Most Vulnerable Senator of ‘14? Pryor by a Hair

by Stuart Rothenberg April 10, 2013 · 10:04 AM EDT

Who is the most vulnerable senator seeking re-election next year?

Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss might have won the distinction because of his vulnerability to a conservative primary challenger, but he has already announced he won’t seek another term.

The same goes for West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller and South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson, both of whom would have had difficult races but have announced that they will retire at the end of their current terms.

Neither of the two “most vulnerable” Republicans up next year, Maine’s Susan Collins and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, appears to be in all that much trouble.

As I wrote in a recent Rothenblog post, Collins has high job performance ratings and no threatening Democrat in sight, while McConnell could draw a well-funded opponent and starts off with mediocre polling numbers. But President Barack Obama’s weak standing in the Bluegrass State, as well as Kentucky’s strong Republican bent in federal races, gives the Senate minority leader a clear advantage to start.

Sen. Max Baucus, who was first elected to the House in 1974 and then to the Senate four years later, could find himself with a serious challenge. But the Montana Democrat begins with an advantage, especially after fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s re-election victory last year.

Alaska Sen. Mark Begich barely won in 2008 on the basis of absentee votes and veteran incumbent Ted Stevens’ conviction on corruption charges for making false statements on financial disclosure forms (a conviction that was later vacated), and his state’s preference for Republicans obviously puts him at risk. But seniority and personal relationships matter in Alaska, and that could help the Democratic senator.

Like Begich, North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan won primarily because of the Democratic wave of 2008, though the weakness of incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole surely played a role in the challenger’s victory. But what had been a fairly reliably Republican state has become more competitive recently, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s narrow victory in the state in November.

But unlike Baucus or Begich, Hagan already has a potentially formidable Republican challenger circling her; state Speaker Thom Tillis is mulling a Senate bid.

Baucus, Begich or Hagan could well end up in serious trouble next year, but for now the distinction of most vulnerable incumbent senator surely boils down to either Arkansas’ Mark Pryor or Louisiana’s Mary L. Landrieu.

Pryor and Landrieu both represent Southern states that have been realigning over the past few cycles. Both come from well-established political families and each has demonstrated political savvy.

Pryor was elected in 2002 and re-elected six years later, while Landrieu was first elected to the Senate in 1996 and was re-elected in both 2002 and 2008.

Landrieu has had the closer races, winning with only 52.1 percent in 2008, 51.7 percent in 2002 and 50.2 percent in 1996 against a series of challengers who have ranged from weak to not bad.

Pryor, the son of a former governor and senator, was first elected to the Senate with almost 54 percent, when he defeated a sitting Republican senator. He did not have a GOP opponent when he ran for re-election in 2008.

In some ways, Louisiana and Arkansas are politically similar. Democrats were able to hold on to working-class white voters in both states for longer than they were able to elsewhere in the South, which kept Republicans from taking over the two states until recently. But that has changed now.

Surprisingly (to me, at least), African- Americans constitute 32 percent of the population of Louisiana but only 15 percent of the population of Arkansas. That’s a substantial difference and an obvious advantage for Landrieu, if she can turn out those reliably Democratic minority voters.

Landrieu already has an opponent: Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge-area physician first elected to Congress in 2008. But Cassidy, who served briefly in the state senate, isn’t likely to clear the field, and, as one GOP insider told me, “You can’t apply the same political rules to Louisiana that work everywhere else. You won’t have an idea about who is running for the Senate until June of 2014.”

A February survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Landrieu leading a number of Republicans in head-to-head ballot tests, albeit narrowly. On the other hand, a poll done by GOP firm Basswood Research for the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund showed Pryor trailing freshman GOP Rep. Tom Cotton by 8 points.

Moreover, it was less than three years ago that moderate Arkansas Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln lost re-election in what admittedly was a bad Democratic year. Still, the size of Lincoln’s defeat — she drew only 36.9 percent of the vote — is a stark reminder of the challenges any Democrat now faces in this state.

Either the 4th District’s Cotton or 3rd District Rep. Steve Womack seems to be the mostly likely Republican nominee against Pryor, and GOP strategists seem confident that either one can and will beat the senator. Democrats, on the other hand, are clearly worried about both Pryor and Landrieu.

It’s a close call on who is more vulnerable, but I’d probably pick Pryor, especially if Cotton runs. The Harvard-educated Iraq veteran who worked for McKinsey would be an especially difficult opponent for Pryor, and the Democratic base in Arkansas appears to be evaporating quickly.