s early lead at a time when other Democratic candidates (like McGinty and Ross) have gained serious ground, according to polls. She might be penalized by the politician she’s trying to replace, the unpopular Sen. Harry Reid, who has been a target during the campaign.

  1. Democratic Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (previous ranking: No. 10)

Do voters consider Murphy a callow 30-something with a thin resume, as Republicans and some media reports would lead them to believe?

Or do they view him as voters in his Palm Beach-area congressional district did, as the rare centrist lawmaker capable of putting aside ideology in the name of compromise?

Unlike many Senate nominees at this time of the year, Murphy’s positives and negatives are already in sharp relief. He could easily rise or fall in these rankings during the next two months.

  1. Democratic former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, running against Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley (previous ranking: No. 14)

Iowa’s Senate contest is a fringe race even now, and Judge hasn’t done much to change that. Her fundraising has been anemic, and her presence on the trail little noticed.

Grassley isn’t ignoring her: He’s actually running negative ads against the Democratic nominee. But few expect he’ll need to worry come Election Day.

  1. Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, running against Republican Sen. Rob Portman (previous ranking: No. 8)

Easily the cycle’s most disappointing Senate candidate. If Bayh is the kind of Democratic nominee who can make a safe-Republican race competitive, Strickland is the opposite, the kind of Democratic nominee who can make a competitive race safe for Republicans.

Blame does not solely lie with the former governor, of course: The overwhelming ad campaign against him this summer would have disqualified many candidates. But his record in office, uninspiring presence, and — above all — lackluster fundraising have made it easier for Republicans than it should have been. Little wonder that his Democratic allies have all but abandoned the race.

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