Democrats are defending seven senate seats in states Mitt Romney won in 2012. With Obamacare in full meltdown mode, can Republicans win the six seats needed to take control of the upper chamber in 2014? Townhall.com Senior Political Editor and Fox News Contributor Guy Benson investigates for the January issue of Townhall Magazine.
Democrats have controlled the United States Senate since 2007. During this current stretch, their operating majority has ranged from as small as a 51-49 edge, to a 60-40 veto- proof majority.
With the election of New Jersey’s Corey Booker to the upper chamber in October, the Democratic advantage now sits at 55-45; if the GOP wants to oust Harry Reid as majority leader, they’ll need to net six seats in the 2014 midterm elections.
On paper, this is an attainable goal. Democrats are facing a much more challenging map to defend, and nearly every single one of the Republican-held seats up for grabs is considered to be safe.
But don’t expect the GOP to start measuring the drapes in Reid’s office just yet. Netting six Senate seats is a tall task, nearly everything needs to break the right way to pull it off.
Plus, the party has failed to live up to expectations in the very recent past. Republicans were initially expected to make a strong run at a Senate majority heading into the 2012 cycle, when the political terrain appeared to be similarly favorable. They ended up losing two seats.
But the political climate has shifted dramatically since President Obama’s re-election. His approval numbers are poor, his signature healthcare law experienced a nightmarish roll-out, and vulnerable Democrats are rushing away from, rather than cozying up to, his brand. They know his agenda is covered with their fingerprints. The D.C. distancing game is on.
Despite the heavy lift, a clear path exists to a Republican Senate majority: GOP candidates must lock down a minimum of three open red state seats being vacated by Democratic incumbents, then pick off several endangered incumbents. Let’s review the dynamics of the races that will determine the Senate’s balance of power starting in January 2015.
TOP TIER OPEN SEATS
MONTANA: Sen. Max Baucus, a 36-year incumbent and a chief author of Obamacare, has decided not to face voters in November. He’s slammed the so-called Affordable Care Act’s launch as a “huge trainwreck,” and is heading for the exits.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) hoped that popular former-Gov. Brian Schweitzer would run for the seat, but he declined to do so in a July announcement. Stuck without a marquee candidate, Democrats will seek to defeat the likely Republican nominee, current statewide Congressman Steve Daines, who won his House seat in 2012.
Daines announced his intention to run for Baucus’ seat in early November.
He’ll be opposed by the state’s Democratic Lt. Gov. John Walsh. A senior GOP source says early internal polling shows Walsh trailing Daines by double digits, calling the Democrat’s bid as a “long shot candidacy at this point.”
SOUTH DAKOTA: Obama lost this great plains state by 18 points in 2012, and now that longtime incumbent Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson is retiring, Republicans see it as ripe for the picking.
The opportunity for a pick up became even juicier when two well-known potential DSCC recruits chose not to run: Brendan Johnson, the senator’s son, and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former Congresswoman who was ousted by Republican Kristi Noem in 2010.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) top pick to run for this seat is former-Gov. Mike Rounds, who enjoys broad name recognition in the state and strong favorability ratings. The probable Democratic nominee will be Rick Weiland, a liberal activist and former staffer to Sen. Tom Daschle. Weiland has run for Congress twice, failing in each attempt. An October poll showed Rounds leading this hypothetical match-up by 15 points.
WEST VIRGINIA: A late September survey of West Virginia voters by Democratic pollster PPP revealed that roughly half of the state supports impeaching Obama, and that was before Obamacare’s woes and broken promises began to dominate headlines. This environment is toxic for Democrats.
“We feel really confident about this race,” says a source familiar with NRSC strategy, citing likely nominee Shelley Moore Capito’s robust name recognition, fundraising efforts and popularity. Capito was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 and has retained her position ever since. Odds are she’ll face West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who finished third in her party’s 2010 gubernatorial primary. Numerous polls already show Capito with a wide lead.
