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Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Alexis Levinson and Kyle Trygstad, CQ Roll Call

WASHINGTON — While the structure of the competitive Senate map has finally solidified, plenty of uncertainties remain as the two parties enter the final month of the midterm elections.

The most glaring question mark and startling development over the past several weeks is in Kansas, where Republican Sen. Pat Roberts now ranks fourth on Roll Call’s monthly list of the most vulnerable senators. This is a state that last elected a Democratic senator in 1932, but ballot maneuverings and Roberts’ own missteps have placed him in the company of the cycle’s most endangered incumbents.

The GOP needs six seats to win the majority, and the party can get halfway there by picking up open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana, where retirements hindered Democrats’ ability to hold their ground. Democrats have better odds in the other open seats, with Iowa still hosting one of the most competitive races in the country and Democrats continuing to hold the edge in Michigan.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) remains a top target for Republicans. But Democrats are pummeling Republican nominee Thom Tillis on the air, and Hagan is the only red-state Democrat whose positioning has clearly improved in recent months.

The competitiveness of the Senate race in Kansas took most people by surprise, including, it seems, Roberts. The senator entered the general election with a limited political apparatus and less motivation to campaign following his contested primary. That all changed last month, when the Democratic nominee withdrew from the race and Republican efforts to reverse the move failed.

That left independent Greg Orman, who is still an unknown quantity. Beyond introducing himself to the electorate, Republicans’ opposition research on him is still just starting to trickle out. Roberts has since brought in a new campaign team, a steady stream of GOP heavyweights is filing through the state to help him out, and at least one outside group has started spending for him on the airwaves.

In a state as Republican as Kansas, that could be enough to save the day. But for now, Roberts is firmly among the 10 Most Vulnerable Senators, ranked below in order of vulnerability:

1. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-LA).
The three-term incumbent tapped into the college football culture at a September tailgate, assisting a 28-year-old supporter perform a keg stand. The incumbent was all over campus that day, working to hang on to as many votes as possible. But the race appears headed for a December runoff, with Landrieu facing GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy in a potential majority-deciding election.

2. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR).
Anyone who remembers the 2010 Senate race in Arkansas — when Democrat Blanche Lincoln lost by 21 points — may be surprised to see Pryor still running competitively with Rep. Tom Cotton with a month to go. The freshman Republican congressman led in four of the last five public polls, but this race will feature a continued advertising assault over the final month.

3. Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK).
Was 2008 a fluke? Republicans are set out to prove it was, as Dan Sullivan, a first-time candidate with significant military and government service, looks to end Begich’s tenure at one term. Democrats continue to question Dan Sullivan’s Alaskan credentials, a not-insignificant point to voters in this unique state. This could be the majority-maker for Republicans, unless the next senator on this list loses.

4. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS).
Roberts is fighting for his political life. The incumbent senator is struggling with questions about his residency and a sentiment that he has spent too long in Washington. He faces independent Greg Orman, a well-funded candidate whose disgust with both parties and the gridlock in Washington appears to be resonating with voters. He leads Roberts in automated polls, and has a very real chance of ousting him.

5. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO).
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO) seems to be gathering steam in his effort to oust Sen. Mark Udall. President Barack Obama’s approval rating is completely underwater in the state, hovering around 40 percent in recent polls. And Udall stuck his foot in his mouth recently, when he declared that the two American journalists beheaded by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, would have wanted the U.S. to be cautious in its response to the group. But Colorado is a purple state where Obama won last cycle: If Republicans want to win the seat, they cannot afford to leave a single vote on the table.

6. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC).
Republicans see a pick-up opportunity in North Carolina, a state where Republicans have made large gains in the last couple cycles. But Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, is holding on, and she narrowly leads in recent polls. The race is likely to be one of the most expensive this cycle, and Democrats appear to have found a strong attack line in criticizing Thom Tillis’ tenure as speaker of the state house. The question is whether that anger at the legislature can last through November, as the memory of this summer’s session fades away.

7. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH).
Shaheen retains an edge in the New Hampshire Senate race. Republicans are more optimistic about former Sen. Scott P. Brown’s chances to return to the Senate as the GOP looks to be expanding the map into states not originally seen as battlegrounds. Brown saw a post-primary boost, with polls showing the race tightening and even tied, but recent polls put Shaheen back on top.

8. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
The Senate minority leader hopes to lead a majority when the new Congress is sworn in next year, and his own positioning for victory has improved along with Republicans as a whole. McConnell has held small but statistically significant leads on Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in recent public polling, but this remains one of the most expensive races of the cycle.

9. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
Merkley remains the clear favorite to hold his seat. Recently, his Republican opponent, Monica Wehby, came under fire for seemingly plagiarizing a policy plan on her website. A Koch Brothers funded SuperPAC canceled its ad time in the state backing her. But other Republicans are lending some help: Jeb Bush and John McCain attended fundraisers for Wehby.

10. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN).
There is no evidence to this point that Franken will face nearly as close a race as the last incumbent to seek re-election to this seat, Republican Norm Coleman, whom Franken defeated in 2008 after an eight-month recount and legal process. Still, he faces a credible challenger in Republican Mike McFadden, a finance executive who has ensured the former comedian can’t coast to a second term.