We'll grant you, most people now prefer to follow the candidates in a March 2013 election over in Rome, not the 2014 contests in the United States. But the Crystal Ball doesn't analyze papabili and has all but endorsed Timothy Cardinal Dolan (our proffered populist yet saintly slogan for him: "He's just like you, only better"), so you'll have to be content with an early-bird look at U.S. Senate contenders.
As we unveil our first ratings of the new Senate cycle, the key question 20 months before the election is this: What seats are in the greatest danger of flipping from one party to the other?
To quickly illustrate the most vulnerable seats, we're borrowing a concept from Star Trek: red alert. (Readers will surely be shocked to know that Crystal Ball staffers are also science fiction geeks.)
States listed in red alert are ones where the incumbent party is at best a tiny favorite to hold the seat. These are the states where all hands are on deck, and the Klingons are opening fire. (This is fitting because partisans surely look at their opponents as ultra-aggressive warmongers.) Orange alert is where candidates are on full alert, but have not yet been subjected to serious enemy fire. We made this one up (we think), but given J.J. Abrams' recent reboot of the Star Trek franchise, we believe that anything goes. Finally, yellow alert is where threats are not immediately evident, but vigilance is required lest one gets caught with one's pants down or, like Capt. Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with his ship's shields down.
Democrats have a lot more places where they are on high alert. The seven most imperiled seats in the whole country are all currently held by Democrats. That includes the only seat in the country where the current incumbent party is actually an underdog: West Virginia, where Republicans are now favored to capture the seat of retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D). Democrats also have very tenuous holds on two other seats: South Dakota, where even if he runs again Sen. Tim Johnson (D) will face a stiff challenge from ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R); and Louisiana, where despite having a popular family name, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is likely to face a well-funded and, more importantly, sane challenger.
Democrats have a firmer grip on a quartet of other seats, but Republicans should strongly challenge them in all four. Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) have strong personal brands, but they also might face formidable opponents in deeply Red states. Meanwhile, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and likely Democratic nominee Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) will be fighting Republicans in more favorable territory, but neither can be called favorites as the GOP figures out its primary fields.
It is only when one gets into the yellow alert category that we find any Republican seats: Georgia, where a poor Republican nominee could put the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) in play; and Kentucky, where a perfect storm could endanger Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). The Democratic yellow alert states provide additional, possibly fertile targets for Republicans, but they are all dependent on events that have not yet happened. Michigan's competitiveness, for instance, is tied completely to whether Sen. Carl Levin (D) retires. The other states will require the emergence of strong challengers and the presence of a national Republican tide to make them truly competitive. (A national Democratic tide would of course help make a Georgia or Kentucky more susceptible to a challenge, too.)
Given that Republicans need to pick up six seats to regain the Senate majority - the Democratic caucus currently has 55 members to only 45 for the Republicans - simply picking up the seven red and orange alert seats would give them the majority, but as we note in our state-by-state capsules below, that task is far easier said than done, particularly in the orange alert states.
Alas, no one in the top leadership of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is named "Scotty," but Capt. Harry Reid is going to need full power to the warp drive, and he's going to need it now. Those Democrats without starship engineering experience are welcome to send checks.
We'll offer our full ratings for this cycle's gubernatorial races next week, along with a red alert list for those races, which will have a greater mix of vulnerable Republicans and Democrats.
Our full Senate ratings are below, followed by descriptions of the state of play in all 35 races.
Note: Bolded candidate names indicate the likely frontrunner for a nomination, if there is one. *Indicates a special election.