Of these three contests, my Republican source exudes confidence. “They seem as good as they possibly can for us right now, knock on wood,” he adds, in a nod to 2012’s collapse.
TOP TIER VULNERABLE INCUMBENTS
ALASKA: Sen. Mark Begich was first elected in 2008. He’s sometimes referred to as an “accidental senator” because he was narrowly elected eight days after then-incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted on federal corruption charges. The charges and conviction were later tossed out after a Justice Department investigation discovered evidence of gross prosecutorial misconduct.
Begich, like every Senate Democrat, voted for Obamacare, and has since opposed various measures to repeal and delay the law. His stance began to change in October after Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov website failed and millions of Americans found out Obama lied when he promised they could keep their current insurance plans.
“Begich talks like a moderate Republican in Alaska, but votes with Obama 93 percent of the time,” says the GOP official. Re- publican primary voters will choose among several candidates to challenge the Democrat. At the top of the list are sitting Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Afghanistan war veteran Dan Sullivan. The party’s failed 2010 nominee, Joe Miller, has also filed papers to run.
ARKANSAS: “Mark Pryor is the most vulnerable senator running for re-election in either party.” That’s the blunt assessment from my well-placed GOP source.
The Arkansas Democrat ran unopposed in 2008. Those days are long gone. Pryor will face an aggressive 2014 challenge from Iraq war veteran
Rep. Tom Cotton, who holds two degrees from Harvard. Obamacare is sure to be a central is- sue in the race; Pryor voted for the unpopular law, while Cotton is a staunch opponent. The president is deeply unpopular in the state, a reality that helped the GOP to seize both houses of the Arkansas legislature in 2012. Democrats had previously held the state senate since reconstruction.
Republicans point out that the incumbent’s polling position is extraordinarily weak, especially at this early stage. “He’s in worse shape than [former senator] Blanche Lincoln was at this stage,” explains my GOP source. He notes that Lincoln eventually outspent Republican challenger John Boozman by a five- to-one margin in 2010, then lost by 20 points.
LOUISIANA: The scion of a power- ful Louisiana family, Sen. Mary Landrieu has always managed to beat Republicans when the chips are down. Her luck may expire in November, however.
She repeatedly and vocally embraced Obamacare until things went very sour, and has been attempting to backtrack and down- play her ties to the president ever since. Indeed, when Obama visited Louisiana in November, Landrieu was nowhere to be found. Republicans will certainly highlight the leftward drift of her voting record since she was first elected in 1996.
In the best Democratic year in recent memory, 2008, Landrieu was re-elected with just 52 percent of the vote against an under-funded and relatively weak Republican opponent. Last year, Obama lost Louisiana to Mitt Romney by a yawning 58-41 margin.
The NRSC is excited about Landrieu’s likely challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy. The Congressman and medical doctor is fundraising well, and has a secret weapon up his sleeve: His wife, Laura. She, too, is a doctor who specializes in treating breast cancer, and she plans to campaign full-time with her husband. Together, the pair founded a free health clinic in greater Baton Rouge that provides care to underprivileged Louisianans. Cassidy also led a volunteer effort to treat Hurricane Katrina victims at an abandoned K-Mart in the wake of the natural disaster. Republicans believe the juxtaposition on health care will be striking: A Democratic lawmaker who supported and boosted a failed health care reform law versus a Republican doctor who, along with his wife, has spent a lifetime helping needy patients.
NORTH CAROLINA: Once a long-shot for Republicans, a mid- November poll showed Obamacare has taken its toll on incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan. Her modest lead over potential Republican opponents has completely vanished, and she is even running behind one challenger. Hagan has since sprinted away from her record, demanding a “full investigation” into the implementation of the health care law she voted to pass, fund and retain.
Several Republicans have an eye on her seat, including North Carolina House Speaker Tom Tills. Tills’ rise in politics has been meteoric. Raised in a trailer park, Tills worked his way through college and became a self-made businessman before being hired by Goldman Sachs.
