Can Republicans Win the Senate in 2014?

Donald Lambro

5/3/2013 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

The 2014 election battle for control of the Senate will affect just about everything it does this year and next, because it could take just a handful of upsets to put the Republicans back in charge.

The two-year, midterm election cycle, which is off to a faster pace than usual in the Senate, certainly affected the gun control vote when five Democrats from conservative-leaning states voted against it.

Two of the Democrats' no votes were Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska who will face the voters next year in states where gun control isn't popular. The upcoming votes on immigration reform will also pose a tough test for Democrats in states where the issue is just as unpopular.

Democrats control 55 seats in the Senate, including two Independents who usually vote with them. But once again, the Republicans have a stronger numerical advantage in next year's Senate races, because 21 Democratic seats are at stake compared to just 14 for the Republicans.

Making matters even tougher for Democrats, six of their seats will be open races due to retirements. The GOP has a better than even chance of picking up four of them: Iowa (Tom Harkin), Montana (Max Baucus), South Dakota (Tim Johnson) and West Virginia (John D. Rockefeller).

The Cook Political Report, which closely tracks House and Senate races, calls all four contests pure "toss ups."

The widely-followed Rothenberg Political Report rates the West Virginia race somewhere between a toss-up to "Tilt Republican."

At this writing, only two Senate Republicans are retiring: Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Johanns of Nebraska. Both seats are considered safe for the GOP.

In fact, Cook says all 14 Republican seats up next year are either "likely" to remain in GOP hands or "solid" slam dunks for the party.

If the GOP were to win all the toss-up races, they would need just two more seats to control the Senate, which may not be likely at this point but it's not impossible, according to election handicappers.

Notably, Cook puts these six Democratic seats in the shakier "lean Democratic" column: Sens. Mark Begich, Alaska; Mark Pryor, Arkansas; Mary Landrieu, Louisiana; Al Franken, Minnesota; Kay Hagan, North Carolina; and retiring Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan.

Depending upon their Republican opponents -- and it's too early to assess that lineup -- the GOP has a chance to take over the Senate with the right candidates.

And with the right issues -- which, as of now, appear to be rapidly trending against the Democrats on a number of fronts.

Certainly, the battered economy will be front and center in the months to come and the Democrat's base may be growing tired of waiting for a dramatic turnaround that isn't visible on the economic horizon.

Right now, it's painfully clear that the Obama economy is slowing down and the national news media seems to be stepping up its criticism of a weak job market, and the Democrats' failure to do anything about it.

In the run up to this week's Fed meeting, "economic data took a turn for the worse. Hiring slowed dramatically in March to just 88,000 jobs -- well below the 200,000 a month needed to significantly lower the unemployment rate," the Washington Post said Thursday.

An ADP Employment Report forecasts only 119,000 new jobs were created in April. That led Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, which compiles the job figures, to say the economy appears to be "throttling back" on the jobs front.

"It probably forestalls any increase in unemployment, but it's certainly not enough to generate any declines in unemployment," Zandi said.

The Fed said Wednesday that it will keep its benchmark interest rate near zero until the unemployment rate drops below 6.5 percent. But both the Fed and Congressional Budget Office forecasts do not see the jobless rate falling below that level this year or next.

In his widely read Washington Post blog titled, "The Incredible Stagnant U.S. Economy," economic analyst Neil Irwin said the first quarter's 2.5 percent economic growth rate -- almost one point below expectations, showed that "We're still stuck in the muck."

GDP growth is not expanding "fast enough to spur the robust recovery that the country needs," he writes.

If this situation persists or worsens this year and next, the midterm races could turn out to be a more compelling referendum on President Obama's economic policies. In fact, GOP officials are already talking about making the weak economy the centerpiece of their midterm election strategy, urging GOP candidates to pound the Democratic-controlled Senate and the administration for their failure to come to grips with this issue.

Moreover, the grassroots political dynamics are going to be very different for the Democrats in 2014 than they were in 2012.

Voter turnout will be significantly lower, as it usually is in midterm elections. Obama's base will not be streaming to the polls in the same record numbers for congressional races. It will be an election driven on the margins by voters who are angry over the economy, fewer jobs, flat incomes, sharply rising health care costs and insurance premiums, gas prices, gun control, and maybe the outcome of the immigration debate.

Obama's mediocre job approval score is polling around 50 percent, with 44 percent of Americans disapproving, an embarrassing grade at the start of a second term. It's not very hard to see his numbers falling below that, especially if things aren't seen to be improving in the sixth year of his presidency.

Americans are, by nature, impatient. All they ask of their leaders is to find the problem and fix it, and they've given Obama and the Democrats plenty of time do that, without any significant results.

The midterm elections will be their next chance to send the president and Congress a message that their patience has come to an end.