Alaska: Despite the Last Frontier's historic conservatism, enlisting the federal government to aid the state has been a staple of Alaska's federal representatives. Longtime Rep. Don Young (R) and ex-Sen. Ted Stevens (R) were famous for bringing home the bacon, and so it's little surprise that the man who defeated the now-deceased Stevens in 2008 - Sen. Mark Begich (D) - boasts of his votes on a transportation bill that he said, as originally written, "screwed" Alaska. Begich's focus on local issues is a way to differentiate himself from the national Democratic brand, although at some point he might have to take the bad with the good: An Alaska source tells us that Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks is potentially facing hundreds of lost jobs if the Air Force moves a fighter wing. Begich could take a hit if that happens, even if he opposes the move. In any event, Republicans are going to take their best shot here. Polling indicates that Gov. Sean Parnell (R) would be Begich's strongest opponent - that might just be because Parnell has better name recognition than other Republican possibilities - but we expect Parnell to run for another gubernatorial term. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell (R) is probably the likeliest opponent, with ex-Lt. Gov. Loren Leman and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan as other options. Republicans can take heart that their disastrous 2010 nominee, Joe Miller, is now unpopular even with his own party as he considers another Senate candidacy. TOSS-UP
Alabama: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R), if reelected, would be the Senate's second longest serving junior senator, behind Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), according to National Journal. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Arkansas: Lt. Gov. Mark Darr (R) appears likely to jump in and has ruled out a gubernatorial bid, but some Republicans are holding out hope that Rep. Tom Cotton (R) will be the Republican challenger here instead. Cotton - mentioned as a potential presidential candidate even before being elected to the House last year - is an Army veteran and Harvard-educated lawyer. Sen. Mark Pryor (D) remains formidable though, even in a state where the once-dominant state-level Democratic Party appears to be crumbling. LEANS DEMOCRATIC
Colorado: First there was "Waiting for Godot," the Samuel Beckett play about two men waiting in vain for someone who never comes. Then there was "Waiting for Guffman," a Christopher Guest mockumentary about a clueless theater troupe waiting for a Broadway producer to bless their play (he also never shows up). And now, in the Centennial State, there's "Waiting for Gardner," where Republicans wait, perhaps in vain, for Rep. Cory Gardner (R) to announce his challenge to Sen. Mark Udall (D). If Gardner - a well-regarded campaigner - reverses the Godot/Guffman script and actually shows up to run, Udall could be in some trouble. But as of now it looks like Gardner and other potential Republican challengers are leaning against a run, which means Udall is looking pretty strong at the moment in a trending Democratic state. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Delaware: Perhaps if the Republicans could find a moderate, Rockefeller-style Republican to challenge Sen. Chris Coons (D), they could score an upset in the First State. What about ex-Rep. Mike Castle (R)? Oh, wait a second… SAFE DEMOCRATIC
Georgia: As they survey the vast primary field developing to succeed retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), national Republicans are probably looking with envy at the Catholic Church. If only they, like the church's cardinals will do in selecting a new pope, could simply pick a candidate in total secrecy and then announce they had made up their minds through a puff of white smoke, the Republicans would surely breathe a little easier about holding onto this seat in the general election. Given their druthers, national Republicans might pick Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, ex-Secretary of State Karen Handel or perhaps Reps. Tom Graves or Tom Price for the nomination. But the primary field might instead produce a fire breather like declared candidate Rep. Paul Broun (R), whose extremism - "All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell," he has said - might not play in a general election, even in Georgia. The GOP's firewall against a Todd Akin-esque candidacy is the Peach State's runoff; if no candidate gets over 50% in the primary, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff. Presumably, that might prevent a fringe candidate from beating a more mainstream candidate for the nomination. But then again, without a runoff, the junior senator from Texas would be David Dewhurst, not Ted Cruz. Democrats would love for Rep. John Barrow (D), a moderate from a Republican district, to be their nominee. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) has already said no. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Hawaii (special): It was supposedly the dying wish of former Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) for Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) to appoint Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D) to his Senate seat. Abercrombie instead selected Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz (D). It's possible that Hanabusa or freshman Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) - who also expressed interest in the Senate appointment - could challenge Schatz, but neither has announced yet. Although Republicans are largely irrelevant in Hawaii's federal politics, ex-Rep. Charles Djou (R) - who briefly held Hanabusa's House seat in 2010 as the result of a Democratic split and who scored a respectable 45% against Hanabusa in 2012 - could be a dark horse, particularly if there's a nasty Democratic primary. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Iowa: After appearing likely to run for another term, Sen. Tom Harkin (D) decided to retire a few weeks ago, creating an open seat opportunity for Republicans. Rep. Bruce Braley (D) is the likeliest Democratic nominee, and it will be interesting to see if his entry into the race effectively clears the primary field. In any event, we do not see either of the Vilsacks - Tom, the federal secretary of agriculture and the former governor, or Christie, the former congressional candidate and state first lady - getting in the contest. On the Republican side, polling indicates a familiar and troubling problem: Rep. Steve King (R), who like Broun in Georgia is a possible second coming of Todd Akin, leads the early primary field, but Rep. Tom Latham (R), a more mainstream conservative who holds a competitive House seat and is close to House Speaker John Boehner (R), does better in general election matchups. While there are other Republican possibilities, it seems likely that one of these two would be the front-runner for the nomination. For now, this race is a TOSS-UP, but Latham certainly seems like a better option than King if the GOP really wants to win this seat.