Another possible challenger is Dr. Greg Bannon, a Tea Party favorite who’s been endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul, and currently leads Hagan in the polls. National Republicans expect a “nasty, dirty campaign” from Democrats that “comes down to the wire.” My source expects Hagan to deploy both the “war on women” meme and the race card in hopes of keeping her seat.
MICHIGAN: “I’m really bullish on Michigan,” my source says, suggesting that this open seat race qualifies as one of top six contests in the country, at least in his book.
Republicans are likely to field a nominee named Terri Lynn Land, the twice-elected Michigan Secretary of State, whose most recent term expired in 2012. She’s off to a stellar fundraising start and is leading in early polling. If Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s popular resurgence continues to hold, the GOP ticket will be formidable in 2014. Michigan Republicans fare especially well in non-presidential year elections; they currently hold all major statewide offices, and control both houses of the legislature.
Democrats are poised to run Rep. Gary Peters, a Detroit-area Congressman with a standard liberal voting record. “It’s not a great time to be a Detroit Democrat in the state of Michigan right now,” my source avers. “Snyder and Land will also be helped by what might be the strongest state Republican operation in the entire country at the moment.”
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s approval and favor- ability numbers are nothing to write home about, and her recent legislative maneuvers to mitigate Obamacare’s damage suggests that she’s nervous about the issue. Can she be beaten? “Looking at the polling, she’s definitely beatable,” the insider says. As former Congressman Charlie Bass has taken a pass on the race, all eyes have turned to a recently-defeated senator from Massachusetts. “Scott Brown could beat her, and [the NRSC] has talked with him for months,” I’m told.
Brown is fond of saying that his family's ties to New Hampshire go back nine generations. He's been a taxpayer in the state for 20 years, and is now a full-time resident, having sold his home in Massachusetts. Roughly four in ten New Hampshire residents have lived in Massachusetts at some point in their lives, a statistic Brown could use to blunt Democrats’ inevitable charges of carpet-bagging. “He’s got a story to tell there, and he’s got strong favorability in the state. We’ll see.” For his part, Brown has demurred when asked if he’ll give the race a go, though he hasn’t shied away from criticizing Shaheen’s voting record. Stay tuned.
OREGON: Another unremarkable incumbent is Sen. Jeff Merkley. Oregon may be a blue state, but Obamacare has failed terribly there, perhaps creating an opening for a Republican to give him a real run. Merkley all but acknowledged his vulnerability this November, when he co-sponsored Sen. Landrieu’s bill that would force insurance companies to keep selling existing health policies that had been previously cancelled by Obamacare.
Dr. Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon, may be the GOP’s best hope in the race. An Obamacare critic, Wehby would challenge Merkley as a moderate, anti-Washington outsider. If Obamacare continues to go south, Merkley will not be able to wage a War on Women attack against Wehby. The NRSC is keeping a close eye on this potential match-up.
VULNERABLE REPUBLICAN SEATS?
The quest to capture a net of six Democrat-controlled seats would be made much more difficult if the GOP surrenders any of the seats it currently holds. Republicans are generally expected to hold serve, but they can’t leave anything to chance.
Democrats’ best opportunities to go on offense are in Georgia and Kentucky, where the party will run the daughters of prominent former politicians in both states.
If Mitch McConnell holds off Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin in Kentucky’s Republican primary—and the polls aren’t close—he’ll engage in a knock-down, drag-out battle with Alison Lundergan Grimes, who’s doing everything she can to divorce herself from Obamacare and national Democrats’ anti- coal agenda. “I don’t see any evidence that McConnell will lose either the primary or the general election. The races against Grimes will receive a lot of attention, and lots of money will pour in. It’ll be in the a single-digits, but he’ll win,” my source predicts.
In Georgia, Democrat nominee-in-waiting Michelle Nunn has kept a low profile as a crowded GOP field vies for the right to represent the party in the battle over a vacant seat.
The bottom line, according to my senior Republican insider: “Republicans will keep all of our seats, and we’ll force the DSCC to play and spend money in 12 to 14 states. I’m confident we can win six or seven of them.”