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Franken Out? How We’d Rate a Minnesota Senate Special

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

As of Wednesday night, it appeared as though Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) was poised to announce his resignation from the Senate on Thursday morning. Franken has faced several credible accusations of groping women and making unwanted sexual advances, and on Wednesday, the dam finally broke and a slew of his Democratic Senate colleagues began asking for his resignation.

Assuming that Franken does resign — Minnesota Public Radio reported he would late Wednesday afternoon — Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) would appoint a replacement for Franken who would serve until a special election in November 2018 to fill out the remainder of Franken’s term. The regular election for this seat would be in 2020, meaning the eventual winner next year would have to turn around and run again in 2020.

If Franken does resign, we will start the Minnesota Senate special election at Leans Democratic, which is also where we have the state’s open gubernatorial race rated. The Democrats have a deeper bench of talent in the state and Dayton will have the choice of several quality candidates to appoint, including state Attorney General Lori Swanson and state Auditor Rebecca Otto (Swanson may be a gubernatorial candidate and Otto already is), as well as Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, among others. One would think Dayton would strongly consider a woman given the number of impressive female Democratic candidates in the state and the fact that Franken is leaving because of his bad behavior toward women. The midterm environment, which should have a Democratic lean with President Trump in the White House, helps Democrats in Minnesota too, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) might provide some coattails from what could be a strong reelection performance for the regularly scheduled Senate election already happening next year.

One could make the argument for Toss-up: Minnesota is actually trending Republican, and while Hillary Clinton carried the state by 1.5 points in 2016, the state’s two-party presidential margin was actually slightly more Republican than the national average for the first time since 1952. If the Republicans can find a strong candidate — former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has been a rumored candidate for his old job and could hypothetically consider this race, too — and/or if Dayton makes a weak appointment or the eventual Democratic nominee in 2018 turns out to have problems, this may end up being a Toss-up.

At the very least, the Democrats now have to play defense in yet another competitive seat next year, thanks to Franken’s indiscretions, in a year (2018) where they already were defending 25 of the 33 seats being contested. Now that looks like 26 of 34, and no party has had to defend a more lopsided Senate map in a postwar midterm. The fact that Democrats have so much territory to defend — 10 of their Senate states were carried by Trump in November 2016 — means the Democrats will be hard-pressed to net seats even if national conditions otherwise favor them next year.

One bright spot for Democrats on what was otherwise a trying day was a report from the Nashville Post that former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) has decided to run for the open Senate seat in Tennessee. We moved Tennessee from Safe Republican to Likely Republican last month in anticipation of Bredesen’s candidacy, so we’re not going to move the race any further for now. In our analysis last month, we noted the similarities between Alabama and Tennessee, and we want to see how the Alabama Senate special plays out next week before further upgrading Democratic chances in another dark red southern state. But at the very least, the Bredesen candidacy does make the Republicans play a little bit more defense next year when they would prefer to be playing offense, and it could develop into something more threatening if his campaign and national conditions allow.

House ratings changes

Last week, we made a slew of new House ratings changes and argued that the race for the House next year is basically a coin flip. Next week, Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz will analyze how big of a margin Democrats might need in the national House vote to win back the lower chamber. In the meantime, we announced two House ratings changes earlier this week that we wanted to explain in more detail. One concerns a Democratic recruiting victory in a red-leaning district, and the other concerns the question marks surrounding a freshman Democrat who has been rocked by sexual harassment allegations.

KY-6: Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) has held this district since 2012, when he defeated then-Rep. Ben Chandler (D) after coming up just short against him in the 2010 Republican wave. He then captured about 60% in both 2014 and 2016 in noncompetitive reelections. But the Lexington-based district has some Democratic DNA despite its recent rightward shift, and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) narrowly carried the district as the Democratic nominee in his unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). While retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath (D) generated a lot of national buzz and fundraising for a strong debut ad, some national Democrats were holding out hope that Gray would run for the seat, and he announced his bid earlier this week. Those same national Democrats angling for a Gray bid argue that the popular Lexington mayor makes this race a Toss-up (or even better) for them, but we’re not going to go that far given Barr’s proven performance the past few elections and the generic lean of the district. Still, this could be a real Democratic opportunity next year, and we’re moving the rating from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

NV-4: After defeating then-Rep. Cresent Hardy (R) in a close race last year, Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D, NV-4) seemed well-positioned to solidify his hold on this bluish purple district, which Hillary Clinton won by five points in 2016 (down from Barack Obama’s 10-point win in 2012). But he now finds himself caught up in the wave of sexual harassment allegations after Buzzfeed reported late last week that Kihuen made sexual advances toward a woman who worked on his 2016 campaign. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA-12) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján (D, NM-3) quickly called for his resignation. It’s unclear what Kihuen will do: On one hand, Kihuen’s chief of staff is apparently circulating the resumes of Kihuen’s staffers in an apparent effort to find them jobs, an indication that Kihuen might be close to resigning. On the other hand, Kihuen says he won’t resign and claims that Pelosi and Luján knew about these allegations last year: “They looked into them. They didn’t find anything, and they continued investing millions of dollars in my campaign. They went out there and campaigned for me.” Pelosi and Luján denied this. Kihuen said he plans to make a statement in the next few days; if he eventually does resign, there will be a special election, and the two parties will pick the candidates. It’s better for Democrats if this becomes a vacant or open seat. National Republicans like Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony (R), who was running for the seat prior to the Kihuen reports emerging, but if there’s a special, Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent suggests that the seat’s two previous members could end up as the respective party nominees: Steven Horsford (D), who won the seat in 2012 after it was first created because of Nevada’s population growth, and Hardy (R), who beat Horsford in a big upset in 2014 and then lost to Kihuen in 2016. We’re moving this district from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic as we wait to see whether Kihuen remains in Congress and, if he doesn’t, what the special election field looks like. This is another seat (like the very likely Minnesota special Senate election discussed above) where the generically pro-Democratic environment prompts us to give the Democrats the benefit of the doubt.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

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