Idaho: Nothing to see here - Sen. Jim Risch (R) can have a second term if he wants one. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Illinois: Until Sen. Dick Durbin (D) announces whether he'll run for a fourth term, this race is in a state of stasis. In any event, Democrats will be favored here, although a vacancy would create an incredible primary scramble, potentially on both sides. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Kansas: Noticing a theme here with the Republican-held seats? Another GOP seat, another SAFE REPUBLICAN rating, this time for Sen. Pat Roberts (R).
Kentucky: In case actress Ashley Judd (D) had any doubts about what attacks would be used against her if she challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) next year, Karl Rove's American Crossroads laid out all of her immense liabilities in seeking a Senate seat in the conservative Bluegrass State. Meanwhile, talk of a McConnell challenge from the right seems to be just that at the moment: talk. A top-tier primary opponent has yet to emerge. In the right year with the right candidate, McConnell - who like his counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), is not particularly popular in his home state - would be vulnerable to a Democratic challenge (he only won by six points in 2008). But 2014 is probably not the right year, given the commonwealth's antipathy for President Obama, and Judd is very probably not the right candidate. LIKELY REPUBLICAN
Louisiana: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) has a well-stocked war chest with $2.5 million, but potential challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) is not far behind - he has $2 million in the bank. That far outpaces other possible Landrieu opponents, such as Rep. John Fleming or ex-Rep. Jeff Landry. Unlike some other states with developing primary fields, the potential Republican challengers here are not necessarily known for making Akin or Richard Mourdock-style gaffes; still, national Republicans probably prefer Cassidy to the others. Landry, a Tea Partier, could conceivably cause Republicans trouble in a primary. Landrieu has never won more than 52% of the vote in her three previous Senate victories. A hypothetical Republican majority in 2015 would have to include this seat, period. TOSS-UP
Massachusetts (special - 2013): Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when ex-Sen. Scott Brown (R) decided to forego this race to replace Secretary of State John Kerry (D), and they continued to receive good news as potential second-tier Republican possibilities, such as 2012 congressional candidate Richard Tisei, ex-Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and ex-Gov. William Weld all passed on running. As of now, the potential GOP nominees are state Rep. Dan Winslow, ex-Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez or perhaps another candidate, and there is some question - particularly in the aftermath of the Nemo snow storm that rocked the Northeast - whether they'll even be able to gather the necessary 10,000 signatures to get on the special election ballot by the Feb. 27 deadline. Republicans seem most bullish on Gomez. Meanwhile, Reps. Ed Markey (D) and Stephen Lynch (D) are facing off for the Democratic nomination; Markey, who has the far more liberal record, is a favorite against the more conservative Lynch, who opposed the Affordable Care Act. And the Democratic nominee has to be seen as a favorite here for the special election - and the general to come in 2014 - but it's worth remembering that Scott Brown, like the rumored Republican candidates right now, was a nobody in his special election bid for Ted Kennedy's old seat in 2010. That is, until he became a somebody. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC
Maine: As far as we can tell, Sen. Susan Collins (R) is not planning to retire. As long as she runs, there probably won't be any drama here. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Michigan: In the Wolverine State, it's all up to Sen. Carl Levin (D). The incumbent will be 80 in 2014 and has not indicated whether he will seek reelection. If he chooses to run, there won't be much drama - but if he retires, Rep. Gary Peters (D) will almost surely run for the seat. While no Republican has openly declared interest, one of the state's nine GOP House members or another Republican, such as state party Chairman Bobby Schostak, might be compelled to throw his or her hat in the ring should the seat open up. However, Michigan is still a Democratic-leaning state, so even if Levin retires, an open-seat race would be an uphill battle for a Republican candidate. While we await Levin's decision, which may come soon, the race is LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
Minnesota: When Sen. Al Franken (D) won the closest Senate race in the country in 2008, many commentators assumed that the professional comedian would prove himself a political amateur, prone to gaffes and more focused on being heard on national television than working as a legislator. However, Franken has confounded his critics by working on numerous pieces of mundane legislation while generally refusing to speak with anyone besides Minnesota media. Maintaining a low profile seems to have helped his reelection prospects: Public Policy Polling recently found that he has a 52-42 approval rating and, in general election matchups, the survey showed Franken leading all comers, including an 11-point lead over Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) and 14-point lead over Rep. Michele Bachmann (R). Although it's been reported that he's not going to challenge Franken, Paulsen has twice denied such reports, refusing to rule out a Senate run. Bachmann has been coy regarding her interest in the race; given that she leads GOP primary polling for the nomination, she's likely keeping her eyes on it, though she would be a weak general election candidate, to say the least. Franken is in a stronger position than many would have expected but until we know more, this race LEANS DEMOCRATIC.
Mississippi: There is uncertainty surrounding whether or not Sen. Thad Cochran (R) will run for reelection. But regardless of whether he does or not, it's hard to see this race in the deeply conservative Magnolia State as anything besides SAFE REPUBLICAN.
Montana: Unlike his Democratic compatriot in South Dakota, Sen. Max Baucus (D) doesn't have an obvious top-tier opponent. However, Baucus may be vulnerable in this race because of his involvement in the writing and passage of Obama's health care law as chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Moreover, he has been in the Senate since 1978, and he may be reaching the point where Montanans are ready to put him out to pasture. The first major GOP challenger to announce is former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, a former naval officer and businessman. Other Republicans may get into the race, though we bet that just-elected Rep. Steve Daines (R) will pass, preferring to avoid the same fate as former Rep. Rick Berg (R-ND), who lost a Senate race in 2012 after only being elected to the House in 2010. So for now, this seat LEANS DEMOCRATIC. Interestingly, since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, this seat has never been held by a Republican.
Nebraska: Sen. Mike Johanns (R) is safe, unless he too has been making personal calls on state phones. Aside from any such revelation, and everything we know about him suggests he's as clean as a hound's tooth, this race is SAFE REPUBLICAN.
New Hampshire: As of late, New Hampshire can't seem to make up its collective political mind. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won the state and Democrats won every statewide race, federal or otherwise. But in 2010, Republicans won the state's two House seats and the other Senate seat. So will 2014 be a repeat of 2010 or more like 2008 and 2012? Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) hopes the latter. While it's not clear who her eventual opponent will be, the internal conflict within the New Hampshire electorate makes this race only LEANS DEMOCRATIC.
New Jersey: Incumbent Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D), who will be 90 in 2014, is considering another run. However, Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker wants Lautenberg's seat. (You've heard of him, right? Ever watch TV?) Thus far, Lautenberg is in no mood to play Booker's game, going after Booker's mayoral record and wondering if he deserves a "spanking" for launching a campaign before Lautenberg had decided on his political future. If a Booker-Lautenberg showdown occurs, the early public polling shows Booker well ahead of his octogenarian party-mate. But Booker has not exactly started out this race in sterling fashion, and who knows what could happen over the course of a potentially lengthy, ugly Democratic primary battle? It's also possible that a third prominent Democrat might also run for the seat: Rep. Frank Pallone (D). While a Democrat will be favored in most statewide federal races in New Jersey, the uncertainty in this contest makes it only LIKELY DEMOCRATIC. It's also worth watching if Sen. Robert Menendez's (D) recent troubles will eventually force his resignation; if he does, Booker or Pallone could run for that seat and relieve the intraparty strain.
New Mexico: The other Udall running for reelection this cycle, Sen. Tom Udall (D), is well positioned to win reelection in 2014. Lt. Gov. John Sanchez (R) has been mentioned as a possible opponent, but it's hard to see Udall losing in the increasingly Blue Land of Enchantment. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
North Carolina: Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was swept into office with the aid of presidential turnout in 2008. This time around, there's no presidential race above her on the ballot. Granted, she outperformed Obama in 2008, but turnout will certainly be down this time around, and Hagan won't be facing off against a vulnerable incumbent (then-Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole). For Hagan, much will depend on two factors: First, the state of the nation (Obama's popularity, economic revival) as we get closer to Election Day 2014; and second, the Republican opposing her on the ballot. Hagan has little control over either, though she could borrow from Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-MO) playbook and attempt to influence the GOP primary result. Among the possible Republican candidates are North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Reps. Renee Ellmers, Patrick McHenry, Virginia Foxx and George Holding. While recent polling shows Hagan leading these potential opponents, her middling approval rating and the midterm dynamics make this race a TOSS-UP.
Oklahoma: Sen. James Inhofe (R) is in good shape to easily win reelection. SAFE REPUBLICAN
Oregon: While Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) does not seem to be a particularly strong incumbent, Republicans have few options to run against him. Merkley won in 2008 with less than 50% of the vote and has not lit up D.C. in his time there. Still, the Republican bench is thin, so at the moment this seat is LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
Rhode Island: Sen. Jack Reed (D) should have no trouble winning reelection in what was the fourth-most Democratic state in the 2012 election. SAFE DEMOCRATIC
South Carolina: For some time now Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) has been seen as possibly vulnerable to a challenge from the right in his 2014 Republican Senate primary. However, as of yet no primary opponent has officially stepped forward, though conservative state Sen. Lee Bright (R) sounds like a candidate. Particularly notable is the fact that none of the state's Republican House members has decided to take on the incumbent, who has been pleasing conservatives by railing against Obama, Benghazi and Chuck Hagel. Regardless of whether Graham receives a primary challenge, in the general election the seat should be SAFE REPUBLICAN.
South Carolina (special): Freshly appointed Sen. Tim Scott (R) will seek to finish former Sen. Jim DeMint's (R) term in 2014, and at the moment there's no reason to think he won't be successful. Any senatorial action in South Carolina is more likely to happen in the other race. SAFE REPUBLICAN
South Dakota: With former two-term Gov. Mike Rounds (R) likely running for this seat, the home of Mount Rushmore should feature a highly competitive race. Incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson (D) has not yet formally announced his intention to run for reelection, but he has indicated that he probably will. Actually, the FEC already considers him a candidate. A Rounds-Johnson bout would be one of the marquee races in 2014, and one that Republicans really need to win if they want to have any chance of taking back the Senate. In some ways, Johnson may be vulnerable - although he's only in his late 60s, he suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in 2006 and may not be up to a competitive campaign (Johnson won against a weak opponent in 2008). Moreover, South Dakota has been strongly Republican at the presidential level and increasingly so for other federal elections. But like its neighbor to the north, South Dakota has a record of mixing and matching the partisan affiliations of its congressional delegation in Washington. This factor could help Johnson: Presently, both the at-large representative in the House and other senator from South Dakota (John Thune) are Republicans. Johnson is also chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which could prove lucrative for his campaign war chest. All signs point to this race being a TOSS-UP, at least for now. Should Johnson retire, Rounds would become the early favorite.
Tennessee: Due to his propensity for seeking compromise, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) is viewed by some conservatives as being something of an apostate. With that knowledge, the incumbent immediately launched into his 2014 campaign following the 2012 election, eager to avoid the fate that befell long-time Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN). Alexander has announced support from almost every major Republican official in the state and appears to be in a strong position to keep his seat. Although failed 2012 candidate Larry Crim (D) might not get robbed of the Democratic nomination by the alphabet this time around, this race is undoubtedly SAFE REPUBLICAN.
Texas: Sen. John Cornyn (R) appears set to run for reelection, and the Senate minority whip is about as safe as SAFE REPUBLICAN can be. After Ted Cruz's victory, there is some talk of a Tea Party challenge, but no impressive challenger has yet appeared and Cornyn is ready if needed.
Virginia: Sen. Mark Warner (D) won this seat in 2008 by more than 30 percentage points, but he may have a tougher time winning so easily in a non-presidential year in purple Virginia. Still, Warner has a solid approval rating and recent polling found him leading many potential opponents, including Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), currently the most popular Republican in the state. Unless McDonnell decides to run (which is currently considered unlikely) or there's a major national tide that endangers Warner, we view this seat as LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.
West Virginia: Depending on how things shake out in the Mountain State, this race could wind up being wild and wonderful. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) has opted not to seek reelection, opening up a seat in a state that has in recent times been strongly Republican at the presidential level while remaining relatively Democratic at the state level. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) seems to be the strongest possible GOP candidate, with initial polling finding her leading all potential Democratic opponents. But as has been the case in recent cycles, not all conservatives are pleased with the moderate-conservative Capito, a candidate of the Republican establishment. It's conceivable that she could receive a challenge on her right flank in the GOP primary. Nonetheless, other potential Republican candidates have so far demurred when asked if they will challenge Capito, strengthening her hand. On the Democratic side, a wide range of potential candidates are weighing the odds of beating Capito, such as Rep. Nick Rahall, ex-Sen. Carte Goodwin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. Given Capito's solid position and the ever-increasing Republican edge in West Virginia at the federal level, our bet is on her: This race presently LEANS REPUBLICAN.
Wyoming: Incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi (R) has not announced whether he will run for reelection in 2014. Enzi, who is in his third term in the Senate, will be 70 years old, and his silence over his intentions has led to some chatter about who might run in his place. Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice president, has become a familiar face at Wyoming Republican gatherings in recent months, spawning rumors that she might run for the seat should Enzi step aside. But the Cowboy State's lone House member, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R), would likely pursue the seat if it became open, and might well have the advantage in a face-off with Cheney. Whatever happens, the seat is certainly SAFE REPUBLICAN.
Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley are analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. You can read more of their reviews of political races at www.centerforpolitics.org.